Friday, May 10, 2013

Houllebecq on Tourist Destinations, Sightseeing

I completely misplaced/lost/threw away a magazine that had an interview with the French writer Michel Houellebecq. I was going to share a quote, but a paraphrase will have to suffice since I cannot find the magazine anywhere, or the interview online.

The only part of the interview that really interested me was Houellebecq's take on tourist destinations. Because this year in France, more than usual, my family and I have had regular opportunities to visit such places. I am referring (as Houellebecq does in the interview) to the monuments, museums, and buildings that are "must-sees," such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona or the Manneken Pis in Brussels.

The problem, and the reason the interviewer asked Houellebecq what he thought about such places and the phenomenon that is "sightseeing," is that we all tend to have this nagging feeling that we are being extremely shallow to want to visit and take pictures only of the things that everyone else visits and takes pictures of.

Houellebecq, in his characteristic devil-may-care fashion, dismissed this idea altogether. He said, and to my chagrin I now paraphrase, that those destinations are famous for a reason, so it just makes sense to visit those places. There's no interest in visiting other places anyway.

Now Houellebecq was exaggerating a bit, as he did in pretty much all of his responses in the interview. In fact, if my memory serves me, he seemed to be answering the questions with whatever well-turned phrase just happened to fall out of his mind at the moment regardless of how obviously wrong it was or contradictory of something he had already said. A bit Wildesque. And that is certainly the prerogative of an atheist, amoral writer who is financially independent and doesn't have to answer to anyone, such as Houellebecq or Oscar Wilde.

Nonetheless, and to wrap up this winding blog post-like fragment of my thought, Houellebecq's evaluation of tourist destinations and sightseeing sat well with me. To understand a culture and its people, you need to visit places where everyday life is happening (grocery stores, markets, banks, bus stops, bus interiors, schools). But to understand cultural history, and to have memories that you want to share in photographic form, you need the (in)famous tourist traps.

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