Pikulik, Lothar. Erkundungen des Unbekannten. Neuzeitliche Formen des Reisens in authentischen und fiktiven Darstellungen.
Comparison with an older work that bears a similar title to the one under review facilitates a clearer appreciation of what Pikulik's book is actually about. Holger Graf's and Ralf Proves Wege ins Ungewisse. Eine Kulturgeschichte des Reisens 1500-1800 (1997) foregrounds, on the one hand, the material, social, legal, infrastructural and logistical conditions and difficulties of travel in the early modern period and, on the other hand, the economic, political and social changes in Europe--the emergence of the Absolutist state with its Mercantilism and comprehensive administration--that necessitated ever more and ever more varied kinds of traffic and travel to meet the needs of transforming economies and societies (12). Pikulik's Erkundungen des Unbekannten, in contrast, is interested in the individual as homo viator, i.e., in man's motivation for embarking on a journey, be it real or imaginary, rather than on travel as practicality or necessity. For him, curiosity, the desire to investigate what lies beyond the ordinary, the limited and the routine forms part of a distinctly modern human condition once the (religious) ban on curiosity as challenging the existing world order and questioning limitations imposed by the divine was lifted. The discovery and experience of what had remained unknown and uncharted is thus understood as an emancipatory act. Travel, in Pikulik's readings, responds to a profoundly human desire; and in any form and in any representation it demonstrates man's capacity for self-determination, for agency and for making sense of his own position in the world. The use of the definitive article in the genitive attribute of the title suggests that the very acknowledgement of the entity "the unknown," and the desire to push its limits, is a defining feature of the post-medieval human condition--regardless of the circumstances that inform the actual activity of physically departing from the sedentary. (The fact that in many non-Western cultures travel is approached in terms of necessity rather than desire, and the further fact that curiosity travel is not a universal part of the definition of humanity, often for reasons that differ considerably from those invoked in the Christian Middle Ages to justify the interdiction, are issues that go beyond Pikulik's remit.)
Chronologically, Pikulik's work somewhat overlaps with the predecessor, his earliest sources are Adam Olearius's travels to Russia and Persia in the 1630s and Georg Wilhelm Steller's accounts of his two Nordic expeditions with Vitus Bering between 1733 and 1742. Yet, his main witnesses for the profound humanity of travel and for the vast range of travel-related experiences and designs are Johann Gottfried Seume's journey of unpredictability that results in an appreciation "des Wandels und der Wandelbarkeit der menschlichen Dinge und damit des Bewusstseins von der bloss relativen Geltung des Bestehenden" (49), Friedrich Nicolai's meticulous planning and expediency as a counterexample to the more fortuitous journeys but also one that is deeply indebted to the Enlightenment ideal of self-improvement, and Karl Philipp Moritz's exploration of travel as reflex of psychological dispositions in Anton Reiser (97). Pikulik is interested mainly in the modes of experience, from the sentimental (Sterne) and sublime (Haller's Alpen as paradigm) to the adventurous, where the exposure to danger facilitates a heightened form of engagement with the unknown. The distinction between Erfahrung and Erlebnis is central to Pikulik's elaborations, as is the notion of extensive and intensive travel, travel into exterior and interior worlds, into physical and spiritual space. While his investigation is firmly text-based, Pikulik however pays little attention to the actual textuality of literary travel experience. His focus is concentrated on the ideas conveyed by accounts of the itinerant acquisition of experience (in both senses). Prominent is the notion that 'travel' does not require actualization to fulfil this basic human desire of exploration and experience (there seems no categorical difference other than in scientific investigation between autopsy and fantasy), and that narratives work in a manner analogous to travels: their progress is related to the suspense emanating from the unexpected that lies ahead on any journey and their plots utilize a logic of 'detection' similar to that which structures itineraries of exploration and discovery.
As ideas and their expressions go, the Romantics' overlayering of travel in space, time and mind, and their metaphorization of an encompassing human quest as in the form of exploration of the earth's interior (mines and caves), represents for Pikulik the pinnacle of the modern travel discourse, because in this the Romantics have found a means of expression of a secular transcendence to replace the religious sense of transcendence that imposed the ban on exploration in the first place. According to Pikulik, Novalis and E.T.A. Hoffmann, among others, completed the project of dissolving any remaining sense of limitation by concurrently shrinking and enlarging space and by transforming any journey into space into one in time, and vice versa.
As neither the forms and strategies of literarization in factual writing and in fiction, nor the modernist awareness of the impossibility of originality beyond the individual experience receive little attention, Pikulik's treatise of modernism and post-modernism in travel writing conveys the impression that, after Romanticism with its fusion of exterior and interior worlds into an encompassing human metaphor, nothing of innovative value has entered the realm of travel writing. He neglects, for example, the productive psychological and literary potential inherent in modernist travel writing that found expression in the realization of the palimpsestuality and determinacy of established knowledge dispositifs. Modernism's profound skepticism regarding the possibility of new experience and the novelty of acquired travel knowledge is confronted with the assertion that travel can only ever result in the affirmation of the familiar and expected. This does not fit into Pikulik's scheme. Books that attack the premises so assuredly established by Pikulik as follies, i.e. texts which depict journeys that, with uncanny inevitability, results in insanity and even annihilation, such as Robert Muller's groundbreaking Die Tropen (1915), are completely ignored in this study. Instead, newer manifestations of travel writing are seen as mostly derivative, as demonstrating little more than a radicalization, trivialization or outright deterioration of established paradigms. Examples are Jules Verne's Voyage au centre de la terre as a sensationalist hybrid of the scientific and the mysterious, Reinhold Messner's extreme adventures which not only accept but seek out danger and failure, and competitive ventures such as Nellie Bley's race Around the World in 72 Days (1890), a real-life re-enactment of Verne s fantasy and an undertaking which, according to Pikulik, cannot be seen as serving any purpose but a sportive sense of record breaking.
The volume's table of contents suggests a certain systematics of travel, from the modes of Erfahrung and Erlebnis to the travels in time and into interior worlds. The narrative also follows a broadly chronological order. It is regrettable, and diminishes the usefulness of the volume, that the concepts are not visibly aligned to the authors, works or movements that form the focus of each of the chapters. The book strays through a vast territory in an engaging and readable fashion. Much of its appeal stems from the fact that it employs established categories and periodizations such as Enlightenment and Romanticism in a confident, unquestioning way. Indeed, the work rather reads like an extended essay, a tentative and sometimes impressionistic sketch of approaches to and justifications of travel. It culminates in the insistence that, in spite of the difficulties the human project of travel has encountered in the present with its sheer limitless access to knowledge and its effective disappearance of physical spaces on this planet that still await discovery (183), curiosity and its pursuit retain the capacity to subvert the dislocation of genuine experience into an omnipresent mediality and the capacity to mobilize the profoundly human faculties of imagination and artistic expression (for which Peter Handke is Pikulik's witness). The book thus ends with an appeal not to abandon the effort, not to relinquish this capacity. For this purpose Pikulik cites the exhortation of a fictional character in a recent American science fiction novel (Dave Eggers, The Circle ) which amounts to the very simple message that retaining the "unknown" is a necessary ingredient of humanity, and so that the internet therefore erodes humanity as such: "Wir sind nicht dafur geschaffen, alles zu wissen, Mae. 1st dir schon mal der Gedanke gekommen, dass unser Verstand moglicherweise auf das Gleichgewicht zwischen dem Bekannten und dem Unbekannten justiert ist? Dass unsere Seelen die Geheimnisse der Nacht und die Klarheit des Tages brauchen? Ihr schafft eine Welt mit standigem Tageslicht, und ich glaube, es wird uns alle bei lebendigem Leibe verbrennen. Es wird keine Zeit mehr geben zum Nachdenken, zum Schlafen, zum Abkuhlen" (cited from the German translation: Der Circle, trans. Ulrike Wasel and Klaus Timmermann , 488; Pikulik 184). In the context of travel, the simple message is to turn the computer off and go for a contemplative walk instead.
National University of Ireland Maynooth
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|Publication:||The German Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2016|
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