Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juli 2006

5.6. Border Zones: Travel, Fantasy and Representation

Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Ludmilla Kostova (University of Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Travel Writing and Parrhesia: the Case of Annemarie Schwarzenbach and Ella Maillart

Monika Fischer (University of Missouri, USA)


Travel writing as a literary form hovers somewhere between autobiographical writing, scientific reporting, fictional and non-fictional essay and the fantastic. Even though individual travelogues were well received by the public and, during the 19 th century, provided a lucrative business for publishers and writers alike, for "the man of letters", the academic and social theorist, travel writing as a whole was seen as a diluted, hybrid conglomerate of genres and was notoriously hard to classify on account of its mixing of different styles. Yet this style of comprehensive reporting that enables dialogues, testimonies, data, narratives, vignettes of everyday life and personal emotional accounts to coexist and come together as a whole survived its critics and paved the way for the non-fiction genres of journalism and photojournalism in the early 20 th century. Travel writing finds its venue in magazine articles and newspapers as well as books drawing attention to traditions and customs of other cultures and societies. For a critical analysis of such texts, the question of veracity as well as relevance to contemporary cultural issues is essential.

I would like to begin this reflection on travel writing and its cultural significance with an analysis of the relation between truth and reality, taking into consideration the ancient Greek concept of parrhesia or truth telling. This will serve as a theoretical framework for the travelogues and photographs of the writers Ella Maillart(1) and in particular Annemarie Schwarzenbach(2). Their reflections on Afghanistan further serve to highlight the concept and complexity of cultural knowledge building.

Evaluating travelogues requires an analysis of the type of relationship that exists between the speaker and what she says. To recount an event and tell the truth, as Foucault points out, is a specific activity with a specific role and is subject to current social conditions. A white man’s truth is different from a black man’s truth or a woman’s truth, thus, closely aligning truth telling with the social position of the truth teller and the social conditions of the time. The Greek concept of parrhesia is generally translated into English as "free speech" and designates the speaker as the one who speaks the truth. As Foucault states in one of his lectures, the speaker clarifies that she herself is the subject of the opinion to which she refers. This might seem at first rather innocent and straightforward. However, this "speech act" or "speech activity", as Foucault(3) chose to call it, can endanger the speaker in certain social situations. It also makes it clear that the speaker presents her experiences, her truth, and does not claim to re-present a truth. It is her view only and the need to tell one's truth might clash with the wish by others to suppress it. In ancient Greece, the parrhesiastic game is played out between an interlocutor of high social standing and power and the one who tells the truth but has a lower social standing and is therefore at risk. One way the majority or city acted out against a truth-teller is by exiling and thus silencing him. Here I purposefully use the male pronoun since a truth-teller could only be a male citizen of a certain social standing, the logic being that in order to tell the truth one must possess certain moral qualities, which only a male citizen could have. Slaves and women could not participate in the political life of the city and thus could not criticize the system. The right of free speech and thus critiquing does not exist unless there is the danger of imposing a low social status on a male citizen which might bring dishonour on his family or might result in his living in exile (cf. Polyneices's statement in Euripides’ play The Phoenician Women, c.411-409 BC).

The original parrhesiastic function of criticism has changed over the centuries. However, its relevance and roots in Western philosophy can be seen in the function of testimonies when the testimony is an act of criticism and, in the Greek sense, requires courage by addressing social issues that expose the testifier to the wrath of the public. If we accept the fundamental premise that humans are social beings belonging to particular communities that shape their desires and understandings of the world, those communities also preserve themselves by only accepting or hearing the truths that do not endanger the interest of the majority. Thus, two facets propel the "making" of reality. Firstly, truth is a subjective rendering of reality and secondly, reality is ultimately what is accepted by the majority, that is, the community as such.

Travel writing is often read and written as a form of personal narrative. When the texts are published, they enter the public domain and, as a communicative act or speech act, become a form of testimony and thus knowledge that supports a variety of social claims. Testimonies outside of the legal sphere are frequently viewed as unreliable forms of knowledge and occupy a somewhat liminal position within epistemological discourse. Yet, human knowledge is built and acquired by listening to others and their testimonies of what happened as well as listening to thoughts and theories about what has been testified. We build and acquire our knowledge of the world from testimonies of the past and the trial and error process of evaluating them. To put it simply, what we hear about other cultures shapes our understanding of them. Despite their ubiquity, testimonies occupy a liminal position and are viewed with suspicion. In an analysis of the rhetoric of testimony the process of justification for a given belief or idea is equally important as the process of what is done with these texts, that is, what place they occupy in determining social behavior. How are they viewed when interpreting social claims? Travel writing and journalistic writing often face those issues that accompany sharing experiences and thus producing and sharing cultural knowledge. It is the subjective experience that we view with suspicion until it is accepted into the established canon. The testimonies or texts that traditionally have the highest claim to veracity use scientific data and are presented by scientific experts. Science was, and still is, often believed to be provable, measurable and - when experts do the proving, measuring and evaluating - creditable. And here the philosophical aspect of parrhesia is addressed. The truth-teller has the responsibility to educate and inform herself in order to make judgments and come to conclusions independent of opinions or conclusions drawn by "experts" or "men in power".

Annemarie Schwarzenbach and Ella Maillart were Swiss photojournalists and writers who travelled extensively in the early decades of the 20 th century. They were no longer compelled to justify their travels as women and could freely engage in the literary form of travel writing as well as make use of their photographic skills to present a foreign world to their readers. Their writing is a cross between literary essay, photojournalism, travel accounts, testimony and personal soul searching. Schwarzenbach, in particular, presents an interesting example of liminal writing that is lyrical and poetic. I refer to it as liminal not only because travel writing uses various literary styles but also because she more than other writers uses her own psychological frame of mind as a point of reference in her representation of her surroundings. Both Schwarzenbach and Maillart wrote about the journey they took together to Afghanistan in 1939/40 interconnecting their personal inner journeys and outer moments to such a degree that they often blurred the lines. For example, for Schwarzenbach a conflicting homosexuality and morphine addiction stand side by side with the starkness of landscape in Persia and extreme poverty in the American South. In Maillart’s account of their journey, Schwarzenbach plays a prominent role since Maillart had taken it upon herself to help Schwarzenbach overcome her depressions and addictions.

Both women wrote articles for magazines and newspapers while traveling and both wrote books upon their return home giving detailed accounts of their trip, which concentrated on Scharzenbach’s problems and illnesses as well as rendered pictures and stories of the people and cultures they encountered. Schwarzenbach wrote about her first journey to Persia in Tod in Persien (Death in Persia), which was produced between 1935 and 1936 but was not published until 1998. She later reworked that manuscript and published it as Das Glückliche Tal (The Happy Valley; 1940). Yet, as the editor Roger Perret notes, Death in Persia is much more original and lyrical than the stilted overly personal and mystified version of The Happy Valley. The outcome of her narrative experiment is a mixture of travelogue, personal autobiography and critical commentary on contemporary issues. Schwarzenbach’s inner equilibrium is reflected in how she perceives the outer world and vice versa. The truth for the reader lies in the brutal honesty she displays to herself, which validates her voice when she describes the foreign culture. For both Maillart and Schwarzenbach, the act of writing was an act of exploration leading Maillart to India and eastern philosophy and Schwarzenbach back to Europe and its national-socialist climate where she questioned Switzerland’s proclaimed neutrality. Schwarzenbach’s critical essay on the role of Switzerland during the war is a reflective and analytical document that highlights her ability and courage to address false issues of neutrality.

Travel writing more than other literary forms is propelled by the tension between the imaginary and the real. The exotic places visited, the freedom associated with travelling and the possibility of re-creating oneself as a writer are an enticing combination that creates an altered reality and leaves the margins open for interpretation. Since truth is not outside of power, the writer’s social position is important. In the case of Schwarzenbach, truth telling is defined and limited by her upper class childhood. She grew up in a conservative nationalist environment and used a pseudonym in her early writings since she did not want to compromise her family. Her father was one of the biggest silk industrialists at the time and Schwarzenbach was financially dependent on her family all her life. Her mother in particular wielded a lot of power over her since she did not approve of Schwarzenbach’s lifestyle and sexual orientation. Even though Schwarzenbach designated a friend to inherit all her writing and correspondence, her mother, Rene Schwarzenbach, destroyed most of it. Thus, the correspondence between Schwarzenbach and Erika and Klaus Mann is reduced to Schwarzenbach’s letters to Thomas Mann’s children and reveal a tormented soul that is deeply dependent on the acknowledgement of her friends. Under Rene Schwarzenbach’s urging, Ella Maillart agreed to change Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s name to Christina in her book The Cruel Way and to omit several passages. Truth is thus altered not by the one who presented it but by someone further removed and acting out of self-interest. In the Greek interpretation of parrhesia, self-interest has no place in the process of truth telling.

Articles already published during Schwarzenbach’s lifetime, however, could not be altered or destroyed by her mother and as a photojournalist and social critic Schwarzenbach is at her best in those. Thus, writing right after Austria's annexation, she shows the eagerness of Austrians to conform to Nazism in photographs and essays or as she calls them human documents. In a group of essays, she refers to small encounters with the "kleine Mann", the ordinary Joe, in a national-socialist Germany. For example when in the early years of the Nazi regime she attempts to go to a performance of Friedrich Schiller’s Don Carlos in a mid-sized town on the Rhine, she finds that all tickets have been sold to upper class Nazis. While standing outside with hordes of people who hope to see the Reichsminister Dr. Goebbels, children sing the famous Nazi Horst-Wessel song, to which Schwarzenbach forgets to raise her hand in the common Hitler salute.

(...) - and right away a malicious, acerbic woman’s voice hisses at me: "How dare you not raise your arm. You better show respect or else we will report you to the police." I am not so much startled by the threat but rather by the sound of her voice and the spiteful face incomprehensibly distorted with hate. "Now, right now", I have to think. "inside, in the theater, the Marquis Posa is reciting Schiller’s most beautiful words - on freedom and liberty ..."
(Auf der Schattenseite 106) [my translation, M. F.]

This is a poignant example of a writer’s personal sentiment juxtaposed to the prevailing mood of the majority.

Returning to the discussion of truth versus reality, true parrhesia meant taking risks. Neither Schwarzenbach nor Maillart were taking risks in the ancient Greek sense. Only when Erika Mann came under heavy criticism in Switzerland from right wing groups did Schwarzenbach speak against her family’s interest but generally she avoided any confrontation. The risk taking for both writers was in their journeys to find the material that they commented upon. Ultimately, the truth presented by the travel writer is, in the case of Schwarzenbach and Maillart, a personal observation and a form of testimony reflecting current cultural and moral standards.

Current global politics have led to renewed interest in Afghanistan and have highlighted cultural differences, in particular in the area of gender politics. In a recent article, Lila Abu-Lughod remarks that westerners fall prey to the simple judgment that the Muslim woman’s veil signifies women’s oppression. Not surprisingly, Maillart and Schwarzenbach view the ‘tschadri’, the veil worn by women, as unattractive since it leaves women in the bazaar as "phantom creatures, half blind, prey to a great fear and permanent ignorance." ("Visions of Afghanistan" 3). Yet Schwarzenbach also reflects on the harmony of family life and the beauty and natural grace of the Afghan women and their hospitality when she meets them in their homes and thus gives a differentiated view when seeing them in private. She says:

One day, for sure, all forms of this extremely harmonious family life are going to disappear, and at the same time the harem walls and the tchadri, and the emancipation of women is going to pose problems of which the Afghans today have no idea. Nevertheless, the confined and limited existence that exists among the women in towns and villages is native to an also proud race, full of vitality and intelligence." ("Visions of Afghanistan" 3-4)

We can compare this with First Lady Laura Bush’s radio address to the nation on November 17 2001. "Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women." (Abu-Lughod: 1). To equate the fight against terrorism with the fight for the dignity of women is a problematic misreading of feminine agency in Muslim countries. Under western eyes, the tschadri or tschador may appear to be an instrument of oppression that renders women invisible. For many Muslims the veil carries an important meaning, reflecting deep-seated, age-old traditional values. Schwarzenbach and Maillart recognize the important cultural meaning of the veil and point out that the Muslim woman has rights and enjoys dignity in a very different cultural setting which both proclaim not to understand but whose validity they nevertheless acknowledge. As Laura Bush's comments indicate, she believes that the burka or tschador humiliates women. However, as Judith Butler has demonstrated, for Afghan women the veil may have a variety of meanings. Thus, it "signifies belonging-ness to a community and religion, a family, an extended history of kin relations, an exercise of modesty and pride, a protection against shame, and operates well as a veil behind which, and through which, feminine agency can and does work" (Butler: 142). The woman question is a complex one and liberating the Muslim woman cannot be approached in terms of western democratic feminine agency. Due to contemporary politics, the Muslim woman is in a difficult position. The veiled woman’s face stands for dignity and cultural values and to show her face would mean destroying Islamic cultural traditions and accepting western cultural assumptions about how sexuality and agency ought to be organized and represented. Schwarzenbach cannot imagine living under a veil. Even though she questions whether or not the Afghan woman is unhappy, she equates happiness with nescience. "Man kann nur begehren, was man kennt. Und war es richtig, nötig, sie zu bilden und aufzuklären und ihnen den Stachel der Unzufriedenheit zu geben?" (Alle Wege sind offen 66). (4) These words leave no doubt that she equates western feminine agency with knowledge but she hesitates to claim that the Muslim woman is in need of such an agency and sees the modern development of Afghanistan as fatal and destructive following "jenen fatalen Gesetzen, die man Fortschritt nennt." (those fatal laws that we call progress).

Thus, concerning Afghanistan, the travelogues of Schwarzenbach and Maillart present a differentiated view of a country that has been under siege and has been misrepresented, occupied and exploited for political reasons by two world powers since WWII and a rereading of their travelogues helps us define this country and also acknowledge our inability to understand that culture. The truth-teller’s task is to invite change in perspective, belief and action and travelogues can participate in building our cultural knowledge as well as acknowledge and accept our inability to comprehend otherness.

© Monika Fischer (University of Missouri, USA)


(1) Ella Maillart, born in 1903 in Geneva, Switzerland (1903-1997) also published as a travel writer, philosopher, photographer and filmmaker. Early in life she decided to travel and write for a living. She was a successful athlete in her youth and first made a name for herself by sailing as a member of the Swiss Olympic team in 1924. Later in life she led tours to remote corners of the world. Her quest for the meaning of life led her in 1940 to India where she lived for 5 years near the sage Sri Ramana. As one of the first women filmmakers and photographers, she was a pioneer and left several films as well as about 16 000 photos in her photo archive. She died in Switzerland in 1997 at the age of 94.

(2) Annemarie Schwarzenbach, born in 1908 in Zurich, Switzerland (1908-42) was an extraordinarily prolific writer and photographer whose work appeared regularly throughout her short lifetime. Between 1933 and 1942 she produced approximately 170 articles and 50 photo-reports for Swiss and German newspapers and magazines. In the 1920s and 30s, she made a significant contribution to the novel genre of photojournalism. Her photographs, especially the reportage from the American South, comprise a powerful social documentary while her eastern photographs concentrate more on the serene and beautiful landscapes of the territories and the customs of the people she visited. She was equally comfortable in the genres of documentary, travel, and art photography as well as in fiction writing. Annemarie Schwarzenbach died in Switzerland in 1942 after a bicycle accident. She war 34 years old.

(3) Foucault sees John Searle’s "speech act" or Austin’s "performance utterance" as an utterance that could pertain to anything the speaker says compared to the parrhesiastic utterance that commands a commitment to truth and involves a certain risk.

(4) " One can only desire what one knows. And was it right or necessary to educate and enlighten them and give them the sting of discontent?" [my translation, MF]


Schwarzenbach, Annemarie. Tod in Persien. Basel: Lenos Verlag, 1995.
---. Alle Wege sind offen. Die Reise nach Afghanistan 1939/40. Basel: Lenos Verlag, 2000.
---. Auf der Schattenseite. Reportagen & Fotografien. Eds. Regina Dieterle & Roger Perret. Basel: Lenos Verlag, 1995.
---. "Die Schweiz - das Land, das nicht zum Schuss kam." Der Alltag. 1987: Nr. 2, 17.

Maillart, Ella. The Cruel Way. London: Virago Press, 1986.
--- and Annemarie Schwarzenbach. "Visions of Afghanistan." Two Swiss Women and a Ford en route in Afghanistan ". Auto (the official organ of the Automobile Club of Switzerland), Bern, May 1940.

Winter, Amy. Ed. Annemarie Schwarzenbach. Selected Photographs and Writing, 1933-1940. The Godwin-Terbach Museum, NY, 2005.

Foucault, Michel. Fearless Speech. "Discourse and Truth: the Problematization of Parrhesia." Six LecturesUC Berkley, Oct-Nov. 1983. Ed. Joseph Pearson, Northwestern UP, 2001.

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life. London: Verso, 2004.

Abu-Lughod, Lila. "Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its other." American Anthropologist 104(3): 783-90.
---. "Saving Muslim Women or Standing with Them?: On Images, Ethics, and War in our Times." Insaniyaat, Spring 2003: Volume I, Issue 1.

5.6. Border Zones: Travel, Fantasy and Representation

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  16 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Monika Fischer (University of Missouri, USA): Travel Writing and Parrhesia: the Case of Annemarie Schwarzenbach and Ella Maillart. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 26.7.2006     INST