April 05, 2008

Just back...

...from another round of travel.

This time my companion, along with the latest New Yorker, was Robert Louis Stevenson's The Beach of Falesa. I remember Borges defining literary pleasure this way: If you don't want to know what happens next, the author has not written for you. Stevenson always makes me want to turn the page (perhaps I respond to his Puritan orientation, as I do with Bernard Shaw).

The trader Wiltshire ends up on a Polynesian island; for convenience, he faux marries a native girl (more to acquire a servant than a wife); he swears to himself he will treat her sternly, and won't make a fool of himself over her, but...

She was the first in the house; and while I was still without I saw a match flash and the lamplight kindle in the windows. The station was a wonderful fine place, coral built, with a wide and quiet verandah, and the main room high and wide. My chests and cases had been piled in, and made rather of a mess; and there, in the thick of the confusion, stood Uma by the table, awaiting me. Her shadow went all the way up behind her into the hollow of the iron roof; she stood against it bright, the lamplight shining on her skin. I stopped in the door, and she looked at me, not speaking, with eyes that were eager and yet daunted; then she touched herself on the bosom.

"Me--your wifie," she said. It had never taken me like that before, but the want of her took and shook all through me, like the wind in the luff of a sail.

Falesa is an undeniably racist story--but we should not judge Stevenson by the characters he portrays, or the time in which he lived. The novella was written just a few decades after a time when it was legal for Americans to own slaves, and intellectuals defended the practice by arguing that ending slavery would lead to miscegenation. By contrast, Stevenson's Wiltshire legally marries Uma, and recognizes that she's as noble and as much a lady as any European.

In any case, I'm (thankfully) grounded for a few weeks, and will write more on ideofact, including some entries on prisons.

Posted by Ideofact at April 5, 2008 01:48 AM