Discover why Burton is an iconoclast in Misfit I.
Read one of Burton’s masterful sentences in Misfit II
In a A Secret Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, Sir Richard Francis Burton says the pilgrimage is a personal journey. A pilgrimage brings the traveler peace of mind, in the acts of getting there, and of worshiping. It is a simple, inexplicable, contradictory idea. Simple because it is in the doing, not the thinking. Inexplicable because gaining peace of mind is a matter of faith. The Pilgrim is unable to untangle the mystery. Contradictory because pilgrimages, while satisfying, are intellectually ornery, bearing little kinship to reason.
The mastery and majesty of Burton’s work is in bringing to life the mid-19th century pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, an obligatory journey every Muslim must make, Inshallah – God willing.
Burton captures the mysticism of the desert. The desert is a medium. As the traveler journeys through, it cleanses and forges and gets the traveler ready to seek communion with the multitudes, the uncertainties and the epiphanies that lay ahead.
There is a keen enjoyment in mere animal existence. The sharp appetite disposes of the most indigestible food; and the sand is softer than a bed of down, and the purity of the air suddenly puts to flight an entire cohort of diseases. Hence it is that both sexes, and every age, the most material as well as the most imaginative of minds, the tamest citizen, the Parson, the old maid, the peaceful student, the spoiled child of civilization, all feel their hearts dilate and their pulse beat strong, as they look down from their dromedaries upon the glorious Desert. Where do we hear of a traveler being disappointed by it? It is another’s illustration of the ancient truth that Nature returns to man, however unworthily he has treated her. And believe me, when once your tastes have conformed to the tranquility of such travel, you will suffer real pain in returning to the turmoil of civilization. You will anticipate the bustle and the confusion of artificial life, its luxury and its false pleasures with repugnance. Depressed in spirits, you will for a time after your return feel incapable of mental or bodily exertion. The air of cities will suffocate you, and the careworn and cadaverous countenances of citizens will haunt you like a vision of judgment.
Burton captures the journey’s essence:
At Mecca, there’s nothing theatrical, nothing that suggests the opera; but all is simple and impressive, filling the mind with a weight of awe not easy to be born, intending, I believe, after its fashion, to good…
I have seen the religious ceremonies of many lands, but never – nowhere – Aught so solemn, so impressive as this.
Finally, Burton captures the relief that the pilgrimage has come to an end.
A general plunge into worldly pursuits and pleasures announced the end of the pilgrimage ceremonies. All the devotees were now “whitewashed” – the book of their sins was a tabular rasa: too many of them lost no time in making a new departure down South, and in opening a fresh account.
Burton’s story of the pilgrim’s itinerary is travel literature at its pinnacle: fresh, spontaneous, vital, educational, enlightening, fun and indispensable.
Return to part I to “Discover Why Burton Is an Iconoclast”
Return to part II, “Burton’s Word Paintings”
— Tucker Cox