THE SABRES OF PARADISE, Conquest And Vengeance In The Caucasus ~ Lesley Blanch
The Caucasians wrote love-poems to their daggers, as to a mistress, and went to battle, as to a rendezvous. Fighting was life itself to these darkly beautiful people — the most beautiful people in the world it was said. They lived and died by the dagger. Battle-thrusts were the pulse of the race. Vengeance was their creed, violence their climate.
Vengeance and violence; such was the Caucasus throughout its dark history, reaching its apogee during the first half of the nineteenth century, when the invading Russian armies marched eastwards acquiring their Asiatic and near-Eastern provinces and met their first check among the Caucasian mountains. All the warring Moslem tribes banded together in one terrible force, and under one man, Shamyl, the Avar, their Prophet and Warrior. In 1834, he sprang on to the scene in a flash of steel, a clap of thunder, like some flamboyant Prince of Darkness, the dramatic nature of his legend and his black banners matched by his back-cloth of towering mountains, perpendicular rock cliffs topped by eagle’s nest aôuls, or fortified villages, hung over ravines slit so deep no light ever penetrated the abyss where torrents raged, and a never-ceasing wind howled down the passes. This was his birth place — the wild mountains of Dagestan, an almost unmapped rock waste, set between the Black Sea and Caspian.
A hundred years or more ago, leading European newspapers devoted columns to Shamyl’s exploits: questions were asked in the House of Commons as to Britain’s commitments in the Caucasus, his bravery was extolled from public platforms, and English ladies were sewing an elaborate piece of bunting designed to become his flag. Shamyl’s heroic stand was interpreted with gratification as a deliberate check to Tzarist designs on India. The Caucasus barred the overland route to Delhi: it was clear, this man was an ally, ‘a really splendid type who stood up to tyrants … and deeply religious, even if he did have several wives…’ Thus the ladies of the parish sewing circle, fortified by tea and pound cake, as they stitched away at an appliqué of scarlet stars on a white ground and dreamed of it fluttering from some dark Caucasian peak. There was no doubt Shamyl had captured England’s imagination.
Although at first glance, it seems unlikely there was any similarity between the people of mid-Victorian England and those of the Caucasus, yet it is to be traced in their approach to religion — to suffering, which, in each case, was offered up with relish. Caucasians, both the exalted mystics and the people, were sustained by a stoic discipline, and humility, feeling themselves part of some Divine pattern which nullified individual anguish. They offered up their suffering almost impersonally, with a sense of fatality, for Allah! And, however violent their sufferings, whatever sacrifices Shamyl, in the name of Mahommed, demanded or imposed, they retained a certain austerity, unlike the noisy, self-indulgent mid-Victorians expressions of Christianity.
The pious English of this moment were more egotistic, and actuated by conviction of their own worth, which made them sometimes refer to God with a proprietory air, rather as a faithful retainer, always there, to sustain them when needed. Their Christianity was an exclusive raft, saving, first, the classes, then the masses; but saving, first of all, those who suffered most.
The nation, from Queen Victoria down to the most insignificant schoolgirl, expressed their conviction in their letters and journals. Religion was part of daily life, as it was not in either the materialistic eighteenth nor the scientific twentieth century. Sunday school, Scriptural readings, family prayers, collective hymn singing, an exchange of tracts, were part of everyday life: while letters dwelling on an interpretation of the Scriptures often passed between schoolboys, or that strange and wholly sincere race of military mystics who were among the heroic phenomenon of the age.
PIERRE LOTI, Portrait Of An Escapist ~ Lesley Blanch
I recall the revitalizing interest of the lamented André Malraux, encountered after many days in the Bibliothèque Nationale on one day of despondent research. ‘Loti? Quel numéro! What a subject! Of course you must do it! The English know nothing about him — and it’s high time he was re-read here.’ He wished me well and, scuffling and snorting in his usual fashion, vanished, djinn-like, in a flurry of papers.
Loti was far too successful, too unorthodox, and aroused rivalry among both men and women. ‘The wives had only eyes for Loti,’ noted a guest at some gathering graced by the President and other big-wigs. His reputation as a great lover, and the questing pathos of those extraordinary dark eyes subjugated them. ‘He had a special way of kissing one’s hand, as if he wished to draw out one’s very soul’ was how one of the ladies recalled his spell. In all ways ‘the Magician’ was a mysterious rarity, and implications of homosexuality were of small account in elegant Paris at that moment, where it had become fashionable. Unlike the England that prosecuted Oscar Wilde, there was no criminal condemnation in France, and persons of that inclination frequently left England for the more indulgent climate across the Channel, as did Wilde, on his release from Reading Gaol.
Loti had always been an exhibitionist, indulging himself by wearing the exotic costumes he had collected on his travels, or concocted for the fancy-dress parties to which he was addicted. The publicity which buzzed around his candidature for the Académie gave him every occasion to pose before both press and public. When newspapers requested a photograph, he teased them by sending one of himself in a fez or burnous, as a Persian archer, or even naked, superbly muscled. 'En Algérien de Mardi Gras,' Goncourt noted, having no sympathy with dressing up, or the Arab interiors Loti often chose as backgrounds for his portrait.
For some months the Boxer rebellion had spread terror about the Chinese provinces, and now had taken hold in the Imperial City, where the European colony and numbers of native Christian converts were under siege in the Legation quarter. It was to rescue them from the unspeakable horrors which would befall them at the hands of the Boxers, and no doubt also to safeguard commercial interests, that he allied European forces had decided on concerted action. When Loti sailed East he knew something of the Boxer menace; for all Europe was aware of the drama being played out in Peking, and the newspapers were dwelling in blood-curdling detail on the massacres, looting, rape and tortures practised by the Boxers, but throughout the long, slow voyage out, he knew nothing of what was actually happening in China; it was only on entering the Yellow Sea that he learned Peking had fallen. Overnight, the jealously guarded, impenetrable places of this most exquisite, wealthy and civilised of ancient cities, lay open to the conquerors. Their flags floated above the curved and painted eaves of lacquered temples, now turned depots for supplies or shelter for men and horses. All around, blackened ruins; over all, the pestiferous odour of still unburied bodies and the decaying carcases of animals. Even so, there were still some strangely pleasant sounds which remained, sounds eternally Chinese, of gongs and bells and the tinkling of little cascades of glass still stirring frivolously.
Such was the scene which awaited Loti when he left Taku in early September and headed north, carrying despatches for the French Minister in Peking, with orders to report on the situation en route. Could any writer ask for a more fabulous assignment? He set about noting his own impressions apart from the official reports, and it is his unofficial notes which make up one of his best, least-known books, Les Derniers Jours de Pékin. Here straight reporting overcomes his tendency to sentimentalize or place a romantic vision of himself in the foreground; and there is no Chinese Madame Butterfly.