Cultural Immersion

I've mentioned before that I spent the summer reading half a dozen Patrick O'Brian sea novels. Set in the early 19th century, the stories feature a pair of friends -- sort of Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson with their power relations reversed -- Captain Jack Aubrey & Dr. Stephen Maturin, who sail around the world together in Royal Navy ships under Aubrey's command, with Maturin, under cover of being a natural philosopher, carrying out intelligence work for the Admiralty. There is a good deal of historical detail & a great deal of natural history in the books -- there is more ornithology here than one is likely to find in many other mystery / adventure novels, for instance. O'Brian also does a creditable job of describing various foreign locations & native peoples. The central characters are true to their historical & political moment as members of a vast colonial power, but Maturin, especially, is a keen & dispassionate observer of "native" peoples & their ways of life. There is a particularly fine moment in H.M.S. Surprise, a large chunk of which takes place in India, where Maturin changes his navel uniform for simple civilian clothes & without any sense that he is "going native" plunges into the swirling city of Bombay. It reminded me of the feeling I had walking endlessly around Hanoi a few years ago. Maturin writes in his journal:
I had expected wonders from Bombay; but my heated expectations, founded upon the Arabian Nights, a glimpse of the Moorish towns of North Africa, and books of travel, were poor thing insubstantial things compared with the reality. There is here a striving, avid and worldly civilisation, of course; these huge and eager markets, this incessant buying and selling, make that self-evident; but I had no conception of the ubiquitous sense of the holy, no notion of how another world can permeate the secular.
Maturin goes on to describe the dirt, stench, disease & "gross superstition" of the city, but then exclaims, "What an agreeable city this is." O'Brian's character expresses here almost exactly what I have tried to describe about my residence in Hanoi, particularly the way the sacred exists alongside of the secular. Maturin is able to set aside, for the most part, his preconceptions about the Other in order to actually see the people who live in the city & I think I was able to do that -- at least most of the time -- during my year in Vietnam. O'Brian ends this section of the novel with a profoundly ironic incident, however, let the reader sentimentalize Bombay. During his wanderings through the city, Maturin is befriended by a little girl, Dil, an untouchable, who guides & advises him. (Dil is a beautifully drawn minor character.) Before leaving, he gives the child a set of silver bracelets of the sort she has envied on girls whose parents can afford them. The next day, Maturin discovers the child has been murdered by thieves for the gift he has given her. It is a grave warning for all who would colonize another culture, even on a personal level. The scene has stuck in my mind since reading the novel earlier in the summer, perhaps because I am contemplating going back to Hanoi sometime in the next year or so. What draws me back is that sense that the sacred is constantly mixing in with the secular. Disorienting, but healing; psychologically & morally risky, but rewarding.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

1 thought on “Cultural Immersion”

  1. GRETCHEN AND MEPHISTO

    You can’t tell just
    by looking
    everyone looks guilty
    a little dodgy at first

    I think the last
    honest looks were given
    by medieval whores

    sensual unfrantic
    innocence preserved
    in hangings and enamels

    what’s behind your arras
    always tempting
    the tempter if not
    some beauty’s glance.

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