A Hell of a Journey

The Devil Drives, a Life of Sir Richard Burton by Faun Brodie, NYC U.S.A. 1967. French edition, Phebus, Paris 1992, with a preface by Michel Le Bris.

ON THE GREAT STAGE OF HISTORY there have always been individuals not of the common run who know how to make their lives into a work of art, refined yet barbarian, defying time and imagination. The American historian Fawn Brodie (1915-1981) retraces here the destiny of one of them, the Irishman Richard Francis Burton, with erudition and precision, combined with a superb narrative skill. The subject of the book himself harbours such a diversity of character traits that it is hard to believe that they could all have belonged to one and the same person. It is to Fawn Brodie's credit that she has tried to penetrate the mystery of this fascinating character without falling into Freudian simplifications or any other kind of prejudice for that matter.

Richard Francis Burton was born in Torquay in 1821 of an Anglo-Irish father, lieutenant-colonel, and a mother of Scottish descent, an ancestry which probably accounts for his adventurous and untamed temperament. His education and his upbringing was irregular, his family often moving house. Most of his youth was spent in France and Italy. His eventful childhood stimulated his tendency towards adventure and freedom and also gave him the opportunity to develop his natural bent for languages at an early age. In the course of his life Burton came to master some forty languages. His father entered him at Trinity College Oxford, where he stayed for two years, in which time he learned Arabic without a teacher and was remarked upon for his eccentricities and rejection of convention. His wild, sometimes dark character, led him while he was up at Oxford, into a number of duels in which he displayed redoubtable skills of swordsmanship.

In 1842 he joined an infantry regiment of the East India Company at Baroda a few months after the disaster inflicted upon General Ephinstone during the retreat from Kabul. Disappointed by garrison life, he became fascinated by Oriental culture and languages, which earned him the contempt of his fellow officers, who nicknamed him "the white nigger". Burton even adopted native attire in order to be less conspicuous among the natives and so dressed he carried out a number of reconaissance assignments for the Company. Before returning to Europe in 1849, Burton carried out a topographical survey of the south of India, as the result of which he achieved a certain amount of fame, notably in the Royal Geographical Society. During an assignment for the Society in 1853 he went to Medina and to Mecca, at that time proscribed cities for non- believers, disguised as a Beduin. He was certainly not the first European to have penetrated the Holy Cities of Islam but he was the first to do so and report on his experiences, with remarkable narrative skill. His Pilgrimage to Al Medinah and Mecca is far superior to all other accounts of travel and exploration of the time. Burton's lively and colourful style of writing was combined with his excellent knowledge of Arab mentality and customs. The fame acheived by this adventure and his account of it was reinforced by an expedition which he led to Harar, a forbidden Mussulman city in Abyssinia. Upon his return from these expeditions Burton did all that he could to cultivate his reputation as a heretic and to scandalise Victorian society, boasting that he had "committed all the sins of the Decalogue", so that the wildest rumours about him were soon circulating.

His Luciferian pose attracted the attention of personalities who felt drawn to a kindred spirit, the eccentric Lord Houghton (Richard Monckton Miles), Algenon Charles Swinburne and the perverse and debauched Fred Hankey. One person who influenced his life was the ambitious officer John Hanning Speke, a passionate huntsman, who fitted more readily into the Victorian ideal of a gentleman than Burton did. With Speke, Burton launched an expedition to discover the source of the Nile and the two friends reached Lake Tanganiyka (at that time called the Ujiji Sea) on 14th December 1857. Speke pushed further and reached Lake Ukerrewe, later to be called Lake Victoria, which he declared was the source of the Nile. Burton, who had been struck down by sickness, remained sceptical of the claim, which Speke later presented to the Royal Geographical Society, and the friendship between the two cooled appreciably. Burton subsequently went to North America, where he reached Salt Lake City, the Mormon capital. In 1861, after many amorous adventures during his travels, Burton married Isabel Arundell, a fervent Roman Catholic, whom he had first met eleven years before. Mrs. Brodie notes that these two "tortured souls" could not do without each other, two beings who had little in common, yet someohow, remarkably, complemented each other.

Following a spell with the Diplomatic Service in Africa, Burton prepared himself for a confrontation with Speke concerning the dispute over the source of the Nile, but this was not to take place. Speke accidentally killed himself on a hunt in September 1864 (a subsequent expedition to Africa confirmed his hypothesis about the Nile). The English reading public followed these events with lively interest, opinion unjustly believing that Burton had driven Speke to suicide. Appointed Consul to Brazil, Burton visited South America with his wife, after which he travelled further, from Damascus to Ireland, to Trieste, Egypt, the Gold Coast.

In the last period of his life Richard Burton got down to the translation of a clandestine edition of six erotic works, thereby risking prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act, which had been passed in 1857. His interest in "exotic" sexual practices was already evident from his travelling accounts, ranging from accounts of the bordels of Karachi to the customs of Somalian tribes. Burton and his friend Foster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot founded the Karma Sutra Society of London and Benares and undertook the translation of major Hindu and Arab works of ars amoris, including the Karma Sutra of Vatsyaayana (1883), Ananga Ranga (1885), A Thousand and One Nights (1885) and The Perfurmed Garden of Sheikh Nefzaoui. It was while working on the translation of a passage of the latter work which had been omitted from the first edition, that Burton died, on 19th October 1890. In the course of the next fifteen deaths after her husband's death, Isabel Burton, who had never approved of her husband's passion for erotic literature, confined countless pages of Burton's works to the flames, not only private note books but also the manuscript of Perfumed Garden-for the "salvation of his soul".

The appeal of the man is unabated: the first in a long line of Britons to love the desert, brilliant linguist, incomparable translator, superb writer of some forty-three travel books, pioneer in the field of cultural anthropology, in his time: archeologist, soldier, swordsman, poet, spy, diplomat, gold prospector and much more besides. He gives the impression of oscillating between Good and Evil or even beyond Good and Evil, as Mrs. Brodie argues. He was, according to his biographer, a man perpetually at war with himself, a man of action opposed to a man of letters, a man of the sword and a poet, a bawdy swashbuckler, a libertine a seeker tormented by the secrets of sexual vigour.

The incessant quest for an identity gives to Burton (who affirmed that a man's greatness is measured in the strength of his passions) an eminently Nietzschean dimension. In fact, Burton conformed quite remarkably to the aristocratic ideal of the Uebermensch dear to the loner of Sils-Maria. As Michel Le Bris rightly notes in the preface to the French edition, the human being is the only enigma which truly obsessed Burton, an enigma which he never ceased to explore. He had a latent talent like no other for disguising himself, assuming different personalities, assimilating into other cultures, penetrating other social structures. In this respect he could hardly have been further removed from the Bible-oriented, ethno-centric world of Imperial England, which indeed he profoundly despised. At once a mystic and an atheist, positivist and open to the irrational, Burton had an "ethno-differentialist" approach, to coin a phrase dear to the French New Right. He never hid his preference for the Orient, while Africa he described as a nightmare continent, "a mixture of horror and inhumanity, bestiality and blind ferocity".

Contact with other cultures more or less consciously evoked for Burton a nostalgia for a traditional society freed of the perverse hold of Christianity, a view of him which is supported by his attitude towards sexuality. He intuitively believed that sexuality was one of the keys to explaining the conduct of different individuals. In this he was anticipating writers such as Freud and Havelock Ellis, and to a lesser extent Otto Weininger and Julius Evola. This explains his determination to assemble the largest possible collection of erotic texts, reviewing the entire gamut of erotic practices, all deviations and perversions, if need be out of his own experience, whence also his desire to translate and publish the great texts of erotica, capable in his view of liberating the Christian Occident, above all England, from its torment, so "corseted in decency and indecency". Outsider though he was, Burton may be considered a "good European" in the Nietzschean sense of the term, even if that fact does not provide all the answers to the enigma of his character.

Pascal Lassalle

Reviewer's Note: the recent reedition of a number of Burton's works is a tribute to his genius and an indication of renewed interest in Burton as well as a desire to revise biographical accounts from the last century which gave all the credits to Livingstone and Speke. There was a magnificent film of the life of this British adventurer by the American Rob Rafelson in 1989. It faithfully evokes the discovery of the source of the Nile by Speke and Burton, the latter masterly acted by the Irishman Patrick Bergin. The film is on video, obtainable from Columbia Home Video.

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