Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review of H.M.S. Surpirse

H.M.S. Surprise, 1973, by Patrick O'Brian. Glossy's rating: 9.3 out of 10. 

Some thoughts on the series' protagonists:
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Because of his greater intelligence, Stephen is more interesting than Jack. But Jack is by far a better person. At the end of this volume he is shown writing a report for the Admiralty containing his soundings, draughts of the coast and other research of a sort that probably wasn't much less complicated or less useful to science than Stephen's efforts in botany and zoology. But the reverse - Stephen doing Aubrey's job - that wouldn't have flown at all. He would have refused to punish the idlers and the incompetents, he would have disobeyed orders, empathized with the enemy, spent hours asking himself if war could ever be justified, if life was worth living, if it was not in fact an illusion, and on and on. He would have gotten himself and everyone aboard killed within a fortnight.

Forget a man-o-war, how could any organization run or fully staffed by Maturins survive for long? Without guys like Jack occasionally managing to make small parts of the world so safe that illusions about its true nature temporarily seized being deadly for others, liberalism could have never been born. The “Age of Reason” would have never come about.

The ability of human reason to rival the unthinking parts of nature is pathetically weak even today. In 1806 it was almost non-existent. Even when you'd think it would be easy, as in the cases of wigs or artificial leather, human invention routinely falls short of the real thing. Anything more complex - hearts, kidneys, economic models, "scientific" theories of history or morality - reliably becomes a farce. The naval traditions that Stephen constantly makes fun of, including the Royal Navy's propensity to whip drunks, the ethnic generalization he scoffs at (unless of course it's directed at Englishmen), the sexual morality whose flouting by Diana he excuses - all of those may well be described as forces of nature. No single person has ever created a stereotype, a piece of folk wisdom, a successful (i.e. enduring) system of morals. They form like rivers, with every water molecule finding the most efficient way down by itself until zillions of them join each other in a permanent river bed.

It's true that the carriers of traditions and stereotypes are very rarely able to justify them intelligently, but that's not as important as some apparently think. If you ask a liver how it works, it wouldn't tell you either. Traditional societies with all of their superstitions have been working for eons. Attempts to reason about the basics of existence, morality and social order have a much worse track record than that. I'm not saying that these attempts will never succeed. Perhaps some number of centuries after the hypothetical invention of fake leather that looks like real leather all sociological speculation too will seize being manifestly defective. It's not impossible. But until that happens one should never take it seriously enough to try it. And one should be very weary of making fun of elements of working systems.

Stephen is not. Among other things we learn in this book that he was enthusiastic about the French Revolution until its Jacobin period, that he finds nothing wrong in others' pedophilia, that he disdains elementary hygiene, simple personal cleanliness because - wait for it - to him it's all useless social convention, a superstition. Just because he can't see a good reason to do something, he arrogantly assumes that no such reasons must exist. Even his choice of chemical mood changer is pig-headed in this very specific way. At least European genomes and social structures have by now had a few millenia to adjust to the alcohol that everyone on board these ships swills in spite of Stephen's protests. The opiates he takes instead are a far more novel, and therefore more dangerous, poison. 

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I found this passage interesting: "The Lively was a fine example, an admirable example, of a Whiggish state of mind at its best; and Jack was a Tory. He admired her, but it was with a detached admiration, as though he were in charge of a brother-officer's wife, an elegant, chaste, unimaginative woman, running her life on scientific principles."

I can't say I'm shocked by it, but it's still fascinating. If the Tories primarily represented the aristocracy and the Whigs the bourgeoisie, then of course the latter would be fussy and boring, while the former bold and adventurous. And since there is no aristocracy in America, the right here falls back on representing the middle class, so it necessarily becomes boringly responsible (at least compared to the left) - the reverse of what Toryism apparently meant within the world described by O'Brian.

Another anachronism: in the following passage set in Bombay an Indian guide tries to tempt Stephen ("the sahib") with local entertainment:

"Would the sahib want me to bring him to a house of boys? Cleaned, polite boys, like gazelles, that sing and play the flute?" ... "There [is] Kumar the rich, an unbeliever; he has a thousand concubines. The sahib is disgusted. Like me, the sahib looks upon women as tattling, guileful, tale-bearing, noisy, contemptible, mean, wretched, unsteady, harsh, inhospitable; I will bring him a young gentleman that smells of honey."

In the modern world, except perhaps in Afghanistan, gays are proud to exemplify the cattiest, least attractive aspects of femininity even more than women do. A modern man who's tired of bitchiness would never think of turning to buggery as an escape. What people rarely consider is that in a society where buggery is accepted as normal, the average buggerer (and even the average buggeree) wouldn't be an emotional outlier at all. He would be an average guy instead, and regular guys hate bitchiness wherever they see it. So the emotional motivation for buggery becomes reversed by 180 degrees. 

Being hormonally normal, the typical pre-modern buggeree would have probably been far more likely to be coerced into it or to do it for money than his modern, far less numerous and, not coincidentally, far more unusual colleagues. This means that if Islam ever manages to stamp out widespread buggery in Afghanistan the way Christianity once stamped it out in the Hellenistic world, that would be a big win for personal rights and a big loss for coercion. Not that most libertarians or "human rights" campaigners would see it that way, of course.

One of the conclusions here is that anyone who's ever wondered how a fairy could have possibly conquered half the civilized world in the 4th century BC shouldn't. At that time and place limp-wristedness simply wouldn't have been a typical part of that particular package. An obvious corollary is that those modern gays who look for forerunners and heroes in Greek antiquity and the pre-modern East quite likely would have been despised by those heroes of theirs more than they are by the average man of today.
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