Monday, November 28, 2011

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago. 

“EOTHEN” A.W.Kinglake (first published 1844)

The French and British were out of their natural element when they came to New Zealand in the nineteenth century. And for no other reason than that it concerns a nineteenth century man out of his natural element, I choose this week’s “Something Old”, which of course has nothing to do with New Zealand.

I do not know if it is still true, but Alexander William Kinglake’s Eothen, subtitled Traces of Travel Brought Home from the East, was once one of the most famous travel books in the English language. A.W. Kinglake (1809-1891) was 35 when it was published in 1844. It remained the best-known thing he ever wrote, although he also produced a multi-volumed account of the Crimean War and was (briefly) an MP.

I first read Eothen nearly twenty years ago, when I took a summer holiday on Great Barrier Island. It was a battered old Nelson edition, bought for 50 cents at a jumble sale. As I rolled across the Hauraki Gulf on a foul diesel-smelling ferry, I began reading the book and soon persuaded myself that I was an observant traveller like Kinglake rolling across the Mediterranean. I read it quickly, thoroughly enjoying it. I have recently checked favourite passages. It stands up to renewed scrutiny.

Before I first opened it, I knew it concerned travels in what Europeans would now call the Middle East. I’m not sure why, but for some reason I expected it to be  a purely descriptive work, attuned to refined aesthetic sensibilities – a verbal feast delineating subtle gradations of the colours of the desert and the moods of the sky, perhaps with overtones of mysticism. Maybe it was because of the book’s poncy title, Eothen. It makes it sound like something mysterious, although it merely means “out of the East”.

Very quickly I discovered that Eothen is nothing of the fine aesthetic sort. It is a brisk, lively travel-book by an early Victorian gentleman who chitter-chatters away like Thackeray when he drops those “Dear Reader” asides into his novels.

Kinglake travelled through much of what was then the Ottoman Empire, entering it through the Balkans, visiting Turkey, Cyprus and Palestine, then moving on to Egypt and circling back to Lebanon and Syria before returning home to England. He carried his insular prejudices with him, sometimes serving us caricatures of jabbering foreigners haggling in marketplaces, including Turks (whom he always calls “Osmanlees”) and Muslims in general (whom he always calls “Mussulmans”). He never uses the term Islam. Only “Mohammedanism”, a term that has always been very offensive to Muslims.

Many of the physical details of his journey are fascinating. It is interesting to note how often Kinglake would alter his itinerary to avoid outbreaks of plague in various Middle Eastern centres – a reminder of how different notions of medicine and hygiene were 160 years ago. There are also examples of strange experiences. At one point (in Chapter 17), during a tedious trek across a stretch of desert, Kinglake experiences an aural illusion rather than the more usual optical variety of customary mirages. He is certain he hears church bells ringing, although his reason tells him he is hundreds of miles from any church or bell. He reports that others have experienced the same phenomenon in the same place, but can give no explanation.

As always in travel books, what engages most are the voice and opinions of the author. Kinglake’s early Victorian Protestant prejudices are often in tension with his essential good nature and openness to people. In his description of Easter Week in Jerusalem he is fastidiously amused by the rival squabbling of “Latin” (i.e. Catholic), “Greek” (i.e. Eastern Orthodox) and “Armenian” (i.e. Coptic) Christians around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But on balance he is far more understanding of these rival traditions than more literal-minded Evangelical “Bible Christians” of his time would have been.

His amusement at some foreign customs does not blind him to the silliness of some of his fellow British. One devastating chapter (Chapter 8) gives his encounter with the preposterous posing, self-dramatising Lady Hester Stanhope, the niece of Prime Minister William Pitt who became famous for her Eastern travels. The chapter is almost written with a smirk as Kinglake lets the ageing lady condemn herself with her foolish talk and pretensions to occult knowledge. (It must also be added that the chapter still raises the hackles of feminist antiquarians, who want to see Lady Hester as a prototype of the independent woman).

In some passages the glamour of travel is communicated, and Kinglake expresses genuine awe before a famous Eastern monument. But his Preface is almost a manifesto of the modern travel book. He says he will record what he genuinely and subjectively felt in any given situation, and not what traveller-tale custom said he was supposed to feel in the face of some famous vista or building.

This attitude is reinforced by a passage in Chapter 11 which is worth quoting:
            “If one might judge of men’s real thoughts by their writings, it would seem that there are people who can visit an interesting locality, and follow up continuously the exact train of thought that ought to be suggested by the historical associations of the place. A person of this sort can go to Athens, and think of nothing later than the age of Pericles – can live with the Scipios as long as he stays in Rome. I am not thus docile: it is only by snatches, and for a few moments together, that I can readily associate a place with its proper history.

How many modern tourists could echo the same thought as they find themselves quickly distracted from the ancient things the guide-books say they should be admiring?

Kinglake is sometimes amused and sometimes shocked to find how different reality is from the way it has been described by more romantic writers. Masculine illusions about glamorous Eastern harems dissolve before the sordid sight of moon-faced Circassian women being sold as slaves in Cairo. Byronic phrases about a solitary Childe Harold making “the Desert his dwelling place” seem silly when Kinglake experiences the very busy social life of desert-dwelling Arab nomads, which would leave no space for solitary poetic reflections.

This is a very enjoyable book, but inevitably – and in the wake of Edward Said -  more solemn recent critics have condemned it for the crime of “Orientalism”. How dare a European presume to describe the customs and life of people other than his own!! I find one website condemning Eothen for its “Eurocentrizing… and blithe assumptions about ‘women’, ‘Asiatics’ etc.

Fair cop I guess – this is a book of its age. Yet I think the critic must have a tin ear not to recognize Kinglake’s wit and self-awareness. He is fully conscious that he is travelling through other people’s space and looking at what is strange to an Englishman, but customary to other human beings.

The past is another country, and to condemn its perceptions is to assume that we now have no prejudices and make no unexamined assumptions. Eothen is a delightful travel-book by a man who lived in a different age from us.

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