In my early twenties I travelled through Europe after graduating from college. The economy in the U.S. was not very good at the time and it seemed like a good thing to do before applying to grad schools. I learned quickly that it was a good idea to sew a small Canadian flag on my knapsack as it headed off potentially unpleasant experiences – for instance, getting overbilled for a meal. Apparently people assumed that Canada was not a particularly wealthy country and consequently Canadians didn’t face these issues.
The funny thing about the Canadians I ran into – besides the fact that they spoke exactly the way I did – was that once they sewed Canadian flags onto their knapsacks, they were surprised that they started feeling patriotic. They found this odd since a part of the Canadian identity at the time was that you just didn’t do the patriotism thing. That’s what countries further south did.
In turn, we Americans in Europe started to find ourselves not only missing mom and apple pie but also feeling these peculiar stirrings of the “P” word. So at that point how did we feel about our allegiance to our false flags?
In fact it didn’t much matter since the fun thing about traveling in a foreign country is that it never feels completely real. You feel as if you are always a spy spying on the native population and trying to act like you fit in when ifact you don’t really care. Vladimir Nabokov, the eternal exile, had a facile turn of phrase for this: “spies from Terra.” The only time I felt bad about this deep down sense of lightness and playfulness was when a Czech friend accused all Americans of being like children when it came to love. I didn’t know how to reply at the time. It only occurred to me later that this was true, but only when we were abroad flying false colors on our knapsacks.
I discovered later that when one returns to one’s home country, it is never fully your home country again. To some extent, you continue to be a spy from Terra with a knapsack and flying false colors. The knapsack is your soul and it is important to fill it with good things or you will lose yourself.
My metaphysical knapsack is invisible, of course, and I fill it up with books. The books remind me of who I am and who I want to be. Some I’ve carried around from over twenty years and some are newer.
The twenty year plus books include Doris Lessing’s Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikaata which I found on a college bookshelf in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It also includes Robert Graves’s The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. I’m not sure where I found that. Nabokov’s Ada is of course also there.
My metaphysical knapsack includes books I’ve never read but that I enjoy just thinking about and imagining the contents of like Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible as well as Raymond Queneau’s Exercises In Style. Brady Bowman’s Hegel and the Metaphysics of Absolute Negativity is also there. It is a brilliant book but I don’t actually understand it. It reminds me of a wonderful night I spent with my friend in Berlin in the 90’s. There’s also a trashy book in my knapsack called Shadowrun: Never Deal with Dragons by Robert Charrette – I read it in a seacoast bed-and-breakfast in Northern Wales and it captures a mood.
Everyone should have a metaphysical knapsack. It reminds you of who you are, who you were, and who you want to be. It’s a terrible thing to lose track of who you once wanted to be.
What’s in your knapsack?