Burton: A Biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton
In high school a friend and I sometimes managed to get hold of the various volumes of The Arabian Nights in the privately printed translation by Richard Burton. There we found greater wonders than any in “Aladdin and His Lamp” and other expurgated or inauthentic examples of oriental story that had reached us as children. In Burton’s “Terminal Essay” to the Nights, when we had the luck to get it also, were still better things, true things in plain prose with a minimum of Latin. How is it possible for a sodomite Moslem Prince to force a Christian missionary against his will and the strong resistance instinctively put up by his sphincter muscle? Burton could tell us: by the judicious use of a tent peg. Not that we had really wondered about such things. Burton’s charm was that he set the questions as well as answered them, enlarging our curiosity even while he satisfied it—the perfect pedagogue. There was much also in the “Terminal Essay” to inflame the anti-Victorian passions we were beginning to feel. The Victorian age, Burton said, was “saturated with cant and hypocrisy.” But I doubt that we knew anything about the other adventures for which he had once been famous: his pilgrimage, in Moslem disguise, to Mecca; his expedition to the still more forbidden city of Harrar; his discovery of Lake Tanganyika, an exploit that inspired Livingstone and Stanley and helped to clear up the ancient mystery surrounding the sources of the Nile. It seems unlikely that we knew how very recently he had died (in 1890).
A revival of Burton in all his aspects appears a possibility at present. His translations of the Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden, those cheerful excursions into sexual physiology, have begun to circulate, the former in paper-back. Three new accounts of his career have come out in the last two years. Two of them, That Blackguard Burton, by Alfred Bercovici, and Death Rides a Camel, by Allen Edwardes, are potboilers; but the third, Burton, by Byron Farwell, is a thorough and conscientious book, chiefly factual, seldom reflective. Probably the writers and publishers responsible for these books think of Burton as a timely subject. Is he by some chance to be taken as a spiritual ancestor of the many who at present, and with reason, seek to accomplish a moral revolution, a “breakthrough” into greater personal autonomy and sexual freedom? Possibly. There are old photographs of Burton—dark, beetle-browed, his left cheek deeply scarred where a Somali warrior had put a spear through it, his gaze intensified by what is surely the Evil Eye, his moustaches six inches long and good for twirling. Such photographs suggest those sometimes reproduced on the jackets of books by our scarier contemporaries, their faces bearded, sweaty, hostile, furrowed with existential woe.
On the whole, though, it is a question whether Burton is an ancestor anyone would want to claim. On Mr. Farwell’s evidence, he was a compulsive egocentric whose arrogance …