Affairs of the Orient
Concerning Travels in Turkey and Asia, by M. le comte de Cholet.1
To Henri de Rothschild,2
because of his taste for travel.
Astounding travellers! What histories
We read in your eyes, deeper than the ocean there!
Show us the treasures of your rich memories,
Marvellous jewels made of stars and air.
We wish to voyage without steam or sails!
Project on our spirits, stretched out, like the sheets,
Lightening the tedium of our prison tales,
Your past, the horizon's furthest reach completes.
Tell us, what did you see?
Baudelaire, Le Voyage.
The travellers have told us - although none could say it as well as M. de Cholet, with such masterliness of evocation, with such a magician's skill in making the diverse forms of beings and objects appear before our eyes. But Baudelaire, equally intoxicated by the beauty of the world and its vanity, said that these "noble histories" were without reality:
The richest cities, the greatest scenes, we found
Never contained the magnetic lures,
Of those that chance fashioned, in the clouds.
Through this world, we've seen ...
The tedious spectacle of eternal sin ...
Bitter the knowledge we get from travelling!
Today, tomorrow, yesterday, the world shows what we see,
Monotonous and mean, our image beckoning,
An oasis of horror, in a desert of ennui!
But a generation above all aware of the useless splendour of things, has been replaced by one anxious more than anything to restore a purpose and a meaning to life, to give man the sense that he had to a certain extent created his own destiny. The moral reality of travel has been restored to him (see Paul Desjardins,3 Le Devoir présent). It consists in the effort of will that results from it, in the moral improvement that is its successful conclusion. In this way we have wished to demonstrate that the most refined artists and also the most elevated moralists can take pleasure in travel books, that they are not only of scientific interest, above all if, like the one we are recommending here to the reader, they testify to the highest intelligence and the most admirable energy.
"Generous nature so rich in the expansion of its vitality". It is France that M. de Cholet speaks of in these terms, and it seems to us as we finish his book, that he is also talking about himself. What animates this book and gives it so much interest, is in effect vitality in all its forms, the voluptuous life of artistic imagination that applies itself to the most diverse landscapes and recreates them, the austere life of thought that meditates upon the most weighty problems of history, the energetic life of a will without limits and without weaknesses that pursues the most difficult enterprises and steers them to good purpose. The fever of thought and activity passes on its heat to the narrative that encompasses the whole of comte de Cholet's journey, from Constantinople to Erzurum, Diyarbakir, Baghdad and Alexandretta, a journey accomplished without hesitation, without complaint, despite the extraordinary severity of the temperature, the proximity of brigands, despite almost insurmountable difficulties on all sides and overcome with a cheerfulness that imparts to its style a singular vitality. The company of an officer (M. Jullien) who was able to converse with the indigenous people in their own language, permitted M. de Cholet to gather along the way some very amusing legends that make up the by no means least agreeable parts of his book. They have the perfume of flowers opening out far distant from us, on the lips of men very different from those we see around us, and whose thoughts, all the while remaining intelligible to us, appear strange and other-worldly. The essence of these legends is often a very spicy realism, witness that marvellous "history of the châteaux of lovers and their beloved" which we would have recounted here, had the Echo de Paris not published it in its last supplement, and which, in spite of its prestigious title and the poetry of its fable-like moral, is reduced to a guidance on hygiene and, dare I say, a prescription for cold baths against impotence.
The Kurds and the Turks, in short, made a very good impression on M. de Cholet, who in many passages speaks very highly of their feelings of family. He even devotes a charming description to the beauty of young Turks. The Armenians inspired in him some less favourable pages, though no less brilliant. "A singular country this Asian Turkey," says M. de Cholet after having spoken about them, "where, not only do the most dissimilar races live side by side without mixing, but where, moreover, the most varied religions are practised without dying out. Armenians or Greeks, Mohammedans or Syriacs, Maronites or Chaldaeans, Gregorians or Nestorians, sometimes separated only by insignificant questions of rites or interpretations, stand irreconcilable one against the other, stirred up more than anything by their over numerous and over wretched clergy. Some however are more eclectic, and we were told about one of the great Christian merchants in the town (Kayseri) who, having placed his eldest son in the Armenian school, had had his second son enter with the Jesuits and the third placed in the Protestant Institute. In this way he was sure of having the support of each party, and only considered the different creeds that he was having each of his children practise as the means of freely gaining for them an excellent education." Does this resident of Kayseri not have an air of one of M. Meilhac's characters who would have deserted his immaterial comrades to go and colonize Asia Minor? The chapter on Erzurum is one of the most amusing. While the police were on the heels of M. de Cholet and his escort, the army lavished on him its marks of respect and performed a march past before him. He was obliged to inspect an elaborate guard of honour, and he a very junior lieutenant. "We had hardly taken a few steps than we were recognized, and all at once the drums beat the salute, the soldiers present arms, officers, flags salute our passage, music plays, and we, poor lieutenants, used to performing such honours but not receiving them ourselves, obliged to parade before the whole regiment in our travelling cloaks, toques on our heads and riding whips in our hands, thinking that we were in a dream and looking with astonishment at the sleeves of our uniforms to see if, in a single night, stars had not miraculously sprouted upon them."
To finish I should like to summarize a few general considerations dedicated to the present state of the Ottoman empire, this traveller going off in the hope of studying it closer, and whose hope, for those who read his work, will not turn out to have been dashed.
Between the development of moral concepts and the progress of science there must be harmony in an equal state. In Turkey that does not exist, we see a government, under European pressure,enacting admirable reforms, buying machinery, stocking arsenals, and finding itself, when it has to impose the law, wielding new inventions and firing off shots, in the face of a hierarchy of officials whose controllers think only of exerting pressure on the controlled. - The peasant who has no one beneath him, the victim of exactions carried out methodically by vali to zaptieh,4 working with praiseworthy ardour, and never managing to pay off the taxes demanded from him. - An army of administrators eating up (that's the accepted expression) those they administer, such is the spectacle that the Ottoman empire presents. - Comparing the faults of her generals with the negligence of the Turks, Catherine II said: "On our part, it is the ignorance of first youth, but on their part it is the decrepitude of senile old age." - It does not seem to me that the judgements expressed on the future of the Turkish empire has changed in a hundred years.
Such is this book without pretension, but not without talent, full of life, because it is a work of both reflection and picturesque observation, whose descriptions have the limpidity of watercolours; all told with the authentic accent that derives from scenes directly observed, or better still, accomplished or endured personally, an accent always inimitable and that goes straight to the heart.
First published in Littérature et critique, 25 May 1892.
1. The full title is Voyage en Turquie d'Asie: Armémie, Kurdistan et Mésopotamie (Plon, 1892). Comte Armand-Pierre de Cholet was a lieutenant at Orléans, 76th Infantry Regiment at the time Proust was doing his military service in 1889.
2. Under the pseudonym André Pascal, Henri de Rothschild (1872 - 1942), staged several plays in the theatre.
3. Paul Desjardins (1859 - 1940) had a great influence on Proust, occupying a similar position to Darlu. Le Devoir présent had just appeared in 1892 when this article was written.
4. From governor of a province to a simple policeman.
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