Whenever I have bouts of cynicism, periods of pervasive pessimism—and they’re not infrequent—I try to remedy the situation with occasional travel. That may mean physical forays into the American outback (setting a course for, say, Utopia, Texas) or fantastical forays into the literary realm (“After all, tomorrow is another day”).
Sometimes, it’s a combination of the two. My first travel memoir, States of Mind, chronicled a 314-day cross-country excursion in 1995-96 that essentially was a cynical Generation Xer’s attempt to find out if that cynicism was justified—did I reflect the state of the union, or merely misjudge it? So I turned that figurative notion into a literal search for virtue in America – in places like Pride (Alabama), Justice (West Virginia), Honor (Michigan) and Wisdom (Montana).
So it was a hopeful expedition.
I would say most literary travelers allow sanguinity to ride shotgun. As Mark Twain once declared, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” We journey in search of something better.
Well, most of us do. Then there’s Henry Miller.
He’s best known toeing the obscenity/literary line in novels like Tropic of Cancer, but he also wrote a cross-country travel memoir. And it was about as hopeful as a pothole. It was brimming with condescension and despair, grumpiness and gloom. “One’s destination is never a place,” he wrote, “but a new way of looking at things.” Yet he seemed to pack a suitcase full of old biases and mean-spirited generalities, which colored his view of the American scene (after a long stay in Europe) during one cross-country trip in 1940-41.
He called his travel memoir The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.
I’ve selected 28 cynical statements from his journey. There were far more to choose from:
1. “A great change had come over America… Everything was cock-eyed and getting more and more so. Maybe we would end up on all fours, gibbering like baboons.”
2. “The lack of resilience, the feeling of hopelessness, the resignation, the skepticism, the defeatism—I could scarcely believe my ears at first. And over it all that veneer of fatuous optimism—only now decidedly cracked.”
3. “I, on the other hand, always expect angels to pee in my beer.”