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Petit Traité Sur L'immensité Du Monde: Review of an Ode for a Wanderer

Updated on March 22, 2019

Some books one expects much from, and is disappointed: others one expects much and receives a commensurate share, others little and much the same. But the books which one will always cherish the most are those that belong to that most illustrious fourth category: those from whom one's expectations have not been piqued by prior hopes, but upon plunging oneself into the stream of words which cross the virgin whiteness of the page, awaken nevertheless dreams and hopes within the kindred soul across the gap between its pages and behind the eyes of the face which intensely peers into its petrified spirit.

I have often thought of French literature as being the natural home of what I would call a style of writing that is "brilliant" - not simply using it as a term of affection, but rather to identify it as something which is prone to decisive leaps, great soaring remarks, incisiveness, and speed. Of course, this is a terrible generalization - there are many French books which are slow, plodding, heavily detailed, and about as far as one can get from this idea of brilliance, although doubtless they carry this appellation of genius in other ways. This book however, is one which captures this style of writing, as it flits with an elegant pen from what it means to be a voyager, to how to travel, to poetry upon the route as one's companion, to horses, to climbing the great stone monuments of cathedrals, to the vast woods of Russia and the voyagers who have gone there, to the futility of trying to retrace the voyages of the past, the sense of mystery and wonder that still remains in the world - all of this, in an arrangement which jumps from one subject to another with the elegant support of sorties against the unknown.

It is easy to see how one could be lead from the great cathedral of Notre-Dame and the Gothic towers of Paris to the vast forests of Siberia.
It is easy to see how one could be lead from the great cathedral of Notre-Dame and the Gothic towers of Paris to the vast forests of Siberia. | Source

And it must be said and emphasized time and time again, by the elegance of the pen. In this Sylvain Tesson outdoes himself, with a brilliant array of descriptions, a simultaneous focus upon his story combined with a willingness for temporary diversions, an ability to write beautiful passages that give one the desire to throw oneself into the nether of voyaging, to travel into the void with nothing but a pack upon one's back, towards some chosen destination perhaps, but a true wanderer nevertheless. To note just a few of the paragraphs that I found touching:

"Je m'interroge alors aussitôt sur le prix que nous devrons payer à la planète en la quittant. C'est que j'ai horreur de me sentir débiteur. Puisque nous ne faisons qu'emprunter depuis le premier jour de notre existence, il serait juste de s'acquitter ; pour alléger un peu sa dette. Le vagabond est plus redevable encore que les autres car non content de cueillir les fruits du monde, il a passé sa vie à se gorger de ses beautés. Et, quand vient l'heure de la mort, il devrait se sentir étreint par l'angoisse de l'ardoise. Ma dernière volonté sera d'être enterré sous un arbre que mon corps contribuera à nourrir. Ce sera ma manière de m’absoudre. J'aurai assez dévoré de viande pour donner la mienne, en juste retour, à des asticots. L'incinération serait un inélégance de mauvais payeur. Une grivèlerie. L'arbre poussera auprès de ma dernière cabane. Mon corps alimentera le sève qui poussera dans le tronc et peut-être qu'un Rousseau posé sur une branche lancera un trille qui guidera un vagabond égaré vers ma cabane. Il pourra y entrer et s'y installer car, au cours de mes futures années dans les bois, ma porte sera ouverte en permanence à tout le monde à condition bien entendu qu'il ne passe jamais personne."

I begin to question myself just as quickly about the price that we must pay to the planet when we leave it. For myself, I feel a horror at the prospect of being in debt. Seeing as we, from the very first day of our existence, do nothing except for borrow and take, it would be just to pay off the planet, so as to lighten slightly the load of debt. A vagabond is even more in arrears than the others, because he is not content to just collect the fruits of this world, but instead passes his life gorging himself upon its beauties. And when the hour of death comes, he should feel himself gripped by the agony of the account he has run up with the world. My last wish will be to be buried beneath a tree, so that my body will contribute to nourishing it. That will be my own way of absolving myself. I will have eaten enough meat so as to give mine, in a just and fair exchange, to the magots. To be cremated would be an inelegant way, that of a bad payer. To have paid with a false check. The tree will grow next to my last cabin. My body will feed the sap which grows within its trunk, and perhaps one day a Rousseau will rest himself on a branch and throw forth a trill to guide a wandering vagabond towards my cabin. He will be able to freely enter and make himself at home, because, throughout my future years in the woods, my door will be open permanently to anyone, with the well understood condition that nobody will ever pass through it.

"Vivre comme un singe, c'est redécouvrir que la pesanteur tue. Nous autres, les Hommes, avons capitulé. Nous avons admis que l'attraction était la plus forte. Nous avons accepté sa supériorité, nous somme descendus pour nous livre à elle, et, depuis, nous marchons, c'est-à-dire que nous ramons. Les sing,es eux, n'ont jamais voulu reconnaître la gravité (de la situation). Ils continuent à vivre entre les nuages et la terre, sur les piliers du ciel qui sont les arbres. En contrepartie, parfois, l'un d'eux tombe à terre et se tue ; il paie ainsi son tribut à la pesanteur, le seul danger des nuits sylvestres."

To live like a monkey, is to rediscover anew that gravity kills. We others, Humanity, have capitulated to it. We have admitted that that this downwards force is irresistible. We have accepted its superiority, we descended to surrender to it, and since, we have marched - that is to say, that we crawl. The monkeys, as for them, have never wished to pay heed to gravity (of their situation at least). They continue to live between the clouds and the earth, upon the pillars of the sky that are their trees. In exchange, sometimes, one of them falls to earth and dies: it is thus that they pay their tribute to earthly weigh, the only danger of these woodland nights.

"On allait en voyage comme on va au suicide. Les armateurs offraient d'ailleurs parfois aux bagnards condamnés à la potence le choix entre l'embarquement ou la mort. C'est avec des gibiers d'échafaud qui échappèrent à la corde en s'improvisant matelots que furent peuplés les ponts des frégates anglaises voguant vers l'Australie ou ceux des caravelles de Colomb le Génois. Jusqu'en des siècles récents, nul ne savait trop de la mort ou du retour ce que constituerait l'issue de son périple. Aujourd'hui, on a compris qu'en continuant à cheminer, droit devant soi, par la grâce de la sphéricité, on reviendra chez soi. Et l'on quitte le port dans une sérénité bien éloignée de la répulsion ancestrale pour tout ce que se trouvait au-delà de l'horizon."

One left upon the journey like one goes to suicide. The ship-outfitters offered in this bygone age the choice between embarquement or death to those who had been condemned to the gallows. It was with these victims of the scaffolds, escaping from the waiting rope, that sailors were hence created and thus the the decks of English frigates sailing towards Australia or the Caravelles or Columbus at Genoa so peopled. Until recent centuries, no one knew much about the death or the return which would be the destiny of one's voyage. Today, we have learned that as we continue our journey, placing one feet before the other, thanks to the fact of the Earth's spherical nature, one day we will return home. And thus one leaves port in a serenity which is utterly alien to the ancestral repulsion that we felt for everything that lay beyond the horizon.

What a different view indeed, this map overrun by the monsters of the sea, from our world where everything has been mapped, charted, understood!
What a different view indeed, this map overrun by the monsters of the sea, from our world where everything has been mapped, charted, understood!

This comfortable and natural style of writing, which conducts detours without wandering, which broadens its view without becoming lost in the forest of details, which alights upon perches of discussion and wisdom without laying down its weary head in the branches to find rest, makes it a true joy to read: every new page offers the delightful opportunities of these brief excursion into fancy, which enliven and enrich the book without diluting its core theme.

What is this fundamental message that Tesson dreams of? For him, to voyage is not a voyage of simple self-discovery like so many view it as today, nor a way to simply follow in the footsteps of others, but rather than in a way of movement and life, picked up from an English expression in the book "By fair means" - where the voyager takes satisfaction in his nomad-like existence, who lets his problems slough off of himself in the cleansing experience of travel. For his companion, let poetry and wonder suffice sole as the handmaiden of voyage, for even in our world which is seemingly so scoured by satellites and already trod by eager pilgrims and wanders of the past, one can still find wonder in voyage. It is an elegant path, one shorn of the sense of narcissism which clings to so much of modern travelling, or even worse, the sense of utter futility, repetition, and disinterest which shrouds it and removes the mystery and pleasure of voyage. Instead, in its pureness and simplicity, it offers to reconnect the soul, the body, and the world.

For myself, I am not a person of this style of travel that Tesson extols, having never set off with a meager sack, a notebook of poetry, perhaps a horse, and a map with a glowing star towards which my weary feet would travel. I possess not this wandering soul. But it is the genius of Tesson that he can write about this type of voyage, without going so crass as to make it sound like an advertisement, that it becomes natural, almost second nature, to the reader, that he is too filled with this dream of parting upon paths hitherto untrodden, towards mystery and discovery. What could be, the mind inquires, after reading such a book, more beautiful than the idea of finding oneself in the great steppes of Central Asia, the stony pillars of Paris, the impossibly vast forests of Siberia. It is also one which furnishes to the real wanderer, somebody different than me, inspiration for how to cope with this type of voyage: perhaps even for those of us who do do not belong to this of wanderers, it teaches us a new way to regard the world and to interact with it, in finding a companionship with ourselves.

In this sense, the book is a unique one, a true mixture of genres. An autobiography in one way, based upon Tesson's own spirit and voyages, a travel book in another, perhaps even a sense of philosophy in one more. Even for those who will never voyage like Tesson, it is still one to fill the soul with wonder, with new determination, one which will doubtless be opened up again and thumbed through for inspiration, to think upon how one's feet in travelling find new splendors and new inspiration. More than simply a recount of voyage, it is a tale of how one voyagers, of the spirit of the wanderer, and one which even those most removed from this state of soul will be moved by.

4 stars for Petit traité sur l'immensité du monde

© 2019 Ryan Thomas


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