Travel Writing, Real and Otherwise: The Blazing World and La Russie en 1839

A couple of passages from books I’ve read recently, and then some thoughts on each.

The Lady now finding her self in so strange a place, and amongst such wonderful kind of Creatures, was extreamly strucken with fear, and could entertain no other Thoughts, but that every moment her life was to be a sacrifice to their cruelty; but those Bear-like Creatures, how terrible soever they appear’d to her sight, yet were they so far from exercising any cruelty upon her, that rather they shewed her all civility and kindness imaginable; for she being not able to go upon the Ice, by reason of its slipperiness, they took her up in their rough arms, and carried her into their City, where instead of Houses, they had Caves under ground; and as soon as they enter’d the City, both Males and Females, young and old, flockt together to see this Lady, holding up their Paws in admiration; at last having brought her into a certain large and spacious Cave, which they intended for her reception, they left her to the custody of the Females, who entertained her with all kindness and respect, and gave her such victuals as they used to eat; but seeing her Constitution neither agreed with the temper of that Climate, nor their Diet, they were resolved to carry her into another Island of a warmer temper…

The Blazing World and Other Writings (1666) by Margaret Cavendish

My words may appear bold and even revolting; for the sensitive self-love of the Russians imposes upon foreigners duties of delicacy and propriety to which I do not submit. My sincerity will render me culpable in the eyes of the men of this country. What ingratitude! The minister gives me a feldjager; the presence of his uniform spares me all the difficulties of the journey; and therefore am I bound, in the opinion of the Russians, to approve of every thing with them. That foreigner, they think, would outrage all the laws of hospitality if he permitted himself to criticize a country where so much regard has been shown towards him. Notwithstanding all this, I hold myself free to describe what I see, and to pass my opinion upon it.


The Russians are always on their guard against truth, which they dread: but I, who belong to a community where every thing is transacted openly, why should I embarrass myself with the scruples of these men, who say nothing, or merely darkly whisper unmeaning phrases, and beg their neighbours to keep them a secret. Every open and clearly-defined statement causes a stir in a country where not only the expression of opinions, but also the recital of the most undoubted facts, is forbidden. A Frenchman cannot imitate this absurdity; but he ought to note it.

Russia is governed; God knows when she will be civilized.

Empire of the Czar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia (1839) by Astolphe-Louis-Léonor, Marquis de Custine

If there’s one thing that reading these books so closely together drove home, it’s how fantastical travelogues emphasize the pleasures and wonders and marvels of the journey, while actual, real travelogues emphasize how annoying and awful travel can be. Real travelogues will include at least some ranting, while fantastical ones often emphasize the amazing and wonderful nature of the places visited.

This pattern may not be universal, but it does seem to hold when I think over things I’ve read in the past—from travel writings by Mary Wollstonecraft and Isabella Bird Bishop to fantastical stories of travel by authors like Jonathan Swift and Marco Polo’s Travels (significant portions of which it’s believed are retellings of others’ stories). There are exceptions, of course, like Peter Mayne’s jolly and amusing A Year in Marrakesh (discussed here), but I think the pattern overall holds… probably for good reason. Visiting a foreign place involves the actual discomfort and dislocation of travel; fantasy, the spectacle and splendor without the trouble.

I guess even travel writing is characterized by the tension between the idealization of possibility and the annoyance we feel at things going wrong. (That is to say, they are on some level punctuated by the same tension that Charles Elkins and Darko Suvin identify as everpresent in fiction novels, between what they call the “ideological” and the “utopian” poles.)

There’s more to say, of course, about each. 

Each of these books was interesting in its way.

The Cavendish was a loaner, passed to me by my friend Justin Howe, who’s been in my neck of the woods lately. The book is actually the Penguin Classics edition, which, in addition to The Blazing World, also includes two excerpts from another book titled Nature’s Pictures (specifically “The Contract” and “Assaulted and Pursued Chastity,” both of them much less interesting than The Blazing World, though the latter includes some interesting and odd things—it’s another travelogue with a house made of spices (like, with timbers made of cinnamon bark), and a cross-dressing female warrior of the literary type I recently discussed here.

The main feature is The Blazing World, which is a bizarre fantastical travelogue of a trip by an unnamed Lady to some second world that seems to attach to ours via a sort of watery passage adjoining the two poles of the worlds. The other world is crammed with chimerical animal-people and is ruled by a single Emperor, who takes the lady as his Empress. A lot of it is about Cavendish’s monarchist ideas—how to stop dummy philosophers from corrupting society with their conflicting and irresolvable debates, how to ensure science does useful things instead of warping society, and so on.

But somehow, the book also seems to be a kind of power fantasy written by an intelligent, enterprising woman of the mid-1660s: Cavendish appears in her own book as a kind of spirit-traveler summoned up by the Empress of the Blazing World, to whom she becomes an advisor. Indeed, they even hatch a plan to invade the other world (i.e. our world) by cunning use of fish people and what seem to be submarines. They also, er, “skinride” (like ghosts possessing the living) Cavendish’s husband, who’s having a rough go of things because of damn’d Cromwell and his bunch of upstarts.

It’s a book I found myself skimming in parts, but it had enough weirdness to keep grabbing my attention, and indeed it had enough weirdness that I can’t help but think I’ll be drawing upon bits of it when I get around to my Jonathan Swift-inspired RPG project later this year or early next… it’s eerie in some ways how much of it lines up with the backstory I’d through up for that Gulliver’s Travels-inspired project.

If you’re curious, a copy of the text is available online, though I have the impression that it’s more readable in the Penguin edition—more paragraph breaks, I suspect. (I could be wrong, though.)

A (part of a) frontispiece to end all frontispieces, with an author picture bundled into it! (Click the image to see it up close.)

Marquis de Custine: seemingly the only surviving image of him, too.

Funnily enough, where I unexpectedly found some neat ideas in the Cavendish that I’ll be bringing into an RPG project, Empire of the Czar is one I’d actually set out to read specifically as research for an RPG project. However, I found it wasn’t as useful as I’d hoped—there wasn’t much I could use beyond one great little scenario based on the story a fellow traveler tells de Custine, and some stuff that will probably fit into setting material. Not so useful at all.) 1

Still, the book was fascinating for me in and of itself. Originally titled La Russie en 1839: the translator for this edition, based on the 1843 Longman edition, was anonymous. It fascinated me for a number of reasons.

For one thing, Custine’s an interesting writer. He seems to pick up on things—stories, but also the hints of stories untold—and shares them with a sense of wit that tempers his outrage. Because, yes indeed, he spends a lot of time being outraged. For an aristocrat whose father and grandfather were killed off by the same (French) Revolutionaries they supported, he sure was gung-ho about hating monarchy and praising the French Republic. He’s snarky in a way that makes me think he’d almost fit in here in 2017… except it’s a rarer, more nourishing kind of snark born not just of wit and attitude but also of intelligence, observation, and conviction enough to be outraged on occasion.

But on top of that, de Custine’s litany of complaints about Russia sound suspiciously like the kinds of things Western expats in Korea rant about. For example, about the veneration of historical tyrants and thugs, almost as if they were national heroes; his linking of widespread abuse of alcohol to a history of (continuing) misrule; his rage at tyrannical power and oppression; his frustration at the fear he saw in so many; his unsettled feelings regarding widespread gloom and misery; his bafflement at the general militarization of civilian culture; the anxious nationalism and relentless seeking of praise from foreigners… really, so much of it felt so familiar, from both 18th century London and 21st century South Korea. I marked dozens of examples throughout the book as I read it, far too many for me to type up here (or even to know where to begin doing so, though you can read a few in this 1996 article on de Custine’s book).

It’s enough to make me return to wondering whether the parallels I see here between Korea today and Russia in 1839 (and, for that matter, London in the early 1700s) come down to some kind of hardcoded set of problems undergone by every society attempting technocratic modernization, or whether it’s just that the ills of other societies always stick out more to an outside than the ills of his own, and those ills being broadly similar across all cultures? I say this with some hesitation, since de Custine also criticizes French society’s problems here and there. He was certainly a man with incentive to do so: apparently, his having been outed as a homosexual a few years before his trip to Russia kind of ruined his life in a lot of ways.

Another thing I found interesting (as well as familiar) is something alluded to in the passage I quoted above: Russians were hypersensitive to criticism throughout his trip, according to de Custine. He talked about it in one-on-one contexts, but it seems to be borne out in the degree of ire Russians directed at the man at the time… at least among those who were able to get their hands on his book:

Several Russian authors published works critical of [de] Custine’s La Russie en 1839, among them Un mot sur l’ouvrage de M. de Custine, intitulé: La Russie en 1839 by Xavier Labenski (Jean Polonius) and Examen de l’ouvrage de M. le marquis de Custine intitulé “La Russie en 1839” (Paris, 1844) by Nicholas Gretsch. Tsarist authorities also sponsored a more scholarly investigation of Russia by a foreigner, Studies on the Interior of Russia by August von Haxthausen. It presented research on Russia’s traditional social institutions, which the Tsar’s advisors believed would effectively counter Custine’s work. Studies was translated from German into French and English in 1848.

The Tsar also commissioned French writer Hippolyte Auger to pen an extensive refutation. However, as the scandal of it subsided, the Tsar decided it was best not to remind the public of the book, and the project was abandoned.

Sound familiar? On the Russian-language version of the Wikipedia page on de Custine, the phrase used in place of “extensive refutation” is perhaps different: Google Translate specifically renders that expression “counter-propaganda,” in fact. And yeah, I’m thinking of Russia Today, and the Kremlin’s infamous troll factory.

I find the impulse funny: if there’s one thing counter-propaganda efforts always do, it’s make anyone sensible suspicious that there probably is something to the criticisms being attacked: the sinking of effort and money into such efforts inevitably brings to mind that line,”the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” (Even when those doing the propagandizing aren’t as hamfisted and clueless about the culture of the people they’re trying to propagandize as the South Korea organization VANK.) But even setting aside outright counter-propaganda efforts, the response de Custine describes among regular Russians also sounds a lot like how it goes down when non-Koreans publicly criticize anything in South Korean society. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say a number of the things de Custine experienced in Russia in 1839 could be found, almost verbatim, on expat blogs in Korea today: so, so many stories in his book had me thinking back to my own experiences and annoyances.

(This is even more funny because de Custine—when he’s remembered at all—is despised by negative nationalists in Russia in a way similar to how Jack London is by the few South Korean ethnonationalists who remember him.)

Of course, angry responses from Russians (then and now) don’t automatically mean Custine knew what he was talking about or didn’t occasionally shooting his mouth off in ignorance—I’d be surprised if he didn’t, in a book this length after such a short trip. There are places where his criticisms seem pretty shallow: Wow, Russian women wear ugly boots! Wow, Russian peasant women aren’t all beautiful! Wow, Russian houses are so dirty inside! Wow, Russian music sucks! Wow, Russian roads are awful! Such complaints are best shrugged at, but apparently ethnonationalists are duty-bound to be offended at every possible opportunity. 2

Then again, de Custine does often seems downright disgusted with the very people whose oppression he claims to abhor—which somehow shifts the tenor of his protests against the oppression, doesn’t it? That doesn’t help his case any.(And yeah, there’s certainly a subset of complaining expats who seem to disdain Koreans to their very core, too, so that’s another eerie familiarity.) Still, that doesn’t make the book less of an interesting read, from the perspective of looking at it as the rantings of a fellow traveler from almost two centuries later. I’d be interested to know how expats in other countries—not just 21st century Russia or East Asia, but really anywhere respond to the book. How much of it would feel familiar to them? I wonder, but I haven’t found any reviews that shed light on the question.

An older copy of the same text I read is available for free online.

  1. Especially not in comparison to a book like Pavel Bazhov’s The Malachite Box, which is crammed with useful weirdness.

  2. I’ve seen enough cases where a foreign writer or commentator’s snarky criticism of random aspects of South Korean society has brought down an undeserved hail of fire: Ian Buruma, P.J. O’Rourke, Michael Breen, and a number of bloggers like the memorable Brian Deutsch have all been targeted with similar ethnonationalist outrage for writing honestly and, as I see it, mostly reasonably fairly (if not always flatteringly) about issues in South Korea. (Even I’ve received such a response on a smaller scale, on occasion; sometimes, even when I was asked directly about something and urged to be honest.)

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