Not long ago, I lived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where I wrote stories about, among other topics, a meet-up of Twitter users, a dire sandstorm that befell a mixed-gender rock show, a tour of one of Riyadh’s oldest hotels, and what happens when the most Islamic country in the world attempts to hold a festival to “celebrate culture.”
I was young and proud and eager to share my work. So every month or so, I’d send out an email to friends and associates with a link to my latest. Not too many complained. Some, apparently, even enjoyed what I sent.
But among my harshest critics was a writer friend, who in a scorching series of emails said mine was this obnoxious, privileged gaze, that in every description of Saudi lives, I mainly revealed that I wanted Saudis to grow up and be good democratic Westerners — which was an impossible goal, he said, because good democratic Westerners are monsters who started wars and were a menace to the whole world.
Years later, I lived in Beirut, where I was still writing stories. As part of an effort to do better this time, I began to read The Innocents Abroad, a record of traveling by Mark Twain.
As a traveler, I had always written earnestly about my observations. Twain, it seemed, was all too eager to write wryly about his own ignorance. There was probably a lot I could learn.
In 1867, a crew of Americans set sail for Europe, Asia, and the Holy Land. For the benefit of the reader and to fulfill his duties as a columnist for The New York Herald Tribune, one of the passengers, Mark Twain, set to writing a book about what happened.
In the first pages, the reader encounters Twain’s unease with the basic notion of trying to be original in a travel book. “A little after noon on that distinguished Saturday I reached the ship and went on board. All was bustle and confusion. [I have seen that remark somewhere.]”
Then the ship sees its first island, and Twain isn’t too excited about the Azores. “All the opera glasses in the ship were called into requisition to settle disputes as to whether mossy spots on the uplands were groves of trees or groves of weeds, or whether the white villages down by the sea were really villages or only the clustering of tombstones or cemeteries.” Better to temper any real enthusiasm with a protective cloak of detachment and humor.
In Riyadh, I faced the same problem, but I tried to write with kindness and heart, explaining what I saw with detail and nuance. Twain? “Out of our whole ship’s company there was not a solitary individual who knew anything whatever about them,” he writes of the Azores. It’s a sly trick — substituting his fellow shipmates for the reader. “These considerations move me to put in a paragraph of dry facts here,” he writes — but of course the paragraph isn’t dry.
Twain has protected himself and us by suggesting no normal person would know the Azores, then he protects himself further by saying any information about the strange place would be “dry.” Then he unloads: “The donkeys and the men, women, and children of a family all eat and sleep in the same room, and are unclean, are ravaged by vermin, and are truly happy.” Twain writes simultaneously with contempt and fondness, and we’re left to puzzle out what he’s trying to do, and where in the mess we should stand.
What he’s doing, it seems, is deploying a constantly changing mix of both sincerity and irreverence, making his position on things hard to pin down. Take the way he grapples with the tired subject of a famous church. “We went to see the Cathedral of Notre Dame,” he writes. “We had heard of it before. It surprises me sometimes to think how much we do know and how intelligent we are.”
Twain was making himself hard to take seriously, protecting himself from the question of whether writing like this made the world a better understood place. The whole situation was captured in the way he recounted the story of Abelard and Heloise, the 12th-century French lovers:
With infinite pains I have acquired a knowledge of that history, and I propose to narrate it here, partly for the honest information of the public and partly to show the public that they have been wasting a good deal of marketable sentiment very unnecessarily…Heloise was born seven hundred and sixty-six years ago. She may have had parents. There is no telling. She lived with her uncle Fulbert, a canon of the cathedral of Paris. I do not know what a canon of the cathedral is, but that is what he was.
I have come to admire that paragraph very much. In it, Twain is humorous and self-deprecating about the project of historical storytelling, but he is also contemptuous of stupid readers and of disinformation and false sentimentality, but then he acknowledges again that he himself doesn’t actually know much — for instance, what on earth is a canon? There’s a kind of crazy disregard for accountability, a carnival of intention and expectation. You sense a plan, but it’s hard to divine where, if at all, Twain is willing to draw a line. In a storm of riotous laughter, who could quiet the room and suggest to Twain that what he does has serious consequences?
But there’s no need to lecture; Twain’s well aware of his power. “In Marseille, they make half the fancy toilet soap we consume in America, but the Marseillaise only have a vague theoretical idea of its use, which they have obtained from books of travel, just as they have acquired an uncertain notion of clean shirts, and the peculiarities of the gorilla, and other curious matters.” Books of travel change the world, Twain is ready to acknowledge. But all you’ll probably remember is that line about the clean shirt.
In the end, travel books — or personal essays — are doomed. Try to describe the gorilla and you fail. Words are never enough, and most will ultimately be forgotten. And if that gorilla is a man? Maybe better not to have begun at all.
The other day, the American-born Nigerian writer Teju Cole posted a line on Twitter: “I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.”
Cole was probably right. “I have camped with the Indians,” Twain writes. “I have been on the warpath with them, taken part in the chase with them…I have roamed with them, scalped them, had them for breakfast. I would gladly eat the whole race if I had a chance.”
Illustration by Dominick Rabrun.