The History and Philosophy of Adventure

We often think of adventure—it’s hard to avoid, saturated as the culture is with film, television, and books that place it at their center. But what adventure is, what it means to pursue it, and what ...

We often think of adventure—it’s hard to avoid, saturated as the culture is with film, television, and books that place it at their center. But what adventure is, what it means to pursue it, and what its pursuit means to us have all changed significantly over time. In these two essays, which we publish in collaboration with the Lyon-based cultural institute Villa Gillet, Jacques Arnould and Sylvain Venayre take us through adventure’s past, and explore what it means today.

Jacques Arnould: Man Transcends Man

— Sylvain Venayre: The Fascination with the Impossible

Jacques Arnould


Such a peculiar destiny for the word “adventure.” In the 11th century, rooted in the Latin and still present in the French advenir, it referred to the fate of individuals, to what would befall them. In an age when individual fates were allegedly subject to the whims of gods or the beautiful mechanism of the cosmos, existence appeared to have no surprises in store, no extraordinary encounters; there were no challenges to take up or feats to accomplish for anyone aware of the supreme powers ruling capriciously over the world. For these naive mortals, adventure amounted to waiting for the prewritten pages of the great book of human life to turn, one after the other, for events that had already been planned out for them. Our ancestors dreamed, no doubt, of escaping such subjection. They must have imagined discarding their garments of flesh, the heaviest of shackles, in their efforts to join a world where their movements, desires, and yearnings would be liberated. The skies, out of reach and yet so beautiful, were often the focus of their aspirations: if only they were able to climb the ladder of the biblical angels and join the realm of the gods, converse with them, claim responsibility for their own stories! But humans, with their thoroughly terrestrial temperament, were convinced that they would never reach the ether, the celestial spheres. Out of this supreme fascination—half attraction, half fear—exerted by the cosmos, the first expressions of the sacred emerged, and would thereafter signify the places and states which humans could only reach on exceptional occasions, after extreme asceticism and rigorous preparation, with limited chance of success and at great risk.

With modern times, the word “adventure” changed meanings: the fortune-tellers, or diseurs de bonne aventure in French, with their claims to reveal the will of the gods, are the last representatives of that bygone era. What can account for this semiotic evolution? The 16th century was not only the time of the first maritime explorations around the world, but also when traders and merchants embarked on audacious commercial enterprises. They did so with a real sense of precaution: “My ventures are not in one bottom trusted, / Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate / Upon the fortune of this present year,” says Antonio, the merchant of Venice in Shakespeare’s eponymous play. These men embodied on land and on sea what the mathematicians had been studying on paper: calculation of probabilities and risk management. They no longer saw the world, or human fates, as divine playthings; the world was within reach, offered to the intelligence and enterprise of humans who could become, to quote Descartes, “like [its] masters and possessors.” They had to discern the dangers, measure and learn to manage them. It was up to them to take their fates into their own hands, instead of trying to divine them in the stars or a roll of the dice. From that moment on, adventure was no longer what can happen to humans, but that toward which they choose to go.

It comes, then, as no surprise how Kepler, having read Galileo’s account of his first astronomical observations, imagined future adventures in space: “There will certainly be no lack of human pioneers when we have mastered the art of flight,” he wrote in his Conversations with the Starry Messenger, published in 1610. “Who would have thought that navigation across the vast ocean is less dangerous and quieter than in the narrow, threatening gulfs of the Adriatic, or the Baltic, or the British straits? Let us create vessels and sails adjusted to the heavenly ether, and there will be plenty of people unafraid of the empty wastes. In the meantime, we shall prepare, for the brave sky-travellers, maps of the celestial bodies—I shall do it for the moon, you Galileo, for Jupiter.”1 We would have to wait three centuries, however, for the foundations of astronautics to be laid, and 50 years more for a rocket to be launched into space. And then, on April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin, the first among us, crossed the boundary of the atmosphere and, still modestly, of course, drew closer to the stars. One of the most long-awaited adventures of humanity had become reality.

To get that far, dreaming was not enough. Nor was the power of imagination, that singularly human capacity. We had to face challenges that, at first sight, belonged to the realm of the impossible. Let us remember what Pierre-Georges Latécoère said, a short time before inaugurating, in 1918, the foundations of the Line, the first international aerial post service, between France and Senegal: “I’ve reworked all the numbers. They confirm the opinion of the specialists: it cannot be done. We have only one option: to go ahead and do it.”2 Let us remember John F. Kennedy’s speech, at Rice University on September 12, 1962: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” No adventure, no intentional projection beyond the immediate limits of space and time, is possible without the willpower to confront what appears difficult, unfeasible, impossible. It is a drive that reveals a sense of urgency more than arrogance. The impossible is not a temptation, nor is it a utopia—that is, if we think and believe, as Pascal did, that “man infinitely transcends man.”


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Jacques Arnould, Sylvain Venayre

Sylvain Venayre

Does our yearning for adventure have a history? It would be tempting to answer that, no, our fascination with the impossible and the enticement of adventure are inherent to human nature, and that the specificity of the human condition stems precisely from this thirst for adventure, a thirst that pushes humanity to always attempt new things, to go further and further, to see, and that is the driving force behind its progress.

It is not difficult, however, to show that we have not always represented adventure in the same ways across time and space. If we limit ourselves to Europe, the expression of the thirst for adventure has obviously changed over the course of the last two centuries. The word “adventure” does show up in the French language as early as the 11th century, but its usage has varied. For a long time, the adventure story was codified as an anecdote, an opportunity for travelers to reveal the truth about the regions they visited, the peoples they met, the things they saw. The tales said next to nothing about the travelers themselves; if they did, it was only incidentally. Expressing the personality of the traveler was beside the point.

This changed with the aesthetic revolution of Romanticism. Its direct consequence was the modern adventure novel, which started to develop around the mid-19th century. These novels were founded on a very old tradition, which, from epics and chivalric romances to children’s tales, was grounded in a controlled series of twists and turns. The singularity of the 19th century was to transpose such narratives onto the reality of the world.

The success of the modern adventure novel resided in the fact that this literature was popularizing newly acquired geographical knowledge about the planet. It was strengthened by the emergence of pedagogy through recreation, a learning method based on the fundamental idea that a child can better assimilate knowledge if it is presented in an entertaining manner. Systematizing a principle already at work in Fénelon or Defoe, countless travel narratives, adventure novels, and other “robinsonades” were published for children. Pedagogues claimed that young boys dreamed of travels and adventures, and thus had to be drawn to knowledge through what they liked. In addition, traveling seemed to highlight certain values­—learning through experience, toughening up, showing bravery—that were celebrated, all the more so as these were the values that adult men needed in their professional lives. This literature was obviously designed explicitly for boys.

Adventures communicated the values of bourgeois society in the 19th century: energy, tenacity, faith, and, most importantly, work and knowledge. In such tales, shipwrecked heroes rebuilt with these sole virtues the entire civilization they had lost. In no way did this literature value the adventurers themselves. The adventurer, the one who seeks adventure, was despised. In the old tradition of Odysseus and Robinson Crusoe, the heroes of this literature dreamed above all else of getting back home. Still, the detour was rewarding; an opportunity, from a classic perspective, to bring back objective knowledge, and, from a Romantic point of view, allow young men to feel emotions and undertake adventures that, in the form of life experience, would usher them toward “maturity” and a place in society. Novels and narratives aimed at the youth focused on society’s preferred values (religion, science, and the motherland) and made a strict distinction between heroes, who are guided by a mission and whose horizon is sacrifice, and adventurers, who think only of themselves.

<i>Robinson Crusoe in an 1887 illustration</i>. WikiCommons

Robinson Crusoe in an 1887 illustration. WikiCommons

Renouncing adventures marked the passage into adulthood. One could lament that certain men never became adults, but the emergence of modern forms of colonization, towards the end of the 19th century, offered an original solution. The men who were still animated by the thirst for adventure and unable, in this respect, to find their place in society without throwing it off balance, were offered the perspective of the empire. St. Augustine said there are great passions that must be channeled so that they do not transform order into chaos. At the beginning of the 19th century, thermodynamics offered a new metaphor for this old wisdom: neither steam nor desire could be compressed, so plans had to be made for “safety valves.” In this novel formula, those “safety valves” took the form of Europe’s colonies abroad.

The paradoxical morality of adventure motifs, combined with the disapproval of adventure itself, suddenly vanished at the turn of the 19th century. A modern mystique of adventure emerged in its place, particularly in a new literature—Stevenson, Kipling, London, Conrad. Paramount virtues were henceforth acknowledged in adventure: fulfilling oneself in the moment, claiming one’s own destiny through voluntary confrontations with death, and unveiling the hidden meaning of the world. Adventure was perceived as an aesthetic mode of existence. It is not by chance that the one who became the symbol of new adventures at this moment was a poet, Arthur Rimbaud, who had himself never asked for such an honor. He grew to embody the search for adventure for its own sake. There is a strong connection between new adventures, which were no longer mere incidents but rather a means to look for oneself and for a hidden meaning, and modern poetry, as initiated by Rimbaud, which was no longer a mere ornament of language, but the way to discover hidden meaning within language.

From a political point of view, these new concepts were quite ambiguous. During the 19th century, adventure novels had often been the work of progressive authors (Aimard, Mayne Reid, Verne). During the 20th, the search for adventure no longer corresponded to any mission. The relationship between adventure and politics was rarely considered; in these new adventure novels, the heroes no longer sacrificed themselves for a universal ideal. The frequency of references in all these texts to Nietzsche is significant. For those who followed the modern mystique of adventure, no cause was superior to adventure itself.

This dramatic about-face in views of adventure comes primarily from the shift in the perception of space that affected Western societies toward the end of the 19th century. Many authors highlighted the astounding advances in modern transportation, and developed the idea that the golden age of great explorations had just come to an end. The disappearance of “white spaces” from maps appeared to confirm that we had knowledge of the entire world. They also worried about the process of “civilizing” the entire globe under the colonizing impulse, which seemingly doomed human diversity and the existence of indigenous cultures. The conclusion seemed inevitable: s’éloigner, wandering off and removing oneself, was no longer a possibility. Removal (éloignement in French) has for a long time been a complex notion, associating spatial distance, the hardships of journeys, and the feeling of a temporal distance, a regression into time born from confrontation with mores deemed primitive. This removal now seemed to be doomed, under the triple effect of the revolution in transportation, the consequences of the great explorations, and the politics of colonization.

The modern mystique of adventure was a nostalgic reaction in the face of this shift. There is no better proof of this than the modes of the fictional transfigurations of certain figures, such as the cowboy or the aviator. The explosion of the cowboy in the cultural imagination was correlated with the development of the railroad and the appearance of barbed wire on American prairies, which brought an end to the great journeys through which the cowboys, leading the herds to the slaughterhouses in town, were precisely considered to be adventure heroes. The cowboy was, in the end, all the more identified with adventures as the spatial conditions that allowed for these adventures disappeared. This same logic came into play again when the figure of the aviator appeared in adventure fiction in the 1920s, at the moment when we deemed the development of airplanes sufficient to have destroyed the adventurous aspect of aerial journeys. The same thing can be said of the figures of the king-adventurer, the literary model of which came from Kipling, or of the explorer, a profoundly nostalgic figure insofar as, being the first to enter an unknown space, he is both the ideal figure of adventure and its own grave digger.

The modern mystique of adventure was a nostalgic reaction in the face of a shift
in representations of global space

Our current conceptions of adventure are the heirs to this long-standing crisis in representation, and have also inherited its proposed solutions. The first of these solutions consisted of taking refuge in the realm of pure imagination, that of science fiction or heroic fantasy, genres specific to the 20th century. The second consisted of resolutely claiming the nostalgic aspect of adventure. Some have thus offered to re-experience, in a playful way, the supposedly real adventures of the past. The most frequent mode of this reinvention was realized by renouncing the comfort and speed of modern transportation in favor of walking, riding, or sailing. The third solution consisted of admitting the inevitable irony of modern adventure. As early as the 1930s, many authors (Leiris, Michaux, Fleming) were perfectly conscious of this contradiction. They dwelled on the fact that mundane spaces were just as likely to welcome adventure as the farthest unknown realms, and suggested that adventure could be found “around the corner.”

The question behind distance and removal, however, even in its most relativized form, continued to structure these narratives. From this perspective, we can expect that the upcoming renewal of these figures of adventure will necessarily accompany a renewal of the discourse on space. A thirst for removal is at the very heart of adventure, and the definition of the modern mystique of adventure came from a fundamental mutation in the forms of this desire. The current environmental and humanitarian preoccupations thus represent a possible factor of change for this literature that has traditionally been open to alterity. But it will come at the cost of renouncing everything that gave meaning to modern adventure—that is, the fulfillment of oneself as an individual, the unveiling of the meaning that the world could have for oneself, and only for oneself, through adventure.


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Jacques Arnould, Sylvain Venayre icon

  1. Quoted in Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe (Hutchinson, 1959), p. 376.
  2. Quoted in Stacy Schiff, Saint-Exupéry: A Biography (Knopf, 1994), p. 143.
Featured image: Launch of Vostok 1. WikiCommons