The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter XXXIV

“The Scented Garden”


77. The Scented Garden. “My new Version,” translated 1888-1890.

158. Nafzawi.

As we learn from a letter to Mr. Payne, 8th November 1888, Burton began his “new version” of The Scented Garden, or as it is sometimes called, The Perfumed Garden, in real earnest early in that month, and Lady Burton tells us that it “occupied him seriously only six actual months,”569 that is, the last six months of his life.

The Scented Garden, or to give its full title, “The Scented Garden for the Soul’s Recreation” was the work of a learned Arab Shaykh and physician named Nafzawi, who was born at Nafzawa, a white,570 palm-encinctured town which gleamed by the shore of the Sebkha — that is, salt marsh — Shot al Jarid; and spent most of his life in Tunis. The date of his birth is unrecorded, but The Scented Garden seems to have been written in 1431.571 Nafzawi, like Vatsyayana, from whose book he sometimes borrows, is credited with having been an intensely religious man, but his book abounds in erotic tales seasoned to such an extent as would have put to the blush even the not very sensitive “Tincker of Turvey.”572 It abounds in medical learning,573 is avowedly an aphrodisiac, and was intended, if one may borrow an expression from Juvenal, “to revive the fire in nuptial cinders.”574 Moslems read it, just as they took ambergrised coffee, and for the same reason. Nafzawi, indeed, is the very antithesis of the English Sir Thomas Browne, with his well-known passage in the Religio Medici,575 commencing “I could be content that we might procreate like trees.” Holding that no natural action of a man is more degrading than another, Nafzawi could never think of amatory pleasures without ejaculating “Glory be to God,” or some such phrase. But “Moslems,” says Burton, “who do their best to countermine the ascetic idea inherent in Christianity,576 are not ashamed of the sensual appetite, but rather the reverse.”577 Nafzawi, indeed, praises Allah for amorous pleasures just as other writers have exhausted the vocabulary in gratitude for a loaded fruit tree or an iridescent sunset. His mind runs on the houris promised to the faithful after death, and he says that these pleasures are “part of the delights of paradise awarded by Allah as a foretaste of what is waiting for us, namely delights a thousand times superior, and above which only the sight of the Benevolent is to be placed.” We who anticipate walls of jasper and streets of gold ought not, perhaps, to be too severe on the Tunisian. It must also be added that Nafzawi had a pretty gift of humour.578

569 Life, ii., 410. See also Romance, ii., 723.

570 As most of its towns are white, Tunis is called The Burnous of the Prophet, in allusion to the fact that Mohammed always wore a spotlessly white burnous.

571 As suggested by M. Hartwig Derenbourg, Membre de l’Institut.

572 The nominal author of the collection of Old English Tales of the same name.

573 Ridiculous as this medical learning reads to-day, it is not more ridiculous than that of the English physicians two centuries later.

574 Juvenal, Satire xi.

575 Religio Medici, part ii., section 9.

576 We should word it “Pauline Christianity.”

577 Arabian Nights, Lib. Ed., vii., 161.

578 See the example we give in 160 about Moseilema and the bald head.

159. Origin of The Scented Garden.

The origin of the book was as follows: A small work, The Torch of the World,579 dealing with “The Mysteries of Generation,” and written by Nafzawi, had come into the hands of the Vizier of the Sultan of Tunis. Thereupon the Vizier sent for the author and received him “most honourably.” Seeing Nafzawi blush, he said, “You need not be ashamed; everything you have said is true; no one need be shocked at your words. Moreover, you are not the first who has treated of this matter; and I swear by Allah that it is necessary to know this book. It is only the shameless boor and the enemy of all science who will not read it, or who will make fun of it. But there are sundry things which you will have to treat about yet.” And he mentioned other subjects, chiefly of a medical character.

“Oh, my master,” replied Nafzawi, “all you have said here is not difficult to do, if it is the pleasure of Allah on high.”

“I forthwith,” comments Nafzawi, “went to work with the composition of this book, imploring the assistance of Allah (May He pour His blessing on the prophet)580 and may happiness and pity be with him.”

The most complete text of The Scented Garden is that now preserved in the library at Algiers, and there are also manuscripts in the libraries of Paris, Gotha and Copenhagen. In 1850 a manuscript which seems to have corresponded practically with The Torch of the World was translated into French by a Staff Officer of the French Army in Algeria, and an edition of thirty-five copies was printed by an autographic process in Algiers in the year 1876.581 In 1886 an edition of 220 copies was issued by the French publisher Isidore Liseux, and the same year appeared a translation of Liseux’s work bearing the imprint of the Kama Shastra Society. This is the book that Burton calls “my old version,”582 which, of course, proves that he had some share in it.583

There is no doubt that the average Englishman584 would be both amazed and shocked on first opening even the Kama Shastra Society’s version; unless, perchance, he had been prepared by reading Burton’s Arabian Nights or the Fiftieth Chapter of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall with the Latin Notes, though even these give but a feeble idea of the fleshiness of The Scented Garden. Indeed, as Ammianus Marcellinus, referring to the Arabs, says: “Incredible est quo ardore apud eos in venerem uterque solvitur sexus.”

579 Also called The Torch of Pebble Strown River Beds, a title explained by the fact that in order to traverse with safety the dried Tunisian river beds, which abound in sharp stones, it is advisable, in the evening time, to carry a torch.

580 Mohammed, of course.

581 It contained 283 pages of text, 15 pages d’avis au lecteur, 2 portraits, 13 hors testes on blue paper, 43 erotic illustrations in the text, and at the end of the book about ten pages of errata with an index and a few blank leaves.

582 He also refers to it in his Arabian Nights, Lib. Ed., vol. viii., p. 121, footnote.

583 See Chapter xxvi.

584 But, of course, the book was not intended for the average Englishman, and every precaution was taken, and is still taken, to prevent him from getting it.

160. Contents of The Scented Garden.

Nafzawi divided his book into twenty one-chapters “in order to make it easier reading for the taleb (student).” It consists of descriptions of “Praiseworthy Men” and “Praiseworthy Women” from a Nafzawin point of view, interpretations of dreams, medical recipes for impotence, &c., lists of aphrodisiacs, and stories confirmatory of Ammianus’s remark. Among the longer tales are those of Moseilma, “Bahloul585 and Hamdonna,” and “The Negro Al Dhurgham”586 — all furiously Fescinnine. The story of Moseilema, Lord of Yamama, is familiar in one form or another to most students of Arab History. Washington Irving epitomises it in his inexpressibly beautiful “Successors” of Mahomet587 and Gibbon588 tells it more fully, partly in his text and partly in his Latin footnotes. Moseilema was, no doubt, for some years quite as influential a prophet as his rival Mohammed. He may even have been as good a man,589 but Nafzawi — staunch Mohammedan — will not let “the Whig dogs have the best of the argument.” He charges Moseilema with having perverted sundry chapters in the Koran by his lies and impostures, and declares that he did worse than fail when he attempted to imitate Mohammed’s miracles. “Now Moseilema (whom may Allah curse!), when he put his luckless hand on the head of some one who had not much hair, the man was at once quite bald . . . and when he laid his hand upon the head of an infant, saying, ‘Live a hundred years,’ the infant died within an hour.” As a matter of fact, however, Moseilema was one of the most romantic figures in Arabic history.590 Sedja, Queen and Prophetess, went to see him in much the same spirit that the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon. Moseilema, who outlived Mohammed about a year, was defeated and slain near his capital Yamama, by the Mohammedan hero Khalid, and Sedjah subsequently embraced Islamism.

In the tale entitled “Djoaidi and Fadehat el Djemal”591 appears that hoary poet, philosopher and reprobate, Abu Nowas592 of The Arabian Nights. Like the Nights, The Scented Garden has a cycle of tales illustrative of the cunning and malice of women. But all the women in those days and countries were not bad, just as all were not plain. Plumpness seems to have been the principal attraction of sex, and the Kama Shastra version goes so far as to assure us that a woman who had a double chin,593 was irresistible. If so, there were probably no words in the language good enough to describe a woman with three chins. According, however, to the author of the recent Paris translation594 this particular rendering is a mistake. He considers that the idea Nafzawi wished to convey was the tower-like form of the neck,595 but in any circumstances the denizens of The Scented Garden placed plumpness in the forefront of the virtues; which proves, of course, the negroid origin of at any rate some of the stories,596 for a true Arab values slenderness. Over and over again in the Nights we are told of some seductive lady that she was straight and tall with a shape like the letter Alif or a willow wand. The perfect woman, according to Mafzawi, perfumes herself with scents, uses ithmid597 (antimony) for her toilet, and cleans her teeth with bark of the walnut tree. There are chapters on sterility, long lists of the kind to be found in Rabelais, and solemn warnings against excess, chiefly on account of its resulting in weakness of sight, with other “observations useful for men and women.”

While chapters i. to xx. concern almost entirely the relations between the opposite sexes, Chapter xxi.598 which constitutes more than one-half of the book, treats largely of those unspeakable vices which as St. Paul and St. Jude show, and the pages of Petronius and other ancient authors prove, were so common in the pagan world, and which, as Burton and other travellers inform us, are still practised in the East.

“The style and language in which the Perfumed Garden is written are,” says the writer of the Foreword to the Paris edition of 1904, “of the simplest and most unpretentious kind, rising occasionally to a very high degree of eloquence, resembling, to some extent, that of the famous Thousand Nights and a Night; but, while the latter abounds in Egyptian colloquialisms, the former frequently causes the translator to pause owing to the recurrence of North African idioms and the occasional use of Berber or Kabyle words, not generally known.” In short, the literary merits or the work are trifling.

Although Nafzawi wrote his extended Scented Garden for scholars only, he seems afterwards to have become alarmed, and to have gone in fear lest it might get into the hands of the ignorant and do harm. So he ended it with:

“O you who read this, and think of the author

And do not exempt him from blame,

If you spare your good opinion of him, do not

At least fail to say ‘Lord forgive us and him.’”599

585 Court fool of Haroun al Rashid. Several anecdotes of Bahloul are to be found in Jami’s Beharistan.

586 A tale that has points in common with the lynching stories from the United States. In the Kama Shastra edition the negro is called “Dorerame.”

587 Chapter ii. Irving spells the name Moseilma.

588 Chapter ii. Sleath’s Edition, vol. vi., 348.

589 It must be remembered that the story of Moseilema and Sedjah has been handed down to us by Moseilema’s enemies.

590 The struggle between his followers and those of Mohammed was a fight to the death. Mecca and Yamama were the Rome and Carthage of the day — the mastery of the religious as well as of the political world being the prize.

591 As spelt in the Kama Shastra version.

592 Burton’s spelling. We have kept to it throughout this book. The word is generally spelt Nuwas.

593 The 1886 edition, p. 2.

594 Vol. i., p. 117.

595 Cf. Song of Solomon, iv., 4. “Thy neck is like the Tower of David.”

596 See Burton’s remarks on the negro women as quoted in Chapter ix., 38.

597 Women blacken the inside of the eyelids with it to make the eyes look larger and more brilliant.

598 So we are told in the Introduction to the Kama Shastra edition of Chapters i. to xx. Chapter xxi. has not yet been translated into any European language. Probably Burton never saw it. Certainly he did not translate it.

599 From the Paris version of 1904. See Chapter xxxviii. of this book, where the Kama Shastra version is given.

161. Sir Richard Burton’s Translation.

It was in the autumn of 1888, as we have seen, that Sir Richard Burton, who considered the book to take, from a linguistic and ethnological point of view, a very high rank, conceived the idea of making a new translation, to be furnished with annotations of a most elaborate nature. He called it at first, with his fondness for rhyming jingle, The Scented Garden-Site for Heart’s Delight, and finally decided upon The Scented Garden — Man’s Heart to Gladden. Sir Richard’s Translation was from the Algiers manuscript, a copy of which was made for him at a cost of eighty pounds, by M. O. Houdas, Professor at the Ecole des Langues Orientales Vivantes. This was of the first twenty chapters. Whether a copy of the 21st Chapter ever reached Sir Richard we have not been able to ascertain. On 31st March 1890, he wrote in his Journal: “Began, or rather resumed, Scented Garden,”600 and thenceforward he worked at it sedulously. Now and again the Berber or Kabyle words with which the manuscript was sprinkled gave him trouble, and from time to time he submitted his difficulties to M. Fagnan, “the erudite compiler of the Catalogue of Arabic books and MSS. in the Bibliotheque Nationale d’Alger” and other Algerian correspondents. Lady Burton describes her husband’s work as “a translation from Arabic manuscripts very difficult to get in the original” with “copious notes and explanations” of Burton’s own — the result, indeed, of a lifetime of research. “The first two chapters were a raw translation of the works of Numa Numantius601 without any annotations at all, or comments of any kind on Richard’s part, and twenty chapters, translations of Shaykh el Nafzawi from Arabic. In fact, it was all translation, except the annotations on the Arabic work.”602 Thus Burton really translated only Chapters i. to xx., or one-half of the work. But it is evident from his remarks on the last day of his life that he considered the work finished with the exception of the pumice-polishing; and from this, one judges that he was never able to obtain a copy of the 21st Chapter. Lady Burton’s statement and this assumption are corroborated by a conversation which the writer had with Mr. John Payne in the autumn of 1904. “Burton,” said Mr. Payne, “told me again and again that in his eyes the unpardonable defect of the Arabic text of The Scented Garden was that it altogether omitted the subject upon which he had for some years bestowed special study.” If Burton had been acquainted with the Arabic text of the 21st Chapter he, of course, would not have made that complaint; still, as his letters show, he was aware that such a manuscript existed. Having complained to Mr. Payne in the way referred to respecting the contents of The Scented Garden, Burton continued, “Consequently, I have applied myself to remedy this defect by collecting all manner of tales and of learned material of Arab origin bearing on my special study, and I have been so successful that I have thus trebled the original manuscript.” Thus, as in the case of The Arabian Nights, the annotations were to have no particular connection with the text. Quite two-thirds of these notes consisted of matter of this sort.

Mr. Payne protested again and again against the whole scheme, and on the score that Burton had given the world quite enough of this kind of information in the Nights. But the latter could not see with his friend. He insisted on the enormous anthropological and historical importance of these notes — and that the world would be the loser were he to withold them; in fact, his whole mind was absorbed in the subject.

600 Life, by Lady Burton, ii., 441.

601 The pen name of Carl Ulrichs.

602 Life, by Lady Burton, ii., 444.

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