Friday, September 30

A History of Water by Edward Wilson-Lee review – an early glimpse of globalization | Books


ANDEdward Wilson-Lee ends this exhilarating book wondering how it is that, as the world becomes global, the people in it have become insular. Indeed, he suggests, the further we travel, the more anxious and even aggressive we become when encountering those who look and act differently from ourselves. To feel safe, we scuttle back to assumptions and attitudes that are familiar, parochial and, in the long run, stifling. He likens it to “sitting in next-door rooms, pretending that we are in a world of our own”.

His passionate point is that it needn’t be like this, and to prove it he takes us back to Portugal in the 16th century. This might seem eccentric, but for much of the high renaissance Portugal was the primary conduit between Europe and the rest of the unfolding world. It was the merchants and missionaries from Europe’s most westerly kingdom who were among the first from their continent to meet the sheikhs of Oman, the kings of West Africa and the emperors of China. More than this, these Portuguese pioneers were careful to carry back their impressions to the motherland, painting a picture, or perhaps forging a template, that would set the parameters for global encounters over the next 500 years.

To show how different minds reacted to the challenge of a new world opening up, Wilson-Lee presents us with two contrasting accounts. The first is from Damião de Góis, a minor Portuguese official who traveled the world in an official capacity, curious and alert, ready to be amazed at what he found and confident enough to allow new ideas about everything from personal salvation to talking monkeys to work upon him. It was this expanded vision of what personhood might mean that he carried back to Lisbon’s Torre do Tombo, or Tower of Records, where he was appointed guardian-mor, or chief archivist. Here he attempted to create a new world order, at least on paper, consisting of the polyphony of echoes and contrasts that he had experienced of his travels.

Also Read  Aprilia SR GT: Multipurpose Citizen

Against this expansive vision Wilson-Lee sets the work of Luís de Camões, Portugal’s greatest poet. Of particular interest here is The Lusiads, his epic account of Vasco da Gama and the Portuguese heroes who sailed around the Cape of Good Hope opening a new route to India. The title itself clangs with nationalist pomp, being derived from the ancient Roman name for Portugal, Lusitania. In addition, De Camões transforms Da Gama and his crew from him into Jason and the Argonauts, semi-divine heroes questing east in search of miraculous treasures. Despite his impeccable humanist, the Iberian Shakespeare’s narrative credentials is one of triumphalist place-naming, land-staking and colonial bluster. The British Victorians naturally loved him.

Wilson-Lee’s point is that we all need to be a bit more De Góis and a bit less De Camões. Employing prose as luscious as it is meticulous, Wilson-Lee shows us the world through De Góis’s eyes, a wonderful tapestry that includes Ethiopians and Sami, Hieronymus Bosch (he owned three of the master’s fever-dream paintings) and elephants that can write in dust with their trunks. In 1531 De Góis was hugely affected by an audience he had with Martin Luther in Wittenberg when the great man’s wife served him hazelnuts and apples. There was a point to the meal’s simplicity that went beyond grandiose self-denial. Luther believed that the obsession with international capitalism, which brought spices and other exotic delicacies pouring into Europe, was pointless and wasteful. Shopping locally and growing your own (Mrs Luther had a very nice kitchen garden) was the righteous way to go.

As De Góis heads farther east on his travels, Wilson-Lee is able to open up a fabulous vista while demonstrating the challenges it represented to those Portuguese travelers who were convinced that their brand of Christianity was the right one. At the Russian court, for instance, De Góis encountered stories of a melon-like seed growing in the Caspian Sea that sprouted something very like a lamb, attached to the stem at the navel, with hooves and wool in addition to a goaty head. If you cut it then it bled but it had no flesh, its body being instead like crabmeat. For western travellers, this wasn’t a matter of taxonomical wonder but doctrinal nightmare. Could this vegetarian lamb be counted as fit to eat during Lent?

The wonders that De Camões wrote about were really not that different – ​​he was particularly keen on mermaids while De Góis favored mermen – but the point was that he took enormous pains to make sure his version kept European man at the center of the world. And it worked. The Lusiads, first printed in a relatively modest form, was soon being published in elaborate editions crammed with notes that explained the poet’s meaning and placed his works among the great authors of the European tradition. Before long the book was being translated into Latin, Spanish, English and French. Three hundred years later, the Romantics adopted De Camões as their beau ideal of what a poet ought to be, with Wordsworth, Melville and Poe all taking him as their inspiration. Meanwhile Friedrich Schlegel and Alexander von Humboldt wrote admiring comments on The Lusiads – “the most perfect of epics” – sealing its author’s place in the literary canon.

De Góis, by contrast, did not have a happy ending. Stories about his tendency to “go native” started filtering back to Portugal. He hurried home to clean up his reputation, not least by marrying a pious Catholic woman. It was not enough, though, to keep him safe from the Inquisition, which had sniffed heterodoxy and was determined to follow through. After harrying him for years, in 1571 they finally put the old man in prison and brought to trial. The charge was that he was insufficiently devoted to the Catholic church – he was believed to be a secret Lutheran or, at least, someone who didn’t think that the outwards fiddle faddle of religion mattered much compared with what was going on inside. He was noted to be particularly indifferent to fasting, papal indulgences and all those saints whose names no one could quite remember. He might even have allowed one of his guests to accidentally urinate on a crucifix.

De Góis was spared execution, or at least so it seemed. After serving 18 months in a monastery repenting his sins from him, he was back on the streets. On 30 January 1574, though, he was found dead. The surviving accounts agree that there were signs of violence, but conflict over whether he was burned or strangled and whether he was at home or at an inn. There is something about the indeterminacy of his end of him that suits a life spent resisting the idea of ​​closed or coercive narratives.

A History of Water is an oddly named book – presumably the water refers to the endless seas and inland rivers that carried bodies, goods, ideas and quarrels around the world in the 16th century – but it is a delightful one. It can be dense at times. You will need to keep your wits about you. But that, perhaps, is the whole point of Wilson-Lee’s argument: truth is tricky and experience slippery. The greatest sin is not to stumble or even fall but to insist, against all evidence to the contrary, that you are certain about what it all means.

A History of Water by Edward Wilson-Lee is published by William Collins (£25). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


www.theguardian.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.