On Pinioned and Opinionated Wings

It’s easy to get stuck in our ruts in the age of the internet, losing our wanderlust.

An old friend, former diplomat and world traveler, recently emailed a somewhat defeatist message: “I have lost my wanderlust lately and my reliance on my memories has increased.”

Photo: Aero Icarus, CC BY-SA 2.0.

I understand her completely. Between the restrictions of Covid and the anxiety of finding oneself on an overnight flight to Lisbon seated next to an NRA-spear-carrier (not Paul and Ingrid in Casablanca), I and some of my culturally nettled friends decided to become electronic exiles for the near future.

Access to Internet with its domains and platforms allows us to reach out even as we stay within restricted boundaries. Expansion of our horizons via WWW in a time of political boa-constriction has become gradually our mode of travel. Though our exploratory wings are pinioned, our minds still are airborne on the wings of poetry.

A centrifugal existence has replaced a centripetal one. We hope to restore balance to the equation when our lives return to something like normal and the Reds and the Blues can, well, at least get along.

From the time the “whilom” (a word he should look up) dominator encouraged us to quaff a cleaning agent to the present when “publish or perish” may be replaced with “perish if you publish the truth about US history,” many imaginary signatories of the Constitution have chosen to lead a kind of samizdat existence.

A few local sciatic emeriti with enlightened views, if we may say so ourselves, have formed a reading group in which we discuss travel literature: Homer’s Odyssey; Dickens’ Travels in America; Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa; Freya Stark’s The Journey’s Echo, A History of the World in 500 Walks….

In fact, we’ve formed two versions of our Junto Club (Ben Franklin’s 1727 circle): in person and Zoom. We meet on a member’s deck in fair weather and go virtual when it’s inclement or when we wish to add a world-watcher with a different point of view. None of us ever has slept in a yurt and had yogurt for breakfast in the company of camels. We’re looking for an Inner Mongolia expert.

Somewhat self-imprisoned, we also watch and discuss movies from the time of Buster Keaton through A Night at the Opera and Chaplin’s Modern Times to Woody Allen’s Sleeper, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, Steve Martin’s Bowfinger, and even the whacky Three Stooges.

We’re becoming experts in the history of film-comedy in an effort to laugh through the current “culture wars.” We prefer the madcap antics in these movies to the verbal brickbats being hurled in Congress by some atavistic members who confuse rational debate with Mixed Martial Arts in which the “loyal opposition” becomes the “Masked Caveman from Canarsie.”

There are unplanned benefits as well: our group, only colleagues at first, has become friends; raised in the age of the type-writer, if not the quill, our tech skills have improved, even if we think that “artificial intelligence” still means “a substitution of slogans for thought.” Orwell’s 1984 is one of our secular-sacred books.

There’s biological and literary precedent for our burrowing in and imagining a life out-there during a “winter of our discontent.” Artic foxes hibernate under the ice and don’t emerge until a touch of spring is in the air, and John Keats wrote famously about the possibilities and pleasures of travel through poetry in “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”:

Much have I traveled in the realms of gold
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen.
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Keats (1795-1821) never got to Greece, but he had been there in his poetic imagination. As much as we might long to leave “on a jet plane” and “not come back again” until America becomes functionally unified, we’re doing our best to expand our global panorama through the light-filled vistas that literature and film make possible for our group to see together. Not holding out for a “glorious summer,” we’re waiting simply for “more light” (Goethe’s last words).

Howard R. Wolf is the author o Far-Away Places: Lessons in Exile and A Version of Home: Letters from the World (an autobiographical journey). He has written extensively about Henry James and George Orwell – two guardians of the English language.

Howard R. Wolf
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