02 February 2009

'A Tramp, a Pilgrim, or a Wandering Scholar'

Quite a few Orthodox are likely to be familiar with William Dalrymple’s book, From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East (NY: Holt, 1999), a retracing of the journey of St John Moschos as chronicled in his Pratum Spirituale (St John Moschos, The Spiritual Meadow, trans. John Wortley [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1992]), as well as a lament for the decline of Christianity in the Middle East. To be honest, I never wound up reading the whole thing through. I sort of skimmed, and then blanched a bit when I was told how sad it actually was. But I do remember vividly Dalrymple’s description of Sir Steven Runciman, whom he met after writing him about a passing reference to the Pratum Spirituale in Runciman’s 3-vol. History of the Crusades:

Runciman has always been a most undonnish don: he has been besieged by Manchu warlords in the city of Tianjin, but escaped to play a piano duet with the Emperor of China; he has lectured Ataturk on Byzantium and been made a Grand Orator of the Great Church of Constantinople; he has smoked a hookah with the Celebi Effendi of the Whirling Dervishes and, by reading their tarot cards, correctly predicted the death of King George II of the Hellenes and Fuad, King of Egypt.

He is well into his nineties: a tall, thin, frail old man, still very poised and intellectually alert, but now physically weak. He has heavy-lidded eyes and a slow, gravelly voice, with a hint of an old fashioned Cambridge drawl. During lunch, Runciman talked of the Levant as he knew it in his youth: of Istanbul only a month after the the last Ottoman was expelled from the Topkapı, when there were camels in the streets, when there were still hundreds of thousands of Greeks in Anatolia, and the Turks still wore the red tarboosh; of the Lebanon, ‘the only place I’ve seen books bound in human skin’; of the monasteries of Palestine before the Zionists expelled half the Palestinians and began to turn the country into an American suburb; of Egypt when Alexandria was still the most cosmopolitan city east of Milan. (pp. 18-9)

While I am sometimes tempted to think of these kinds of lists of attributes as a cheesey rhetorical device, they still have their effect on me, though it is different from that of the similar devices in hesychastic hagiographies. This portrait of Runciman quickly and effortlessly makes him into a figure larger than life, a Romantic gypsy-scholar inhabiting the Orient of our dreams.

Well, I recently stumbled across a very similar figure, this one also courtesy of Dalrymple (by way of Andrew Cusack)—Patrick Leigh Fermor. He is a travel writer, one of the best it seems, and so he has had occasion to beat Dalrymple to the punch, comparing himself to ‘a tramp, a pilgrim, or a wandering scholar’. To tell the truth, I was a little surprised that I hadn’t heard of him before. At 18, inspired by Robert Byron’s account of Mt Athos (The Station: Athos, Treasures and Men [Troy, MI: Phoenix, 2001]), he left home with a rucksack containing writing and drawing materials, The Oxford Book of English Verse, and Horace, bound for ‘serpent-haunted dragon-green Byzantium’.

Leigh Fermor stayed in the Balkans, became fluent in Greek, and fell in love with a Cantacuzene, with whom he lived for two years in Moldavia. With WWII, he enlisted in the British army and was sent to help the Greeks. He had to be evacuated to Crete, and then again to Alexandria. Eventually, he went back to Crete with a commando team to help the resistance. According to Dalrymple:

He and an odd collection of recently enlisted Greek-speaking classical scholars and archaeologists were parachuted into the occupied island disguised as shepherds and established a troglodyte existence under the stalactites of mountain caves, commanded by a Fellow of All Souls. The port from which Leigh Fermor set off was captured by Rommel's advancing Afrika Korps the day after he left. ‘It was a low moment in the war: the Germans seemed to be advancing in triumph in all directions.’ It was partly for this reason that Leigh Fermor's bosses gave permission for his wild scheme to raise morale: kidnapping the German commander of the island.

In Leigh Fermor’s own account of the abduction of General Kreipe, the climax comes not as the general’s staff car is stopped at night by a British SOE partly dressed in stolen German uniforms, nor as the Cretan partisans help smuggle the general into the highlands and hence to a waiting British submarine; but instead as ‘a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mount Ida’.

‘We were all three lying smoking in silence, when the general, half to himself, slowly said, “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte”. It was the opening of one of the few Horace odes I knew by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off… The general's blue eyes swivelled away from the mountain top to mine - and when I'd finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” It was very strange. “Ja, Herr General.” As though for a moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.’

It is an archetypal Leigh Fermor anecdote: fabulously erudite and romantic, and just a little showy. For his greatest virtues as a writer are also his greatest vices: his incantational love of great waterfalls of words, combined with the wild scholarly enthusiasms of a brilliant autodidact. On the rare occasions he gets it wrong, Leigh Fermor has been responsible for some of the most brightly coloured purple passages in travel literature. But at his best he is sublime, unbeatable.

Well, of course, I couldn’t resist looking up the Horace quotation. I regret to say I did not immediately recognise the Latin line, but I do have two volumes of Horace translations on my shelves—one prose, the other verse. I will quote the entire ode, I.9, from the latter (Helen Rowe Henze, trans., The Odes of Horace, Newly Translated from the Latin and Rendered into the Original Metres [Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma, 1961], pp. 31-2):

Behold how tall Storacte looms, and how white!
No longer can the laboring forests hold
Their snowy burden; streams are frozen,
Locked in the grip of the piercing coldness.

Dispel the chill air, piling the great logs high
Upon the hearth; unstintingly now bring forth
And pour the mellow, four-year vintage,
O Thaliarchus, from Sabine wine jar.

Leave to the gods the rest, for when they have stilled
The warring winds that battle upon the sea
The cypress is no longer shaken,
No longer vexed are the aged ash trees.

Whate’er tomorrow holds, shun to question now,
And what the day will bring, what of chance or gain,
Set down to profit; now in boyhood
Spurn not sweet loves or the youthful dances,

While from your bloom cantankerous age stands off.
Now ’neath the falling dusk, at the trysting hour
Again, again through field and courtyard
Let the soft whispers be still repeated.

Now from a secret corner a teasing laugh
Betrays a hidden girl, from whose slender wrists
A lover’s pledge is snatched away, or
Else from a finger resisting faintly.

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