Benjamin Disraeli
(1804-1881) was one of the most colorful and literary of British Prime Ministers in the latter half of the 19th century. Among his novels was one about a young conservative English lord named Tancred who made a spiritual quest to the “Holy Land.” This is his Tancred, of The New Crusade, originally published in 1877. In the novel Tancred is disillusioned with the lack of morality in British politics. Instead of taking his inherited place in high society, he chooses instead to go on a quest for spiritual meaning to the land where his religion began. Disraeli, as novelist, uses the Levant as a backdrop for his psychological portrait of young Tancred, but it is as much about the foibles of the British political scene as it is an “Orientalist” rendering of the cradle of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The novel is full of intrigue, as adventure stories should be. It has not made canonization as a “great” work, but it is still worth a read (if you can find a copy).

The following excerpt is a dialogue between Tancred and a Bedouin emir named Fakredeen. For fiction written about 130 years ago, its theme is poignant.

‘It appears to me,’ said Tancred, when young Emir had declared his star accursed, since, after the ceaseless exertions of years, he was still as distant as ever from the accomplishment of his purpose, ‘it appears that your system is essentially erroneous. I do not believe that anything great is ever effected by management. All this intrigue, in which you seem such an adept, might be of some service in a court or in an exclusive senate; but to free a nation you require something more vigorous and more simple. This system of intrigue in Europe is quite old-fashioned. It is one of the superstitions left us by the wretched eighteenth century, a period when aristocracy was rampant throughout Christendom; and what were the consequences? All faith in God or man, all grandeur of purpose, all nobility of thought, and all beauty of sentiment, withered and shriveled up. Then the dexterous management of a few individuals, base or dull, was the only means of success. But we live in a different age: there are popular sympathies, however imperfect, to appeal to; we must recur to the high primeval practice, and address nations now as the heroes, and prophets, and legislators of antiquity. If you wish to free your country, and make the Syrians a nation, it is not to be done by sending secret envoys to Paris or London, cities themselves which are perhaps both doomed to fall; you must act like Moses and Mahomet.’

‘But you forget the religions,’ said Fakredeen. ‘I have so many religions to deal with. If my fellows were Christians, or all Moslemin, or all Jews, or all Pagans, I grant you, something might be effected: the cross, the crescent, the ark, or an old stone, anything would do: I would plant it on the highest range in the centre of the country, and I would carry Damascus and Aleppo both in one campaign; but I am debarred from this immense support; I could only preach nationality, and, as they all hate each other worse than they do the Turks, that would not be very inviting; nationality, without race as a plea, is like the smoke of this nargilly, a fragrant puff. Well, then, there remains only personal influence: ancient family, vast possessions, and traditionary power; mere personal influence can only be maintained by management, by what you stigmatise as intrigue; and the most dexterous member of the Shehaab family will be, in the long run, Prince of Lebanon.’

‘And if you wish only to be Prince of Lebanon, I dare say you may succeed,’ said Tancred,’ and perhaps with much less pains than you at present give yourself. But what becomes of all your great plans of an hour ago, when you were to conquer the East, and establish the independence of the Oriental races?’

‘Ah!’ exclaimed Fakredeen with a sigh, ‘these are the only ideas for which it is worth while to live.’

‘The world was never conquered by intrigue: it was conquered by faith. Now, I do not see that you have faith in anything.’

‘Faith,’ said Fakredeen, musingly, as if his ear had caught the word for the first time, ‘faith! That is a grand idea. If one could only have faith in something and conquer the world!’

‘See now,’ said Tancred, with unusual animation, ‘I find no charm in conquering the world to establish a dynasty, like everything else, wears out; indeed, it does not last as long as most things; it has a precipitate tendency to decay. There are reasons; we will not now dwell on them. One should conquer the world not to enthrone a man, but an idea, for ideas exist for ever. But what idea? There is the touchstone of all philosophy! Amid the wreck of creeds, the crash of empires, French revolutions, English reforms, Catholicism in agony, and Protestantism in convulsions, discordant Europe demands the key-note, which none can sound. If Asia be in decay, Europe is in confusion. Your repose may be death, but our life is anarchy.’

‘I am thinking,’ said Fakredeen, thoughtfully, ‘how we in Syria could possibly manage to have faith in anything; I had faith in Mehemet Ali, but he is a Turk, and that upset him. If, instead of being merely a rebellious Pacha, he had placed himself at the head of the Arabs, and revived the Caliphate, you would have seen something. But it is so difficult. If you can once get the tribes out of it, they will go anywhere. See what they did when they last came forth. It is a simoom, a kamsin, fatal, irresistible. They are as fresh, too, as ever. The Arabs are always young; it is the only race that never withers. I am an Arab myself; from my ancestor who was the standard-bearer of the Prophet, the consciousness of race is the only circumstance that sometimes keeps up my spirit.’

‘I am an Arab only in religion,’ said Tancred, ‘but the consciousness of creed sustains me. I know well, though born in a distant and northern isle, that the Creator of the world speaks with man only in this land; and that is why I am here.’

Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield, Tancred, or The New Crusade (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1970 reprint of 1877 original), pp. 257-260. [For the basic plot, click here.]

[Tabsir Redux is a reposting of earlier posts on the blog, since memories are fickle and some things deserve a second viewing.this post was originally made on April 19, 2007]