On travel machines

and, on contemplation

Nearly every day this month, on my way from our apartment in Tbilisi to the shared work-space where I write, I’ve passed a striking piece of street art — which in the world before Banksy would just have been called graffiti. (The creator, @goshaart, also offers walking tours of the city’s street art and sells handmade drawings.)

In the image, painted on a metal surface in a wall near Freedom Square, a pensive cat looks into the world within “The Quarantine Travel Machine”. The device resembles a laundromat washer, with settings for preferred climate and type of destination. The cat seems to have paid 100€ (about $120) to go to the mountains at a pleasant late Spring temperature: a wise choice.

I remember thinking, the first few times I saw it, that it was a charming bit of pandemic whimsy. I thought, too, of the frequently heard wish over the past year of lockdowns and restrictions for a time machine, to return to the world before Coronatide, perhaps with the added awareness of so much that is precious that was then uncherished.

Eventually, I noticed that the Quarantine Travel Machine hasn’t quite accepted the cat’s payment yet. Is the cat weighing its options? Perhaps the sea would be preferable. Or a cultural experience (‘Ethnografic’)? Moreover, for now, the cat is simply looking, albeit with interest. Will it clamber in? The image itself is frozen in time, is itself a time machine, the date clearly marked, taking us back to a period many of us remember all too vividly.

In fact, as I’ve come to realize, it is a truth not just of the theory of special relativity but also of ordinary experience that travel in time and travel in space are more alike than different.

Just as we left New York, the city was reviving, with many people vaccinated and restrictions eased. At the same time, our friends in England saw ‘Freedom Day’ recede by a month. The jerky temporality of the pandemic, the partly random way it affects one place more than another, and the varied habits of life (and practices of governance) that determine its course — all these have meant that passing from one place to another is also to move backward or forward along the sinuous time-curve of infection and fear, whether towards relative safety or greater danger.

We did not leave New York State between March of last year and our jabs this Spring, and even our first foray upstate last summer, after months of isolation in the city, brought disorientation. I remember my special shock at seeing people dining indoors in a small Hudson Valley town on a sunny day.

I realized that they hadn’t spent April and early May listening to ambulances day and night carrying the dead and the dying. That they were safer where they lived and perhaps also more willing to tolerate risk.

Traversing the 5000-plus miles to Georgia has meant learning pandemic habits anew. Very few people here are vaccinated, though the Biden administration recently promised a tranche to the country, as well as to other pro-US ‘partners’ like Ukraine and Kosovo. (Just across Leselidze Street from the Quarantine Travel Machine is the “NATO-EU Information Centre”; Georgia is currently seeking membership in both.) On the other hand, while cases remain relatively high, they’ve subsided since their most recent peak in early May. Fortunately, social life largely happens outdoors, in cafés and on the communal terraces of each ezo, the courtyards round which apartments are generally built.

The pandemic is, in a real sense, worse here, but life is better. Perhaps that is because life is always better where neighbors (mezobelebi, the sharers of an ezo) socialize by default, where wine is homemade and plentiful, and where the sea and the mountains are each a day-trip away, and not just with the help of a Quarantine Travel Machine.

As it happens, we went to the mountains, to Khevsureti, last weekend with a dear friend visiting from Paris. Our Travel Machines were as follows: a regular car from the city as far as our guesthouse, then an off-road vehicle on half-finished mountain roads — driven with aplomb and bravura by our guide Mindia, whom we later learned was also a Major in the Border Police and who was, remarkably, able to convince several road crews to move sand and rubble and rocks to flatten the path and help us pass — and finally our own legs on the hike up to a set of glacial lakes.

Despite the snowy peaks, the area was mainly pasture, for cows, for goats, and for sheep (our return to the city was in fact briefly delayed, to our amusement, by an ovine road-occupation). Nothing of human artifice was readily in view and yet this was a lived and not a desolate place.

Only after we came back to the city did I notice the resemblance between the mountain vista and the view inside the Quarantine Travel Machine.

Still, being in the mountains was enough to make me really see how great a gift this was (and how great a gift the vaccines are — still distant for many): to travel, to pass from one way of living into another, to be freed of the constraints that, even before the pandemic, we imposed on ourselves in daily life. 

Aristotle claims in the Politics that a contemplative life is still a life of activity. He means both that thinking occupies us — and can do so intensely — and also that the activities of thought are part of a human life, a life that for us is necessarily made up of different kinds of action, many of which we undertake in constraint. As we picnicked by the side of the Abudelauri lakes, looking out at the still glacial water and up to the mountains that yielded it, wearied by the hike but utterly absorbed by what we could see, I think I understood.

Contemplation is also a form of travel, albeit not in time or in space, but relative to ourselves.

One of the persistent impacts of the pandemic in my life has been my relative incapacity over the past year to be fully absorbed in the way that contemplation — whether of nature, of art, or of some other form of truth — requires. I’ve commiserated with many fellow academics about the difficulty of concentrating on our work, given the circumstances, but concentration is not exactly what I mean to indicate here. (To be clear: I’ve been far luckier than those who have had to balance, say, child-care and working from home.)

In fact, I doubt that I’ve been drastically more given to mind-wandering in this time. It’s just that my focus has been elsewhere: on virus statistics, on public health and public policy, on the welfare of my friends and family and community, and on the fate of the world as a whole.

This focus, on subjects that — for a lay-person like me, anyway — can never be the object of reflective absorption but only practical concern (or anxiety masquerading as practical concern), has been as all-consuming as the most refined activities of artisanship or the most serious intellectual pursuits. It is characterized by being timely: an awareness in the present simply of the present. (It is vividly displayed in the desire to refresh your web browser or your social media feed over and over and over.)

Contemplation, too, is an awareness in the present, but of what is not merely present. For that reason, Aristotle closely associated contemplation with a grasp of eternal and necessary truths such as those of mathematics and science. In fact, however, many things can be timelessly present to us, that is, present to us as a part of a self-giving world that exists beyond the needs and wants we have as the kinds of finite creatures we are. That is why the natural world (in its beauty and not in its utility) is a fit object for contemplation.

But, then again, so too is a work of street art.

— Dhananjay

PS: After writing this essay, the lovely article by Ian Marcus Corbin in the last issue of Plough — “The Abyss of Beauty: The Art of Seeing the Natural World” — came to my attention (thanks to Episode 7 of The PloughCast, featuring Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black). Ian perceptively writes about the difficulty of achieving the quiet needed to really look, how the experience of eternity (what I’ve called here timelessness) in the beauty of nature can be both enervating and energizing, and the possibility that nature is in fact unbearable, which I did not touch on here. I agree with him that we must be “a strange kind of animal” who “feel ourselves perched on the periphery of something, always only almost living”. Aristotle’s idea of the contemplative life and its characteristic temporalities — an idea unloved by so many of his scholarly readers! — seems to me a great help in grappling with this thought.