The impossibility of retracing one’s steps

Δεν γίνεται να μπει κανείς στο ίδιο νερό του ποταμού που κυλάει δύο φορές, said pre-Socratic philosopher Ηράκλειτος… oh  I am so sorry, if  you thought I was speaking Greek. I was…. and what I said was a cryptic utterance of Heraclitus of Ephesus, usually rendered in English as:  “You cannot step twice into the same river.”

Well, in one sense, (and its broadest and most superficial) that could be construed in strictly spatial terms – you can not make the same journey again – with the same effect that is. I am most indebted to that indefatigible travel writer Paul Theroux, for furnishing a most detailed list – full of illustrious names in his marvellously-titled “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star” . Let him explain it himself….

~~~~”What traveller backtracked to take the great trip again? None of the good ones I know. Greene never returned to the Liberian bush, nor to Mexico, nor to Vietnam. In his late fifties, Waugh dismissed modern travel altogether as mere tourism and a waste of time. After 1948, Thesiger did not return to the Rub’ al Khali, the Empty Quarter of Arabia. Burton did not mount another experdition to Utah, or to substantiate the source of the Nile…. Darwin never went to sea gain. Neither did Joseph Conrad, who ended up hating the prospect of seafaring. Eric Newby went down the Ganges once, Jonathan Raban down the Mississippi once, and Jan Morris climbed Everest once. Robert Byron did not take the road to Oxiana again, Cherry-Garrard made only one trip to Antarctica, Chatwin never returned to Patagonia, nor did Doughty go back to the Arabia Deserta, nor Wallace to the Malay Archipelago, nor Waterton to the Amazon, nor Trollope to the West Indies, nor Edward Lear to Corsica, nor Stevenson to the Cevennes, nor Chekhov to Sakhalin, nor Gide to the Congo, nor Canneti to Marrakesh, nor Jack London to the Solomon Islands, nor Mark Twain to Hawaii.

You could ask, ‘Why should they bother?’ but the fact is that each of the travellers, grown older, would have discovered what the heroic traveller Henry Morton Stanley found when he recrossed Africa from west to east ten years after his successful crossing from east to west, from 1874 to 1877 – a different place, with ominous changes………    

 And it is in the closing lines that he comes to a seminal truth….. and if we extend his contention from spatial to temporal terms, that we come to the sobering and rather mournful truth that a moment once lived can never be replicated, but only remembered with a sense of longing and that most admirable concept, nostalgia. It may come again, and may well be much better (few chances, I would say) , mostly will be quite worse but will never be the same.

As I started this post with a Greek tag, I have no compunction in using Latin now. As Ovid said, “Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis” or for the benefit of you all without a knowledge of classical languages,  “Times change, and we change with them”, or more precisely “The times are changed and we too are changed in them (or during them)”.     

But, there are many who change more than the others. And as I dwell over the happenings of the year, which is thankfully drawing to its inexorable close soon, and on some relationships, now much transmuted, I realise that my misfortune is that I happen to know many more than my share….. But what can you do? And I again apply my version of Ockham’s razor, and in physical terms, just turn around with a shrug and a half-smile.

But what all these should realise (and it would be much to their benefit), that it is a two-way process and also that they are subject to the same laws…

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