Friday, July 1, 2011

Cecilia Mackworth/Isabelle Eberhardt

July, 2011: The Destiny Of Isabelle Eberhardt, by Cecilia Mackworth (1975) was, I'm pretty sure, given to me by my mother, but uncharacteristically for her, it has not been inscribed. Over the years, Mumma has given me quite a few books by feminist historians, or books about exceptionally bold and intrepid women from earlier times. I'm not sure whether this is because I have always shown a tendency towards boundary-bustin' feminism, or perhaps Mumma and her choice of birthday presents subtly urged me in that direction.
Isabelle Eberhardt is one of the most boundary-bustin' people I've ever read about. And it's unfair to keep her within the limits of feminism, because she was a boundary-buster by anyone's standards. "She was that which attracts me more than anything else," writes Colonel Lyautey after her death, "A rebel. What a joy to find someone who is truly himself, refusing all prejudice, all servitude, all banality, and who passes through life as freely as a bird through the air." In brief, she grew up in Geneva; her mother was an illegitimate German Jew who had kept her origins secret and married a Russian of noble birth (i.e. a big snob) in the Tsarist Army. After having several children with him, she ran off with their tutor, a handsome Armenian with all sorts of extreme philosophies. Isabelle Eberhardt, born 1877, was the youngest daughter from the second litter (to use my mother's terminology). Her childhood was bad enough to make her run, and keep running, until she was drowned, at twenty-seven, in a flash flood in Ain-Sefra, Algeria. By then, she had converted to Islam, dressed habitually as a man, had lost all her teeth and had malaria, was married to a handsome but rather spineless Arab soldier whom she had met one night in an oasis, and spent her days and nights riding around the Sahara, taking shelter (or not) in various Bedouin tents, army camps and tiny villages.
After reading her story (and it's very nicely told, too), the main impression left on me was that someone who lives so resolutely according to her nature, and by what seems right to her (rather than by what she is told is right), leads a very lonely life. Enemies spring up around Isabelle for practically no reason. She writes in her diary, on Christmas Day 1902, "The most difficult of all things - the only difficult thing, perhaps - is to enfranchise oneself and - even harder - to live in freedom. Anyone who is in the least free is the enemy of the mob, to be systematically persecuted, tracked down wherever he takes refuge. I am becoming more and more irritated against this life and the people who refuse to allow any exception to exist and who accept their own slavery and try to impose it on others."
Her ideas about freedom are further advanced than mine, and therefore exciting - nay, inspiring! - for me to read. Forget Jack Kerouac! He was a dilettante compared to Eberhardt.

One night, stretched out on the rush matting of some Moorish café far out in the Main or in the mountain country, she scribbled some notes in pencil:
'There are few intellectuals who care to claim their right to the life of a wanderer, to vagabondage.
'Yet vagabondage means escape from slavery and the life of the road means liberty.
'To take the decision, to cast off all the bonds with which modern life and the weakness of our own hearts have charged us, to arm ourselves with the symbolic staff and sack of the pilgrim and to depart...
'For anyone who understands the value and also the exquisite flavour of solitary freedom (for one is only really free when one is alone) the act of departure is the bravest and most beautiful of all.
'A selfish happiness perhaps. But it is happiness, for him who knows how to appreciate it.
'To be alone, to have no needs, to be unknown, a stranger and at home everywhere, and to march, solitary and great, to the conquest of the world...
'To possess a home, a family, property or some sort of public function, to have some definite means of existence, in fact, to be a cog in the social machine - these are the things that seem necessary and indispensable to the great majority of men, even to intellectuals and to those who believe themselves to be enfranchised.
'Yet all that is only a variety of the slavery into which we are dragged by the contact with our fellows, and, above all, by a contact that is regulated and continual...
'All property has its bounds and all power is subject to some law, but the tramp possesses the whole vast earth, whose only limits are the unreal horizon, and his empire is intangible since he governs and enjoys it in the spirit.'

At one point, Sliman gets a job in Tenes, a small town in Algeria. He and Isabelle have been so impoverished that the prospect of a regular income is appealing. But small-town life is excruciating for Isabelle (and the poverty continues, forcing Isabelle to beg friends for the odd ten francs, so that she can buy food).
Raymond Marival [a friend in Tenes], ...commemorated, after her death, one of these fits of despair which both he and Randau attributed to the insults and cruel mockeries of the town:
'Behind the house in which I lived at this period was a garden enclosed by a fence; a vine, a wild fig tree and a few flowering rose bushes were its only ornament. The noise of the town did not reach it and one could hear nothing but the confused murmur of the sea and of the great sea-gulls that circled in the air with piercing shrieks.
'Isabelle loved this retreat and used to come there almost every evening. She would sit on a bench, legs crossed and eyes vague, and silently smoke cigarettes of pale tobacco perfumed with musk. On the evening of which I speak, dusk had fallen and moths were fluttering around the lamp. Suddenly, in the shadow, I thought I heard a sob. Isabelle was crying, her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands.
"What is the matter," I asked. "What is the matter, Si Mahmoud?"
'She lifted her wet face reluctantly and fixed me with eyes full of distress, the eyes of a hunted animal. It lasted only for a second. As I approached, anxious at this breakdown, her face was masked again with the rather cold mask of careless serenity with which she usually faced her troubles.'

She makes me think of Rudyard Kipling's poem Untimely, except that Eberhardt's time hasn't come even yet. She writes to Barrucand, who published some of her articles and stories, and posthumously 'co-wrote' her work Dans l'ombre chaude de l'Islam, "We are all poor devils, and those who refuse to understand that are even poorer than ourselves."
I was moved to write a song about Isabelle. I started to play it to Nic; first he interjected, "Hmm, arty..." then he started to look appalled, "It's so depressing!"; then I started giggling, so stopped. I think it's a song to be played for myself when I'm by myself.
Isabelle Eberhardt only asked to live
To see what lay past the next sandy ridge.
Dressed as a man, she rode across the sand,
Following Islam and vagabondage.
Where the stars are bright and the night is clear,
And there's not a soul, far or near,
That's when you might hear the song of Isabelle, passing along...
"Oh, it's lovely out here!
Oh, how lovely it is to walk upon this ball of stone!
Am I the only one out here?"

Everywhere she went, she made enemies,
People feel discontent to see someone live so free.
We all want our share of what she found out there,
But few of us can bear that cold desert wind.
Where the stars are bright and the night is clear,
And there's not a soul, far or near,
That's when you might hear the song of Isabelle echoing on...
"Oh, it's lonely out here!
Oh, how lonely it is to walk upon this ball of stone!
Am I the only one who can see
We're all just vagabonds?"

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