‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’ The title of Paul Gauguin’s 1897 painting sounds like a series of questions plucked from Philosophy 101 – until you reach middle age.
After 40, the questions are not so much sober inquiries as white-knuckle wails, screamed by one’s inner voice seconds after your rollercoaster gondola begins its plunge from the peak life has slowly but surely been dragging you up and over. Geoff Dyer intended to borrow Gauguin’s questionnaire-title for his new collection of essays until it was changed to the demurer White Sands; ‘the title was so long even I couldn’t remember it’, as the author puts it on his website. A wise decision, and not only because the title is unwieldy. Questions imply answers, or an attempt to discover them, and Dyer is not so much interested in answering Gaugin’s cri de coeur as occupying the space they mark out and seeing what happens while he’s there.
Gaugin was on Dyer’s mind because he was commissioned by the Observer in 2002 to travel to French Polynesia ‘to write about Gauguin and the lure of the exotic in commemoration of the centenary of his death’. While Dyer is perfunctory about the painter – ‘His life was every bit as colourful as his paintings’ – he is at his funniest and most insightful when writing about another artist: Geoff Dyer.
At the outset of his journey, he loses his copy of David Sweetman’s biography of Gauguin, a loss which threatens to ruin the trip. Upon arrival, Dyer is disappointed instantly. Like his hero D.H. Lawrence, he is a former of snap judgements about destinations. From the leis placed around visitors’ necks as they exit their plane onwards, the islands reveal themselves to be touristy, obvious. The view from his hotel room is too nice: ‘Even though the view was fantastic, the ocean itself seemed manicured, as if actually part of an aquatic golf course to which hotel guests enjoyed exclusive access.’ Typically, the one thing Dyer is not disappointed by is his capacity for disappointment, which both counter-intuitively and typically he depicts as a positive life-force: ‘My enormous capacity for disappointment was actually an achievement, a victory…. When I am no longer capable of disappointment the romance will be gone: I may as well be dead.’
Where a more dutiful travel writer might have wrestled with their commission, Dyer remains in pursuit of Dyer. His gaze doesn’t settle on the paradisal vistas or Tahitian lovelies that inspired the Frenchman, but a tatty village football pitch, a ‘significant discovery’ he stumbles upon. Here, Dyer goes a little sci-fi, imagining what it will look like in a millennium: ‘The pitch induced a vision of its own demise, when it would no longer be here, when it would be indistinguishable from the vegetation that would engulf it: the long interlude of forgotten-ness that is a precondition for eventual rediscovery and reclamation.’
‘Where’ appears twice in Gauguin’s title, but the more appropriate conjunction for Dyer, despite being one of our finest living travel writers, might be ‘when’. He is interested in, to borrow the title of one of White Sands’ essays, ‘Space in Time’. He travels to remote areas to see – no, that’s too pale a verb – to experience land art; field visits include The Lightning Field in New Mexico and the Spiral Jetty in Utah. ‘These artists were thinking big, not just in size and space but in time.’ The land art, like the goalposts, have ‘nodality’, Dyer writes, borrowing the term from Lawrence. ‘There was a sense – all the more palpable in such a remote and empty place – of something gathering. We were in the midst of what may once have been considered a variety of religious experience.’
Moments like these give regular readers of Dyer a start. Could it be that his matey voice, his fondness for Christmas cracker-level puns, and indiscretion about matters sexual has led you to overlook that he is in fact a dreadful old hippie. ‘I have always believed in the notion of the vibe: good vibes, bad vibes.’ He admits to liking ‘almost any alternative, New Age-inflected place’. One such place which he has written about in a number of books (it’s on page 197 of White Sands) is Burning Man, the annual gathering in the Nevadan desert that is part experiment in living, part communal art project; a music festival without the bands.
One could invent a game, Dyer Bingo. You cross off another square every time one of the following appears in his writing. Nietzsche. Rilke. Don Cherry. Barthes. John Berger. Don DeLillo. House! In 2005’s The Ongoing Moment, Dyer structures an idiosyncratic study of photography through essays on the way certain objects keep recurring again and again in photos. You could take a similar approach with the actors and locations that Dyer keeps returning to in his books. Burning Man recurs as a site of transcendence, a place where he finds ‘the Zone’, a concept inspired by Stalker, ‘not so much a physical space as a force field, a place that has stood its ground’. Areas where Dyer experienced similar nodality include Libya’s Leptis Magna and the WW1 memorial at Thiepval. ‘I always know when I’m in the Zone. When I’m in the Zone I don’t wish I was anywhere else.’
Dyer has a sense of himself existing not merely in deep time but within a pattern of shifting perspective, which is rare for a writer who works outside of popular science or philosophy. For Dyer here is never truly here; now is merely a staging post between two eternities. Judgement isn’t deferred but is continually evolving, with the direction of travel not solely forward; tomorrow can shape yesterday. As he wrote in his 1994 WW1 study The Missing of the Somme: ‘A photograph from the war is also a photograph of the way the war will come to be remembered. It’s a photograph of the future, of the future’s view of the past.’ Or consider a passage from The Search that anticipates his description of the football pitch in White Sands: ‘He imagined some archaeologist of the future recreating sequences of play and estimating the scores of games played here from the patterns of stud-marks on the pitch.’ More playfully, he even suggests the folk art masterpiece the Watts Towers somehow reached back in time and caused Watts to be built so that one day it would provide the Towers with an urban context.
Hippie Geoff is interesting but not as compelling as his angst-surfing persona; best of all is when the two sides rub up against each other. Travel, a frequent source of angst, is nevertheless essential to his conception of himself. ‘Moving back to England meant moving back into what…I referred to by the Lawrentian phrase “the soft centre of my being”. Being abroad – anywhere – meant being at the edge of myself, of what I was capable of” (as he writes in 1997’s Out of Sheet Rage, a self-conscious failure as a study of D.H. Lawrence, but a roaring success in unpicking what makes Geoff Dyer so Geoff Dyery). Travel is a challenge that inspires the same sort of questions that devilled Gauguin: ‘What’s the difference between seeing something and not seeing it? More specifically, what is the difference between seeing Tahiti and not seeing it, between going to Tahiti and not going?’ Or as White Sands’ blurb puts it more succinctly: ‘Why travel?’
There is an answer of sorts: ‘We are here to go somewhere else.’ Which is not merely a typically Dyer-esque paradox (‘This was the true purpose of maps: without one it was impossible to say with certainty that you were lost, with one you knew you were lost’); the reader detects traces of Dyer’s spiritual leanings, now with new, deathly overtones. The book that White Sands most resembles from his backlist, Yoga, was also marked by ‘the tug of middle age’. Where the earlier book sat in on recognizable midlife anxieties, specifically loneliness, doubt and regret, White Sands amplifies these human-sized fears into cosmic questions. What does it all mean? Where do we come from? Where are we, etc.? The answer, not to the questions themselves, but as to why they are being posed, comes in the final essay where we learn that Dyer, at the age of 55, suffered a stroke, a minor one to be sure, but enough of a jolt to inspire a new tone in his work.
The more enjoyable pieces in this book, however, are the ones that might at first appear slight – Geoff picks up a hitchhiker who he belatedly realizes might (or not) be a dangerous convict; and Geoff goes on a disastrous trip to Norway to see (or not) the Northern Lights. As comedies of embarrassment, they are small masterpieces. One snorts almost as loudly as Dyer cries with frustration when his Norwegian hosts suggest the Northern Light’s failure to appear is down to his negative attitude. ‘Claudio Magris identifies a recurring figure in European literature,’ Dyer records in Out of Sheer Rage, ‘the man who records all the little inconveniences life inflicts upon him and, in doing so, triumphs over them.’ Dyer, pace Magris, is thinking of Thomas Bernhard and Lawrence; he could also be describing himself.
It should be said that Dyer is one of the best quoters in the biz, especially when it comes to ferreting out lines that describe himself and what he’s doing his writing. One in particular seems especially relevant to White Sands. In The Ongoing Moment, he quotes the street photographer Joel Meyerowitz: ‘I’m not really interested in gas stations or anything about gas stations. This happens to be an excuse for seeing.’ ‘An excuse for seeing’ – at last, an answer to ‘Why travel?’