Friday, May 25, 2007

Innocents Abroad

One follow-up project that I took away from reading Orientalism was to track down some of the 19th-c. works by American writers who traveled in Palestine. The book focused mostly on British and French sources, so it was little more than a passing reference, but I was especially interested to see what Mark Twain had to say about the place and the people he met there. Over the past few days, I've been reading his book, The Innocents Abroad, which recounts his journeys on one of the first pleasure cruises, specifically commissioned to take a group of Americans around Mediterranean Europe, the Holy Land, and Egypt. I didn't want to take too much time away from reading what I consider to be more important, worthwhile, enjoyable, etc., so I skipped ahead to the latter part of their visit to Greece (which he describes as a bleak wasteland, economically run-down, with a pathetic populace--the worst possible contrast to its ancient greatness) and read through Constantinople, a trip across the Black Sea to meet with the Tsar, Anatolia, Syria, and finally Palestine. I broke off before they finished with Egypt and sailed home again.

As one might expect, Twain pokes fun at just about everyone--his shipmates (many of whom are more zealous pilgrims than he), their guides, the locals, and even the animals and landscapes. His outlook is very American; he measures everything he sees by familiar standards. He finds little of beauty or value in these foreign lands or their inhabitants. Of the parts that I read, he seems most impressed by generous hospitality, particularly when his group meets the Russian Tsar and when they spend the night at "Mars Saba" [sic]. He seems most disturbed by the oppressive conditions he sees throughout the Ottoman Empire.

More than once while traveling through Anatolia and Syria, Twain laments the living conditions of the Arabs and says that if Russia ever goes to war again with the Turks it would be much better for Britain and France to let them alone. On one such occasion, he writes:
If ever an oppressed race existed, it is this one we see fettered around us under the inhuman tyranny of the Ottoman Empire. I wish Europe would let Russia annihilate Turkey a little--not much, but enough to make it difficult to find the place again without a divining-rod or a diving-bell.
He has enough of his own prejudices, but at least he has a heart. It is nothing new for him to criticize the insensitivity of his companions in their zeal to collect relics, but particularly poignant is his account from Nain:
A little mosque stands upon the spot which tradition says was occupied by the widow's dwelling. Two or three aged Arabs sat about its door. We entered, and the pilgrims broke specimens from the foundation walls, though they had to touch, and even step, upon the "praying carpets" to do it. It was almost the same as breaking pieces from the hearts of those old Arabs. To step rudely upon the sacred praying mats, with booted feet--a thing not done by any Arab--was to inflict pain upon men who had not offended us in any way. Suppose a party of armed foreigners were to enter a village church in America and break ornaments from the altar railings for curiosities, and climb up and walk upon the Bible and pulpit cushions? However, the cases are different. One is the profanation of a temple of our faith--the other only the profanation of a pagan one.

From Constantinople the group crosses the Black Sea and is invited to meet with the Czar. Twain is skeptical of the event beforehand, but comes away thoroughly impressed. The Russian nobility he meets are so down-to-earth and so friendly toward the Americans that he even seems to revise some of his general outlook on royalty. It's interesting to see the favorable relationship between the two countries at this stage, which is a far cry from anything we've seen since the start (or end) of the Cold War.

I think it's worth quoting here almost the entire section about their stay at Mar Saba (which he consistently misspells). Twain does not seem to have much respect for the monastic life--not surprisingly, given his American Protestant background. He likewise seems to have little appreciation for the differences between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Although he knows they are different sects--elsewhere he refers to the constant fighting between the various Christian groups over the holy sites in Jerusalem--he seems to consider them all Catholics (which in a sense, I suppose they are). At any rate, for readers who might not know, Mar Saba is a Greek Orthodox monastery in the wilderness between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. They stop there to spend the night on their way back from the latter:
We stayed at this great convent all night, guests of the hospitable priests. . . . The present occupants of Mars Saba, about seventy in number, are all hermits. They wear a coarse robe, an ugly, brimless stove-pipe of a hat, and go without shoes. They eat nothing whatever but bread and salt; they drink nothing but water. As long as they live they can never go outside the walls, or look upon a woman--for no woman is permitted to enter Mars Saba, upon any pretext whatsoever.

Some of those men have been shut up there for thirty years. In all that dreary time they have not heard the laughter of a child or the blessed voice of a woman; they have seen no human tears, no human smiles; they have known no human joys, no wholesome human sorrows. In their hearts are no memories of the past, in their brains no dreams of the future. All that is lovable, beautiful, worthy, they have put far away from them; against all things that are pleasant to look upon, and all sounds that are music to the ear, they have barred their massive doors and reared their relentless walls of stone forever. They have banished the tender grace of life and left only the sapped and skinny mockery. Their lips are lips that never kiss and never sing; their hearts are hearts that never hate and never love; their breasts are breasts that never swell with the sentiment, "I have a country and a flag." They are dead men who walk.

I set down these first thoughts because they are natural--not because they are just or because it is right to set them down. It is easy for book-makers to say "I thought so and so as I looked up on such and such a scene"--when the truth is, they thought all those fine things afterwards. One's first thought is not likely to be strictly accurate, yet it is no crime to think it and none to write it down, subject to modification by later experience. These hermits are dead men, in several respects, but not in all; and it is not proper, that, thinking ill of them at first, I should go on doing so, or, speaking ill of them I should reiterate the words and stick to them. No, they treated us too kindly for that. There is something human about them somewhere. They knew we were foreigners and Protestants, and not likely to feel admiration or much friendliness toward them. But their large charity was above considering such things. They simply saw in us men who were hungry, and thirsty, and tired, and that was sufficient. They opened their doors and gave us welcome. They asked no questions, and they made no self-righteous display of their hospitality. They fished for no compliments. They moved quietly about, setting the table for us, making the beds, and bringing water to wash in, and paid no heed when we said it was wrong for them to do that when we had men whose business it was to perform such offices. We fared most comfortably, and sat late at dinner. We walked all over the building with the hermits afterward, and then sat on the lofty battlements and smoked while we enjoyed the cool air, the wild scenery and the sunset. . . .

When we got up to breakfast in the morning, we were new men. For all this hospitality no strict charge was made. We could give something if we chose; we need give nothing, if we were poor or if we were stingy. The pauper and the miser are as free as any in the Catholic Convents of Palestine. I have been educated to enmity toward every thing that is Catholic, and sometimes, in consequence of this, I find it much easier to discover Catholic faults than Catholic merits. But there is one thing I feel no disposition to overlook, and no disposition to forget: and that is, the honest gratitude I and all pilgrims owe, to the Convent Fathers in Palestine. Their doors are always open, and there is always a welcome for any worthy man who comes, whether he comes in rags or clad in purple. The Catholic Convents are a priceless blessing to the poor. A pilgrim without money, whether he be a Protestant or a Catholic, can travel the length and breadth of Palestine, and in the midst of her desert wastes find wholesome food and a clean bed every night, in these buildings. Pilgrims in better circumstances are often stricken down by the sun and the fevers of the country, and then their saving refuge is the Convent. Without these hospitable retreats, travel in Palestine would be a pleasure which none but the strongest men could dare to undertake. Our party, pilgrims and all, will always be ready and always willing, to touch glasses and drink health, prosperity and long life to the Convent Fathers of Palestine (chap. 55).
Readers already favorably disposed toward monasticism will probably have no trouble at all refuting Twain's initial assessment of these monks and can quickly skip ahead to his appreciation for their selfless hospitality. For others, it may help to clarify some things. True, monks spend much of their lives secluded from things we would consider normal parts of human existence. Some of those things we would all do better to avoid; others are a necessary sacrifice in the spiritual struggle these men (and women) have chosen. But not all monks live completely apart from the outside world. Many maintain contacts and regular interaction with family, some are sent out to serve the Church as priests and bishops, and when their numbers were much larger, there were Orthodox monks who engaged in various social services. Keep in mind, too, that the world comes to them, as most of them do practice rigorous hospitality. Mar Saba receives weary travelers in Palestine; St. Catherine's blesses Bedouin in the Sinai wilderness; Mt. Athos in Greece sees so many visitors that it has to strictly regulate the flow to keep from getting inundated.

And of course, the monks themselves are human (whatever Twain's suspicions). Indeed, their primary business in the monastery is not escape but struggle within themselves. If they leave the world, it is so they can focus on the more pressing battle inside. Other elements of humanity also persist--they weep (boy, do they weep!), they laugh, they paint, they sing, and they struggle along in their relationships with each other, more strenuously than do most of us on the outside. Yes, they hate; by God's grace, they learn to love; and although they may not be the greatest of patriots, they are connected with a land, a people, and a faith. One thing he is right about--they are dead men--but it is this that makes them so alive!

2 comments:

Roland said...

. . . against all things that are pleasant to look upon, and all sounds that are music to the ear, they have barred their massive doors and reared their relentless walls of stone forever. . . . Their lips are lips that never kiss and never sing . . .

It would appear Twain did not attend any services during his stay at Mar Saba.

Trevor said...

Yeah, I was wondering about that. I suspect he probably didn't, or perhaps he formed these opinions beforehand. (He does go out of his way to stress that they're his initial judgments, although I don't know that he's implying those judgments changed any until long after they'd left "Mars Saba.") But even if he did attend a service, I could also see him saying the same things, if what passed for music or visual art there didn't strike him as musical or visually beautiful, if he refused to count kissing icons or other men's hands.

But yeah, I'm guessing he probably didn't attend a service.