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La Piccioletta Barca - Issue 16

Review of the letters of Adolph Törneros

by

 

Adolph Törneros was one of the most prominent members of the new school of romanticism which developed at the university in Uppsala in the early 1800s. During his lifetime he published very little, his oeuvre amounting to nothing more than some texts on Cicero and ancient Rome. What makes him a remembered and still cherished part of the Swedish literary panthéon are his letters. For the better part of his mature life, he sent long letters to his friends and family. These were very well-liked even during his lifetime, and were read aloud by his friends at parties and gatherings (his circle of friends counted some of the foremost authors of the day as members, such as P.D.A Atterbom, Erik Gustaf Geijer and Karl August Nicander, as well as salon hostess Malla Silfverstolpe and the composer Fredrik Adolf Lindblad).

The focus of Törneros’s writings are his travels. He describes his feelings when travelling to friends, meeting friends, and leaving friends. In Törneros’s letters, we can find all the best qualities a traveller should have. His honesty and uncomplicated, effortless, sincerity provide us with a glimpse of what travelling is like, when done as it ought to be done.

The most important aspect of travelling is time. Travelling is a process. It is a continuous action. As a process, it is a change. And we find changes tremendously important. When we marry, we have complicated ceremonies which add the proper gravitas to the situation; when we graduate from school and university, we throw parties, wear special clothes, and sing special songs. The way in which a change occurs matters to us. (Changes are so important to us, that even the last change we will experience – going form living to dead – is important enough to be planned with care. Apparently, when one goes to suicide clinics in Switzerland, one is given a number of chocolates, from those choosing one’s favourite. The drug they provide is very bitter, so after drinking it, the chocolate can be used to make the aftertaste milder.) As for all changes, the form of our travelling has great importance. It has to take time to travel to one’s goal, one has to take time before leaving it, and it should take time to return from it. In this way, travelling assumes an almost ceremonial significance.

Travelling, the being-on-one’s-way of it, should take time. In the age of charter flights, one can simply board a flight and some hours later step off in Paris, or Milan, or Cairo, &c. The journey will be so quick one hardly knows one has left before one arrives, and as a result one will do so entirely unprepared. All feelings associated with home will remain with one, and nothing of the excitement of travel will have replaced them. If one instead allows the travelling to take time, one will have the time to learn about one’s destination, to forget one’s normal worries, and enter into that state of curiosity necessary for successful travels. England would seem vastly more exotic if it was separated from home by more than two dreary hours on an aeroplane. By knowing every stage of change on one’s way, one will better understand the final stage. Each gradual step in the continuous series of changes will provide some part of the explanation for that final step. Moreover, the time it takes to travel, and the distances one traverses, will have values of their own. That time will be a limbo of sorts, where one can experience things one normally does not, meet new people, or get to know old friends better.

When Törneros lived, it took 5 days to travel from Uppsala (in central Sweden) to Scania (in the extreme south). Thus, by necessity he had time to reflect and experience. When on his way to a friend in Scania, he describes the changing environments, and the long discussions he enters in with his travelling companions. He describes the dangers of mountain roads traversed at night-time, and the local legends told to him by talkative coachmen. And, when he finally arrives – after five days of the same company and five nights of sleeping on the coach floor – the moment is all the sweeter since he has had the time to long for his goal, and to crave new companionship. When Törneros travels, he does so much as one presses a lemon – by squeezing every last drop out.

Modern methods have eliminated this basic aspect of travelling. We no longer go by ship to America, or by coach (or even train) to Paris. Why do so, when one can save so much time by flying? Ironically, then, it is the easy availability of quick travelling which also dooms it. Our choice to always take the fastest route makes the world seem very small. This in turn leads to an elimination of all the variety Törneros could see in his journeys. The end result is that our way of travelling leads to a poorer understanding of our environments. The exotic is a great deal less exotic now than one hundred years ago. Soon it won’t be exotic at all, and we might as well cease to travel.

Our very hectic modern life also means that we stay shorter at our destinations than Törneros did two hundred years ago. Instead of staying for weeks (necessary, of course, if the travel time is nigh on a week on its own), we stay only a few days. Or, if we go on longer vacations, our habits of setting a frenetic pace is passed on even to our holidays. We try to push as much as possible into one travel, speeding through Europe in three weeks. The calm Törneros’s letters exude is quite forgotten.

It is true, of course, that the purpose of travelling has changed since the early 1800s. Törneros travelled to meet his friends and acquaintances, to acquire information and engage in discussions. We can do all of these things much easier and quicker than by arduous journeys through counties and even nations, obviously. To us, it seems wasteful to travel far only to spend one’s time there reading or taking walks in one’s hosts’ parks. Instead, we might travel to relax a few days, to shop, or to visit sights. However, it seems to me, those latter aims alone are not enough for enjoyable travelling. Relaxing one can do at home, shopping as well, and taking pictures of the Eiffel tower alone is hardly enough of a motivation to visit Paris. Still, it is true that there is an important and non-reductive difference between our travels and Törneros’s, in that ours are entirely for leisure, more like the Grand Tour. To suggest that these ought to be brought back into fashion is obviously anachronistic in the extreme. However, we might benefit from bringing parts of them back; Grand Tours take time, and so, ideally, should our travels.

It is because Törneros’s travels last so long he can write such beautiful descriptions of them. Insofar as letters express and deepen our relations with others, and this is desirable, that is another reason for preferring longer travels. The length of Törneros’s travels demands a kind of letter-writing, and a kind of reflection, which we have no need to employ. Perhaps part of our avoidance of time-consuming travelling, and the ensuing avoidance of letter writing and travelogues, is a fear to assert ourselves. With such easy access to information, we assume that we, and everyone else, already know what travels can teach us. Why describe nature when others can so easily see it for themselves? Perhaps out of excessive politeness, making us avoid anything faintly didactic, or perhaps due to a fear of the dogmatic, we find it difficult to travel slowly and pensively. Travelling only works when one values the individual perspective, and see the value in individual experience. One has to believe that one’s own perspective can benefit not just oneself, but even others to some degree. Harry Martinson, when discussing Törneros with a friend, wrote in 1943: “Who endeavours to write letter such as these today? No one. And I think I know why. One presumes that everything is already known and familiar to the receiver, be it the landscape at Tågarp, the rivers of Brazil, or the atomic bomb . . . no one attempts the discourtesy of being personal.”

I think we can spot another reason for Törneros’s success at travelling in his romanticism. The romantic gives life and spirit to all his surroundings. He sees beauty and meaning everywhere. And if he does not truly believe in these things, he pretends to, even to himself. It is this belief in the sublimity of Nature, which comes across in many of Törneros’s most moving descriptions. It gives him the ability to stop and make any scene into an artwork. (Perhaps it is the connexion between romanticism and travel which gave us the great influx of travel literature at the time, from Goethe to Atterbom.) We are not romantics today. We can still like nature, of course, but the adoration with which Törneros saw it will be gone.

If his descriptions of nature are Törneros at his best, then his focus on feeling are a close second. He describes the feeling – familiar to most students, I imagine – of leaving one home for another, finding that one is not at home at any. How does one not wish, he writes, that between leaving one set of friends, and moving on to another, there is some time to forget the old and welcome the new? That is, then, the third part where time is required when travelling – when going back.

Törneros’s letters show us both how to travel, and what we need to feel and think to travel. His descriptions of all scenes – great or small – that he sees, makes the world seem bigger. He encourages us all, I hope, to get out, go to new places, and see things from new perspectives. He shows us that travelling is a disposition, and that travels, given the right state of mind, are accessible to everyone. All one needs is time and a curious mind.

 

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