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77 - Skin

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 July 2019

Charles Forsdick
Affiliation:
University of Liverpool, and Arts & Humanities Research Council Theme Leadership Fellow for ‘Translating Cultures’.
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Summary

The term ‘skin’, whose etymology leads back to the early Scandinavian, referred initially to the natural covering of an animal's body, removed and worked to serve a number of utilitarian purposes. The word also refers to the layer of tissue that constitutes the external container of the body in vertebrates, and, in this sense, it designates the largest organ on the human body, the dermatological cover that forms the principal point of contact between travellers and the field through which they move. Often protected with clothing and other forms of covering, skin can nevertheless be tanned, blistered, cut and scarred as a result of friction and other impact during the journey. The skin is also the page on which – through tattoos and other forms of marking – the traveller can inscribe traces of his or her itinerary, turning the body itself into a site of the travel narrative. A subgenre of the travelogue involves a more metaphorical understanding, foregrounding ‘getting into someone else's skin’ (Bird 2012), that is, achieving a degree of cultural transvestism associated with authors ranging from Pierre Loti to Alexandra David-Neel, from Richard Burton to Michel Vieuchange.

There is a need also to revert to one of the term's first meanings, to focus on other skins. As suggested above, those from animals serve additional purposes in the field of travel, for instance, acting as clothing, water carrier, purse or even shelter. In Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia (1977), a fragment of Mylodon skin belonging to the narrator's grandmother (initially thought to be that of a Brontosaurus) even serves as the impetus for the journey, recalling ‘not only the Golden Fleece (the object of Jason's quest) but also Proust's madeleine, as an object inspiring memory’ (Cooke 2016, 22). Leather was also traditionally, on return, the means of binding the journey narrative into a book, and fixing the transformation of travel into text.

As suggested above, many travellers spend their journey minimizing the contact of their actual skin with the field through which they travel, protecting it from the extremes of heat and cold, and covering it from exposure to the elements. The epidermis is nevertheless the organ of touch, the means whereby the primary physical and haptic sensations of the journey are translated into the experience of travel.

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Chapter
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Keywords for Travel Writing Studies
A Critical Glossary
, pp. 226 - 228
Publisher: Anthem Press
Print publication year: 2019

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