Mona Lisa
Type
Reflection
Category
Culture

My life as a zombie

In the last decade I’ve been lucky enough to visit many of the world’s great cities. I’ve seen plenty of the famous tourist sites, from The Winter Palace and the Hermitage to Ancient Pompeii, from the Gate Museum in Berlin to the British Museum.

There’s little as testing as being surrounded by tourists.

Seriously, nothing strains ones faith in humanity as much as attempting to catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre: it’s barely visible behind the mass of people, crowding forward, a veritable phalanx of phones and ipads clicking and flashing, bodies pressing together like an ancient Roman testudo.(Banning phones and cameras would immeasurably improve the museum experience.)

The most common sight for the tourist is not the Venus de Milo but the back of other tourist’s heads.

I’m aware of the irony – a tourist complaining about tourists. We’ll come back to this.

What interests me here is not the lack of respect to the art or monument shown by so many of these tourists – though that is galling enough – so much as the function the tourist experience plays within modern life. What is the point of these travel experiences? Why traipse around in great groups seeing the ‘famous’ sights? What role does it play within the structure of modern life?

I’m not sure I’ve quite worked it out, but stick with me. I’m about to generalize, but I hope you’ll forgive me.

The first thing is that most tourism is of little educational value. You’re not likely to learn anything from a five minute examination of the Mona Lisa or a potted history of the Kremlin. Quite often, whatever is gleaned from the semi-educated guide or electronic recording is likely to be forgotten quickly.

Rather, the experience seems to me entirely reified, entirely gutted of content and dominated by its formal aspects. It’s a mechanised process, in which each component is replaceable by another.

For example, entering the Vatican is strikingly similar to passing through passport security at a major airport, with long lines through various checkpoints. Indeed, the whole business is reminiscent of a Fordist manufacturing plant, the tourists like cows on their way into an abbatoir.

From that point, the tourist moves from disembodied item to disembodied item. Everything becomes mechanical, a thoughtless acting out. Exhausted, the tourist returns to their hotel or hostel (it, too, a replication of the others they’ve slept in), able to check that day’s sight off the list: Mona Lisa – check; Venus de Milo – check; and so on.

It’s not that, upon returning home, the tourist has learned anything much about life by contemplating the Mona Lisa’s famously ambiguous smile. Rather, the tourist can say, ‘I saw the Da Vinci, yes.’

The reason why a photograph must be taken by your camera/phone is not that it somehow captures the ‘essence’ of the image, but instead it’s to prove that you were there (If you want a good picture of it, you’re better buying a postcard or a book).

It is a profoundly individualistic experience.

Seeing other cultures does not open the mind to new kinds of seeing, to contemplation of one’s own place in society, to the relative nature of many of our own cultural mores, to the structure of wealth or power – it does not lead to a questioning. Instead, it leads to a reaffirmation of one’s own way of life. This goes for the ‘rite of passage’ six-month trek across a continent by twenty-somethings as it does for the luxury tours in air-conditioned comfort of those later in life.

In other words, tourism has become a part of The Culture Industry, as Adorno and Horkheimer have termed it.

What’s so infuriating is that it is almost impossible to step outside of this. Unlike other aspects of culture – film, books, and so on – it’s very hard to change the context of tourism. Yes, there are alternative ‘tours’ of cities (a friend of mine ran ‘red Berlin’ tours for some years), but these are few and far between and hard to integrate into the trip.

So in recent years I’ve found myself staggering along behind the rest of the masses, like some lost soul in The Walking Dead, always searching for the next meal, never satisfied. To my disgust, I have found myself, camera in hand, pushing aside the others, trying to get the right shot.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Rjurik Davidson is a freelance writer. Rjurik has written short stories, essays, reviews and screenplays. His novel, Unwrapped Sky, was published by Tor Books in 2014. PS Publishing published his collection, The Library of Forgotten Books, in 2010. Rjurik’s screenplay 'The Uncertainty Principle' (co-written with Ben Chessell) is currently in development. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets at @rjurikdavidson

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Comments

  1. I too was perplexed by this Mona Lisa experience. In fact, it quite enraged me. Maybe it is to do with ‘I was there’ but what is the point when the subject does not appear between lens and painting? A ban on cameras and mobiles would be good.

  2. It’s easy enough. You simply ask: what do people in the place do?

    You get on a bus, and ride it to its end. You walk for half an hour. You go for a swim in their pool, and a stroll in their park. You sit in the mall and watch people walk by. You talk to strangers in a cafe, and eat and drink as locals do. You read their papers, and watch their television. You might even participate in their own culture industries.

    This is how I experience the world outside my home.

    • Wearing the standard dress of Parisian chic, booked into an ordinary motel (the modern counterpart of pension), visiting the boulangerie early a.m. and patisserie early p.m. and in between times walking, walking, walking.Arriving in the dead of winter, then visiting the galleries, less tourists, one would hope.
      New York: Again walking. Greyhound or it’s equivalent up the coast. The only tour: Frank Lloyd Architecture. Sweden or Iceland to hopefully see the aurora. Patagonia to experience the isolation. Spain another eating walking experience. practice French or Spanish by chatting in cafes and restaurants, at vineyards and rural places. English will have to do for the Northern countries. Extra expense but it will be worth it! .

  3. The Tourism Industry thanks you, and would like to assure you that the paid assassin currently closing on your position is a courtesy we reserve for our most ardent ‘admirers’.

  4. I wouldn’t say it’s so much a matter of elitism, Dave, as having an analysis of the commodification of travel and in particular the tourist industry.

  5. There is more than enough in the Louvre to delight and interest. Just give the ML the flick. She won’t mind at all. I like to imagine that after hours her third finger is raised at the ghosts of the day’s tourists.

    Trophy photography is the new safari; I notice the apposite use of the word trek. Not to be a boer about it…

    I enjoyed this piece, which only just fell into theory.

  6. Hey Rju – couldn’t agree more.
    When at the Louvre my partner and I actually only visited the room containing the Moan Lisa to observe the crowd itself. That’s what our picture was of – I’ve seen the Mona Lisa (or “The Travesty” as I call it based on the idea that it may be a portrait of Da Vinci imagining himself as a woman and “travesty” being French for Transvestite).
    Like the slow food movement I would rather promote a slow tourism movement – I don’t need to go to the Eiffel Tower – I know it’s there and there are so many other wonderful things to see in Paris.
    In NYC I spent most of my time in one neighbourhood of Manhattan (Chelsea) and got to know it just a little – I had my cafe – where they served good bad American coffee, my pizza guy etc… It was a small taste of inhabiting that world – so much better than rushing around trying to stuff everything in. There’s a million things to do/see/experience here in Melbourne but I don’t spend my days ticking things off – I can’t imagine why as a “tourist” I would suddenly want to be driven frantically that way.

  7. I think this article slipped a bit rhetorically, and perhaps should have pointed to a tendency rather than claiming an essence.

    I have done one of those months-long rites of passage. It is a packaged and commodified experience, no matter how far “off the beaten track” you go, and it is a highly privileged experience, with various highly status-coded appurtenances like travelogues and photoblogs, especially in the era of social networking.

    The tourism certainly can veer, albeit temporarily, albeit punctuated by moments of oddness and stress that stay with you forever, but often go without an accompanying document or photograph, into a hollow cavalcade of boxes to check, although that devaluing claim in itself is a dull cliché. But the idea that one learns nothing from the experience is false.

    For one thing, many learn a foreign language to a conversational level. Without a doubt, one of the most edifying augmentations possible for any human.

    For another, that simple exposure to a fraction of the nature of life in another country imparts a permanent empathy that, in instantly becoming intrinsic to one’s expanded understanding of that other place (whether it’s Siberia or Guatemala), is just as instantly erased and treated as if of no value, much like all the things one learns in primary school, and can never believe one actually had to be taught. But the truth is, the value is there. Travel is just as real a physical transportation to another place as it was when Marco Polo did it. You can go, you can understand something, and you can bring back that understanding.

  8. Indeed, the whole business is reminiscent of a Fordist manufacturing plant, the tourists like cows on their way into an abbatoir.

    Again, reminiscent except for the part where the tourists are not actually slaughtered, but merely briefly inspect a world famous painting.

    You could employ the same metaphor with as much validity about anything involving a queue – voting, say, or waiting to get into a crowded restaurant.

    While queuing and, even more so, waiting, are fundamental to tourism – so much so that, when travelling, I started smoking just to deal with the hours at bus stops – those dull interregna are what pads the experience, and not what structures it.

  9. Just one real point, really, relating to the comments:

    Obviously there are ways of travelling which avoid commercialised tourism. As a traveller, I’ve always done those things. My point with it isn’t that I have a problem as an individual, that somehow I don’t know where to go or what to do, and that if only I knew I would be all right. My issue is that the whose industry – regardless of what I do – is increasingly commercialised and mechanised. Hence the metaphor about the cows – a bit of a joke to be honest anyway – is meant to refer to the same kinds of mechanised processes occurring across society.

    I don’t think you can solve that at an individual level. You’d need to take the money-making component out of tourism, to begin with, but you’d also need a different culture of tourism, and a different place for it in the structure of life. There are two ways of doing this, firstly in counter-cultural ways, in developing different travellers options — ‘progressive tourism’ if you like. The second is to restructure the industry itself, which is a much, much bigger project.

    • Yes, I think I pretty much agree on all of that, although I don’t think that the commercial aspect of tourism is either avoidable or thoroughly damning.

      One troublesome problem is that the status-coded parts of tourism, like visiting key sites and getting that vital photograph, can be provided to tourists more cheaply than an ideally edifying experience. This in turn then hollows out the expectations of tourists, who come to see the value of paying for travel as mainly aligned with their status upon return.

      Of course there’s a countervailing dynamic in which the greatest status is conferred by the most detailed accounts of more “authentic” experiences – right up to the point where you are, in effect, interning for the Lonely Planet, writing a culturally inflected fantasy novel, or becoming a photojournalist or landscape photographer.

      And then a peer acceptance dynamic that revolts against that, and exalts the plainly self-indulgent experience abroad, like a Bali stopover replete with photos of you and “the boys” (or you and “the girls”) with your umbrella cocktails, or a summer spent in a resolutely solipsistic Ibizan drug haze.

      I don’t think any of this is new, but its availability to a broad swathe of the population – not just Ladislaw from Middlemarch or the protagonists of a Forster novel – is somewhat new. The emptiness of the European package tour was satirised by John Cleese in a skit nearly fifty years ago …

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