Rebecca West & Me: "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon."

From an early age I have devoured books about far away places, the farther away the better. I went through a period in my early teens of being enamored with science fiction but tired of the exploitative novelty and shock value inherent in much of it. I also found the increasingly dystopian undercurrents too seductive for my awakening depressive tendencies so I quit, cold turkey. I also found non-fiction much more sympathetic to my quest for knowledge about the complex world so, since I had already read most of what were considered the “classics,” I also stopped reading novels in general. I found all the character studies and insights into the human condition I wanted in anthropological and historical records.

I was interested in archeology from the beginning and our travels around the world reinforced that desire to understand other peoples and traditions. From the usual sphere of the Mediterranean, Greece and Rome, I was intrigued by the mid-century discoveries in the Americas, particularly pre-Incan Peru and the Yucatan. For some reason Central Asia always seemed the most exotic; for many years archeologists were fond of attributing all sorts of things originating “in Central Asia,” as if were another Ultima Thule. I read everything available on Tibet, Xinjiang, Turkestan, fascinated by Xanadu. At university I studied Russian history and geography; European medieval history, literature, philosophy, art, and religion; Middle Eastern, African, Indian, and East Asian history. I amassed books on the origin and history of almost everything imaginable: the history of science, architecture, foods, bridges, gardens, tools, musical instruments, weapons, pottery, metallurgy, transportation, clothing, agriculture, writing systems, anything that would help tie together the intricate web of human activities that I increasingly saw as interrelated.

During my thirties (the 1970s) I worked in the Mithras bookstore in La Jolla, associated with the Unicorn art theater, which was a nexus of intellectual activity around Southern California, for ten years. We carried both new and used books as well as phonograph records obtained from distributors worldwide. The active flow of incoming books stimulated my awareness and reading habits exponentially.

In the bibliographies of many of the historical works I read I noticed frequent references to a book with the somewhat fanciful title, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” by Rebecca West. I didn’t recognize the author but I suppose I lumped her in with a number of Victorian era ladies who wrote travelogues about the Balkans or the Levant, who complained about “never having a decent meal after they left Vienna.” But the references multiplied. One day a two-volume paperback copy of the book came in and I, stunned by its size – almost 1200 pages – and curious to finally see what the fuss was all about, picked it up and read the jacket blurbs. William L. Shirer called it “the best book to come out of the war,” and the other reviewers were just as glowing. I started reading the Prologue, figuring I would soon know whether it was worthwhile or not: I was in tears several times before I finished the two dozen pages. I bought the book – and many copies since; I press it upon others who I hold dear, insisting they read it. “It will change your life.”

When asked what the book is about I initially stumbled but, eventually, evolved a response which approximates the truth. “It is a socio-economic-politico-religio-historical-philosophical-cultural analysis and exploration of Serbia, hence Yugoslavia, hence the Balkans, hence Eastern Europe, hence Western Civilization – in the guise of a travelogue.” Quickly remedying my ignorance of Rebecca West I fell under her spell, initially as a remarkable woman and feminist and, in the course of reading her work, as a great prose stylist and insightful observer of the human condition. My admiration for her character was epitomized by the fact that, while living with the great (already married) titan of English letters, H.G. Wells, the 23-year-old took the contrary position from him in her evaluation of Henry James and published the first study of the recently deceased author. “That,” I said to myself, “is My kind of woman.”

One day a woman came into the Mithras and asked if we had any music from Yugoslavia; I assured her that, thanks to my dear friend and colleague, Jerry Houck, we imported many records directly from Europe. She browsed for a while, selected a few, and when she came to the counter I could hardly contain my eagerness to ask, “Do you know ‘Black Lamb and Grey Falcon?'” “Do I?” she exclaimed. She then proceeded to relate that she lived in La Jolla half the year and the other half in Yugoslavia. “And I always carry a copy with me.” She continued that the authorities there weren’t exactly happy about the book since West had very sympathetic things to say about the monarchy but they recognized its historical value. We exchanged favorite passages and she eagerly related an exchange that happened when she walked into a pilgrimage church near the Albanian border. She saw a very traditionally dressed couple who held a swaddled infant and were passing it under and around an elevated stone sarcophagus. The local priest came hurrying up to her, trying to explain what was going on. “I know,” she interjected, “I have read about it in ‘Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.'” The priest said, “I’ve been here for twenty years and I’d never seen it before.” The woman said experiences like that were why she always carried a copy with her when she traveled. She had a son who was a Byzantine scholar and said that West’s observations revealed relationships he had never considered. That is the sort of influence the book has had on all who have read it. 

I have often thought that one could abstract several completely separate works from this single volume: one of historical insights into Western Civilization; one of modern political analysis; another of folkloric observations; one on feminist musings (although she famously said, “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat, or a prostitute”); and one, perhaps, just personal anecdotes about the people she met. While reading her I despaired ever seeing what she saw – of course, she “saw” what she “thought” and ” believed,” but her perceptions felt so inevitable that I followed her willingly. She would see a peasant on the street and launch into a soliloquy that encompassed Byzantium, Islam, and modern capitalism that was breathtaking, though I despair of having that sort of revelation myself. It is the sort of book one can open randomly and immediately become engrossed – and I frequently do just that. There are numerous collections of her trenchant quotations on subjects ranging from the nature of love and art, the relationship between men and women, and great historical movements. I have absorbed many of her ideas into my own world view and feel the richer for it. The work is not only many books in one it is also, like religion, poetry, and all great ideas, something which can be read on various levels, depending on the intelligence and intention of the seeker. It is, on a literal plane, a Baedeker and can be read, even now, as an adjunct to the physical experience of Sarajevo or Mostar. Moreover it throws light on the historical background of the region and its relationship with the rest of Europe and situates it in an international context. It also provides a personal sense of connection to peoples and traditions unfamiliar to us which may cause us to re-evaluate our assumptions about the world and even ourselves. There are commentaries and insightful stories which are informative and moving in themselves. And, in a purely linguistic sense, one can revel in the marvelous manipulation of thoughts and words: the product of great erudition, sympathetic understanding, and felicitous expression.

West herself suspected hardly anyone would read it by reason of its length but it has consistently been included in lists of Greatest Books of the 20th Century, though evaluations of it vary widely depending on the personal philosophies of the reader. It has been compared to de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America or Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In spite of generating  an International Rebecca West Society it also suffers periods of indifference and neglect. It was only in 2004 that it was finally translated into Serbian. Robert D. Kaplan, the author of the 1993, “Balkan Ghosts,” has been quoted as saying he would rather lose his passport than his copy of “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.”

In the late 1970s I finally screwed up my courage and wrote a gushing fan letter to Dame Rebecca in care of her publisher, not really expecting it would reach her. I told her of my own background and experiences and the effect her book had had on me and others. After a while I received a small pale blue envelope and a two page letter written in a neat Italic hand in sepia ink. She was gracious and apologetic that her book, at that time, was out of print but that she hoped the publisher would soon remedy the situation. She invited me to come visit if I were ever to find myself in England. I could not, of course, but every bit of me was warmed by the thought.

Although not a biography, West’s extensive passages on Austrian Empress Elisabeth are rich with her personal and feminist insights into that tragic character which has had such a revival of interest in the past quarter century. Her narration of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, which sparked the First World War is as thrilling as any novel.

There is a passage I have referenced more than once because it seems relevant to our modern chaotic political and intellectual situation.

“There is a phase of ancient history which ought never to be forgotten by those who wish to understand their fellow-men. In Africa during the fourth century a great many Christians joined a body of schismatics known as the Donatists who were wrecking the church by maintaining that only sacraments administered by a righteous priest were valid, and that a number of contemporary priests had proved themselves unrighteous during the persecutions of Diocletian. They raved: for according to the Church Christ is the real dispenser of the sacraments, and it is inconceivable that a relationship prescribed by Him could break down through the personality of the mediator, and in many cases the tales were scandalmongering. But though these people raved they were not mad. They were making the only noises they knew to express the misery inflicted on them by the economic collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Since there was no economic literature there was no vocabulary suitable to their misery, so they had to use the vocabulary given them by the Church; and they screamed nonsense about the sacraments because they very sensibly recognized that the Western Roman Empire was going to die, and so were they.”

In similar manner much of the paranoid ravings of the American electorate about pedophile pizza parlors and vampire socialist presidents seem to be the inchoate fears of a rapidly changing world power structure in which the formerly dominant have to face the looming apocalypse of equality – and there Must be Someone to blame.

In an entirely different atmosphere West describes her first view of Lake Scutari in a way which strangely mesmerized me.

“‘Is it not one of the world’s wonders?’ asked Dragutin [her chauffeur], when a few more turns of the road took us to a view of Lake Scutari; and indeed it was among landscapes what dragons are among beasts. Through a deep fiord, a thousand feet or so below us, a river flowed into a lake, slowly and without confusion of the two substances, as water from a dripping tap might seep into a cask of. molasses. For this lake is not water, it is mud. It was green as a horse-pond on an English common, but the substance was not so liquid. It was nearly solid; the reflections it bears were not superficial images which a breeze will confuse and annul, but photographs imposed on a sensitive jelly. The forms that were photographed followed a strictly geometric pattern. The fiord described a curve, and between its green margins the river dragged the slow snake of its trail in the same curve. The rocky world that framed the lake was hewn into triangles, great and small. The higher peaks lifted acute apices, the low hills and islands lay squat under obtuser apices. Under each of these triangles, except the high peaks, was the inverted triangle of its image, more solid, more dogged, more of. fact than reflections commonly are, because they were registered on this viscid medium. The archipelago at the mouth of the fiord looked like a fleet of overloaded ships, becalmed in a Sargasso sea; the light shone back from the lake between them a white opaque haze, as if it could not rise freely into the upper air. In this landscape there had happened to matter what happens to time when, as they say, it stands still. Mobility was not. [my italics] There was this grey rock, its dwarf trees and bushes growing so low among the boulders that they were as if nailed to the mountainside; and there was this greenish jelly in which rivers and reflections and even light itself foundered and were fixed. It would have been appropriate to have come upon this inspissation through tropical heat, but as we looked down upon it we were blown on by the freshest sort of airs, winds from the sea and the peaks. Here nature was at its most unnatural: and the scale of the scene, which was immense, as much as the eye could see from a great height, made this prodigiousness alarming. It was as if one learned that nightmares might fill not only a troubled hour after midnight but the whole of the night and the day, that a historical epoch might hold horror and nothing else. Yet it was beautiful, so beautiful that the appalled sight could not have enough of it.”

Then, in the very next sentence, she relates a fairy tale of immense charm about her traveling companion, “Constantine” [Stanislav Vinaver].

“‘There is a child looking at us from behind those boulders,’ said my husband. ‘Say nothing and she may come nearer,’ said Constantine. ‘but we must be very cautious here even the little ones are shy and proud.’ It was ten minutes before the little girl came from cover, and then she had been joined by a friend. ‘Good day, little ones,’ called Constantine, ‘Please, can you tell me if that island with the two peaks is Vranina?’ They would not be discourteous. They came to us, though reluctantly. Perhaps they were ten years old, and they were clad in homespun linen frocks, multi-coloured woolen stockings, and sandals with upturned toes. They carried long withies, and below them their black and dust-coloured sheep spread in a munching fan over the mountainside. One was fair and the other dark, with the fine hair about the brows and temples sunburned to honey colour. Both were beautiful, with a thorough and careful beauty that attended to everything, making marveks of such matters as the arch of the eyebrows and the indentation of the upper lip. Both were sublimely dignified. Neither their features nor their limbs sprawled. They were as proud as good people would choose to be in the sight of strangers, revealing nothing ungentle and nothing too tender.

“It could be seen that they were amused by the sight of Constantine. They thought that this little fat man with the animal muzzle and the tight black curls was a great joke. But they showed it not by sneering or by any breech of courtesy, but by grave fascinated smiles. They were as little princesses, trained never to fall from graciousness. A boy pushed up the hillside and stood beside them, indubutably a little prince. Another princess came, another prince. The five stood in a line of loveliness, and Constantine sat himself down on a boulder, and set himself to display the the tried and potent magic he stored under those black curls, with spreading hands, pouting lips, rolling eyes, and voice that lifted and paused before the crises so that the hearers squeaked the delivering syllables. So, centuries before, one of his blood may have enchanted the market-place of ancient Asian towns. Soon the children were asking him breathless questions, sometimes they were choking with excited laughter, sometimes they made him and go back and alter what he had said, because it had offended some fairy-tale convention.

“I have no idea what story he told them. Usually he translated to us what passed in his wayside conversations, but this time he was too happy and spoke to us only twice. Once he spun around on his boulder and said, ‘They have a name for each of their sheep, very fanciful names.’ The later, when another princes had scrambled up the path and joined the circle at his feet, a little girl who held her chin as if she stood before many judges, all despised, he greeted her, and told us, ‘This is very interesting. Her name is Gordan, which is as if you should call a child Proud. There must be some story there. for her parents to have called their child that name.’ As he spoke the children watched as if they understood, nodding faintly, their eyes bright with intelligence and hooded with restraint. Plainly they admired their companion’s distinction, whatever it was, and could have told the story behind her name, but would not talk of such things to strangers. So they put aside their gravity before it settled on them and clamoured to Constantine that he should go on with his story.

“But the fair little princess who had been the first to come up the hillside did not give him her full attention, though at first she had been the most eager listener. She looked across at my husband and myself every now and then, with increasing uneasiness. We were not being honoured as guests should be. She tried to remedy this by giving us sweet personal smile; but her conscience told her that this was not enough and would not let her settle down to listen.She went down the hillside to a patch of flowers and began picking us a proper ceremonial nosegay, of the prescribed size and variety. This was. a great sacrifice, and sometimes it was too much. She would catch a burst of laughter from the circle she had left, and she would run back and join the listeners for a moment or two. But her eyes would fall on us again, and she would pick herself up and go back to her task. Whe she had the nosegay she thought correct, she brought it to me at a leisured pace, curtsied, and kissed my hand. For a minute I could not bear to let her go; I put my arm round her shoulders, for to have this exquisite creature of remote and superior race so close was such luck as having a butterfly alight on one’s fingers. She bore my touch with good manners, smiling straight into my eyes and giving my husband also his share of greeting, but the minute I let her go she was back in a flash at the circle round Constantine.

“I went to the automobile and fetched the cakes I had brought from Kolashin…I took the cakes over to Constantine, and put them under his nose so as not to interrupt him; and instantly they became part of his story. His eyes did not fall from the far towers and domes he was describing, his voice did not sink from the great billows which were washing heroes and giants and emperors’ daughters to this mountainside. With a wizard’s  gesture he called the fair princess to him and handed her the cakes, bidding her to give one to each of the children. ‘Now all of you kneel!’ he ordered. They went down on their knees. ‘Now the first bite!’ They all obeyed him. ‘Now the second! Now the third!’

“He had told them, I think, that these were magic cakes, and that the first three bites would exempt them from some ill fortune or guarantee them some virtue, and they half disbelieved and wholly believed him. They gurgled with laughter as they ate, but between bites they eyed the cakes very solemnly; however their tongues, which knew nothing about magic, but recognize good rich pastry when they met it, shot out and licked in the crumbs, and it was taste which dominated them in the end. They sat back on their little haunches, and slowly and delicately finished the last morsels while Constantine silently watched them, his elbow on his knee, his chin on his hand.     Behind their loveliness the long high vista of Lake Scutari, with its grey pyramids of rock mounting towards the noon of the sky though ooze-bound in the adhesiveness of green jelly, was earth’s self-drawn ideogram, expressing its monstrosity.”