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  • Travel and Self-Transformation:The Adventures of Alexandra David-Néel and Isabelle Eberhardt
  • Marlène Barsoum (bio)

"I took an oath that in spite of all obstacles I would reach Llasa and show what the will of a woman could achieve!" proclaimed Alexandra David-Néel who became the first European woman to venture into the holy city of Llasa in 1924 at the age of fifty-five, disguised as an arjopa or mendicant pilgrim (My Journey to Llasa xxv). She remained there for two months. She was determined to penetrate the then forbidden citadel because she was irked by what she called an "absurd prohibition" (My Journey to Llasa xx).1 She justifies her desire by exhorting the reader to remember that if "'heaven is the Lord's,' the earth is the inheritance of man, and that consequently any honest traveller has the right to walk as he chooses, all over that globe which is his" (My Journey xxv). Reading these lines, we are at once given a glimpse of David-Néel's steely resolve, her predilection for transgression and the flouting of interdictions.

Dissatisfaction with one's own country, and the self it would ultimately generate, spurred courageous women at the dawn of the twentieth century to take flight toward other lands.2 Travel offered a liberating strategy, a site of resistance, a form of dissent to women of that epoch who rejected domestic entrapment. It opened up a space in which their agency and subjectivity could develop. It also allowed them to make of their marginality a modus vivendi. In "Récit de voyage et écriture féminine," Friedrich Wolfzettel highlights the difficulties caused by gender on travel [End Page 259] during that time which ultimately led women travelers to pose questions which did not necessarily trouble their male counterparts. Such self-questioning, in his opinion, lent depth to their narratives. He writes:

C'est justement cette marginalisation (de la femme de la pratique du voyage et de la pratique littéraire du récit de voyage) qui incite l'auteure à réfléchir sur sa condition de femme en général et de femme en voyage en particulier, et à transformer son rôle somme toute inférieur et problématique faisant d'un manque un atout, la voyageuse introduit dans le récit un élément dialectique d'interrogation sur elle-même dont le voyageur masculin n'a nullement besoin.


The dynamic practice of travel invites interaction with the foreign other. Such cross-cultural encounters often culminate in a travel narrative which has proven to be a theoretical site which includes the construction of both the other and the self. The aim of this article is to explore the question "Why (serious) travel matters?" William James states in Some Problems of Philosophy: "Who can decide offhand which is absolutely better to live or to understand life? We must do both alternately, and a man can no more limit himself to either than a pair of scissors can cut with a single one of its blades" (74). Bearing James' statement in mind, and the fact that praxis and reflection are inextricably bound in the experience of travel, I will examine David-Néel's writings in order to determine to what extent her comments could be considered philosophical reflections. I will focus as well on her representation of alterity and evaluate the impact gender exercised on her travels. To expand the field of my inquiry, I will compare David-Néel to Isabelle Eberhardt because of a kinship both in their mode of travel, and in their pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. My analysis will be presented within the context of postcolonial theory.

"Journeys are the midwives of thought" suggests Alain de Botton in The Art of Travel (54). This remark conjures up Socrates who believed that "for ideas to be born a midwife is needed" as Theodore Zeldin tells us in his book An Intimate History of Humanity (34).3 Can serious travel be equated to the birthing work of the philosopher, midwife of wisdom? De Botton continues that "[i]t is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true...


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pp. 259-275
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