Saturday, May 03, 2014


more archaeology and " chosen past"

I hesitate to write about this book before actually finishing it, but today is the day, so here we go.  And why not start now, since Robert Byron's aforementioned book about his travels around Mount Athos, The Station, begins with one perfect sentence:

"Letters from foreign countries arrive in the afternoon."

After that, how could you not read on?  Read on I did.  And I swear I've never had a copy of this book in my hands before, so I was grinning like a fool as I read, early on in his narrative, about his arrival on Athos with three of his friends, nearly fresh from Oxford, and this exchange with a local police official, as he got the travel party's paperwork and permissions in order for their journey (pp.49-50):

"Primarily mystified by the double surnames of Mark and David (Talbot Rice and Ogilvie-Grant), the officer almost collapsed under the strain of discovering our professions.  I informed him that we had none. This is my usual policy, as it is often inadvisable to admit the wielding of a pen....

'We have no professions,' I said, 'but write down what you like.'
'Although we have no professions, you can, if you wish, invent some.'
'Electricians, painters, taxi-drivers, soldiers, bank clerks, clergymen, café-keepers, archaeologists -' I suggested.
'Are you all archaeologists?'
And he wrote:

British travel writing at its best.  Ryan was sitting next to me as I was reading these pages, and he glanced over and said, "That's a lot of archaeologists!"  I had to read the passage aloud to him to explain what it was all about.  This vein of humor runs throughout the book (at least, up to page 151, where I am now), and it begs comparison with the two books about Athos from my last few posts.  Patrick Leigh Fermor's diary is also the narrative of a very young man, but besides his paper airplane episode, there is nothing childish about either his journey, attitude, or writing.  And Sydney Loch's work is scholarly, professorial, and, above all, kind.  In both authors' work mockery and sarcasm is absent, and not missed in the least.  But with Robert Byron, quite the contrary.  He makes the journey for the best of motives - he has fallen nose over teakettle in love with all things Byzantine and feels compelled to return to Athos (having been there two years before), that ancient world's remnant, or rather, heart (p.39):

" fragment, one living articulate community of my chosen past, has been preserved, by a fabulous compound of circumstance, into the present time.  Thither I travel, physically by land and water, instead of down the pages of a book or the corridors of a museum.... Scholar and archaeologist have gone before, will come after.  Mine is the picture recorded."

He stakes it out as if he is bent on conquering Mount Everest, with copious luggage and foodstuffs, hired porters and mules, amusing sidekick-companions, and a light mocking tone that belies the seriousness of his undertaking.  Thus far, his book vacillates between precocious pronouncements on art and architecture and commentary on a spiritual journey he is almost afraid to commit himself to.  I mean, he tells us repeatedly how he is drawn back to the Mountain, and about his (what I have to call) pilgrimage, and yet his tone is often impatient, even petulant, and sometimes downright silly - as if he were another Bertie Wooster, but one who had somehow taken a First at Oxford.  It's such a contrast, and yet his beautiful descriptions and his moments of realization are what saves the day, for this reader at least. 

His friend Christopher Sykes, who traveled with him on a different journey (the story of which became Robert Byron's masterpiece The Road to Oxiana - what a book, seriously, one of my very favorites, and Bruce Chatwin's too, who said it was "a sacred text, beyond criticism"), wrote the fine introduction to this edition, and he says the same thing (pp.11-12):

"One may, indeed one must, often disagree with Robert's opinions, but, though one may have been thoroughly put out here and there, one comes away from reading him with a joyous consciousness of having seen for the first time a whole world of unsuspected things."

Speaking of unsuspected things, after reading about the temporal and celestial beauty of Athos, I rediscovered that old saw, a picture is worth a thousand words. Because a few photographs arrived from longtime blog reader and friend Antony, taken during his travels to the Mountain:

So very beautiful.  Beyond words.  Why not live here, forever, if one possibly could.

I can't look upon this last one without thinking of Bruce Chatwin's near-conversion to Orthodoxy, on Athos.  Chatwin's biographer Nicholas Shakespeare tells it all here.  Incredible photographs, Antony.  Thank you. 

It's haunting to read about this place, and see pictures of it, and know that I will never go there myself.  I am not sad about this, since I have access to my own holy places, much closer to home.  A good friend of mine who does travel widely tells me there are two places he loves most - both splendid, difficult, and sublime - the islands of Greece and the coast of Maine.  Rocks, water, sky, light.  So ancient, yet they never get old.  I paint my own pictures of it all. (Echoes of Robert Byron, "Mine is the picture recorded.")  Not to change the subject completely, but Ryan took this photo last night, at Landing Gallery in Rockland, Maine - me with some rocks, water, sky, and light:   

Even as I study archaeology and the past, read about Athos and religion, and daydream about other lives I might have led, I never forget to be grateful for my actual work in life.  It combines so much of what I love - what Patrick Leigh Fermor calls "private archaeology" - and it is as Robert Byron says (p.66), an ongoing search for and engagement with "...that alliance of the physical and transcendental which the language terms Beauty."  I'll take it in whatever form it comes.  With joy.

Terrific photos, Antony!
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