Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Adventures of Livingstone--The Glory Days of Travel Writing

I decided to check out the aforementioned chronicle of the Herald-Stanley expedition into Africa to find David Livingstone. Not twenty pages into the book, Adventures and Discoveries of Dr. David Livingstone and the Herald-Stanley Expedition, I found the following passage:

"Starting, and looking half round, I saw the lion just in the act of springing upon me. I was upon a little height; he caught my shoulder as he sprang, and we both came to the ground below together. Growling horribly close to my ear, he shook me as a terrier dog does a rat. The shock produced a stupor similar to that which seems to be felt by a mouse after the first shake of the cat. It caused a sort of dreaminess, in which there was no sense of pain nor feeling of terror, though quite conscious of all that was happening. It was like what patients partially under the influence of chloroform describe, who see all the operation, but feel not the knife. This singular condition was not the result of any mental process. The shake annihilated fear, and allowed no sense of horror in looking round at the beast. This peculiar state is probably produced in all animals killed by the carnivora, and if so, is a merciful provision by our benevolent Creator for lessening the pain of death. Turning round to relieve myself of the weight, as he had one paw on the back of my head, I saw his eyes directed to Mebalwe, who was trying to shoot him at a distance of ten or fifteen yards. His gun, a flint one, missed fire in both barrels; the lion immediately left me, and, attacking Mebalwe, bit his thigh. Another man, whose life I had saved before, after he had been tossed by a buffalo, attempted to spear the lion while he was biting Mebalwe. He left Mebalwe and caught this man by the shoulder, but at that moment the bullets he had received took effect, and he fell down dead. The whole was the work of a few moments . . . [the carcass] was declared to be that of the largest lion they had ever seen."

The story goes on, almost without transition, into Livingstone's missionary activity, which faced a number of obstacles. Initially, conversion required male converts to separate from their multitude of wives. While this might not seem problematic, the author discusses the problems of having hoards of furious ex-wives opposing Livingstone's efforts. Secondly, someone spread a nasty rumor that Baptism involved drinking the brains of dead men. Despite these obstaces, "we had sown the good seed, and have no doubt but it will yet spring up, though we may not live to see the fruits."

This account of the lion attack struck me on a number of levels. First, modern writing tends to restrict description to a sentence or two: this author spends six sentences loaded with analogy to explain the mental state alone. I was even more interested by the fact that, out of that small group that encountered the lion, Livingstone had already saved the life of another person. But that event is mentioned in one clause within one sentence. Saving that person's life after an encounter with a buffalo barely deserved mention: the mental state of being assaulted carried the story.

Had I written the passage, I probably would have gloated at saving the life of another person, but to Livingstone, that's just what happens in Africa. The interesting thing to him is surviving the attack and the odd euphoria induced by the moment. And, at this point, the missionary context helps explain the author's choice. Livingstone goes to Africa motivated by his religion. The strange peace during his attack supports his faith in a "benevolent Creator." His saving another life remains less important than his sowing of "good seed" against the various cultural barriers.

One last observation. Within the first pages, Livingstone reduces another potentially long story to a brief mention: "I performed a distance of some hundred miles on ox-back." That's another beautiful time capsule. While I have previously written of the pain and torment of taking a ferry from Zanzibar to Dar es Salaam without air-conditioning, Livingstone hardly mentions what would inevitably be a brutal and terrifying journey. In the past I've mentioned wanting to travel like Livingstone--now, I'm not sure I would have survived.

1 comment:

George said...

Agreed. You probably would have been attached.

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