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The journey, not the arrival, matters Essay

It is the journey, not the arrival, that ultimately transforms the traveller – particularly for imaginative journeys, which often occur spontaneously and is undecided in its destination. The experiences one encounter during their travel/travail is what evolves them to better understanding of themselves and the world, inspires them to spiritual reform, which constitutes the educative and/or therapeutic qualities of the imaginative journey.

While the philanthropic vision of Coleridge, in This Lime Tree Bower My Prison, and John Lennon, with his gentle utopianism in the song Imagine, articulate a milder, positive philosophy of such experiences, the murky and subterranean landscape of the human psyche painted by Atwood in “Journey to the Interior”, and the arduous trek depicted by Leunig in How to Get There project a mood of doubt and pessimism characteristic of our contemporary, cynical age.

Coleridge’s imaginative experience propagates through a series of contrast: darkness & light, imagination & reality, freedom & confinement – which serve to compile in the responder’s mind a better understanding of the concept of the journey as something that involves the development and rebirth of a person with new-found ideals or perspectives. His physical incapacitation induces his mood of querulous egotism – reinforced by the petulant monosyllabic “well they are gone!”, and is the catalyst for his imaginative trek. As his speculative powers recreates the sights and sound of his friends’ physical trek, he begins to share their joy. Tactile images like “springy heath” and “speckled by the midday sun” transports the traveller to the scene – thus we are able to share his spiritual change, being moved and transformed from self-centred ignorance to selfless participation in nature & God.

A similar progression occurs in his poem Frost at Midnight, where the narrator escapes his physical stagnancy through an imaginative, introspective journey: “with unclose lids” he recalls the poignant details of his “sweet birth-place”, accentuated by the soft sibilance of “so sweetly… stirred and haunted”. In both poems, it is the journey that’s the transformative force that uplifts one from egotism to altruism, spiritual confinement to liberation, leaving us bathed in the light of his philosophical vision: the establishment of an emotional, metaphysical and spiritual unity between man and nature.

Lennon’s song, Imagine, operates on a less concrete level than Coleridge. It is the product of an age scarred by the atrocities of the World Wars, and communicates an intuitive need for peace. It envisions a world without the banes “countries”, “religion”, “property” which breed suffering and avarice. The opening imperative ‘Imagine’ coaxes the lister to go on a mind-clearing imaginative journey – a momentary change of perspective, and share his vision of this utopia.

Coleridge propagates the spiritual & perceptive transformation by envision the friends emerging from the “o’erwooded, narrow, deep” dell (a pictorial symbol of self-pity, loneliness, confinement) into the “wide, wide heaven”. While Imagine lacks such actualising imagery, its strength lies in its simplicity and abstraction, purporting the easy with which this journey is undertaken. While Coleridge comes to the conclusion: “no sound is dissonant which tells of life”, Lennon doesn’t realise the journey’s destination, but simply encourages the act of journey as the transformation experience that will “make the world as one”.

Away from the positivism of Coleridge and Lennon are the harsher and equivocal journeys depicted in Atwood’s and Leunig’s texts: “Journey to the Interior” portrays an ambiguous persona probing and navigating the nightmarish territory of the inner psyche in order to gain greater understanding of the self. There’s no destination, as the aside “have I been walking in circles again” debunks any grand claim to discovery/fulfilment. Contrary to the effortless trek inspired by bucolic natural landscapes that Coleridge portrays, Atwood’s persona struggles through a vast, difficult terrain that shifts from “open prairies” to “a tangle of branches” – highlighting the fluidity of the imagination, and of one’s identity – neither can be navigated, but only experienced to be comprehended. (This journey offers an equivocal fusion of fulfilment and bleakness, as “the hills open”, but to reveal a “poor country”. She debunks visions of fecundity by emphasising the “danger” that one faces “most of all” on this exploration.)

Leunig’s traveller in How to Get There trudges through a vast, intimating terrain towards the indefinite, metaphysical goal of “There”. Like Atwood’s interrogation of the self, this journey requires the individual to depart zones of familiarity and venture into the unknown. Unlike Atwood’s disjointed, unlinear trek, Leunig’s journey is straight-forward, but arduous and endless. Elements of the landscape alternate between two joyous, budding flowers and rocky, uneven ground, presenting a similarly equivocal vision of the journey where fleeting moments of restful fulfilment are mere distractions to the overall sense of hopelessness. Yet, this journey, like Atwood’s self-probing one, is a fundamental process (as Atwood states: “there are no destinations apart from this”), with fundamental importance to all aspects of life. And one must “keep on going, just keep on with it”.

Even more so than the other two texts, Atwood and Leunig advocate the journey itself as the transformative experience, since the destination is vague – (in Leunig, the symbolic, unchanging horizon conveys the distance of the goal, showing how it presents a psychological barrier to progression). Leunig’s journey develops one’s perseverance, resulting in the traveller’s expression of resigned determination as he comes to accept its continuous and ongoing nature. Atwood’s imaginative probing of the interior self reveals the nature of the psyche and reinforces the traveller’s sense of selfhood, resulting in his/her vow to “keep my head”, highlighting their determination to survive and comprehend this unfamiliar landscape.

Despite their widely varying mediums, style and perspectives of journeys, all five texts demonstrate how the journeying process, rather than destination, transforms the traveller. Whether to endow them with new understanding about Nature, Man, or the subconscious psyche, to develop qualities like determination or selflessness, or to liberate one from the physical restrictions of the world/self, the journey, not the arrival, matters.


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