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Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes

By extreme contrast, the mental and physical landscape inhabited by Robert Louis Stevenson is a rather more restrained wanderland/wonderland: it is the region of the Cevennes in South-Central France. Beset by poor health which dictates the courses of his wanderlust, he also seeks non-conformity.211 Less romantic than Samoa, where he settles, and dies on 3 December 1894,212 the travels in the Cevennes mark “the beginning of the critical phase in his life ... Arguably the process of change and self-examination never ended, and what Stevenson embarked on when he trekked with his donkey into the Cevennes continued at least to Samoa, if not to the end of his life.”213

The actual journey in Travels with a Donkey lasts twelve days (22 September-3 October 1878) and Robert Louis Stevenson covers more than 200 kilometres in this time, travelling from Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille in the Haute-Loire to St-Jean-du-Gard.214 There are pains in abundance, ranging from problems with the load on his donkey, Modestine’s, back,215 cut shoulders and aching arms,216 to outdoors camping in cold, wet clothes.217 Stevenson was certainly testing himself physically and mentally.218 Loneliness, too, tests his mental health.219

The divagation to the Cistercian monastery of Our Lady of the Snows is an excellent example of an exotic place visited, at least for Stevenson.220 As Christopher Maclachlan puts it: “To one brought up in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland a Trappist monastery may be an exotic curiosity well worth a detour.”221 And the monks whom he encounters, notably “Father Apollinaris”, are exotic beings who, nonetheless, engender admiration and some soul-searching.222

But of wonders, perhaps it is the wonders of nature itself which most enchant and intrigue Robert Louis Stevenson. A view may be “both wild and sad”,223 but “the wind among the trees was my lullaby”.224 Again, he observes: “The mists, which had hitherto beset me, were now broken into clouds, and fled swiftly and shone brightly in the sun. I drew a long breath. I was grateful to come, after so long, upon a scene of some attraction for the human heart.”225

The home-coming, return or, better, arrival at the final point in his journey, the town of St-Jean-du-Gard, is a sad one. He sells Modestine, his donkey and constant companion on the journey, with some emotion: “I had lost Modestine. Up to that moment I had thought I hated her; but now she was gone .”226 However, Robert Louis Stevenson “had bought freedom” by the sale and he was eager “to reach Alais for [his] letters”, travelling on by stage-coach.227

The diverse travels of Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Baron Munchausen and Robert Louis Stevenson are, in many senses, extraordinarily different from each other. As we have shown, however, they are linked by our two paradigms of Voyage as Text and Exile and Return, though the different elements in each may be differently articulated and move fluidly between the realms of fact, fiction and the fertile imagination. The wonders, the ‘aja’ib, are indeed diverse.

Ultimately, however, along with such works as Cervantes’ Don Quixote and the “entirely fictional” Travels228 of Sir John Mandeville (written c. AD 1366),229 the travels of our four chosen authors in this essay embrace the literature of the picaresque, in which they sometimes encounter, and even work for, diverse rogues, seek and test themselves within a global cockpit where reality may merge with fiction, and actual, projected and imaginary voyages are metamorphosed into, and presented as, pure texts for entertainment rather than present or future navigation. Indeed, they may become literary “rogues” themselves at various times in their treatment of the truth. In other words, they embrace a world where actual truth and reality really do not matter any more and where text is all!

So, was Ibn Battuta an Orientalist? Edward Said defined Orientalism as “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’.”230 The stark dicholomy, then, is US and THEM or, US versus THEM! For Said, there were “a restricted number of typical encapsulations: the journey [of particular interest for our studies of Ibn Battuta], the fable, the stereotype, the polemical confrontation. These are the lens through which the Orient is experienced, and they shape the language, perception, and form of the encounter between East and West.”231 For Said, “the Orient at large, therefore, vacillates between the West’s contempt for what is familiar and its shivers of delight in - or fear of - novelty.”232 The key themes in all these quotes from Said are exoticism and difference.

For Ibn Battuta, the Maghrib was his West; all else was the Orient and there is no doubt that he was lured by what he perceived as the exotic, whether people or places. China and Bulghar, fascinating and, indeed, distasteful as both may have been, exhibit Ibn Battuta as the explorer of the exotic par excellence. Said himself speaks of “the entire range of pre-Romantic and Romantic representations of the Orient as exotic locale.”233

Thus, in the sense that Ibn Battuta demonstrates a powerful affection for, and indeed, seeks after, exotic places, people, ‘aja’ib and miracles, he may be described as a pre-Saidean Orientalist! But in terms of an Islamic missionary impulse, or Islamic imperialist fervour, Ibn Battuta was never an Orientalist in the sense that Said intended. Fundamentally, he was a “little man”, sometimes promoted beyond his coping and capacity, who was the product of a particular environment in the medieval Maghrib, who enjoyed, sought, and was sometimes repelled by, the exotic manifestations of a world both within and beyond Islam which he could never have conceived, had he remained forever in the land of his birth for his entire life.

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