The word ‘journey’ occupies several columns in the Oxford English Dictionary. Among the meanings: a day’s travel; a continued course of going, with a beginning and end in place or time; a pilgrimage or passage through life; a round of travel. I shall speak of the journey first as a round of travel, then as a pilgrimage, and then as something more sinister.
The journey as a round of travel takes us out into the world to a far-off point and brings us home again, there and back: the kind of journey made by Alice in Wonderland, by Ulysses and by Dante in The Divine Comedy—the idea of going there and coming back, perhaps wiser, with some new knowledge, that has shaped our experience, our psychology and our literature.
My first awareness of such a journey and its possibilities came when I was about three. My mother and I were going to town. To me, the very word ‘town’ was magical. That magic was reinforced by a poem in A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young, first published in 1924 and remarkably still in print. The poem is called ‘Disobedience’, and I have found that many adults can still recite it. It begins:
Weatherby George Dupree
Took great care of his Mother,
Though he was only three.
Said to his Mother,
‘Mother,’ he said, said he:
‘You must never go down to the end of the town,
if you don’t go down with me.’
For us, going to town meant walking several blocks to catch the bus to the train and then the train to Central, Town Hall or Wynyard. That day we were running late. I was trotting to keep up as my mother hauled me with her down the front drive. ‘Come on,’ she said. ‘We have to fly if we’re to catch that bus.’
We were going to fly! I believed that she, with me hanging on, was about to lift into the air and soar over the rooftops. But if we were going to fly, why stop at the bus? Why not fly all the way to town? My mother routinely demonstrated her superior powers: she could read stories, play the piano, recite poems, mend broken toys, find lost objects. Now I learned she could also, when necessary, fly. And take me with her. But it was simply an early lesson in metaphor. Nevertheless, we were embarked on that classic dramatic journey, there and back, to town and home again.
Every time we set out from home, the journey was full of wonder. I see that wonder now on the faces of babies in their strollers, their eyes wide, heads swivelling as they are pushed along, taking it all in: a stratum of pure experience taking place at knee level, a parallel journey to that of the adult above, a sensory and intellectual richness that the child is not yet able to put into words.
And when, as children, we at last learned to read, the trip to town became even more magical. We read every piece of writing, every notice, every billboard: ‘Do Not Talk To The Driver Whilst Bus Is In Motion’; ‘Gone to Gowings: Walk Through No One Asked To Buy’; ‘For Headache Take Bex’; ‘When Is A Man Not A Man? When He Is A Little Hoarse. Take Wycoff’; ‘Morton’s Salt: When It Rains It Pours’.
I had always admired my mother’s ability to find her way around the city. She knew without fail which station to alight at. Then, when we got onto the street, she knew exactly where to go: down the ramp at Central, turn right, to the Dental Hospital; up the ramp at Wynyard, past the shop front in which a tailor did invisible mending—a little man who could well have been an elf—down the lane to Palings to buy sheet music, in a building where the lift was hauled up and down by an old man pulling on a rope.
But that day, the day we did not fly into town, I also experienced the terror of getting lost on the journey, of losing my guide. Going up the stairs at Town Hall Station, I looked up to find that the hand I was holding was not my mother’s. I had slipped my hand into the hand of a stranger, the wrong mother! The right mother, mine, was a few steps behind and ready to reclaim me, already laughing with the stranger at my mistake. And on we went to the Municipal Library in the Queen Victoria Building, then home again.
Embodied, then, in such a round of travel is the idea both of exploration and of adventure, a journey towards uncertainty and the unknown, along with a sense of structure, a trajectory offering a goal and completion, a kind of formal certainty achieved at the journey’s end.
I recently saw prints of Botticelli’s illustrations of The Divine Comedy showing in moving detail Dante with Virgil at various stages of his journey through the Inferno. In these drawings Dante resembles the child, showing in turn wonder, fear, curiosity—rather like the child in the stroller we pass on the street. Virgil, old and sage, is the parent, watchful and solicitous, displaying a tender regard for his charge, offering comfort and protection when Dante recoils from the horrors before him, stern and urging him to continue when he falters.
Dante, of course, completes his round of travel. He goes there, and he comes back. Unlike James James Morrison’s mother. I now understand what is disturbing (and fascinating) about the James James Morrison poem. It is a subversion of that classic journey, of going there and coming back. James James Morrison’s mother disobeys her son’s instructions. She puts on a golden gown and drives to the end of town ‘without consulting him’.
Said to herself, said she:
‘I can get right down to the end of the town and be
back in time for tea.’
But she never does come back. She disappears around the corner, in her cloche hat and stylish suit and shoes. And she hasn’t been heard of since. Not there and back. Just there, no back, and therefore lost forever, the journey unfinished.
In the idea of the journey as a round of travel, a completed trajectory, there is an implied optimism, in that there is an end point in sight that is achievable, even though there might be obstacles and difficulties and trauma to be faced and endured. This journey is, in the end, a good journey.
In my view, no contemporary work gives a greater sense of the mystery and satisfactions of the journey from home into the wider world than Jessica Anderson’s Stories from the Warm Zone (1987). In five connected stories she gives us a child’s view of a journey that begins in Brisbane under the house, proceeds to the front gate, to the forbidden creek nearby, then to school, and later to town and beyond, to the mysterious Budjerra Heights, and back again. Through this round of travel Anderson maps the child’s growing understanding of the world and its complexities.
This leads me to a second meaning of the word ‘journey’, exemplified in Diane Armstrong’s memoir Mosaic (1998), which charts the story of five generations of her family. In a section on her own experience, she tells of her parents and herself, a small child, hiding from the Nazis in Poland throughout the years of the Second World War, and surviving. She tells of their journey to Australia, when she was eight, and of her return decades later to that village in Poland, where by chance she encountered the very priest, now in his eighties, who had helped to protect her family. Embracing her, he said he had been thinking of her and wondering if she was still alive. ‘To think of you coming here to see me after fifty years,’ he said. With that embrace, another journey, there and back, is at last completed. And through it we understand the meaning of the journey as pilgrimage or passage through life.
The Oxford English Dictionary, however, offers another more troubling and sinister meaning of the word ‘journey’, an old meaning: it is a military expedition; it is a campaign; it is any military enterprise; it is a day’s performance in fighting; it is a battle. This range of meanings causes us to see and hear the word afresh. It draws us to the issues we must face now, with the recent invasion of Iraq. To go or not to go was perhaps at one stage, ages ago, a relevant question, with the answer still open. But now it is too late. We have already gone; we are there. The matter was decided for us. In a journey of a few weeks a country has been destroyed and thousands killed and hurt. And there is no sign yet of coming back. The American Vice-President has endorsed a state of permanent war—years and years of war—and other members of the Bush administration have listed the countries that are candidates for attack after Iraq. In an article in the Australian Financial Review (4 April 2003), Brian Victoria notes that a former Australian Defence Force chief has ‘cautioned that Australia could expect a summons to join the US once it turned its attention to [North Korea and Iran] and other so-called rogue states’. If Australia agreed, it would effectively join America in a state of permanent war.
No longer there and back. Just there, and there, and more there. With no back at all. It is with alarm that I see us embarked on a bad journey, not a round of travel or a pilgrimage, but a journey terrifying because it is one we are doomed never to finish—a permanent journey into war.
Image credit: MarcusObal