The Tramp and an End-of-Semester Thought on the Transatlantic

There were several interesting elements in Naipaul’s excerpt that might be described as a “transatlantic aesthetic,” including the setting of the steam ship, the cast of nations, and the focus on money, exchange, and modernity that texture this excerpt. The character I was most struck by was the tramp, who stands in as the figure of a sort of existential refugee. This characterization is gestured to in the prologue’s opening when the narrator describes the Greek steamship as “like a refugee ship” (2672). The ship represents being in a liminal state, which is then paralleled by the tramp who seems to oscillate between the past/present, fixed/displaced. He is described as looking like “a romantic wandered of an earlier generation” with his fashionable world-explorer wardrobe, but up close “his clothes were in ruin” (2673). He recounts the 38 years he’s travelled, but the narrator states that “His speech was like this, full of dates, places and numbers, with sometimes a simple opinion drawn from another life. But it was mechanical, without conviction; even the vanity made no impression; those quivering wet eyes remained distant” (2673). Distance plays an interesting role in both the description of his clothes and of his speech; from a distance, his façade of a grand past of adventure, exploration, and cultural maturation is highly romanticized, but when looked at up close this all falls away in ruin and his “eyes remained distant,” as if he is displaced from the present. Indeed, the tramp is described as “odd” and clearly doesn’t fit in on the ship, constantly being displaced from his cabin, the ship’s deck, and the dining room, until he ultimately recovers his cabin through the threat of violence on any who trespasses. This mirrors the setting the ship is heading to, Egypt, which had just seen its own revolution that ousted the colonial government; Egypt is described in both the prologue and epilogue as reconciling with its cultural past and the European-tinted modernity that incubates during and after colonial oppression. The tramp stands in for this complex modernity, where the aftermath of global imperialism has displaced individuals and societies temporally, culturally, and geographically. The kind of transnational figure that is created from these forces is shown not as a globetrotting explorer like the tramp thinks he is, but instead a refugee of modernity.

This post is already longer than anticipated, but I do want to just throw out a final thought I’ve been thinking about in relation to the transatlantic now that the course is almost over. At the start of the semester Daniel asked why “transatlantic” and not “global”(or something similar), and that question has stuck with me for a while. I think what I’ve come to is that we could view the transatlantic not so much as a static spatial category, but instead that the transatlantic is a network of exchange and communication which gives globalization its currency in modernity. I think this perspective accounts for the emphasis on travel, transition, and displacement which seem to be at the heart of many of the texts we encountered this semester. The transatlantic isn’t so much a geographic marker like global, American, British, Caribbean, etc., but instead a collection of historical and cultural processes that facilitates the transgression of these geographic borders, which is heightened with developments in technology in the twentieth century and is captured in the modernist imagination.