Creating the Past


by Douglas Penick


To travel is to die a little;
to die is to travel a little too far.
—André Gide

Tourism was a necessary theology
– Iain Sinclair  [1]

Today, I received the November/December 2019 issue of Colorado AAA’s Encompass Magazine. The cover article urges me to visit any of “THREE ICONIC COLORADO HOTELS”. The lead blurb explains why: “These hotels provide the perfect backdrop for anyone wanting to create their own extra-special holiday memories… here are three hotels that deliver that cozy Hallmark experience.”[2] The article assumes that we are all yearning for life-experiences that mirror and embody our most prevalent commercial clichés. Advertisements assert that the most complete happiness will be secured best in settings that reflect the most prevalent imagery of our commercial culture. Such images are lodged in our past and live in our present, so it is hardly surprising that they become the models for our celebrations, the motives for our travels, and shape the expectations of all our excursions outside regular daily life.

The Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Majal, Mount Fuji, Big Ben, the Vatican, the Pyramids in Egypt, the Canals of Venice, the Grand Canyon, etc. These images call to us. They epitomize pleasures more exotic than those at home. They are a kind of shorthand for a part of the real world that is not bounded by the ordinary and every day, but nonetheless accessible.

People, of course, have always travelled. In earlier times, they did so mainly for conquest, for trade, for survival and occasionally to learn technical skills or philosophies from people of distant lands. As roadways were developed, then railways, steamships and airlines, it became easier, safer and less time-consuming to visit foreign countries. More and more people went to see the great monuments of world culture. Travel became a way for men and women to learn about civilizations, remote in time and place, and to feel a deeper connection with them. For increasing numbers of people, travel enhanced a sense of life shared with others who had once seemed utterly alien.

Now things are obviously quite different. Travel has become an integral part of the general array of consumer desirables for all who can possibly afford it. It is a way of visiting places that are not tied to our work life and domestic routine. According to the World Tourism Organization, there were 1.4 billion international tourists in 2018.This means that from a world population of 7 billion, one in five people will travel for pleasure every year. And the number has been increasing continuously since the 1980s.[3]

The experiences provided on such a scale to so many consumers must, as with all other consumer products, be uniform, predictable and relatively risk-free. They must meet the expectations that the consumer has derived from advertising and similar kinds of information. The consumer must get what he or she has been led to expect and has paid for. Consumers do not want to experience the unknown, the variable, the uncertain. They do not want to find themselves lost, alone, homeless and cold at night in an unfamiliar place. People want to be part of the world they’ve heard about and seen in mass media.

Of course, tours are marketed in the same way as are movies, and other forms of entertainment. Cruise ships now enable the tourist to see famous sights without such frequent inconveniences of travel as waiting, moving about in unfamiliar circumstances, having to eat strange food, trying to communicate in foreign languages and negotiate alien mores, being uncertain about the general level of hygiene. Commercial tours also remove these uncertainties though, of necessity, to a lesser extent. All tour providers make every effort to shield travelers from anything that will produce an unexpected change in their being. After all, consumers are entitled both to get what they want and to not get what they don’t want, feelings and understanding included.

In her paper, ‘Fantasy Tour’, Beverly Mullings states: “The persisting cycle of imagined pleasures and disappointments then becomes the driving force behind the insatiable character of modern consumption. … Tourism is one of the industries most transformed by the changing nature of consumption[4] because it is an activity that revolves around the collection of cultural signs- objects and experiences that contrast with the everyday life of organized and regulated work. The collection and consumption of cultures also has the ability to act as a marker of identity.”[5]

When we go somewhere as a tourist, unless we have some terrible accident, we can make our experience, free from the pressures that otherwise shape us. Unlike our ordinary world where we can lose our job, our mate can betray us, our child can get arrested, our mother can die, our grandfather can lose his mind, our sister can get cancer, as tourists, nothing will have this kind of impact. We visit, we see, we taste, we hear, we leave. What we experience is what we have chosen to experience. And if we wish to create a past more interesting, more popular than our idiosyncratic failings? Well, we shall.

But it is important to recognize that kind of identity which the tourist may be seeking to reinforce is less a matter of a change in inward understanding and sensitivity than it is an experience that becomes valuable mainly when witnessed and recognized by others. A visit to the Musée de L’Orangerie in Paris may make this quite clear. The museum, in its current form, was the outgrowth of discussions between the painter, Claude Monet and his friend, the French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau. The two felt it was important to create a kind of refuge in which visitors (and principally the people of Paris) could come to find inner repose and healing from the traumas and losses of World War II. Accordingly, in 1922 the city altered a former indoor orange garden at the end of the gardens of the Tuileries and added two long oval marble rooms in a classical style, each with four huge painting of waterlilies by Monet. Long wood benches in the center of each room provided places where viewers could sit and immerse themselves. The vast shimmering expanses of the Monet’s swirling evocations of changing light and plant life might, under such circumstances, provide a profoundly restorative environment. It is no longer possible for the visitor to have such an experience or even to guess that this was the noble goal of the museum’s creators.

Now, these rooms are still the same, but those who visit them come in hordes and change the experience of being there. The rooms are so crowded that it is all but impossible to see even the smaller panels in their entirety at one time. Instead, you walk along each picture and try to create a mental impression of the whole out of the momentary fragments you are able to take in. If you manage to find a seat on one of the center benches, you end up watching people, most respectful and a bit puzzled, moving in a flow punctuated by young men and women taking selfies, boisterous middle-aged couples taking pictures of each other as they celebrate an anniversary, serious young women, moving slowly along each painting, a red laser dot touching the canvas as they carefully film the image before them. Whatever stillness and inwardness such art makes possible is severely compromised by this context. This experience, or absence of an experience, is the same in the vast majority of celebrated. museums and monuments. But do those who go there now see L’Orangerie or the Forbidden City, or wherever? Perhaps in shards. Fleeting bits of information. The visitors make images, photographs without atmosphere or feeling or sense of presence. They make simple documents, images which live in the airwaves and in computer banks somewhere. Pictures that can appear anywhere on a screen; pictures that say simply: “See! I was there.”


Tourism is not a localized phenomenon that we encounter in crowded piazzas and then leave but an omnipresent condition, like climate change or the internet, that we inhabit all the time.[6]

However, the quote with which we began this essay asserts something even stranger. It says that our goal in going somewhere is “making memories”.  It assumes that people want to make their future plans about how they will spend their time and money in order to create their past. This seems quite strange, but a quick search of the internet reveals that this “making memories” is very common.

For instance: The Houston Press has an article about “Cruising and Making Memories.Making Memories Tours offers us trips throughout the US. Meanwhile, Faythful and Abundance Cruises suggests: “Spring Couples Cruise: Grab your spouse or friend and let’s make some amazing memories.” Treasures of Europe says: “Imagine the stories you’ll be recounting and the experiences that will stay with you long after the trip.” Inside Europe says: “Make memories together! Explore destinations, enjoy experiences and foster relationships. Of course, we can’t forget the food + drinks!” Highline Safari’s & Tours “is proud to be part of the African Continent Tourism Initiative’s mission and passion to create experiences that will bring lasting, beautiful memories”. While The Barefoot Nomad will be “Making Memories Around The World With Locals”, “Memories from our tours will last a lifetime” promises Access Asia Tours. And these are only a smattering of the innumerable memory-making travel providers. The ubiquity of this “making memory” trope almost conceals its actual weirdness.

Why are people enticed by creating not a future but a past?

If we step back for a second, another context of our consumer and travelling habits emerges. In 1985 the world population was 4.84 billion and the Gross World Product [7] was $22.5 trillion dollars; in 2019 the population was estimated at 7.7 billion people with a GWP of $88 trillion. Thus, while the population has increased in that time by 160 %, the economic activity in that period has increased by 390%. Even allowing for the crudeness of such calculations in factoring, among other things, inflation, it seems reasonable to infer that we are looking at a high increase in per capita economic activity. Though unequally distributed, there has been an increasing glut of consumer goods. By the mid-1980s, an all-out consumer economy was in full swing. Also, in the mid 1980s, carbon fuel’s impact on global warming as well as the catastrophic effect of other forms of exploitation and pollution were becoming well understood throughout the world. The conclusion that the world would not sustain the manner and standards of living that many human beings had come to expect was becoming inescapable.

Like a rumor one encounters everywhere, like the persistent signs of aging, and fear of death, the images of impending ecological collapse are everywhere. We see the burning Amazon and the fires consuming swaths of Australia, Portugal, North and Southern California. We see new deserts in Africa and new flood plains in Asia. Magazines are filled with the sad portraits of creatures whose kind are on the verge of extinction. We see lines of gaunt refugees wearing dirty clothes fleeing lands. We read of fatal diseases spreading in jungles and in urban hospitals. How much of this will we or our children encounter. Our cars, houses, vacations, sporting events, entertainments, jobs, how long will we have these things?

Now, unable even to think about the what all know to be the world’s almost certain future, we turn to cultivating our private lives, our memories. We want to show that this world has been ours and we have enjoyed it fully, even if travelling in such numbers transformed and degraded where we visited. This desire has coincided with the advent of the personal computer, the cell-phone, the world-wide web. In that domain, each of us can have and share a life that is ‘curated’ and ‘artisanal’. The moribund physical and historical world is now the backdrop and support for a virtual existence in a virtual world that will remain in the cloud long after we and the world where we have ventured are unrecognizable.

Venice is sinking, they say, and, true, dark water sometimes seeps up through the elaborate piping beneath the gray paving of the piazza in front of St. Mark’s Cathedral, then makes a shallow lake there. But this afternoon, all is dry, nor do they think high waters are going to swamp the city for a while. So, we are having drinks: Negronis, a bitter-sweet, deep red mix of Campari, vermouth, gin on ice. My wife and our friend and host, Emilio have been walking through labyrinths of narrow streets and looking at innumerable churches filled with murals of wonders past and yet to come. Now we sit, contentedly as sunset brings the gold on St. Mark’s façade to life. The marble arcades of the piazza articulate an expanse of generous perfection and domesticate the blue sky and fluffy clouds above. The air itself has a copper sheen. Faintly, we can smell the lagoon. All around us people young and old are sitting consulting their cellphones, taking selfies, showing each other pictures they’ve taken. Amidst them, one girl doesn’t move for almost an hour. She is working intently on her phone. “She was photoshopping her pictures,” my wife tells me later.

As we move through this strange and haunting city, it is disconcerting to feel surrounded by so many beings for whom the pleasure even significance of being in such a place is not actually a direct experience. Being here finds meaning only in taking a picture, evaluating it, sending it, and knowing that it is being both received and stored somewhere else. Thus the instability and randomness of life can be held as the experience of a specific and evanescent place and time, transformed into an image that can be summoned to anytime, anywhere, always. A month after our tender afternoon sitting in the Piazza San Marco, two thirds of the city is under three feet or more of water. The ground floor of our friend’s house is uninhabitable.; all the furniture is floating around. It is shocking. In circumstances like this, what can we do but transform the world whose future is so unstable into a past that is unchangingly familiar?

Images of devastation by water and fire, pictures of illness, death, of starvation, of empty towns, forests, plains continue in wave on wave. They do prompt any workable response. There is only fear. We can’t consider slowing down, using less stuff. Governments don’t make world survival their top priority. We don’t know what sacrifices we might make to benefit our children and grandchildren. We are, it seems, powerless to control our future. But perhaps we can, if we move fast enough, format our pasts in a way that will not change and create memories that cannot be stolen.  We can preserve such memories outside our mortal bodies. Perhaps we can share the experiences we worked to acquire with those whose world will last a little bit longer than ours.

Today, I go online. American Airlines says: “Make lifelong memories at unbeatable prices.”



[1] Diary, London Review of Books, 10 October 2019- p.48

[2] November/December 2019 issue of Colorado AAA’s Encompass Magazine -“3 ICONIC COLORADO HOTELS” p.25

[3] cited by Kyle Chayka in Vox 10/21/19

[4] Urry 1990, 1995;Rojeck and Urry 1997 cites in in NEW FORMS OF CONSUMPTION, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2000

[5] B. Mullings, Fantasy Tours in NEW FORMS OF CONSUMPTION, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2000  p.228

[6] qv Kyle Chaykya- supra

[7] Wikipedia- Gross World Product (the aggregate of all goods and services in today’s US dollars) as per J.Bradford DeLong

About the Author:

Douglas Penick’s work appeared in Tricycle, Descant, New England Review, Parabola, Chicago Quarterly, Publishers Weekly Agni, Kyoto Journal, Berfrois, 3AM, The Utne Reader and Consequences, among others. He has written texts for operas (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), and, on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, three separate episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic. His novel, Following The North Star was published by Publerati. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome. His book of essays , The Age of Waiting which engages the atmospheres of ecological collapse, will be published in 2020 by Arrowsmith Press.

Image of the Taj Mahal in 2010 via Wikimedia Commons (cc).