Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER LIII.: UP THE NILE. 1879—80. Æt. 59. - An Autobiography, vol. 2
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CHAPTER LIII.: UP THE NILE. 1879—80. Æt. 59. - Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography, vol. 2 
An Autobiography by Herbert Spencer. Illustrated in Two Volumes. Vol. 2 (New York: D. Appleton and Company 1904).
Part of: An Autobiography
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UP THE NILE.
One morning at the close of October, I received from a young lady a note saying—“Will you not come and bid me good-bye before I start for Egypt?” Of course I went forthwith.
Already I had been telling my friends that if I could get fit companionship I would again spend the winter in the South. Egypt was a country to be visited; and as I was now fifty-nine, there was not much time to be lost if I meant ever to see it. What if, instead of saying goodbye, I should become one of the party!
The party I found consisted of a clergyman, his wife, and the young lady in question; and it had been arranged that each of the ladies should choose a gentleman who, added to the rest, would make up a number sufficient to occupy a dahabeyah and share the cost: the intention being that the selections should be made from those in the hotel at Cairo. How the matter came about I do not remember; but it was soon perceived that I entertained the thought of joining; whereupon I was pressed to do so. As the pressure was added to by the father of the young lady, who happened to be present, I felt inclined to yield. Not then deciding, however, I took time to consider whether such a journey might be undertaken without too great a hindrance to my work, and next day assented to the proposal. An immediate departure in company with the three was obviously impracticable; for I had more than a week’s revision to do on the last sheets of Ceremonial Institutions. But as they were going all the way by sea, and as I proposed to go by land as far as Brindisi, it was clear that I should be able to reach Cairo as soon as they did, though I started a week later. With this understanding we exchanged our temporary farewells.
During the time the negociation was pending, I said it was a pity that the party did not include one of the young lady’s sisters. This remark was repeated in a letter to the mother; and, a day or two later, there came from her the question—“Will you take charge of H———?” Naturally nothing could please me better than to have such a travelling companion; and, telegraphing at once an affirmative answer, I rushed off to Leadenhall Street to engage a berth for her. A bustling interval after the young lady’s arrival in town, was followed by our departure on the 11th November.
Details of the journey need not be given. Suffice it to say that, while crossing the Channel, we made the acquaintance of a gentleman and his wife who were also bound for Cairo; and I was enabled to put my charge under the lady’s wing: so absolving myself from much of my responsibility; which was a great satisfaction. Our stopping places were Paris, Turin, Bologna (where we had nearly two days to spare) and Brindisi; leaving which last place by the P. & O. steamer, we reached Alexandria on the 20th and Cairo the same evening.
A good deal of merriment was caused by an occurrence which arose from the division of our party. The arrangements in pursuance of which I brought with me an additional member of it, were made after the departure of the original group. They went by a private steamer bound from Liverpool to Port Said; and they were, of course, in ignorance of what had happened. A passage written from Cairo on Nov. 23, thus narrates the consequences:—
“H——— and I, after a prosperous journey, arrived here nearly three days ago. We got here two days before her sister, whom we were to join, and who had no notion that she was coming! Last night, on her sister’s arrival, we had an immense joke. H——— was dressed up as a Turkish lady, with black veil just showing her eyes. I took E——— to show her her room; and, on entering the ante-chamber, explained to her that for a night or so, it would be needful to share the double room with this Turkish lady, whom, as I assured her, she would find a nice creature, and to whom I then proceeded to introduce her. H——— drawled out some broken French; and it was great fun to watch, first E———’s horror and disgust at the prospect before her, and then her astonishment as the truth was disclosed.
The sunny weather is charming, but thus far I find my sleep much worse instead of better. I hope it may be otherwise after a while.
The population here shocks me greatly. Very picturesque, but poor ragged, dirty, diseased. I am eager to get away on to the Nile; hoping to see a less concentrated form of the misery of a long-decaying civilization.”
That this experience was unique is not likely; but there cannot have been many who have had the opportunity of introducing one sister to another in disguise, two thousand miles away from home.
A fortnight in Cairo, partly spent in making arrangements for our inland voyage, and otherwise in sight-seeing, now followed. To myself it brought not much satisfaction. An imprudent meal at Alexandria established a long fit of indigestion, producing, as my diary tells me, a succession of wretched nights.
One result was that when, after a few days, we made an expedition to the Pyramids, I felt too much enfeebled to attempt the ascent, and had to content myself with rambling about their bases and inspecting the adjacent remains. The entry in my diary describes me as “much impressed.” Perhaps even more than the Great Pyramid, the thing which impressed me was the tomb-temple in which we picnic’d. It is built of large polished granite blocks, so accurately fitted as not to have needed any mortar. Egyptologists say it is of greater antiquity than the pyramids themselves! More than anything else I saw, this ancient structure made me feel the mystery which enshrouds the earliest Egyptian civilization known to us.
It is needless to describe our visits to the mosques of Sultan Hassan and Mohammed Ali, the Tomb of the Kings and the Cemetery, the mosque of Talou, the Arab University, the howling dervishes and dancing dervishes, and a moonlight ride to the Tombs of the Caliphs. Suffice it to say that more or less daily sight-seeing relieved the long-drawn negotiation with a dragoman and the choice of a dahabeyah; for in the East, business-transactions, accompanied by much giving and receiving of presents, are exasperatingly slow.
During this interval the ladies of the party were taken to be presented to the Sultana (if that is the title of the Khedive’s wife); and it was proposed to me to make a like visit to the Khedive. I do not remember by whom the proposal was made; but I greatly astonished the gentleman by declining, and by giving as my reason that I did not care for introductions which led to nothing. I have a great aversion to mere ceremonial interviews.
By the end of a fortnight matters had been settled, and there remained only to stock the dahabeyah with the needful supplies. My friends amused themselves by rambling through the bazaars buying oriental knick-knacks; but as I had no taste for them (I brought back nothing but photographs) this distraction was not available. Hence I was a good deal bored. One of the things I did to pass the time was to make an excursion to a suburban watering place.
This place was Helouan, some dozen miles from Cairo, on the border of the Eastern Desert, where the existence of sulphuretted springs had led the late Khedive to attempt the establishment of a resort for visitors; not, however, with much success, for the place lacked attractions.
Clearer ideas of a desert were obtained than I before had; but that which I chiefly remember is that for the first time I perceived the nature of an “after-glow.” Egypt is a land in which fine sunsets are habitual—not sunsets of that gorgeous kind in which clusters of clouds are splendidly lighted up, for there are not commonly the clouds required; but sunsets fine in the sense of presenting a brightly illuminated Western sky. From the clearness and dryness of the air, it further results that habitually (as occasionally in our own climate in frosty weather), just as sunset is taking place, the Eastern portion of the heavens to some height above the horizon, becomes red. Evidently its redness is due to the fact that along with those rays which, reaching the observer, yield to his eyes the bright red of the western sky, there go the rays which pass by him and fall on the haze in the lower part of the Eastern sky. Now this illuminated haze, visible to him by reflected light, must be visible by transmitted light to people living several hundred miles below the Eastern horizon; and to them it constitutes an “after-glow.” Verification is obtained by watching what takes place. As the sun goes below the Western horizon, there may be observed on the Eastern horizon (which the flatness of the desert makes visible in Egypt) a grey band, due to that portion of the Eastern haze which does not catch the red rays from the West. As the sun descends further below the Western horizon, this grey band broadens; and, at the same time, the red haze above it ascends and broadens. This process continues until eventually the red haze, becoming fainter as it broadens and rises higher, is lost in mid-heaven; where, of course, the thickness of illuminated haze, as seen from below, is insufficient to cause appreciable colour. Presently, on the other side of the heavens, this process is reversed. The diffused and faint red light extending high up, gradually descends, narrows, becomes brighter, and ends in an “after-glow”.
On the morning of Dec. 12 our dragoman signalized the departure of our dahabeyah by discharging his pistol—the sole weapon of defence we had on board; and we sailed away with a fair north wind.
It seems at first surprising that the North wind should blow daily, if not with complete regularity, yet with something approaching it. I suppose the cause is that, to supply the place of the immense volume of heated air which ascends from the surfaces of the surrounding deserts when the sun begins to heat them, a current of air sets in below; and the coldest air, which is that from the North, is that which takes the place of the heated air. Be this as it may, however, the cold North wind greatly qualifies one’s sensation of warmth from the sun’s rays, and at the same time greatly qualifies the pre-conception one has of the climate. How cold it frequently is may may be judged from the fact that the fellahs, who, on the banks of the river, work all day with their shadoofs, raising water to irrigate their lands, habitually construct screens to shelter themselves from the blast. And, in further proof of the coldness, I may add that more than ten days’ journey South of Cairo, we twice had ice formed at night on the deck of our dahabeyah.
Here let me correct another erroneous impression respecting the meteorology of Egypt, entertained, I suppose, by others in common with myself. I had always been led to believe that “it never rains in Egypt.” I was completely undeceived when at Helouan; where, in the adjacent desert, besides marks of recent storms, I saw a channel which had been cut through the rock, some dozen or more feet wide, and nearly as deep, by the tremendous torrents which occasionally rushed down it.
While I am speaking of natural objects which interested me, let me name a flock of pelicans seated upon an adjacent sand-bank as we sailed by. After the melancholy-looking specimens in the Zoological Gardens, it was pleasant to see these birds in one of their natural habitats. I was puzzled to understand how, in the turbid waters of the Nile, they are able to secure a sufficiency of prey. Obscured by the suspended mud and sand, fish can be visible at but very short distances; and one would have thought that creatures requiring food in such considerable quantities, could not have obtained, by diving, a sufficiency.
Perhaps it may be that the fish are limited almost entirely to the bottom, of which there is curious evidence. As far as I remember, all the fish I saw, differing though they might in species, were alike in being provided with long pendant tentacles; showing how large a part exploration by touch played in their lives. So thick is the Nile water that at any considerable depth in it the light must be very dim; and, as the distance seen through an obstructing medium with little light can be but small, the obtainment of food in mid-water must be impracticable. Feeling about at the bottom seems the only alternative; and hence the great development of tactile organs.
But what of our life and adventures on the Nile? Well, is seems hardly worth while to say anything concerning them. As to the life, considered apart from occasional excursions to tombs and temples, it was monotonous enough. And as for the things seen, are they not described by many travellers, and delineated in the works of Egyptologists? Now-a-days, to say anything new about them would be difficult.
There is, however, a further reason why I do not give details of our journey. The dyspepsia set up at Alexandria, with its consequent bad nights, had produced a state of depression which prevented me from entering with due zest into sight-seeing; and anything I might say about what we did and saw would lack that character which only deep interest can give. Hitherto my nervous relapses had not caused any conspicuous changes in my flow of spirits, which, throughout life, had been equable—never very high, never very low. But now I had experience of a state, not uncommon with nervous subjects, in which fancies, afterwards seen to be morbid, took possession of me; leading to ill-balanced estimates and consequent unwise judgments. Already I had once decided to return, and had changed my mind; and at the first cataract I finally decided to return. As is usual, our expedition was to extend to the second cataract; but at Philæ, leaving my friends to carry out the original plan, I bade them good-bye. This decision of course added considerably to my expenses; for, beyond my share of the costs up to the second cataract and back, which of course I paid though I did not go, I had to pay the cost of the return-journey to Cairo.
This return-journey was rendered less monotonous than it would else have been by a fortunate incident. Such excursion traffic on the Nile as is not carried on in dahabeyahs, is divided between two steamers; one of which plies below the first cataract and the other above it: passengers being transferred through some five miles of desert from the one to the other. When my friends sailed away from Philæ, this upper steamer had just returned from the second cataract; and, joining those on board, I had, in common with them, to wait three days until the steamer at Assouan was ready for us. Among those thus detained was Prof. Sayce; and during these three days we had some interesting conversations. One of them concerned a general assumption of the philologists to which I demur; and I remember it in some measure because it took place as we paced backwards and forwards on the southern side of a grove of palms, to shelter ourselves from the North wind; though the place is nearly five hundred miles south of Cairo.
On our way down the river Prof. Sayce’s information made more instructive than they would otherwise have been some things we saw together, and particularly the temple of Abydos.
How much was due to the aspect of things, and how much to my mood, I cannot say, but Egypt impressed me as a melancholy country. In the title of a work by Mr. Stuart Glennie, it is called “the Morning-Land”: the intention obviously being to suggest that it was the land in which civilization dawned. But to me, not looking forward upon it but looking back, it seemed rather the land of decay and death—dead men, dead races, dead creeds.
Everywhere are ancient burial places to be visited—vast cemeteries like that of Sakkara, extensive sepulchral chambers such as those of the kings of Thebes, and rockcut tombs seen in the faces of the cliffs as we sail by. Relics taken from graves are soon made familiar; and from time to time one sees fragments of mummy-cloth blown about by the winds. Here and there are shapeless mounds of débris, chaotically grouped, where once towns and cities stood. At some places half imbedded in these, and elsewhere otherwise imbedded, are the remains more or less ruined of the ancient temples, in which, as in the tombs, was carried on a cult that grievously subordinated the living to the dead; while, along with represented acts of sacrifice, their walls are filled with scenes of merciless slaughter of one people by another. And then, from the lifeless deserts on either hand, the winds have ever been bringing sands to bury the remains of men and their works, and to re-bury them when exhumed.
Nor does modern Egypt fail to remind one of death and decay. Vast heaps which cover up once populous towns, probably of comparatively recent date, draw one’s attention close to Cairo. Tombs, as of the Caliphs and others, are here, again, among the things to be visited. Moreover there are the burial grounds now in use—unfenced places run over by children and dogs, covered by broken stones and monuments, with holes which seem to run into the graves: places so repulsive that anyone otherwise indifferent to death might shudder at the thought of being interred there.
And then there comes the thought of the miserable peoples who have lived and died in the Nile valley; from the earliest times, when the masses were slaves to the military and priestly castes, down to our own times, when unhappy fellahs are beaten by extortionate taxgatherers to get money for supporting corrupt governments. The suffering which has been borne on the banks of the Nile by millions of men during thousands of years is appalling to think of.
Connected with these impressions, is the remembrance of a marvellous contrast between two memorials to the dead, presented at Ghizeh and at Elephantine respectively.
With the one memorial is associated the name of Cheops, or, as he is now called, Shufu or Koofoo—a king who, if we may believe Herodotus, kept a hundred thousand men at work for twenty years building his tomb; and who, whether these figures are or are not correct, must have imposed forced labour on enormous numbers of men for periods during which tens of thousands had to bear great pains, and thousands upon thousands died of their sufferings. If the amounts of misery and mortality inflicted are used as measures, this king, held in such detestation by later generations that statues of him were defaced by them, ought to be numbered among the few most accursed of men.
The other memorial I observed on the occasion of an excursion we made to the island of Elephantine at Assouan. We saw a burial place there; and noted a grave-heap recently made. Perhaps it covered the body of one who died prematurely of toil made greater by State-extortions; perhaps of a son who had laboured in support of aged parents; perhaps of a widow who had borne the burden of rearing fatherless children. But the fact which impressed me was that at the head of this grave-heap the sole mark of remembrance was a sundried brick stuck on end.
The contrasts between these monuments was striking when one thought of it. To a man of immeasurable guilt the biggest building which the world contains; to a man probably inoffensive and possibly meritorious a lump of parched clay!
After a day spent at Cairo in recruiting (for, as may be imagined, five nights on board a cramped Nile-steamer left me in a state of exhaustion), and after going to see the resident English physician there, Dr. Grant, I departed for Alexandria. Next morning was spent in an excursion to Ramleh, a residential suburb, to call on Mr. Hills, the international arbitrator (I don’t know his official title), who had invited me to stay with him; and, in the afternoon, I went on board the “Ceylon” P. & O. steamer.
Three days took us to Brindisi; another day to Ancona; and the next morning found us at Venice. Here I suppose I ought to have remained some time; but I find by my diary, rather to my surprise, that my stay did not extend beyond three days. Doubtless my impatience to get home was the chief cause of this abridgment; joined, perhaps, with the fact that “the stones of Venice” did not produce in me so much enthusiasm as in many. Not that I failed to derive much pleasure; but the pleasure was less multitudinous in its sources than that which is felt, or is alleged to be felt, by the majority. This may be seen from the first entry in my diary:—
“Venice at 8 to 9; went to Danielli’s. Saw St. Mark’s, the Piazza, the Grand Canal, and some churches: fine day—very picturesque—general effect fine—individual things not.”
Quarries in which men thought only of getting stone, often present picturesque effects when deserted; whereas the artificial rock-works made when trying to produce picturesqueness are always miserable failures. Venice reminded me of this. In the separate buildings in which architects aimed at beauty, they have rarely achieved it; but they have unawares achieved it in the assemblages of buildings. Houses severally placed without reference to effect, present everywhere charming combinations of forms and colours; so that, especially in the smaller canals, every turn furnishes a picture.
Astonished at these heretical opinions, the reader will doubtless ask for justifications, and I cannot well avoid giving them. Speaking generally, then, say of the palaces along the Grand Canal, my first criticism is that they are fundamentally defective in presenting to the eye nothing more than decorated flat surfaces. No fine architectural effect can be had without those advancing and retreating masses which produce broad contrasts of light and shade and yield variety in the perspective lines. This is not all. A flat façade has not only the defects that its perspective lines are monotonous and its contrasts of light and shade insufficient; but it has, in too conspicuous a way, the aspect of artificiality. Its decorative elements—columns placed against the surface, pilasters stuck upon it, reveals cut into it, string-courses running along it, plaques or medallions or carved wreaths attached in plain spaces—are all obviously designed for effect. They form no needful parts of the structure, but are merely superposed; and clearly tell the spectator that they are there simply to be admired. But any work of art is faulty if it suggests an eager desire for admiration in the artist—if it suggests that neither the thought of use nor the simple perception of beauty moved him, but that he was chiefly moved by love of applause. It is a recognized truth that that is the highest art which hides the art, and an ornamented flat surface necessarily fails in this respect; since it discloses unmistakably the fact that almost everything done to the surface is done for the sake of appearance. As illustrations of my meaning I may name the Dario, the Corner-Spinelli, and the Rezzonico palaces. The best of the flat façades is that of the Scuola di San Rocco; and it is so because the decorative element, less obtrusive than usual, is also subordinated to the structural element in such wise that its lines are dependent on the structural lines.
Passing from this general criticism to more special criticisms, let me single out the Ducal Palace. There are many faults which might be severally dwelt upon—the inelegant proportions of its main dimensions; the dumpy arches of the lower tier, and the dumpy windows in the wall above; the meaningless diaper pattern covering this wall, which suggests something woven rather than built; and the long rows of projections and spikes surmounting the coping, which remind one of nothing so much as the vertebral spines of a fish. But, not dwelling on these defects, let me signalize a defect of another order: the impression of weakness which the construction gives. A satisfactory architectural work, if it does not positively suggest stability, must, at any rate, avoid suggesting instability. The artist has to consider the sum total of a spectator’s consciousness; and if one element of that consciousness is a feeling of insecurity, however vague, that feeling is so much deduction from whatever pleasure is yielded by the purely æsthetic characters. In the Ducal Palace we have a lower tier of arches borne on dwarf columns, and above these a tier of more numerous arches on taller and thinner columns which support foliated circles; and then, surmounting this structure, we have a large area of wall, not much lightened by openings. The general effect is that of a very heavy mass posed on an assemblage of slender supports. That the weight is not too great for them to bear, is true: the building stands. But the appearance is such as to raise the thought of a dangerous stress—an uncomfortable thought which more or less perturbs the consciousness of such beauty as there may be in the parts.
And what about St. Mark’s? Well, I admit that it is a fine sample of barbaric architecture. I use the word barbaric advisedly; for it has the trait distinctive of semicivilized art—excess of decoration. This trait is seen in an Egyptian temple, with its walls and columns covered with coloured frescoes and hieroglyphs. It is seen in oriental dresses, of which the fabric is almost hidden by gold braiding and crusts of jewellery. It is seen in such articles of Indian manufacture as cabinets and boxes, having surfaces filled with fret-works of carving. And in mediæval days throughout Europe, it was habitually displayed on articles belonging to those of rank—pieces of furniture profusely inlaid; suits of armour covered everywhere with elaborate chasing; swords, guns, and pistols, with blades, barrels and stocks chased and carved from one end to the other. The characteristic of barbaric art is that it leaves no space without ornament; and this is the characteristic of St. Mark’s. The spandrils of the lower tier of arches are the only parts of the façade not crammed with decorative work. This is an error which more developed art avoids. Practically, if not theoretically, it recognizes the fact that, to obtain the contrasts requisite for good effect, there must be large areas which are relatively plain, to serve as foils to the enriched areas. A work of art which is full of small contrasts and without any great contrasts, sins against the fundamental principles of beauty; and a contrast above all others indispensable is that between simplicity and complexity.
Archeologically considered, St. Mark’s is undoubtedly precious; but it is not precious æsthetically considered. Unfortunately many people confound the two.
My last glance at Venice was from the gondola which took me up the Grand Canal to the Railway Station, early on the 7th of February. Thence I started for the West and reached Milan in the afternoon.
Two days there were pretty fully occupied in sight-seeing: the cathedral being the chief attraction. I see by my diary that I glanced into it on the afternoon of my arrival; heard part of the Mass there next day; and, before departing the day after, “went again to admire the cathedral”.
Leaving Milan on the 9th, I journeyed home viâ Turin and Paris, reaching London on the 12th. The entry in my diary is:—“Home at 7-10; heartily glad—more pleasure than in anything that occurred during my tour”.
From a letter to Youmans written on the 13th, I may quote a passage of some interest which, though irrelevant to the subject-matter of the chapter, belongs to it by order of date:—
“I reached home last night . . . In Paris on Wednesday I saw Baillière, and he told me that the French Minister of Education was desirous of having an edition of the Education from which the first chapter [“What Knowledge is of most worth”] should be omitted; for that, though he himself concurred in its argument, there would be much opposition if official distribution was given to a book containing it. I agreed with Baillière to let such an edition be published in a very cheap form.”
I should add that, in giving my assent to the publication of such an addition, I stipulated that the extent and nature of the part omitted should be specified in the preface. This was done, and the truncated book issued for tutorial use as desired.