Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"For a last proof of the stranger's constancy and attachment, he extracts more clothes and more dogs," or, D'Israeli on odd customs

One of the many, many great pleasures of Isaac D'Israeli's Curiosities of Literature (about which I'll be writing soon for the Second Pass) is the author's decided skepticism, generated less by experience (for it seems he barely left his study) than by the receding waves of the Age of Reason. A lifetime of reading in history and philosophy left him with a healthy distrust of unlikely assertions, and in the Curiosities almost no area of human endeavor escapes unscathed, be it religion, history, science, myth, or even tales of "savage" cultures. Fortunately for us, in the battle between D'Israeli's desire for accuracy and his love of strange anecdote, the latter almost always wins--accompanied, perhaps, by a raised eyebrow, but retailed with zest nonetheless.

A reader of the Curiosities quickly becomes accustomed to D'Israeli's impressive eye for flummery, which makes the occasional instance of seemingly unwarranted credulity stand out. The most striking one I've encountered thus far is this bit of wild traveler's lore about hospitality rituals in Kamchatka, from "Singularities Observed by Various Nations in Their Repasts":
No customs seem more ridiculous than those practised by a Kamschatkan, when he wishes to make another his friend. He first invites him to eat. The host and his guest strip themselves in a cabin which is heated to an uncommon degree. While the guest devours the food with which they serve him, the other continually stirs the fire. The stranger must bear the excess of the heat as well as of the repast. He vomits ten times before he will yield; but, at length obliged to acknowledge himself overcome, he begins to compound matters. he purchases a moment's respite by a present of clothes or dogs; for his host threatens to heat the cabin, and oblige him to eat till he dies. The stranger has the right of retaliation allowed to him: he treats in the same manner, and exacts the same presents. Should his host not accept the invitation of him whom he had so handsomely regaled, in that case the guest would take possession of his cabin, till he had the presents returned to him which the other had in so singular a manner obtained.
Now, I suppose this could be an accurate depiction of Kamchatkan custom, but it sure sounds more like travelers' nonsense--unless, that is, one replaces "Kamschatkan," "cabin," and "eat" with "frat boy," "party," and "drink."

D'Israeli's unusual credulity about the Kamchatkans does give him an opportunity to display his surprising--for a late-eighteenth-century man--tolerance and openness to other cultures (a characteristic perhaps rooted in his own consciousness of being a Jew in a Christian kingdom). Immediately after parading the strangeness of this ritual before us, he makes a serious attempt to explain how it might have developed and what useful tests of true friendship it might entail, then closes with this thought:
The most singular customs would appear simple, if it were possible for the philosopher to understand them on the spot.
After which, he proceeds to describe some "barbarous" customs of the French court. Even D'Israeli has to draw the line somewhere!


  1. I've been really enjoying this D'Israeli extracts. I know I have the book SOMEWHERE in a box, but who knows where? I need to tracjk it down to read it again (though I'm not sure I've even read the whole book once, given what a perfect dipping-into book it is.)

  2. jeff mauvais1:04 AM

    I'm not sure D'Israeli's credulity was so unwarranted. The episode he describes sounds like a particularly exuberant version of the potlatch ceremonies practiced by tribes along the Northwest Pacific coasts of Canada and the U.S. These were contests of aggressive hospitality and gift-giving meant to settle questions of clan dominance. Wikipedia describes them as rather sedate affairs, but I remember reading much more vivid descriptions, akin to that of D'Israeli, in a cultural anthropology course forty years ago. (Note that the ceremonies were outlawed by the Canadian and American governments -hardly an understandable reaction to what the Wikipedia entry describes as similar to Christmas gift-giving.) The genetic, linguistic and geographic closeness of the Kamchatkans and the Northwest Coast tribes also lend support to my hunch that old Isaac was not so gullible.

  3. Jeff,
    Thank you for helping to clear that up.I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that this could be real--I just couldn't get over the vomiting ten times part. I actually spent a few minutes trying (in admittedly desultory fashion) to get an answer to this online, but I had no luck, so I appreciate you coming through like this. Your explanation is fascinating, and the clan dominance idea is one that D'Israeli doesn't hit upon in his brief attempt to understand it.

    This is the first time I've read all the Curiosities--like you, I'd previously dipped into it, as that's definitely what it's made for. But it's held up surprisingly well to sustained reading; I'm neither bored with it nor tired of its author yet, 500 pages in.