Just outside London, in the village of Mortlake, the massive tomb of Sir Richard Burton rises among the humbler graves of St. Mary Magdalen Church. I paid my dubious respects there a month or so ago, circumambulating the marble mausoleum (now clad in cement) like some skeptical pilgrim, and teetering on the rickety ladder at the rear of the edifice which gives you a peep into the dusty interior. There Burton and his devoutly Catholic wife Isabel (nee Arundell) lie moldering uneasily side by side. The tomb is shaped like a nomad's tent--a bizarre design chosen by Isabel after the death of the linguist, translator, and explorer in Trieste in 1890--but contains a dilapidated altar where masses were to be said for the repose of Burton's soul. Burton was an avowed atheist, but Isabel loved his soul as well as his body. At the end he submitted to Extreme Unction as he lay dying in her arms. After a first funeral in Trieste, she had his body shipped home and arranged for a second, also Catholic, funeral at the church, the only one in England which would bury him. Clearly she believed that, as the Catholic playwright Michel de Ghelderode put it, "only the Church knows how to bury well."
It's spooky, and a little sad, to peek through the grimy windowpane into their final resting place. Of all that bluster and dash only a few dusty vestiges--a toppled altar-candle, a votive glass, some mildewed artificial flowers--remain in disarray. A tent is a transient dwelling, but in Mortlake the stone tent where Burton lies squats in stubborn permanence, as though only in such a paradoxical sepulcher could his tenacious wife keep him in one place.
For obvious reasons Burton has proved an attractive subject for biographers. His various exploits, such as his notorious "secret pilgrimage" to Mecca and Medina disguised as a Muslim, or to the "forbidden city" of Harrar, or his bold but thwarted attempts to identify the source of the Nile, coupled with the sheer outsized extravagance of his personality, have made him irresistible. Though Dane Kennedy has drawn on such excellent previous works as Fawn M. Brodie's The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton (1967) and especially Mary S. Lovell's A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton (1998)--and seems, in addition, to have read everything by and about Burton available, in print and manuscript--his fascinating study is not a new biography, but an extended reflection on his subject's multiple, and protean, manifestations.
A tomb disguised as a tent is, in an unintended way, the perfect monument for Burton; disguise provided him his most abiding identity. Whether garbed as a pilgrim for his secret entry into the haram or publishing ribald tomes under fanciful noms de plume, Burton reveled in subterfuge. Indeed, in reading this thoughtful and somewhat provocative disquisition on Burton's many masks, one could be forgiven for suspecting that Burton possessed no distinctive identity of his own but instead relied on a series of personae to camouflage an alarming inner emptiness.
Kennedy arranges his study with respect to the different roles Burton played in his long and astonishing career: "gypsy" orientalist, explorer, and sexologist. The only chapter missing is one on Burton the translator, surely his single authentic claim on our continuing attention (though Kennedy does discuss--all too briefly, in my opinion--his vast, and still popular, version of The Thousand and One Nights). The matter of disguise is trickier than at first it appears. It turns out that many of Burton's Muslim traveling companions were not fooled by his disguises, but refrained from exposing him, either because he had remunerated them well or because they feared reprisals. There is something richly comical in this scenario, though Burton would hardly have appreciated it; he was as humorless as any of the Victorian prudes he routinely pilloried.
The importance of disguise to Burton lays bare a less savory aspect of his personality. Wherever he was unable to pass in disguise, he reacted with hostility to his surroundings. Kennedy suggests that Burtons contempt for black Africans was exacerbated by his inability to disguise himself among them. Burton, who had himself been dubbed "the White Nigger" in India because he was suspected of "going native," was so crude and virulent a racist, towards both Africans and American Indians, that I often found myself rubbing my eyes in disbelief at some of the pronouncements of his that Kennedy quotes. (These include some unusually vile anti-Semitic outbursts, though Burton, a contrarian even to himself, could also remark, "Had I a choice of race, there is none to which I would belong more willingly than the Jewish?') Burton vilified Africans not only as "hideous" and "bestial," describing them as "gesticulating like excited baboons," but went so far as to praise the benefits of slaving which he called "the great civilizing agent of primitive races." (Such pronouncements are made all the more repellent, and surprising, when one recalls that Britain had abolished slavery some fifty years earlier.) The ugly sentiments permeate his work, disfiguring even his translation of the Arabian Nights where "blackamoors" usually with contemptuous epithets, pop up, often when the text does not warrant it.
Kennedy refrains from passing anachronistic judgment on Burton from the standpoint of contemporary correctness but struggles to tease out the motives and implications of Burton's violent prejudices within the wider context of Victorian society. He argues that Burton's very racism led him to develop his philosophy of cultural relativism. Kennedy may be right, but I'm not sure this is much of a mitigating factor: the relativism is as insidious as the racism is malign.
It is amusing, however, to be reminded by Kennedy that the late Edward Said admired Burton on the rather preposterous grounds that he was "able to become an Oriental" and thereby "to penetrate to the heart of Islam" (feats Said himself never quite managed to accomplish). In fact, Burton could have served as the poster boy for Said's labored thesis of the nefarious links between Orientalism and imperialism; his explorations as well as his researches were designed primarily to glorify himself but also, and quite deliberately, to buttress English imperial sway in India, the Near East, and Africa. Had Said read his Burton more closely he might have noticed that his hero's attitude to Arabs, and to Muslims generally, differed from his outright racism only in the gender gradations of his condescension. Here, for example, is a representative passage--not quoted by Kennedy--from the Personal Narrative of 1855, in which Burton professes to admire Arabs for</p>
<pre> the savouring of animal existence; the passive enjoyment of mere sense; the pleasant languor, the dreamy tranquillity, the airy castle-building, which in Asia stand in lieu of the vigorous, intensive, passionate life of Europe. It is the result of a lively, impressible, excitable nature, and exquisite sensibility of nerve; it argues a facility for voluptuousness unknown to northern regions, where happiness is placed in the exertion of mental and physical powers. </pre> <p>These are the words of a pure spectator, and not a very observant one at that. Both William Edward Lane and Charles Doughty scorned the use of disguise among their Arab hosts and both were far more astute observers of Muslim life than Burton; the discipline of a stubborn distance had sharpened their eyes.
One of the chief merits of Kennedy's account is to make plain how most of Burton's extraordinary activity was motivated less by passionate curiosity or scholarly fascination than by sheer cussedness. At almost every turn, and especially as the habit of bitterness became established in him, Burton sought to provoke, embarrass, and outrage. His adversaries were supposedly Victorian prudishness and hypocrisy, particularly as embodied in the Church of England and in that mythical but extremely useful straw woman, the ubiquitous "Mrs. Grundy" Even Isabel Burton, no stranger to prudery herself, was driven to attack this wretched figment, declaring her "a creature of Lucifer's ... who perverts England" and is "servile, vicious, venomous, and hypocritical." Loathing of Mrs. Grundy drove Burton to undertake his most salacious translations, including the Kama Sutra and The Scented Garden, as well as to frolic in unfettered prurience in the notorious notes to The Arabian Nights. His object in all this? To make Mrs. Grundy "howl on her big bum to her heart's content."
Mrs. Grundy the absolutist seems also to have been the unacknowledged begetter of Burton's relativism. In 1880, Burton published his book-length poem The Kasidah of Haji Abdu El Yezdi: A Lay of the Higher Law, once again relying on a pseudonym to cloak unpalatable views. A "kasidah"--more accurately transliterated as "qasidah"--the most prestigious poetic genre in the Classical Arabic repertoire, generally consisted of a hundred or more lines on a single rhyme, in one of some fifteen strict and intricate meters. Burton obviously wished to tap into the huge success of Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat, which had appeared in 1859; if so, he was to be disappointed. I hadn't looked into The Kasidah for years, but Kennedy's claims for it made me curious. Kennedy argues that "Burton's literary impersonation proves to be too effective, preventing many of his readers from recognizing the modern, independent voice that speaks through the guise of Haji Abdu. The Kasidah is in fact a serious and accomplished poem that pursues a highly provocative theme, centered on the inadequacy of all religions' appeals to faith" Alas, what might have been "modern" and "independent" in 1880 is nothing more than the cant of the day in 2006. Here, for example, is "Haji Abdu" on ethical values:</p> <pre> There is no Good, there is no Bad; These be the whims of mortal will: What works me weal that call I "good"
What harms and hurts I hold as "ill:" They change with
place, they shift with race; and in the veriest span of Time,
Each vice has worn a Virtue's crown; all Good was banned as Sin or Crime. </pre> <p>As you slog through the gummy fens of Burton's verse, that ominous sound you hear in the background is Mrs. Grundy, not howling but snoring. As far as I can tell, such jejune sentiments as these are pretty much dogma on most university campuses. In this, as in so much else, Burton was less the bold explorer than the advance scout leaving footholds for the herd. And Kennedy's view that the poem is "accomplished" boggles the mind. Not only does Burton ignore the strictures of the qasidah in favor of Khayyamesque quatrains, but his stanzas also have none of the wit and graceful lightness of the Rubaiyat. By the time I reached stanza 43 of Book 9, Burton's melange of rancid relativism and sodden doggerel left me longing for Mrs. Grundy's firm ministrations. That stanza begins "Cease, Abdu, cease!" Never in my experience as a reader has a poetic sentiment inspired speedier assent.
Burton's 1861 marriage to Isabel Burton has always puzzled his biographers, mainly because Isabel--in this respect a child of her time--was quite squeamish on sexual matters. She herself prepared an expurgated edition of his translation of the Nights "suitable for ladies" and worked tirelessly to mask his scurrilous fascination with such subjects as sadism, phallus worship, circumcision (especially female), and homosexuality from public scrutiny. While Burton was passing uproarious evenings at the Cannibal Club with kindred spirits, poring over some pornographic tome or exploring foot-binding or "eunuchism" Isabel was toiling away at home, like some Penelope of the press release, to redeem her husband's public image. Kennedy speculates that it was neither her respectability nor her aristocratic lineage that attracted Burton but rather her ardent Catholicism, and this rings true: alliance with "popery" represented another, perhaps irrevocable jab at the Church of England and Victorian decorum.
Kennedy contrasts Burton's abiding fascination with homosexuality--a constant from his early days in India--with what he infelicitously calls his "homosocial" proclivities; in other words, those stag evenings at the Club. Kennedy believes that Burton did engage in homosexual practices. He brings as evidence, among other sources, a letter from his friend Algernon Swinburne which is too hilarious not to quote. Swinburne invokes "that lost love of Burton's, the beloved and blue object of his Central African affections, whose caudal charms and simious seductions were too strong for the narrow laws of Levitical or Mosaic prudery which would confine the jewel of a man to the lotus of a merely human female by the most odious and unnatural of priestly restrictions" Whatever its value as evidence, Swinburne's sentence captures nicely the malodorous blend of mincing coyness and gaseous verbiage that makes his, and Burton's, prose pretty much unreadable today.
After Burton's death, Isabel was determined to keep the "jewel" of her man firmly in the lotus, even if it took entombment in marble. Not only did she destroy many of his papers and excise Burton's disquisition on pederasty from a new edition of the Nights, but she burned his unpublished translation of The Scented Garden, an act which she was imprudent enough to announce in an open letter to the Morning Post. Kennedy shrewdly points out that her campaign was as much an effort to stabilize her own finances as to disinfect her husband's public reputation, and in this she succeeded, leaving a sizable estate at her death in 1896. Kennedy also strives to show that Isabel was no mere closet prude, a Grundy in mufti, but I find his efforts ultimately unconvincing. However hard she struggled to label Burton's shadier researches "scientific" she was clearly scandalized by them throughout their marriage. And in the end, who can blame her? As for Burton, Kennedy is very astute on teasing out the frequent hypocrisies and prevarications he himself had recourse to in sexual matters; so much so, in fact, that after reading this rather intricate account of Burton and the forces that shaped him, I'm tempted, in good Victorian fashion, to say of Burton and poor beleaguered Mrs. Grundy: Reader, he married her.
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|Title Annotation:||The Highly Civilized Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian World|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2006|
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