Wednesday 25 January 2012

Richard Burton (1821-1890)

As you astute readers can surely tell by the dates, this is not the actor Richard Burton who was married twice to Elizabeth Taylor. This is the linguist, explorer, writer, diplomat, jack-of-nearly-all-trades Richard Burton. I mentioned this Richard Burton in my Thanksgiving post, noting that I was thankful for him because he translated The 1001 Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra. After reading a biography of him, though, I realize he was also a bit of a dick. C’est la vie. Why do so many of these Richards insist on being human, having faults to go with their virtues?

Richard Burton was born in Devon, but he lived most of his life outside of England. Even as a child, he spent much of his time on the Continent, as his parents lived the expatriate life. After a stint at Oxford, which ended when Richard purposely got himself expelled (his father would not allow him to quit school), he took up a military career in India. He actually worked for the British East India Company’s private army, as this was the 1840s and the British government had not yet taken all of India on as a colony. While in India, Richard learned several different languages. Languages were something for which he had a real talent, and this knowledge would serve him well in his late-life role as a public intellectual.

It was Richard’s linguistic skills which helped him to sneak into Mecca, disguised as an Indian Muslim, for the hajj pilgrimage. This occurred in 1853, and it made Richard famous in England. Interestingly, it also generated a fair degree of controversy, as some Europeans claimed Burton had converted to Islam. Others might well have doubted just how well Richard managed to fool the other pilgrims (the biography listed below does an excellent job of exploring just who deceived who). The fame generated by this exploit assisted in securing Burton a place in an 1857-1859 scientific expedition to East Africa to look for the source of the Nile. Despite the sympathies Richard had for Hindus, Muslims, and their culture, he was unabashedly racist towards Africans. Burton regarded Africans as an inferior race, finding support for this idea not only in European attitudes but in scientific theories that all of humanity had not descended from a common ancestor. He even went so far as to defend slavery because it helped to civilize Africans. Differences of opinion with the other leaders of the mission also served to make the East African adventure a bit of a debacle. As someone predisposed to like Burton, I have to say that he was not at his best at this time in his life.

In 1861, he married Isabel Arundell and embarked on a diplomatic career. Burton served in Fernando Po, Brazil, Damascus (also a debacle in which he developed some anti-Semitic tendencies), and Trieste (where he died). Burton was not the greatest of consuls, as his main interests in life were exploring, linguistics, and other intellectual pursuits. Richard often left his consular posts for weeks or months at a time in order to gallivant about the surrounding area. This was especially noticeable in Brazil, in which he would leave the city in which he was stationed for long stretches in order to explore nature. It seems rather clear that Burton owed his consular paycheck to his wife’s connections; she made sure he had a job that could sustain the lifestyle and situation of a married man (exploring was more of a bachelor’s activity).

It was in the 1880s that Richard’s life became especially fascinating again. Burton published prolifically throughout his life, but in the 1880s he began to publish erotic works that he had translated (or helped translate). These included the Kama Sutra, the Ananga-Ranga (both originally in Sanskrit), and The Perfumed Garden (a medieval Arabic text). Burton’s massive, ten-volume translation of The 1001 Arabian Nights also (temporally and thematically) fits this era. For those only familiar with The Arabian Nights through the story of Aladdin, this medieval work is actually quite erotically charged. It features homosexuality, as well as fornication and adultery, much of it quite explicit. While the Victorian public was aware of these stories, they had only been treated to expurgated versions; Richard’s complete translation was therefore shocking and condemned by many as pornographic. Although he was never prosecuted for obscenity, Richard knew that he was running a risk. He felt, however, that such erotic information was badly needed by a sexually-repressed British public. Burton, ever the lover of Oriental cultures, believed that these Eastern men could better sexually please women; British men needed to learn these techniques in order to forge better relationships with their wives. Of course, Burton was not so enlightened as to think that women should have unfettered access to this glorious sexual information – men should read, learn, and transmit it to them. *Sigh* You were so close, Richard.

Controversy surrounded Burton even after his death. A religious skeptic throughout his life (and especially harsh on Christianity, although he admired Islam), Burton’s very-Catholic wife Isabel arranged a Catholic burial for her husband. This set off a firestorm of conflict, as Richard’s friend defended his religious skepticism, and Burton’s natal family tried to claim him as a good Anglican. Eventually things settled down (helped by Isabel’s 1896 death), and now Richard is mainly remembered for getting circumcised as an adult in order to sneak into Mecca.

Richard Burton had no children. Instead, he left behind a pile of publications and a larger-than-life reputation. He did many exciting things (such as journey to Mecca and Africa), some good things (his sexology work), and some terrible things (his racism). In the end, he was human.

I read the following biography of Richard Burton, and it is really very good. It not only chronicles Burton’s life but places him in the context of his time. Very scholarly and erudite.

Kennedy, Dane. The Highly Civilized Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian World
            Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

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