Going Places With Belloc

I have just finished Hilaire Belloc’s Places, a volume of essays on travel and geography (see earlier post). As always, his comments are entertaining and instructive. In the piece “The Twin Soul of Spain,” Belloc makes the observation that

[It] is the undoubted truth that in societies, as in individuals, there is not only commonly some diversity of will, but some duality of nature. It is foolish, and typical of a modern foolishness, to call that business “double personality,” for that is just what it is not. When it becomes double personality it is so abnormal as to be out of the picture. On the contrary it is this duality of will or of the character within the unity which the word “person” connotes that is the essence of the problem.

Such duality refers not only to the struggle between good and evil, but the apparent paradox of divergent qualities. Belloc gives the example of English lethargy in everyday action and deliberation in thought and speech contrasted with a rapidity and skillfulness in athletic effort. In the case of the Spanish it is the violence of their activities manifesting itself either in cruelty and vengeance or extreme saintliness. One can find such dichotomies in any national character. It is a reminder of Shakespeare’s adage that “Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied.” Good qualities can become evil, as happened to the Germans of Belloc’s day.

In another piece Belloc describes seeing the island of Patmos during a cruise of the eastern Mediterranean. Musing upon John the Apostle’s famous place of exile, he wonders why the ancient pagan world was so immediately hostile to the new Christian creed. The faith “did not come to destroy but to complete. Unfortunately, that which it came to complete was too well satisfied with its own evil as well as its own good. The threat of so much change was a mortal challenge.” It may be that this is what threatens our modern heathens as well.

One of the most interesting meditations recalls a derelict train station in Tunisia. All that marks the once famous Punic capital—the formidable adversary of Rome—is a platform for passengers and a crude plank with the word “Carthage” painted on it. Walking a little further, Belloc is able to descry the hill from which Scipio surveyed the flaming ruins of the enemy metropolis, and the probable site of the harbor in which the greatest fleet of the ancient world once docked. He remarks that the Romans rebuilt Carthage and yet by his time virtually nothing remained under the gradual decay of Islamic influence. He feels such archaeological loss most keenly:

Is it not strange that the ancients hardly ever concerned themselves to portray their famous habitations? They concerned themselves with the human figure, they played continually, in stone and fresco, on the theme of their legends, but they left us no landscape.

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