OVER the last few weeks Alan Riach has followed Karel Capek through the 1920s and 30s on his travels through some of the nations of Europe. Mirna Šolic, in her book In Search of a Shared Expression: Karel Capek’s Travel Writing and Imaginative Geography of Europe (Prague: Charles University, 2019), delivers an invaluable series of close readings of his travel books but, more broadly, she raises deep questions about “travel writing” as a genre and its relations to modernism in the arts. These questions are vitally significant for us in the 2020s

IN her introduction, Šolic suggests that throughout his travels, Capek was searching for “an equal and shared ‘Europeanness’, based on artistic identity” and that his “creativity often had to do with his understanding of popular culture, literature and folklore”. So whatever complexities modernist art presents, it is really a “search for original form and the deep sources of art”.

This is why Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is subtitled “Pictures from Pagan Russia” and why Picasso goes back for inspiration to African masks and the caves at Altamira, where paintings on the cavern walls date back 14,000 years.

Šolic notes that Cubism taught us to think of history in a new way, not as a plotted narrative moving towards a resolution, but as a vision whose component parts keep their difference from each other. This also is a modernist breakthrough. Instead of a linear story glorifying an ultimate conclusion, modernist art taught us that there is always more than one way of seeing things, more than one story to be told.

For Capek, European Symbolism explored human spirituality, while American Modernism “found inspiration in the external world, the idea of technical and social progress, the development of communications, and the emerging and increasingly popular arts such as photography and film, all of which greatly influence the poetic function of language”.

So Rainer Maria Rilke calls out at the beginning of his Duino Elegies, asking whether any spiritual response may come. And so William Carlos Williams famously insists, “No ideas but in things.”

The breakthrough of the modern movement was a way of seeing both globally and geographically in a comprehensive vision. But this comprehensiveness could only maintain its vitality by acknowledging and exploring differences. If you deny that and try to impose uniformity, the dominance of populist power rises and strengthens itself. But if you treasure and engage with the differences – between languages, nations, cultures, identities – you might remain open to the richness and diversity that is the world’s provision.

This endorses national differences and different territories of identity within nations. Quoting Apollinaire, Šolic presents Capek as a writer who sees that art, especially poetry, “has a country” and “will only cease being national the day that the whole universe, living in the same climate, in houses built in the same style, speaks the same language with the same accent – that is to say never”.

Certain forces in the 21st century seem intent on delivering such uniformity but surely the fact of the dynamic nature of human beings militates against this. People do not remain constrained forever.

In his travel books, as Šolic says, Capek’s readers become “active collaborators in the construction of travel experience”. They all “map a trajectory towards the north” – for in the north, Capek rediscovers “the source of authentic European identity”. The arts, the geographies and politics of different nations are thus all bound together in a lasting conversation.

If you accept an equity among humanity on principle, a sense of cultural value among nations is worth searching for, because discovering this is a confirmation of diversity as much as an affirmation of human value. This is “what makes a national literature, especially a small one like Czech, ‘worldly’.” Or, one might add, one like the Scottish.

IT was immediately after the First World War that “passports were introduced as a material symbol of establishment of new borders and new political identities, but also of ‘the end of an age of innocence: no longer could one travel without a passport – and thus did a natural polyglotism, an imperial cosmopolitanism, give way to the self-conscious internationalism of the avant-garde. Now borders were something to be overcome”.

Capek’s idea of “world literature” and the way he evokes it through travel writing centres on the relations between “debates around national and cultural identity” and “one’s position in relation to and within the imagined European identity”. So for Capek, the “expanded opportunities of our life” were made possible by “an independent country”. Getting out of the yoke of the Hapsburg Empire allowed his country this possibility.

Bringing together popular literary forms and everyday journalism and reportage was essential to energise this possibility. Capek identified a literary movement emerging in 1923 that addressed this directly. In “Poetism” Capek found “an emphasis on the theme of travel” itself, both literally, geographically and intellectually, through the infinite libraries of the mind. So Capek was encouraged “to challenge the boundaries between the high and the low, to redefine the importance of popular literature for an aesthetisation of quotidian life”.

When Capek was writing, between the First and Second World Wars, “many cross-generic, textual-visual forms appeared, such as picture poetry, typography and collages, which ‘introduced a new dimension by the use of common everyday materials, like newspapers and advertisements, usually extraneous to ‘high art’.” This equally of Hugh MacDiarmid and in 2020, his centenary year, of Edwin Morgan.

As Šolic tells us, “National” could no longer be understood according to 19th-century premises of cultural or racial identity, but “as the creative spirit of the people, visible for instance in folk or primitive art, and open to interaction with high art.” For Capek, “‘folk art’ was not an untainted and natural art of the people as the Romantics believed, neither was it static archaic forms of rural culture. Rather, ‘folk art’ was a mediation of cultural and social contacts between classes and cultures influenced by social and historical changes. Moreover, it was the art of the urban peripheries, popular literature, and neglected art. Since the aesthetic functions of high art are changeable, ‘national’ could not remain static; it was instead a constantly evolving concept”.

The poet “draws mother and homeland into the same sphere of semantic associations: ‘his cradle and his grave, his only homeland, for inheritance given, the wide earth, the single earth’” so “a journey” is “the symbolist metaphor of human life” and a “metaphor of life as travel”.

In these days when travel such as Capek’s seems almost impossibly distant, we do well to remember what its value truly is. It is not only the luxury of indulgence or necessary refreshment but a vital way of understanding the virtues of different nations and their cultures, and an encouragement to oppose any imposition of conformity and the closing down of the mind. It is an endorsement of sensual apprehension and the sympathetic understanding of others. And whether in actuality or imagination, it is among the most vital of the arts of resistance.