One of my great frustrations is that the very thing which draws me to a subject is the degree to which it outstrips the ability of my words, and even conceptions, to describe it. It’s the space beyond the edges of the text that fascinates me. Those things of which we only catch glimpses, brief tantalizing hints of an impossible to reach whole, and like Augustine with time, I’m fine as long as no one asks me to explain. Hence my attraction to the dim forgotten corners of history, the dark ages, to the aporia of Plato, and, relevant to the topic of this post, to travel narratives.
These narratives by their very nature are only fragments, scattered impressions of a world necessarily alien to both author and reader. Somewhere beyond the words of a travel narrative is the memory of place and time which is irrevocably lost, faded. W.G. Sebald’s use of scattered, haunting photographs in his writings is the greatest expression of this that I’ve encountered thus far.
The world, central Asia in the wake of the Mongol conquests, of Christopher Dawson’s collection Mission to Asia is fascinating in its incomprehensibility. The most famous and detailed account within is William of Rubruck’s, whose words imbue me with a strange sense of tragedy. William was sent by the king of France, the future St. Louis, to meet with Sartach, the future ruler of the Golden Horde and rumored to be a Christian. The expedition is a failure from the outset. Sartach is no Christian. William’s missionary efforts are in vain. The Great Khan wants no alliance. This failure infuses William’s writing with sadness and wasted opportunity, a sense that the cliffs of despair are not far distant, warded off only by a sliver of desperate hope.
There’s disappointment not only for William, but me as well, as William offers a rather prosaic explanation for the wondrous stories of Prester John:
In a certain plain among these pasture lands was a Nestorian, a mighty shepher and lord of all the people called Naimans, who were Nestorian Christians. On the death of Coir Chan, this Nestorian set himself up as a king and the Nestorians called him King John, and they used to tell of him ten times more than the truth. For the Nesotorians coming from these parts do this kind of thing-out of nothing they make a great rumor. This accounts for their spreading the story that Sartach was a Christian, also Mangu Chan and Keu Chan, just because they pay a greater respect to Christians than to other people. And yet the truth is they are not Christians. So in the same way the great tale of this King John went abroad. Now I passed through his pasture lands and nobody knew anything about him with the exception of a few Nestorians. (122)
Years ago it was Prester John, first encountered in Hanover Public Library’s copy of Baudolino which I checked out between re-readings of books about sea monsters and ravishings of the science fiction section, that kindled my interest in the Middle Ages. William’s account seems all too plausible, all too tawdry and dull (but how could it be otherwise?). A far cry from:
XIII.—In our palace we eat once a day; each day thirty thousand men eat at our board, besides the guests that come and go. And these all receive their charges from our palace, both in horses and other things also. That table is made of precious stone called smaragdns, and it is supported by two pillars of amethyst. The virtue of this stone is that it suffers no one to get drunk so long as he sits thereon. Before the doorposts of our hall, near where the combatants are, there is a watch-tower of great height, and thereto one climbs by one hundred and twenty-five steps; and these steps, some of them are made of porphyry, blended with the blood of serpents, and alabaster ointment. The third part at the bottom of these is made of crystal, and jasper, and sardooyx, and another part, at the top, is of amethyst, and amber, and jasper, and sardonyx, and panthera. This watch-tower is supported by one pillar, and on this there is a base, that is, some stone-work so called, and on this base two columns, that is to say, arms; and on these there is a base, and on this four columns, and again a base, and on this sixteen arms; and so the work proceeds, until the number thirty-four is reached, and then the number of the bases lessens, and the columns, until they come to one, and that by ascending upwards, as they increased before, ascending to thirty-four.
XIV.—Now the columns and bases are of the same kind of precious stone as the steps through which men ascend. On the summit of the highest there is a watch-tower placed by some graceful skill, so that no one in the various kinds of laud subject to us can work any fraud, or treachery, or dissensions against us whatever, nor those among us, without it being clearly seen from that watch-tower, and without its being recognised who they are, or what they do. There are three thousand men of arms ever guarding this watch-tower night and day, lest by chance it be broken or overthrown to the ground.
XV.—Each month in the year seven kings serve me, each one of them in his order, and forty-two princes, and three hundred and fifty-six earls. That number is always at our board, without those placed in the various duties in our palace. At our board there eat each day, on the right twelve archbishops, and on my left hand twenty bishops, and the patriarch from the place where is the grave of the Apostle Thomas and he that is in place of a pope. (The Letter of Prester John)
William’s own sadness can, I think, be witnessed most acutely in one of the few moments when his traveling companions express interest in his faith. He has neither the time nor the resources to truly instruct them, and in lieu of books:
I will teach you a word which you will bear in your hearts, by means of which both your souls and your bodies will be saved for eternity.” But whenever I wanted to instruct them my interpreter let me down. However, I wrote out the “Credo in Deum” and the “Pater noster”, saying, “Here is written down what a man ought to believe about God and a prayer in which petition is made to God for everything which is necessary for man; therefore firmly believe what is written here although you cannot understand it and ask of God that He will do to you what is contained in the prayer written here, which He Himself taught His friends with His own lips; and I trust that He will save you. I could do no other, for to speak words of doctrine through such an interpreter was dangerous; nay, it was impossible, for he did not know the words. (146-7)
That line “I trust that He will save you” expresses a desperate hope that even in this desolate, alien country, even with the faith reduced to incomprehensible, quasi-magical formulae, William’s mission might not be in vain.*
William’s efforts are plagued not merely by the difficulties of travel, hostile Nestorians, and inept translators. These he might have dealt with. It’s the overwhelming apathy that plagues him the most, that seems to slowly wear him down towards despair. Not a rejection of what he teaches but far worse, indifference. We see this in his famous account of a debate between Buddhists, Muslims, Nestorians, and himself, arranged by the Great Khan.
I then gave a place to them [the Nestorians] and when they wanted to dispute with the Saracens the latter replied: “We grant that your faith is true and that whatever is in the Gospel is true, therefore we do not wish to argue on any point with you.” They admitted that in all their prayers they beseech God that they may die a Christian death.
There was an old man there, a priest of the sect of the Uigurs, who say there is one God and yet make idols, and the Nestorians spoke a great deal with him, giving him an account of everything from the coming of Christ to the Judgment, and also by means of comparisons explaining the Trinity to him and the Saracens. They all listened without a word of contradiction, yet not one of them said, “I believe, I wish to become a Christian.”
When this was finished the Nestorians and Saracens alike sang loudly while the tuins [Buddhists] kept silence, and afterwards they all drank their fill. (193-4)
Christianity is tolerated in this world, even favored. It’s a nice thing, maybe the nicest thing, but it is ultimately just one thing among many, not worthy of serious commitment.
There’s something else lurking in William’s final moments at the court though, perhaps another fragment of hope mixed with desperation shining through in his final audience with the Great Khan who, William tells us, is quite drunk at the time.
When he had said this I asked his leave to say a few words. “You may speak,” he answered. Then I said: “My Lord, we are not warlike men, we would like to see those holding dominion over the world who would govern it most justly according to the will of God. Our duty is to teach mean to live according to the will of God; for this reason did we come to these parts and we would gladly have remained here if you had allowed it. Since it is your good pleasure that we return, it must needs be I will go back and carry your letter to the best of my ability in accordance with your commands. I would like to ask of your Eminence that, when I have taken your letter, I may be granted your permission to return to you, especially as you have some poor serfs at Bolac who speak our language and need a priest to teach them and their children their faith, and I would gladly abide with them.” He replied, “Provided your masters send you back to me.” I then said: “My Lord, I do not know what my masters have in mind, but I have permission from them to go wherever I will, where there is need to preach the word of God; and it seems to me that it is most necessary in these parts, therefore whether he send back an envoy to you or not, given your permission I would return.”
He kept silent and sat for a long time as if turning things over in his mind, and the interpreter told me not to speak any more. However, I anxiously awaited his reply. At last he spoke: “You have a long journey ahead of you, fortify yourself with food so that you may be strong enough to reach your own country.” And he had given me something to drink. I then left his presence, and never afterwards returned. If I had had the power of working miracles like Moses, he might have humbled himself. (196-7)
Though maybe I read too much into this, I can picture it all, better than any other scene in William’s narrative. Somehow it’s the Khan’s drunkenness that makes it so real, that gives it the sense of a moment on the precipice, a chance not quite seized. And that last line, if only.
Finally, and on a somewhat different note, there’s an off-handed comment by William that I found intriguing. He advocates for the reconquest of the formerly Byzantine lands (Turkey) which he passes through on the way home. He’s convinced it could be accomplished easily, for
I can inform you that not one man in ten there is a Saracen; rather are they all Armenians and Greeks and the power is in the hands of boys. (219)
A different picture than I expected, indeed the whole of the lands through which William, and the others in the collection whom I have unjustly neglected, journeyed is unexpected and strange, leaving only the barest sketches in my memory. That’s what makes it a joy to read, to explore.
*Compare John of Monte Corvino, perhaps the most remarkable character in Mission to Asia, doggedly baptizing thousands in China with no support, no companions save a few Italian merchants. I am thoroughly impressed by John. He seems to have been an amazing man.