On the road in search of freedom
Mark Sayers explains how our cultural ideal has become a life on the road and what that means.
Our cultural ideal used to be home but now we idealise a life on the road, says cultural commentator Mark Sayers. He diagnoses our contemporary restlessness, our excess of choice and wonders what life might be like beyond an endless trip.
JUSTINE TOH: It’s something of an established ritual for middle-class Australians in their twenties to do the travel thing and go overseas. We all love being on the move. But does the culture of the road give rise to restlessness? That’s the idea posed by Mark Sayers in his book, The Road Trip that Changed the World. He came into the CPX studio to tell us about it.
Thanks for joining us Mark. Now you write in your book that our lives are marked by a constant wandering. A fluidity concerning relationships, careers, home, sexuality, identity and belief, and you write…you say that this is now the norm. You also say that this constant wandering makes us restless. Now what do you mean by that?
MARK SAYERS: I think in the West we’re defined by individual autonomy. We want freedom. We love freedom, we’re obsessed by it. But then also we want this sort of solace that a sense of home, a sense of tradition gives us. So in a sense what I’m advocating is saying that we like to be now on the road, which is between those two things. We don’t want to be back at home, but we don’t want to sort of give up on what could be hovering over the horizon. So we want to be in between those two things.
JUSTINE TOH: And your book seems like an extended conversation with Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. And you argue that his book was so influential that it’s actually shaped our idea of the road trip ever since. Why do you think Kerouac’s work made such an impact?
MARK SAYERS: I think it was the right book at the right time. It captured something, after World War Two, Europe had got to this philosophically existential place, it had been bombed to smithereens, the American economy was super turbo-charged by the war, there was this consumer boom which would define the 50s and 60s, and Kerouac was reacting against that. He was looking at what’s the sense of spirituality, meaning, that we’re losing from all of this. So his answer to that was to go on the road to try and find meaning through experience and so on and he advocated for this sort of rucksack revolution.
JUSTINE TOH: And what strikes me about your book is that you say that what was completely countercultural for Kerouac back in the 50s is really mainstream now for young adults and more than young adults today.
MARK SAYERS: Mmm. Oh, it’s the norm now. I read On the Road a number of years ago and just was like, didn’t strike me at all. Because it just seemed so much like my friends. But in the time, the idea of a bunch of young adults getting in a car, going across America, with no agenda, sleeping around, taking drugs, drinking, was so completely countercultural and shocking. But now it’s your sort of average gap year, holidays in Bali, the sort of entire world’s affluent young adult culture sees that as the template. So even people who haven’t read On the Road, they’re defined by it.
JUSTINE TOH: It’s quite scary because what you’re just talking about preempts the 60s and you’ve shown us how much it leads to today, and it’s like, we think we’re doing all these, making all these choices, just spontaneously, when really they’re actually shaped by what’s come before.
MARK SAYERS: Mmm. And there was a sense where Kerouac was advocating for this youth rebellion. As I said, he called it a rucksack revolution. He wanted people to fight back against the stupefying effects of what he saw as consumerism by heading out and defying convention. But he ended up creating almost a beast that he himself turned on and didn’t like in the end.
JUSTINE TOH: Let’s talk about the cultural idea of home. You say that our culture used to love being at home and having that sense of rootedness, of place, of having your identity and your purpose in some senses given to you by where you’ve grown up and all that sort of thing. But now we tend to view life as a journey. So why have we left home? So to speak.
MARK SAYERS: It’s interesting in a sense that if you look in the world today there’s two great movements. There’s one great movement of people who are going on holidays, through airports, looking for the next big thrill. And then you’ve got these other people who through war or economic reasons are looking for a home. Who don’t want to be on the move. And for me, we’ve turned away from this idea of home because for us we see it as limiting. It’s restricting. By having a sense of home or tradition or tribal belonging we’re gonna have to give up some of the individual autonomy that we love. So yeah, we don’t like the idea of home. We see it as…we don’t like the idea of the mundane. Home is boring to us so we flee from it.
JUSTINE TOH: Yeah, well Dale Kuehne also has this notion of the ‘tWorld’, or the traditional world, so where your identity and your life is sort of structured by your tribe or your language or where you’ve come from. And he makes the point that the tWorld has a lot to answer for, which helps explain why we want to kind of get rid of it, basically, that it can be really oppressive for people who didn’t necessarily fit in, so for women, for minorities, life in the tWorld could be really bad for them as well. So that must also power our desire to leave home, so to speak?
MARK SAYERS: Yeah totally. And you look back at Western society, particularly since the French revolution, we’ve been on this quest to, I guess, free ourselves of a sense of oppression and you look back at feudal societies, it was incredibly oppressive. But there’s a point too where we sort of go from the idea of freedom from oppression to now, freedom becomes just unlimited choice, ultimate autonomy of the individual. So there’s actually a differentiation, I think, in those two ideas of freedom.
JUSTINE TOH: Yeah and so being on the road is kind of like choosing freedom, right? But choosing that sort of unfettered freedom, unlimited choice, doing whatever you want. And you write in your book that in a culture that offers no greater narrative than the road, unlimited freedom and choice can be terrifying. So does the excess of choice make it harder to choose and how is that relevant to what you’re trying to do in this book?
MARK SAYERS: Totally. If you look at our culture there is an abundance of anxiety. People suffer from anxiety disorders. And I think part of the anxiety comes from the fact that we have so much choice. And even when we have a very good life, and despite the GFC and stuff like that, we still are living in one of the most amazing economic moments in history, of comfort. But the problem is we play parallel universes because there’s so many choices available to us, even when we make right choices, then we have this ‘what if’ question, which acts as this corrosive device, undermining our sense of satisfaction or happiness.
JUSTINE TOH: So how do we navigate that in the world? Like when you…I mean you work a lot with young people as well, how do you see them dealing with the anxiety that comes with the burden of choice in a way?
MARK SAYERS: I saw a Qantas ad this morning on the plane and the new Qantas ad is this very sort of anthemic, lulling song, and there’s all these smiling people looking up from all over Australia at this plane, sort of lulled into this sense of, Australia’s this happy place. But underneath it there’s this underbelly of, substance abuse, relational breakdown and so on. But I think that the road is this way of us trying to make sense of that by seeing ourselves on a life journey, it gives us this small metanarrative that we can work with. Or a midi or middle narrative that we can deal with, which then is a way of trying to process life and see ourselves as the players in a one-man production or one-woman production of a show.
JUSTINE TOH: Do you also see that young people have that tension, right? You say they pursue the individual life story but do they also have that sense they want to give their lives to something bigger than themselves but they also want to keep all their freedoms and all the opportunities available to them as well?
MARK SAYERS: Totally. And you see this in the rise of what they call Facebook activism. Or push-button activism.
JUSTINE TOH: Or slacktivism.
MARK SAYERS: Slacktivism, clicktivism, all these visms. And I think there was an example I heard recently of the ‘Save Darfur’ page on Facebook where they had millions of people liking it but the actual money that they raised through that page was incredibly tiny. So there’s an element where that desire for autonomy means that it’s going to be very difficult to actually translate that into the sort of advocacy and volunteerism that really does change social systems.
JUSTINE TOH: And that gets us back to what you were saying before, that Kerouac actually was really disillusioned by this culture of the road by the time he’d walked a lot of it. So why does it lead to such dissatisfaction and what can Kerouac’s disillusionment with it tell us today?
MARK SAYERS: The book that really opened my eyes on On the Road after reading it the first time was John Leland’s book about Kerouac. And he says Kerouac’s book is actually a cautionary tale. It’s been read as this manual of how to have this incredible, experiential life. But he says actually if you read the end of the book, where his sort of, hero Dean Moriarty walks off into the New York night and Sal Paradise who’s meant to be Kerouac is in the warm, ensconced with his wife in this car and it’s sort of like this cautionary figure going off in the night. I think there’s almost a sort of prophetic sense to that figure of what’s going to then come in the coming decades. So Kerouac definitely saw the cost and had a cost on him, he died of alcoholism. So there’s definitely a cost to this life, this unfettered life people are seeking.
JUSTINE TOH: It seems to me in the West that we think about freedom negatively, freedom from. And yet at the same time, that doesn’t necessarily get us anywhere. So where do you think we can find true freedom?
MARK SAYERS: Well getting to a thought that has been all throughout Western culture is the idea that actually what we need is freedom from self. And for me the idea that the one thing that no-one talks about is actually, I as an individual need limitations because I have things about me which are not good. And I think for me, one of the great paradoxes which for me Christianity reveals is that by in a sense, having freedom from myself I actually find a completely different sense of freedom which frees me from the unbridled autonomy of the individual and then the freedom that comes with the pressure of that tribal, traditional world. So for me that’s something I think we need to rediscover in this time and place.
JUSTINE TOH: And you can do that obviously in your new book. So, The Road Trip that Changed the World. Thank you very much Mark.
MARK SAYERS: My pleasure.