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Volume 20, Number 4July/August 1969

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The Obstinate Mr. Doughty

To his critics, he was arrogant, humorless, self-righteous and mulish. He was also the author of a masterpiece that outlives them all.

Written by Anthony T. Sullivan

Charles Montagu Doughty was the most obstinate of men. His bull-headedness led him to disregard the wise admonitions of men who knew better to stay away from then-unknown Arabia. He paid a terrible price for not listening: two years of suffering from intense heat, starvation, thirst, and the constant threat of death as an outsider without the tribal affiliations that were a man's only insurance policy. Once embarked, well-meaning companions warned Doughty to conceal his Christian faith beneath the pretence of being a Muslim. Doughty's Victorian principles were offended by the suggestion, and he lost few occasions to declare his adherence to what he believed was a superior religion. Again he paid dearly. He was maltreated, spat upon, beaten, and on several occasions narrowly escaped death for his profession of an alien faith.

When he finally—and miraculously—emerged alive from the desert, he determined against all advice to record his experiences in an artificial blend of Chaucerian and Spenserian English, to the disgust of his friends and the utter indifference of publishers. But then, to the astonishment of everyone, himself included, he produced a literary masterpiece that has outlived them all: Travels in Arabia Deserta.

Obstinacy has its uses.

It would be gratifying to report that all along Charles Montagu Doughty was as misunderstood as his book, when it first appeared—that he was merely a shy, polite, solitary scholar with a bent for science. Alas! He was all of that, but also an arrogant, humorless, self-righteous man and, ever and always, mulish in disposition. Were it not for his classic account of Arabia, for those two passionate years out of the four-score that he lived, Doughty would have died in well-deserved obscurity.

At least he was born into obscurity, of a line of conservative Suffolk churchmen whose narrow horizons the young Doughty strove to extend by a career in the Navy. A speech impediment crushed that ambition, and the young man instead entered Caius College, Cambridge, in 1861. He was unremarkable both in scholarship and appearance, with an ordinary pale Anglo-Saxon face, rather large and full lips, deepset eyes with hair parted slightly off-center and of a length that is today once again popular at Cambridge. One of his teachers remembered that "he had a very disheveled mind. If you asked him for a collar he upset his whole wardrobe at your feet."

He soon manifested a considerable interest in geology, and an essay describing his year's exploration of Norway's Jostedals-Brae glaciers received some professional recognition and marked the awakening of a life-long interest in research. But even that interest was eclipsed by the study, once he had been graduated from Cambridge, of early English literature at Oxford's Bodleian Library. "Nearly 60 years in all," he later confessed, "I have given to the tradition of noble Chaucer and beloved Spenser."

He forsook these loves temporarily in 1870 when he went to Holland to study Erasmus. An intellectual wanderlust there seized him, and for the next four years he roamed, hippie-like but with a sackful of books over his shoulder instead of a guitar, through Belgium, Italy, Sicily, Malta, Spain, Tunisia and Greece. In 1874, for no discernible reason, he took a boat to Palestine, walked through Lebanon, passed down to Egypt, then with a single companion and one camel between them, crossed the desiccated Sinai Peninsula to Aqaba.

Doughty still had no plan but a vague urge to travel. Until he reached Ma'an, he wrote later, "I had then no other intention than to see Petra. I could speak very little Arabic ... not having studied the history of those countries." And yet the cold-blooded Doughty had already been infected by the subtle fascination of the East that has felled so many of his countrymen. Of Sinai he wrote: "Nowhere, outside perhaps the moon, does the skeleton of the world bleach so naked and revealed," and recalling the bleak jagged eminences of Norway, noted the similarity in his

'...horror of bergs aloft

Inhuman silent solitude of sharp dust;

Wind-burnished stones and rocks.'

It was while en route from Ma'an in present-day Jordan to the ancient capital of Petra which the Nabataeans had carved from the red rock of their mountain fastness that Doughty first heard of Mada'in Salih—the City of Salih—in the desert wastes due south, halfway to Mecca. Great tombs, it was said, had been hewn into the sides of mountains. Huge portals, dim inscriptions in an unknown tongue carved on the mountainside, vast empty chambers—these "were some of the oddities of the vacant city of which Doughty's fellow-travelers spoke, and suddenly he thirsted to be the first man to record the forgotten city's mysteries.

He wrote to the Royal Geographical Society for assistance—and hurried to Vienna to receive the reply all the sooner—but no reply ever came. He returned to Damascus, spent eight months there in intensive study of Arabic. Then, rejecting all attempts by the English Consul at Damascus to restrain him from the venture, Doughty started south with a Mecca-bound caravan. Calling himself Khalil, undisguisedly a Christian among Muslim pilgrims, he hoped to remain under the protection of the caravan—6,000 men, more than 12,000 camels—as far as Mada'in Salih, before reaching the precincts of Medina and Mecca which were forbidden to non-Muslims at the pain of death. It was November, 1876.

If Doughty's purpose in entering Arabia was basically archeological, his lengthy sojourn was partly occasioned by the mystique of the desert itself, partly by grim necessity, for he had practically to beg his way from one point to the next relying on the uncertain hospitality of suspicious Muslims towards a penniless Christian. Doughty's ability to endure, and indeed to seek out all the harshness of a primeval land as a result of his unbending unwillingness to adapt himself to his environment, was a characteristic he shared with such travelers as Johann Burckhardt and Sir Richard Burton. Yet to him alone did the experience have philosophical significance. For good or ill, much of the West for years saw the Arab East through the sonorously Chaucerian pages of Doughty's greatest work.

From Amman the pilgrim's procession moved south through Kerak, Shaubak and Ma'an to the brow of the immense Arabian plateau. Below lay the land made unforgettable by Travels in Arabia Deserta:

"The summer's night at end, the sun stands up as a crown of hostile flames from that huge covert of inhospitable sandstone bergs; the desert day dawns not little and little, but it is noontide in an hour. The sun, entering as a tyrant upon the waste landscape, darts upon us a torment of fiery beams, not to be remitted till the far-off evening. Grave is the giddy heat upon the crown Of the head; the ears tingle with a flickering shrillness, a subtle crepitation it seems, in the glassiness of this sunstricken nature ... The lingering day draws down to the sun-setting; the herdsmen, weary of the sun, come again with the cattle to taste the first sweetness of mirth and repose. The day is done and there rises the nightly freshness of this purest mountain air. The moon rises ruddy from that solemn obscurity of jabal like a mighty beacon--and the morrow will be as this day; days deadly drowned in the sun of the summer wilderness."

Despite its occasional deceptive mildness, Doughty pointed out—quite correctly-that the habitual face of the desert is unrelentingly stern:

"We look out from every height, upon the Harra, over an iron desolation; what uncouth blackness and lifeless cumber of volcanic matter ... a wilderness of burning and rusty horror of unformed matter. What lonely life would not feel constraint of heart to trespass here in a dead land, whence, if he die not, he shall bring home nothing but a perpetual weariness in his bones."

Doughty never permits the reader to forget the numbing fatigue and searing heat which constantly afflict the desert traveler:

"The wilderness fainted before the sunny drought ... we seemed to breathe flames. All day I gasped and hardly remained alive, Since I was breathless and could not eat."

And yet it was here in this earthly furnace, he argued, that history began, the land from which mankind spread to the corners of the world. It was in Arabia that monotheism took root, and in observing the customs of the Bedouin he felt himself carried back to the age of the patriarchs. The contrast between Arabia's physical sterility and the fruitfulness of her cultural and religious legacy is a constant theme in Arabia Deserta.

The later Arabian traveler Sir Richard Burton had ample grounds for his contempt of Doughty's continual carping at the Arabs' rough treatment of him. Burton notes that had Doughty respected the religion and customs of his hosts he would not have had to go in constant fear for his life. With more courage than good sense, indeed, did Doughty intervene to stop a group of pilgrims from beating one of their number who, he discovered later, had been guilty of one of the desert's most serious crimes: theft. With similar lack of tact did he publicly upbraid a shaikh: "I have wandered in many lands, many years, and with a swine such as thou art, I have not met in any place." Certainly he should have known that only his status as guest saved him from instant death for voicing this worst of insults, and yet in the next breath he could boast of being one with a people whose best qualities—humor, tolerance, hospitality, dignity—he utterly lacked: "The sun made me an Arab," he says pretentiously. "But never warped me to orientalism," presumably meaning that he never understood the Arab mind.

Nor did he, or else he would been less vocal about his belief in the superiority of his High Church Christianity over Islam, which created most of his problems with his Muslim hosts. From his self-erected pedestal of righteousness he surveyed his companions as an elderly schoolmaster might survey a classroom full of unruly pupils. He never doubted that Arabia had long ago made its unique bequest to mankind and was in his time an historical anachronism. He never understood the East mainly because he never really wanted to understand.

The strain of keeping his guard up against any possible contamination by eastern ideas was probably the source of the spiritual prostration he complained of after his return to England in 1878. He regained his strength by purging himself of his experiences in Arabia Deserta, which he conceived to be a monument to uncorrupted English prose rather than an account of an epic of survival in the unknown Hijaz. "In writing Arabia Deserta," he later said, "my main intention was not so much the setting forth of personal wandering among a people of Biblical interest, as the ideal endeavor to continue the older tradition of Chaucer and Spenser, resisting to my power the decadence of the English language; so that whilst my work should be the mere verity for orientalists, it should be my life's contribution so far to literature."

Doughty's style, consciously imitative, was considered too exotic by most publishers to whom he sent his manuscript. Well-meaning friends tried to persuade him that his book would be an instant success if only he would modernize its archaic syntax. Doughty doughtily insisted that not a syllable would be changed. "It is the prerogative of every lover of his country, to use the instrument of his thought, which is the Mother tongue, with propriety and distinction; to keep that reverently clean and bright, which lies at the root of his mental life, and so, by extension, of the life of the Community; putting away all impotent and disloyal vility of speech, which is no uncertain token of a people's decadence." Apparently fearful that the next sentence of protest might be even longer and even more medieval, Cambridge University Press crumpled and, in 1888, published Arabia Deserta.

Reaction to the book was, by British standards of enthusiasm, ecstatic. Orientalist Wilfrid S. Blunt said that Doughty wrote "certainly the best prose in the last two centuries," and added that he would rather have written Arabia Deserta than any other book of the 19th century. How heartwarming such comments as this must have been to a writer who made it clear that he valued his style far above the vehicle that carried it. Arabia Deserta soon found its place in the curriculum of the best British public schools. Doughty could not have asked for anything more.

Like all one-book men, Doughty would have been more dearly remembered by posterity had he stopped right there. But, like all one-book men, he didn't. Following his literary triumph, he turned back to his first love, poetry, and proved once again that the dead embers of old love cannot be revived by authoring a long procession of stupendously boring books of verse, culminating in 1906 with what he considered his chef d'oeuvre, The Dawn in Britain, six volumes of especially soporific epic poetry. The work purports to trace the seeds of civilization from its Arabian beginnings through Rome and finally to full flower in northern Europe and England. A sample passage reveals why it is among the world's unquoted epics:

Dear Muse, which from this world'sbeginning, was

Seated, above, in heavenly harmonies;

Reveal that Radiance to mine hungryears,

Thine eyes behold; what sacred light,far off,

Like new wide dawn, (for which, men'seyes have watched

From age to age) now kindled on theearth!

Whilst night lies, as a cloak, whelmedon our Britain;

Tell me of Land, under East bent ofheaven;

Wherein, is born, the Everlasting Prince

of Peace, Sun of nightdarkness ofour hearts.

Adam Cast Forth, because it is shorter, and related to experiences Doughty himself suffered, is less' a failure. It relates the story of the first man to struggle for survival against the sun and winds of Arabia:

All of horror, dark astonishment; Inextricable, unending, hideous rocks!

Unending, and doubtless hideous too, were the years of penury consumed in such writing, for Doughty was as unsuccessful in providing for himself and his family as he had been in convincing his erstwhile Muslim friends of the doctrinal errors of their ways. Still, he stubbornly kept at the task of writing poetry which, considering the nearly 60 years he devoted to it, he may have considered divinely inspired. In the twilight of his life, leaders of the government, in recognition of his contribution to letters, granted him a government pension of £150 per annum, almost sufficient to keep him. starving for another decade or two. Fortunately (for Doughty, anyway), a younger cousin died soon afterwards leaving him a pension of £2,000, and it can be imagined with what relish Doughty threw back in the governments' teeth their niggling award.

He lived only two years more to enjoy it, and in 1924, at the age of 82, he died still as obdurate and still as lonely as the stark desert he had celebrated.

Anthony T. Sullivan, is working toward his Ph.D. degree and is a graduate of Yale and Columbia.

This article appeared on pages 2-5 of the July/August 1969 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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