Norman Lewis – hunting authenticity

Posted by HC in Books / Travel on 22 July 2008

I have read very little Norman Lewis, the travel writer, and will put that right. As shown in the new biography by Julian Evans, the man wrote - as people used to say – like an angel. Mr Evans stresses an important quality in his prey. Lewis, he says, made a huge impression on people, but was sort of evanescent.

 I may come to that in another post. And I ought to wrte a bit about the bits of Lewis which remind me of James Bond. But for now, I want to note a line of thought of Lewis’ which Evans thinks is of importance. This is that Lewis liked tribal people because they had a sort of

sublime humanity, supreme humanity

and said that he was (in Evans’ words) 

looking for the people who had always been there, and belonged to the places where they lived.

There’ a paradox, of course.

He believed in his own escape reflex (constant de-adherence) and  in the grace of harmonious cultures and of those who belong to them (constant adherence).

I do absolutely see that someone like Lewis is importantly unattached to the places and people he visits for all that he is wholly absorbed in them whilst he’s there. That’s famously the case with journalists. But I have become very sceptical of the admiration of our civilisation for those who are condemned to  what has been called “compulsory belonging”. Ours is a civilisation with flaws, of course. But I don’t think we are wise to believe that only people with tatoos done with sharpened bones have spiritual authenticity.

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