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Thursday, August 19, 2021

Haliburton's Orient, Chapter 8

 In Chapter 8 of Halibuton's Orient there is an incident described where he buys a pair of slave children.  The incident is largely treated as a humous anecdote so it is obviously disturbing.  What to do with that chapter is up to the individual reader.  In some cases it's ideal to skip it. In others it's best to discuss it.  This is some background material for those who want additional material for that discussion or simplyfor their own interest.

This page is full of helpful information and background research on Haliburton. You can and should read it, but it's long, so this is my quick summary of points that stuck out to me personally. 

He strikes me over all as the original influencer.  What he might have done with an IG account!
He and a brother had a heart condition that showed up in their teens. The brother died of it. Haliburton's college room-mate says this changed everything for Haliburton- he doubted and was infuriated by a God who would let this happen. He questioned our basis for morality. He decided it was better to live to the utmost and die young, than to live a life of conventional respectability at all. 

He wrote in a college essay that it was  “Better by far … to be guilty of interesting lies, than to be guilty of stupid truths.”

The website is the work of a man who followed in Halliburton's footsteps, attempting to travel where he traveled, see what he saw.  He also invested a lot of time and energy into tracking down Haliburton's original journals, letters, and other other memorabilia, and found some surprises, like this one:

"To my surprise and amazement, I discovered his letters had been highly edited (doctored would be a better word) by his father before publication. Lines were changed, deleted, added. Not all of Halliburton’s adventures took place as he described them. For example, he wrote that he had bought and sold slaves in Timbuktu, when in reality he had left the city in a rush to escape the flies. The slaves were an afterthought, a story he tried out on reporters at his hotel suite in Paris. They loved it.

IT's hard to know what to make of this, exactly.  Why did Halliburton try this story out on reporters? Did he think it would amuse them, or was he mocking their gullibility and willingness to write up anything without fact checking?  Was it even him, or was this one of his father's additions to the story?

Personally, my first reaction on reading this was relief. I know it's irrational because whether true or not, all the people involved are long dead and my feelings change nothing anyway, but knowing the story was fake, my first reaction was a release of sadness because that means that there were not two very real children who suffered in this story.  Of course, there were thousands, no millions of others. But to the human heart as a wiser person pointed out, one person's death is a tragedy but a million is a statistic. We can't take in the larger number.  Not defending this, but it is a reality.  So I am glad and will always be glad to know that I don't have to worry about these two children because they are a fiction.

Others think it makes the story worse, because it shows he thought it was funny and entertaining to buy slaves- but we already know that, since the story is in the book.  So I cannot see how it makes it worse- it doesn't add a callousness to the story we didn't already have available to us, it only tells us these children were not real so did not suffer.  To me, that's always going to be a relief.

Or do we know this after all?  Do we know who added it to the book? Haliburton apparently first made this story up off the cuff while talking to reporters, who ate it up.  Was it that he was just proving to himself he could make something up, however outrageous, and reporters would just accept it uncritically?   

I still read Haliburton and think he's a great read to give one a sense of adventure, a sense of wonder and delight in the diverse culture and geography of the world, even with his great personal flaws.  People are a mixed bag.  I woudn't send one of my kids out to camp overnight with Haliburton, or take a trip with him in person.  But reading his book his not the same.  

If I were to have a child who says they won't read Haliburton any more because of this incident, would have a long and serious discussion offering other points of view to consider, but then probably in the end leave it up to her. My part of the discussion would include the notion that we do not read authors because we agree with their actions or viewpoints, and that there is more value in reading outside our echo chamber than staying within it. It is possible to strongly disagree with a person's attitude and action in one or more areas, and still learn from them- nobody is 100% all one thing or another. We can learn from good writing, from horrible warnings and bad examples and, in Halliburton's case from his writing style and his descriptions. I would say that human beings are complex and nuanced and weird creatures, and she's not inviting him to live in her house or marry her sister- she's reading a book about geography. Probably few of us should be totally written off based on a single episode in our lives, particularly when we don't know what followed- this is a snapshot in time (if it even happened). 

Here are some things to learn from the incident in question- whether it actually happened or not, this doesn't just tell us something about Halliburton. It passed editors and the publishing company, it passed through many reviews at the time, it passed through the hands of thousands of people and few even commented on it- this tells us something important about the culture and time- how easily they accepted as a joke something that screams out to us as a great evil!  Those bad, bad, people of the past, right?  Except... they weren't. they were as we are, really, no matter how much we may hate to admit it.  It is as easy as breathing to absorb attitudes and assumptions about all kinds of things in your own culture because you don't even see them- this should be a warning to us to be more vigilant about what we pick up and take for granted in our own culture. This also might be a great time to read C.S. Lewis' essay on why we read old books (it is not because they are more error-free than modern books), and listen to this podcast: 

Every single human being has some area at least at some time in his or her life where that person is incredibly, heineiously wrong about something, and it does not necessarily follow that nothing else they have to say is worthwhile. People are pretty much never really consistent, we learn and grow and discern in fits and starts and unevenly and we're selfish, thoughtless, insensitive and have moral blind spots as big as a house, they are just different blind spots. 

Just as it was quite obvious to everybody now reading this book that whatever happened, the buying and selling of children is a horrific evil, we can also discern other problematic areas when we read, especially in older books- but it's just as difficult for us as it was for Haliburton and his editors to see the blind spots of our own time and culture.

One final thought- Haliburton did not believe in absolute morality. His ideas about a single standard for right and wrong were ruptured at their foundations when his brother died.  He was a cultural relativist. His views on race, while abhorrent to us today, were not really very different from those of his time and culture (again, is editors put the slave purchasing event in the book without concern)- I am not excusing him or those views. I am not a cultural relativist. I do believe in an objectiv and timeless right and wrong.  Don't get me wrong.  I am pondering something else.  
Haliburton's college room-mates, who outlived him by several decades, told Chip Deffaa (the would-be but never was biographer linked above) that they saw evidence Halliburton was changing in some of his views before he died, and they thought if he had lived, those changes would be evident.  But he did not live.  The Orient was published in 1938.  Halliburton was missing, presumed dead, in March, 1939.

Since his views on race were essentially the majority views of most privileged white Americans of his age, station and background. that tells me he didn't really give them much deep thought or investigation. He just picked them up, absorbed them, as we all do with so many cultural assumptions.  As the cultural assumptions taken for granted altered, it is entirely likely  he would have done so as well, swept along by that same tide.

Instead of canceling a man who brings a sense of wonder to geography and travel as no other, I'd bring out the problems with his attitudes to my children and discuss them, and suggest we work to focus on canceling the assumptions within ourselves that we might have thoughtlessly absorbed.

But... and I mean this.  That's me.  Another family may need to take a different approach.

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