George Cumberland, The Captive of the Castle of Sennaar: An African Tale in Two Parts. Ed. G. E. Bentley, Jr., Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991. 361 pp.
Had George Cumberland (1754-84?) lived in the sixteenth century he might have qualified as a “Renaissance man.” Since, instead, he was an eighteenth-century man of parts and of leisure, heir to a modest but sufficient income, neither a courtier nor a soldier, he is thought of as a gifted amateur, a dabbler in many arts and sciences, a dilettante. His interest and talents ranged from poetry to physics, travel writing to geology, political and social reform to painting and engraving. He was an inventor, a collector of natural and artificial objects, a gentleman farmer, and, most of all, a prodigious writer of essays, poems, journals, and narratives. He and Blake were evidently friends as early as 1780, and Blake’s last engraving, begin page 83 | left unfinished[e] at his death, was a message card to Cumberland.
The Captive of the Castle of Sennaar, as G. E. Bentley, Jr. shows in his admirable edition of the text, has had a peculiar printing and publishing history. Part I was printed in 1798, but withheld from publication by the author until 1810. Cumberland feared stirring up controversy and risking prosecution for his radical ideas, yet when the text was finally published it aroused no controversy and little interest. Part II, like much of Cumberland’s writing, remained in manuscript form until the appearance of the present edition.
The first problem facing a reader of Cumberland’s narrative, once past the fascinating distractions of the author’s life and the odd history of the manuscripts, is to figure out what it is. Bentley appropriately calls attention to its affinities with the utopian novel, the romance, and the romantic novel. It is true that the subject matter and the narrator’s tone of voice can shift abruptly from Sir Thomas More to Shelley and back again. Like Beckford’s Vathek and Godwin’s Caleb Williams, Cumberland’s narrative also contains touches of gothic and surreal fantasy.
Without the devastating clarity of Swift or the rich abundance of observed detail of Dickens, The Captive of the Castle of Sennaar seems not simply heterogeneous but undecided. The reader is less likely to feel like the observer of a Bakhtinian dialogic than like a traveler following a guide who cannot make up his mind about where to go or how to get there. For this reason, the postmodern reader—especially a reader of Borges or Eco—may be just the audience that Cumberland’s mysterious manuscripts were waiting for.
In Part I, “The Sophians,” a rich young Venetian named Memmo (a pun Pynchon or Barth might envy) finds himself imprisoned in a stone castle somewhere in a kingdom resembling Egypt. His sole fellow prisoner is Lycus (Like us?), an elderly Greek, who has filled his years of captivity by decorating the walls, ceilings, and floors of the castle’s interior with ingenious and elaborate architectural designs, “three dimensional sculptures,” and vistas. Lycus is a master of trompe l’oeil. Indeed, everything about the castle, like everything about the narrative, strains eerily for verisimilitude while showing itself to be hopelessly sealed off from reality.
In a further stage of removal, Lycus narrates for the benefit of Memmo (who later remembers and records it) the story of his journey into the heart of Africa where he discovered the land of the Sophians. Though the travel through jungles and encounters with African tribes anticipates H. Rider Haggard, the descriptions of life among the Sophians mixes familiar eighteenth-century utopian dreams of peaceful communal living and “natural religion” with fantasies of untroubled and unrepressed sexuality, union without marriage, an exchange of partners without divorce, and a liberal, unembarrassed attitude toward the body.
If the reader is led or misled into looking for a “center” in this many-layered invention, he or she will not encounter the empty horror of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, nor a simple rationalistic moral. While “calmness,” “order,” and “tranquillity” have been attained by the apparently ideal Sophian society, the agitations and unfulfilled desires of the Greek narrator and his Venetian cellmate are never far from the surface of the text. In admiring the wholesome and unselfconscious nudity of the Sophians, for example, Lycus cannot help leering. His preoccupation with “every fleshy protuberance,” “the red, porous, and . . . warm points of the body,” and the perfect shapes worthy of Phidias verges on soft porn because, for the storyteller, the objectified and dehumanized figures are occasions of curiosity, longing, and forbidden pleasure. Insofar as the “perfect” society is described and interpreted by an imperfect narrator, it floats in a Borgesian realm in which philosophical idealism, delight, and frustration are permanently entangled.
In Part II, “The Reformed,” Cumberland literally attempts to clean up his act. Lycus dies and Memmo, the Venetian, escapes imprisonment and embarks on his own journey into the heart of Africa. The even more “perfect” society that he encounters is composed of descendants of Italian followers of the fourth-century monk Jovinius who attempted to reform the early Church, was declared a heretic, and escaped to Africa with a band of disciples. The Jovinians do not drink wine, they have no fine arts, they spend long hours at prayer in church, and they definitely do not practice nudity. Everyone lives simply, contributes to the common well-being, and has a voice within a benevolent patriarchal “democracy.” In short, they sound like eighteenth-century reformed Protestants, tranquilized Methodists, or talkative Quakers.
The word most frequently repeated in “The Reformed” is “clean.” Houses, streets, clothing, nature itself seem “cleaner” in the land of the Jovinians than elsewhere. It is understandable, then, on one level, even if inconsistent with the apparent moral of the social allegory, that the Venetian narrator grows homesick for his beautiful but tainted city. Memmo returns to Venice, begin page 84 | immerses himself in its enchanting, melancholy, dank atmosphere and discovers to no one’s surprise that his beloved has taken the veil. He retires to a family castle, committing himself to a life of celibacy and good works—far enough from the Jovinians to idealize them, but close enough to the sullied Rialto for an occasional visit. Though Cumberland has tried alternately to reproduce the scoured virtues of a Scandinavian health spa and a sedate revival meeting in the heart of Africa, Memmo, his hero, recalls us to Venice and a less ideal harmony, reflected, distorted, and rendered irresistable by murky, odiferous waters.
On the surface, the Christianized Part II appears to be a repudiation of the pagan utopia of Part I, and both a rejection of life in late eighteenth-century Europe and Britain. Yet the two parts of Cumberland’s odd and entertaining narrative do, in the end, make a kind of sense together. They are not so much the fantasies of a mad genius nor the visions of a political radical as the dreams of a man who frequently wishes his times were different (freer, healthier, more rational, more peaceful, more fun), but who, at the end of the day, is comfortable enough to settle at the edge of things as they are.