Thomas Pynchon’s Guide To The Baedeker

Perhaps it is because I am a stranger relying on the guidance of others that I find the CCA’s collection of Baedeker guides so fascinating. Although I am accutely aware of the need for generous, thoughtful guidance to a new city, the Baedeker guides published in their early 20th century hey-day have always had a signficance far beyond their simple slender form and without ever knowing why. Now pouring over their cramped text and fragile fold-out maps in the library, I am beginning to understand their power.

The guides were published by Fritz Baedeker who took his father’s publishing company to Leipzig in 1872. In the late years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th – the heyday of the guides – they became tremendously successful, appealing to a wave of newly enfranchised travellers, who benefited from a more regular, quicker and safer system of steam trains and ships. They were translated from German into English and other languages and were succesful throughout the colonial homelands.

This still does not acccount for the way they have retained to this day a slightly sinister quality; both on a personal level and a geopolitical one. Characters in EM Forster novels, before they have their epiphanies which turn them from repressed stuff shirts into modern sensitive individuals, rely on their Baedekers. In 1942, the Luftwaffe launched a series of air attacks on historic British cities, identied in the Baedeker guides as having cultural signfiicance. These were called the Baedeker raids.

Tentatively picking through the Baedeker guide to Egypt published in 1898, one can quickly see why the guides have developed such a reputation. In this guide the city of Alexandria is treated like a list of ancient artefacts. A quick guide to hieroglyphs is the major graphic to the guide apart from the maps. The guide draws the reader to museums and ancient sites, away from markets and places of simple interaction. The textual elements of the city are heightened; hieroglyphs are deciphered, contents of museum are listed exhaustively.

Furthermore the editor of the Baedeker is forever convincing the reader to stay detached from the people of Egypt. The Preface boasts that the guide has succeeded in ‘supplying the traveller with the necessary information regarding the country and the people he is about to visit, in protecting him against extorion and in rendering him… independent of outside assistance.’ The extraordinary quality of the Baedeker text is to divorce the traveller from other sources of information.

Fragile the books may be but the text is fearsome. One realises quickly that Baedeker isn’t as much a guide to the country but to the iron will of those who wrote it. Place Mohamed Ali in is described with some relief “as the great centre of European life in Alexandria.” With embassies and western churches, the editor of Baedeker describes it as an enclave of civilisation in an unruly city. (An aside in the book suggests a vist to an adjacent cotton-market which would be especially interesting ‘with an introduction to a cotton exporter.” The trade upon which European supremacy is built is never far away.)

This separation is ultimately enforced in the text though along racial lines. Under the title Bakshish, we read that “the average Oriental regards the European traveller as a Croesus.” The guide goes on to recommend that if that traveller is being troubled by an Oriental vendor he should “use the word rûh or imshi (‘be off!’) in a quiet but decided and imperative tone.” A chapter entitled “Intercourse with Orientals” – snigger – contains the instruction “Orientals attach no value whatever to their time, the European will often find his patience sorely tested.’ In fact, the whole project of talking to Egyptians is so fraught that the editor advises that ‘intimate acquaintace with Orientals is to be avoided.” Don’t trust the world. Trust the book.

There is a particular reason for my interest in the guide to Egypt published in 1898: one which helps provide an interesting critique of the Baedeker and explains its enduring fascination. In his introduction to his book of short stories, Slow Learner, the novelist Thomas Pynchon confesses that one of his technical strategies for writing was to pillage factual details from the Baedeker guidebooks. “Loot the Baedeker I did,” he writes. “All the details of a time and place I had never been to.” Of particular interest to Pynchon was the guide to Egypt from 1899, published  a year later than the one in the CCA, which he confesses to having pillaged for a short story, but which I posit also ended up being useful in the writing of V..

The narrative of V, published in 1963, involves two characers. Benny Profane a contemporary beatknik. His victimhood is contrasted with a character named Stencil who is described by George Plimpton in his review in the New York Times that year thus: “He is active as opposed to passive, obsessed by a self-imposed duty which he follows, somewhat joylessly — a Quest to discover the identity of V., a woman’s initial which occurs in the journals of his father, a British Foreign Office man, drowned in a waterspout off Malta. The search for V., a puzzle slowly fitted together by a series of brilliant episodic flashbacks, provides the unifying device of the novel — a framework encompassing a considerable panorama of history and character.”

In V. we find the actual guide to the city followed closely. On Alexandria we read in the second entry in Baedeker under Alexandria that ‘the chief cafes are to be found in the Place Mohammed Ali’ and sure enough, the first mention of the city contains a meeting between two of the pursuivants of the mystical V. scheming at a café on Place Mohammed Ali. Yet we quickly begin to see that for Pynchon, the Baedeker is more a springbroad to an imaginative exploration of how place is perceived rather than simply a technical guide on how to replicate a sense of place. (Although it clearly performs this task as well.)

Take the episode in which Pynchon imagines what the proprietor of a café on Plac Mohammed Ali callled Aieul thinks of the tourists.

‘Let them be deceived into thinking the city something more than what their Baedekers said it was: a Pharos long gone to earthquake and the sea: picturesque but faceless Arabs; monuments, tombs, modern hotels. A false and bastard city; inert – for “them” – as Aieul himself.’

This remark is actually more complicated than it first appears. Pynchon’s character is here suggesting that the readers of Baedeker are trapped into their understanding of the city. They can be aware of another real Alexandria beyond the Baedeker but that other city does not exist or cannot exist for them. So totalising is the Baedeker view of the world that it crushes the potential even to think beyond it. 

Indeed Pynchon goes on in V. to  refer to Baedeker Land and Baedeker World. In V. we meet a disgraced vaudevillean actor Maxwell Rowley-Bugge. (Pynchon is forever focusing on smaller apparently incidental characters who he gives an interior life and an outlandish name – so you remember him.) Pynchon goes on to describe Rowley-Bugge as:

a sort of vagrant who exists, though unwillingly, entirely within the Baedeker world – as much a feature of the topography as the other automata: waiters, porters, cabmen, clerks. Taken for granted. Whenever he was about his business – cadging meals, drinks, or lodging – a temporary covenant would come into effect between Max and his “touch” by which Max was defined as a well-off fellow tourist temporarily embarrassed by a malfunction in Cook’s machinery.

He is a fly in the ointment – a character who sustains himself by sustaining the idea that the tourist system operates seamlessly.

As I have said, what is suprising about the Baedeker is how ruthless it is in instructing its reader how to construct and view Egypt. It is a construction of the exotic or Oriental world from an unashamedly imperial western position. I can see why Pynchon went for it. He is interested in exploring the characters that prove the inbuilt contradictions of power structures. The mission to find V. is perhaps legible as a conspiracy theory which is ultimately self-confounding but which questions received versions of early 20th history as an early review of the book in Time suggests.

His critique of Baedeker is to say that whilst it records relentlessly and exactingly, its system of representation – totalising I have called it – fails to represent human reality. Pynchon is a good guide to Baedeker guides, which are effectively a ruthlessly efficient system of cataloguing place, that deliberately stymies the individuals ability to interpret and enjoy the place autonomously. It’s like being given a library and told what to think of it by the librarian.

About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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