From “New Mexico,” 1928
Superficially, the world has become small and known. Poor little globe of earth, the tourists trot round you as easily as they trot round the Bois or round Central Park. There is no mystery left, we’ve been there, we’ve seen it, we know all about it. We’ve done the globe, and the globe is done.
This is quite true, superficially. On the superficies, horizontally, we’ve been everywhere and done everything, we know all about it. Yet the more we know, superficially, the less we penetrate, vertically. It’s all very well skimming across the surface of the ocean and saying you know all about the sea. There still remain the terrifying under-deeps, of which we have utterly no experience.
The same is true of land travel. We skim along, we get there, we see it all, we’ve done it all. And as a rule, we never once go through the curious film which railroads, ships, motor-cars and hotels stretch over the surface of the whole earth. Peking is just the same as New York, with a few different things to look at: rather more Chinese about, etc. Poor creatures that we are, we crave for experience, yet we are like flies that crawl on the pure and transparent mucous paper in which the world like a bon-bon is wrapped so carefully that we can never get at it, though we see it there all the time as we move about it, apparently in contact, yet actually as far removed as if it were the moon.
As a matter of fact, our great-grandfathers, who never went anywhere, in actuality had more experience of the world than we have, who have seen everything. When they listened to a lecture with lantern-slides, they really held their breath before the unknown, as they sat in the village school-room. We, bowling along in a rickshaw in Ceylon, say to ourselves: “It’s very much what you’d expect.” We really know it all.
We are mistaken. The know-it-all state of mind is just the result of being outside the mucous-paper wrapping of civilization. Underneath is everything we don’t know and are afraid of knowing.