'How melancholy a thing is success'
A lesson from Candice Millard's 'River of the Gods'
Good afternoon, everyone! ☀️ (Or good morning, depending on where you are in the world.)
I’m writing to you from my family’s vacation along the coast of South Carolina, so I’m only going to be brief today. At first, I was going to take this week off, but I stumbled across something in a book I’m reading that I didn’t want to wait to share with you.
The book is River of the Gods by Candice Millard, one of my all-time favorite nonfiction writers. You may remember we talked about one of her earlier books, The River of Doubt, back in the spring.
As you can guess from the photo above, her new book is about the search for the source of the Nile River in Egypt, and what the world was like during the age of exploration in the mid-19th century, a world populated by people we can hardly imagine today.
Leading this journey in Millard’s book is a man named Richard Francis Burton, a British explorer, writer and soldier who spoke 25 languages and spent his life traveling across uncharted parts of Asia, Africa and the Americas. (Not to be confused with the Richard Burton who gained fame as an actor in the 20th century, and maybe even greater fame as Elizabeth Taylor’s husband).
One of his earliest adventures was a trip he took to Mecca in 1853 during the hajj, the annual pilgrimage that every Muslim is expected to make at least once in their lifetime if they are able, to visit the most sacred places in the Islamic world. (It was also one of his most dangerous, as non-Muslims are forbidden from entering the city.)
Burton, who already could speak fluent Arabic and had memorized large parts of the Qurʾan, spent months preparing for the trip, going so far as to take on an alter ego, Millard writes: “While still in England, he had quietly assumed the character of Shaykh Abdullah, shaving his head, growing a beard, donning loose robes, and using walnut juice to deepen the color of his skin.”
He practiced every detail of every custom he might be expected to observe, from the way he held beads in his hand to the way he sat in a chair — even to the way he lifted a glass of water to his mouth. All because he thirsted for knowledge of what this forbidden experience was like, so he could “study, measure, sketch and describe it in minute detail,” for the book he would later write.
Every detail of this journey, as Millard recounts in River of the Gods, is fascinating. (Especially the moment when Burton was accused by one of his crew as being “one of the Infidels”; had his other crew members not leapt to his defense, he likely never would have made it out.)
But make it out he did, although perhaps not in the way he imagined. Because Burton, instead of savoring his accomplishment, quickly became depressed. He traveled to Cairo after the hajj, where he ran into friends he’d previously served with in the British army:
… The majority of Burton’s time in Egypt was spent not with old friends but alone with his own thoughts, most of them regrets, and his exultation quickly collapsed into dejection. Despite his success in Mecca, he could focus only on the fact that he had not crossed the Arabian Peninsula as he had originally planned to do. Confiding in a letter to Norton Shaw, the secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, that he had suffered from dysentery since his return to Cairo, he wrote, “I won’t say it was aggravated by my disgust at my failure in crossing the Peninsulas, but joking apart the ‘physic’ of a successful man differs wildly from that of the poor devil who has failed.”
It was Burton’s triumph, however, much more than his failure that had left him despondent. He expected and did not care that his accomplishments would be questioned and criticized by his suspicious countrymen and jealous rivals. What haunted him was knowing that he now had nothing left to set his mind and talents to. “How melancholy a thing is success,” he would later write. “Whilst failure inspires a man, attainment reads the sad prosy lesson that all our glories ‘are shadows, not substantial things.’” He needed another challenge, an escape from this persistent haunting gloom…
Among everything else that Millard tells us about Burton, I find this the most fascinating. One of the things that draws me to her work is her observation that, even though so much throughout history changes, and our world is so different from the ones she encounters in her research, there is one thing that doesn’t change: human nature.
That someone like Burton, whose life I have a hard time imagining — especially as a suburban dad whose job consists primarily of sending electrons pulsing around the internet! — can experience emotions just like the ones I feel, is a revelation. That we can feel a connection to someone who lived 170 years ago, and know what they might have thought and felt; and, how they dealt with those emotions might help us learn how to deal with ours too.
I think about this in connection with my own running, which I’ve scaled back in recent weeks. I ran about 3 to 4 miles yesterday here in the heat and humidity of coastal South Carolina. I felt really good out there, but I know it’s going to be hard for me to increase that mileage number much beyond that for now.
There’s a part of me that feels bad about this, that feels like a failure. But why? The bigger goals I’d like to achieve — running a 10-miler this fall, running another half marathon with you as a group, perhaps even an ultra someday — I don’t have to cast aside forever.
And maybe, it’s better if they’re always just a little bit out of reach. Maybe it’s important to always have something that’s a little beyond your grasp to dream about, to be about, a star to look toward, even if only inside your heart.
That’s what moved me as I’ve been reading River of the Gods, and I hope move you too if you’re reading it. We’ll discuss it soon in our book club for paid subscribers, and I hope you’ll join us.
Until then, I hope your week has been a great one and you’re getting some great runs in — as always, keep in touch and let me know how it’s going.