Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Dead Man's Chest

No, this isn't a book about Pirates of the Caribbean, though Robert Louis Stevenson, the subject of this book, would probably have enjoyed the movies. The subtitle is Travels After Robert Louis Stevenson. Though he was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, he travelled the world and died and was buried in Western Samoa.
I've only read a few of Stevenson's works; Kidnapped, Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and I know a bit about his life but this was a beautiful way to write about the man and his work. It made me want to look up the more obscure writings of Stevenson, especially his Fables and a lot of his non-fiction. He was ill for most of his life and longed to live an adventurous life, be a soldier, fight the Indians and his books reflect the action that his body couldn't provide. His mind raced to topics more lofty that crossed swords in the moonlight. I found this poem touching, particularly in view of Stevenson's atheism, which, it seems, he struggled with:

God, if this were enough,
That I see things bare to the buff
And up to the buttocks in mire;
That I ask not hope nor hire,
Nut in the husk,
Nor dawn beyond the dusk,
Nor life beyond death:
God, if this were faith?. . .

To go on for ever and fail and go on again,
And be mauled to the earth and arise,
And contend for the shade of a word and a thing not seen with the eyes:
With the half of a broken hope for a pillow at night
That somehow the right is the right
And the smooth shall bloom from the rough:
Lord, if that were enough?

He travelled to find the place where his weak lungs could be healthy, he travelled to escape his father, he was happiest away from his native Scotland, yet the silver thistle given to him by the Highlands Society of Honolulu was one of his proudest possessions. This was no gloss and hero worship memoir, the complexities of RLS as well as the contrasts of the many places he lived and travelled were were described in short passages and scenes as Mr. Rankin travelled the world, following a man dead 90 years.
Although they are only seven miles apart, St Helena and Calistoga are very different: St Helena is genteel while Calistoga is vulgar, with its mud baths and massage parlors and signposted "sights" like the Petrified Forest and Old Faithful Geyser. America has a deep love of shows. If you dug a hole in the ground and put a fence around it with a gate and a sign, people would pay a dollar to peer into it. Stevenson was never attracted to this kind of tourism for its own sake. "Sightseeing is the art of disappointment," he wrote of Calistoga.

In the last years of his life Stevenson settled in the South Pacific. He grew to love the people and gained their respect. He often wrote about them and to them, concerned about the missionary societies which we very common at the end of the 19th century:
. . .develop that which is good. . .in the inherent ideas of the race. . .Because we are, one and all. . .the children of our fathers. . .We make a great blunder when we expect people to give up in a moment the whole belief of ages, the whole morals of the family, sanctified by the traditions of the heart, and not to lose something essential.

At the end he died at 44 and was buried on a mountaintop in Samoa, the place he loved and stayed the longest since childhood. He wrote his own epitaph, a verse that brings tears to my eyes every time I read it.
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will

This be the verse that you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

Dead Man's Chest: Travels After Robert Louis Stevenson. Faber & Faber. 1987

1 comment:

jendoop said...

That was great, thanks for all the wonderful quotes.