Wednesday, February 08, 2006

David Livingstone by Stephen Scobie

David Livingstone

He is the one who was found, although he was not lost.

It was the others who had lost him: the Victorian Missionary Societies at their afternoon teas, who sat on gracious lawns in England and plotted the boundaries of Empire. He was lost to them, all right. He had taken his stubborn Scottish morality out of the mills of Blantyre and set it loose in the African jungles, saying to all the God-fearing slavers: “Enough–these men are free.” And then he went deeper in, the explorer, looking for a famous waterfall, looking for the source of Nile, looking for a living stone.

So they sent Stanley after him, believing he was lost: and Stanley, believing he had found him, found also the legendary words to say: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

And like a fool (a polite, Presbyterian fool), David said Yes.
And was lost.

Taken from his The Spaces in Between, Selected Poems 1965-2001 (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2003), the prose-piece “David Livingstone” originally appeared (in trade form) in his collection Ghosts: A Glossary of the Intertext (Toronto ON: Wolsak and Wynn, 1990), a book I have yet to find. Part of a series of prose pieces that made up Scobie’s 1990 collection, at least of the ones reprinted in the selected, this served as the most effective, telling the essence of the story of the exchange between Stanley and Dr. Livingstone, without saying too much more.

Explorers are about exploration, not necessarily discovery, and the discovery of Dr. Livingstone ended his. He had always known where he was. Dr. Livingstone was the explorer he was no longer, by the time Stanley arrived. What Scobie doesn’t talk about, the good Doctor, once they found him, alone and then discovered, he was left behind. He was abandoned to his own discovery. Stanley went back to England and contradicted the death notices that had appeared years earlier, and left Dr. Livingstone there in his bed, where he eventually died some years later, surrounded by the natives.

There is something about this piece that holds me and doesn’t let go, from the familiar rings of Scottish Presbyterian moralities (ah, my Glengarry county) to the idea that he wasn’t “lost” until he admitted to being “found” (Scobie, too, was born in Scotland, before his family emigrated to Canada). It was as though Livingstone was less about wanting to be found then to be completely away from “the boundaries of Empire.” Is that too obvious? Gone “deeper in, the explorer” and even deeper, in the explorer that he was. Until he was found by the world to be “lost,” the good Doctor was all about escape, and re-emerging as something else. He was lost to his own escape. Scobie’s Livingstone had finally broken free of the boundaries of his own Scottishness, and almost like Archie Delaney becoming Grey Owl, Livingstone worked to recreate himself in the wilderness, in the darkest heart of Africa. From roughly the same period, he was the opposite of Joseph Conrad’s Kuntz from The Heart of Darkness.

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