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Into the Mountains of Madness
Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton by Edward Rice
© 2013 James LaFond
I possess a number of books which I have read from cover-to-cover numerous times, and reread in portions and use for reference on an ongoing basis. In reviewing such a book it is tempting to write a book in the attempt. I cannot rate the following book highly enough and owe a debt to the author, a man who has been my specialized tutor for over twenty years now for the meager cost to me of as many dollars, which have probably enriched him by as many nickels.
Richard Burton is the single most interesting man to have lived in these last few hundred years. It is, above all else, a measure of the shallowness of our society, that his memory is submerged beneath the comforting collective recollection of a beautiful actress’ love for a drunken actor. Even scholars look at me when I tell them I write Richard Burton as a fictional character, as if I am engaged in a game of romantic celebrity trivia.
To a large degree my venture into book reviews on this page is both a penance for killing nearly 800 of their fellows in 2010 and a heads up concerning exceptional reads for my fellow book lovers. I have tried to avoid reviewing research material in a stubborn attempt to force more fiction through my keyboard. But in so doing I’m not giving the man that has enriched my mind for roughly a nickel a year since 1993 his much-earned dues.
Read this book.
Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton
The Secret Agent Who Made the Pilgrimage to Mecca, Discovered the Kama Sutra, and Brought the Arabian Nights to the West.
Edward Rice
1990, Scribner’s, NY, 522 pages
Let us describe Burton by way of a composite character analogy. Imagine a man with the physical gifts and combative attitude of MMA legend Baas Rutten; the cultural insight of Joseph Campbell; the literary output of Stephen King; the sense of humor of abrasive comedian Don Rickles; the accursed luck of a Kennedy scion; the scholarly muscle of Will Durant; the carnal compulsions of rapper Snoop Doggie Dog; the moral tenacity of Carl Sagan; the experiential Gnostic yearnings of the hippie generation; the crookedly intoxicated worldview of gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson; the callous disregard for the weak of a republican presidential advisor; and a stunt man’s taste for adventure, all tangled up in an Aristotelian quest for the truth underlying creation.
Yeah, get drunk with that guy!
I ask you, in what dying society are the fashion choices of a rich empty-headed slut of more interest than this man’s search for the mysteries that engulf us all? Burton, in retrospect, is as much a phenomenon as a person. He was raised in, served, rejected, represented, and railed against a phony imperialistic society as sick and empty as anything Hollywood and Wall Street has been able to manufacture in our lifetime. Victorian England probably caused more dirty imperialistic wars and adult masturbation in Burton’s time, than the twin poles of American corporate and celebrity culture have in our time. And, all of this oppression and repression was going on as industry and the sciences grew exponentially and large corners of the globe were as yet unmapped by the Europeans determined to own it all. It was a time of extreme polar opposites, when a man could board a steamer in London after kissing the British Queen’s gloved hand, and find himself a month later at an orgy with a cannibal king.
Burton coined the term ‘safari’, and was the quintessential explorer. I suspect he was the inspiration for many fictional characters such as Tarzan and Doc Savage. His colleagues in the British imperial service had a general disregard for him and his ‘kind’, and tended to label him with a few variations of the following endearing nickname ‘The White Niggеr’. [This might be why I like Burton so much, because that is the exact term my former Australian boss used to describe me when I was a night crew supervisor in a food market in the early 1980’s.] I know we like to think of the Brits as the civilized opponents of slavery, but they were not, and they did not appreciate Burton’s outspoken opinion that slavery was evil and bad for the British Empire.
The life and times of Richard Burton are important points of departure into the study to understand how we got where we are today, for good or bad. Love it, hate it, or just plain deal with it, our current world was hacked from another older one by the most well-spoken murderers in human history, and a handful of men like Burton were their eyes and ears. Just as the primal American Frontier required pathfinder’s with primitive skill sets like Kit Carson to crack it open so that the rest of us could feast on it’s innards, the complex ancient societies of Asia and Africa required scholar/adventurers like Burton to infiltrate and decode them for the ham-fisted brutes that followed.
This pathfinder relationship always generates a soul-wracking dichotomy in the mind of the pathfinder, who exposes for exploitation that which he loves, in the service for that which he resents for owning him. In running from the strictures of the pale Victorian society he loathed, Burton doomed the hidden worlds he sought out. Author Edward Rice, in taking on Burton as a biographical project, chose a tough subject. Rice’s unique qualifications and international experience researching non-western religious traditions made him the most suited person for the job, and resulted in a masterwork.
Richard Burton sought justification and escape from the society that bore him, and served its ends even as he journeyed into the unknown to escape it’s stifling embrace. I and at least one other author are currently doing Burton in fiction [See The Spiral Case #1 and the World is Our Widow on this site]. But Rice is ‘The Man’ in my book, because he tackled the evidence. The rest of us are standing on his shoulders. So, if you would have cause to wonder what motivated a man to learn 29 languages, gain entry and even teacher rank in at least three mystical religious cults, write dozens of books, translate ancient texts, duel with a sword, infiltrate Mecca, journey into two unmapped continents in search of lost civilizations and elusive river sources, battling drugs and madness all-the-while, and in the end leave us all guessing as to whether he was an atheist, catholic, protestant, Muslin or Gnostic at the hour of his death, read this book.
I’ll just leave you with one of Burton’s thoughts quoted from Mister Rice’s book, from page 431, “And how very unpleasant to meet one’s self, one’s ‘dead self’ thirty years younger!”
Burton knew well the psychological risks of journeys into the unknown, as he had organized and led two safaris in search of what his Arab friends called the Jebel Kumri or Lunatic Mountains. After all the evidence is marshaled, even Rice cannot tell us if the man found what he was questing for, but does leave us with more than enough to permit us to make a guess, perhaps a guess that Burton might even have grudgingly admitted was an educated one.
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