The Aesthetics of Wandering

by Kate Fowler

April 30 2015

  • “But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence… illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.” – Feuerbach

Embedded within the history of Western literature, cinema and theater is the tale of the wanderer—a spirit guide or reverie that has functioned as an outlet for our repressed dreams and vestigial desires for abandon, disconnection and self-discovery. Through these forms, wandering is often regarded as a philosophical pursuit, engaged through the act of travel. For Herman Hesse, wandering was a state of being; in Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus’ wandering took him to a land alive only in memory and within the illusionary effects of the past. Sabina, from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, longed to feel grounded by the weight of another body, yet saw the end to all flight as unbearable. For each, the notion of wandering as an aimless or purposeless engagement, would dismiss the revelatory act of discovering one’s self as autonomous within a culture, landscape or history.

On January 24th, 1961 a young wanderer named Robert Zimmerman arrived in Greenwich Village, NYC with little more than a guitar and a humble suitcase. According to the wanderer’s folkloric autobiography, his romance with the iconic city was not dampened by the mid-winter freeze that stilled the air in Manhattan, nor by his lack of financial or structural support. Instead, he felt liberated from the historical identity that had been established by his past. He embraced this time of transformation and immediately revoked signatory ties to his heritage by adopting the name of poet Dylan Thomas. Thus, Bob Dylan was born and the journey of our cultural wanderer—an icon that would charge forward to lead us across the frontier between the aesthetic populism of commercialism and the Wild West of individualism—began.

After a childhood in a middle-class Jewish family and an education at the University of Minnesota, the wanderer shifted his passion for rock n’ roll to a desire to make music that reflected humanity. It was his belief that the music of the working class, by its seriousness, despair, sadness, triumph and faith in the supernatural, spoke the language of human life more effectively. Not inclined toward folk music through the necessity of experience, but rather for its formalistic representation of humanity, the wanderer began to establish his place within this cultural movement. He found his reflection fading and sought to make it stronger.

  • “You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.” – Bob Dylan

During the height of the Dust Bowl, another wanderer abandoned his young family and a stable home to travel alongside the migrant workers of the Midwest as they moved from town-to-town in search of temporary work. In his time, he became a record of the swelling tide of individuals navigating America’s shifting economic landscape. He joined their efforts not only as a worker, but also as an artist that sought to give form to the experiences of labor, through music. His body was to bare the marks of the traveler, the transient, the wanderer, as his skin darkened under the midday sun, his shirts began to unravel and his pants held the prints of coal trains and fieldwork.

This wanderer was Woody Guthrie, a prolific folk musician and poet. He was yet to become a symbol of economic transience and despite his soft-communist ideals he, too, would move from the periphery of fringe culture to mainstream populism. His songs of equality and anti-capitalism would become co-opted and decontextualized for nationalistic purposes, to be sung in classrooms across the country in the same tone as the Pledge of Allegiance. His well-worn body and guitar were to become the Migrant Mother of aural culture, a mark of the resilience of the nation, rather than the triumph of the individual. Born into the life of the songs he sang, he subverted the American tradition of wandering, from a sort of privileged transient meditation—a Western rite of passage—into a political performance. In Depression-era America, the willful abandonment of a nuclear familial structure as well as the sloganized belief that Americans could rise up from poverty through ingenuity and the strength of their bootstraps, was a radical gesture. Unlike the travelers of the cinematic west, Guthrie was not a pioneer of the land but of the communal heart. He was less interested in the soil and resources that sustained industry than in the bodies that it was beholden to.

And so, Dylan transformed himself into an atavistic wanderer, striding willfully in the footsteps of this great icon. He abandoned his history to obtain authorship of his identity, adopting the visual and cultural language of Guthrie as a young, socially active musician. This was not to be his last journey, as he would soon arrive in Manhattan, a borough rich with the imprint of past and emergent cultures. During this time of residency, he would come to know many different practitioners of conceptual escapism, including the figureheads of the Beat Generation and later the ‘78 punk movement. He would write alongside Kerouac and Ginsberg, icons known for their spontaneous prose about travel, drug use and free sexuality. New pioneers of American young adulthood, they pushed the boundaries of normative culture until the system imploded, and their risk-taking ushered in the cultural sweep of the popular ‘60s counter-culture movement. These icons wrote boldly of the art of wandering and imagined, for a national audience, the vastness of personal liberty, and of the expansive landscape of potential that lies in America’s borderlands.

  • “If you want to learn something, just steal it.” – Woody Guthrie

After six decades of blending and merging, Dylan has moved to the shelves of Starbucks and the center of television advertisements. A simulacrum of each independent cultural revolution since the ‘60s, Dylan has articulated and reflected America’s major fringe movements, from Folk to the Folk Revival, to what is now the aesthetic resurgence of that revival. A resilient specter, he continues to move with authority through movements, functioning as an entry point for a nation of like-minded outsiders. In an era that has adopted the visual language of pioneering, On the Road exploration and the aesthetics of wandering as a model for consumerism, Dylan’s legacy finds itself dangerously close to the center of cultural normativity. As corporate branding and marketing utilize road trips, isolationism, radical independence, sexual liberation and youthfulness in their viral campaigns, our wanderer’s identity begins to fade again—and so again, he must be reinvented.

In this post-industrial era of enduring wars, federal deficit, insurmountable student debt and the capitalism of necessities as elemental as health care, education and diet, have we abandoned the act of traveling as a simpler, less demanding manner of escapism? What becomes of the wanderer in a time that prioritizes outward representation over inward reality; where the artifacts of wandering—damaged clothing, faded notebooks—become an expensive form, expressive not through function but by design. Throughout the history of wandering, the philosophical journey has taken precedence over the physical—the essence over the appearance. As our wanderer begins to fade, so too does our reflection.