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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

The Devil Drives

Devil DrivesThe Devil Drives

Fawn M. Brodie

There are demons that incapacitate a person: demons that drive one to drink, drive one to murder, drive one to the madhouse.  And there are demons that just plain drive, pushing a person beyond their physical and mental limits for no reason other than to go, because going is the only thing to do.  We call these people “self-starters”, “highly motivated”, sometimes “visionaries”.  And sometimes the visions cross over into mania.

burtonSir Richard Burton‘s drive almost certainly has more than a touch of mania to it.  What else could cause a man to master twenty-nine languages, to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in disguise and under threat of death, to trudge miles across the desert at night with an assassin’s spear hanging out of the side of his face?  He published books on swordfighting, the sexual customs of India and Africa, the Mormons of Utah, and of course his massive translation of the Tales of the Arabian Nights, all based on his own travels and experiences.  He even set out to learn the language of monkeys — not by going out in to the jungle and recording what he heard, but by brining the monkeys into his house, dressing them in tiny clothes, and trying to have dinner table conversations with them.  It’s hard not to attribute at least a touch of mania to a person like that.

Still, amid the thousands of pages he published, the sprawling maps of areas he explored, the volumes of eastern literature he translated, and the litany of tales he lived and told, Burton’s was a mania that was as productive as a human body can be.  And yet somehow the fire didn’t consume him.  Somehow he died not of malaria, not of assassins or cannibals, not lost at sea or dessicated in the desert, but at home, in bed, at the age of sixty-nine, after a nice supper.  He lived a life larger than life, but died an absolutely ordinary death.  His wife, in a posthumous attempt to make him a decent Christian, burned all of his diaries and unfinished manuscripts.  The devils that drove her were entirely Catholic in origin, and have left us the poorer for it.