Monday, May 16, 2011

Review of The Mauritius Command

The Mauritius Command, 1977, by Patrick O'Brian. Glossy's rating: 9.2 out of 10.

I loved this volume as much as the others, but instead of rhapsodizing about O'Brian's style, humor and plotting, I'm going to spend this review disparaging Stephen Maturin's politics and general worldview. Since O'Brian is such a tremendous writer, you end up knowing his protagonists from the inside, in a way in which it's rare to know anyone but oneself. So even a cynical right-winger like me cannot in the end hate Stephen. His disappointments, hopes and moods are described too realistically, and will remind anyone who's occasionally tried to think for himself of himself a bit too much for hatred to be a typical response. And yet most of the things Stephen says about politics are such nonsense!

Here he takes part in a discussion of crime and punishment:

"There was a man," remarked Captain Eliot, "who was sentenced to death for stealing a horse from a common. He said to the judge, that he thought it hard to be hanged for stealing a horse from a common; and the judge answered, "You are not to be hanged for stealing a horse from a common, but that others may not steal horses from commons."
"And do you find," asked Stephen, "that in fact horses are not stolen from commons? You do not."

What a moronic thing to say. I'm sure that hanging, like any punishment, would decrease the number of horses stolen. And the more severe the punishment, the larger the decrease . Now, one might argue about the trade-offs between effectiveness and humanitarianism, but Stephen, by vulgarly boiling down an inherently probabilistic phenomenon to a binary yes-or-no form, seems to "argue" here that hanging isn't even effective as a deterrent. Wasn't he supposed to understand something about statistics? I clearly remember statistics being mentioned in a description of his card-playing techniques in an earlier novel.

A man who would steal a horse might steal a lot of other things, might break a lot of other laws. He's a rotten man. How selfish it is for Stephen to enjoy the benefits of living in a law-abiding society while wanting to undermine the forces that had made it such.

Still on the topic of capital punishment, Jack says:

"And as for the value of human life..." "...one man, even a post-captain, nay' - smiling - "even a commodore or jack-in-the-green, is not to be balanced against the good of the service."

Clonfert, one of the captains serving under Jack, indignantly calls the above "the Tory view of human life."

This conflict between goal-oriented and idly sentimental thinking, masculine vs. feminine, accepting the world as it is vs. indulging in saccharine fantasies about it, is very familiar. On this issue the right and the left of 1809 are recognizable as themselves today.

When Stephen asks Jack to elaborate, he says:

"I do in fact dislike hanging more than I said, but more for myself than for the hanged man: the first time I saw a man run up to the yardarm with a nightcap over his eyes and his hands tied behind his back, when I was a little chap in the Ramilles, I was as sick as a dog. But as for the man himself, if he has deserved hanging, deserved it by our code, I find it don't signify so very much what happens to him. It seems to me that men are of different value, and if some are knocked on the head, the world is not much the poorer."

It's not that liberals disagree that men are of different value - few seem to put right-wingers on the same exalted level as themselves. Instead, they tend to be more hypocritical about it. All but the most naive of them act as if they believe that different men have different values, but few will admit to it in principle.

Here is Stephen on procreation:

"I freely admit I find most babies superfluous, and unnecessary."
"Without there were babies, we should have no next generation," retorts Jack.
"So much the better, when you consider the state to which we have reduced the world we must live in,..." 

Oh yeah, that's logical.

"...the bloody-minded wolfish stock from which they spring..."

What are the chances of a weaselly stock surviving long-term?

"...and the wicked, inhuman society that will form them."

Guys like Stephen should be forbidden on pain of death from coming within a mile of forming any children.

And just to top it off, here are his thoughts on women and intelligence:

"...a girl, when grown into a woman, has greater need for her intellect than a man."

WHAT?

In the following passage he tries to justify his dependence on opium:


"...and I take it only when my disgust is so great that it threatens to impede my work. One day, when he is sober, I shall ask McAdam whether disgust for oneself, for one's fellows and for the whole process of living was common among his [mental] patients in Belfast - whether it incapacitated them. My own seems to grow; and it is perhaps significant that I can feel no gratitude towards the man who took me from the water."

I don't find it strange that Stephen, the self-proclaimed humanitarian, is disgusted by people and by life in general while Jack, who kills men for a living without feeling much guilt over it, loves life and a great many of the living.

Those who act, who constantly see the direct consequences of their actions, feel in control and are happier for it. Idleness, dependency are frustrating. Jack is still alive to a large extent because he's fought for it. It's an accomplishment, a prize snatched from others in the course of the infinitely thrilling game that is war. Even money is more appreciated by those who've worked hard to get it than by those who've merely inherited it. And since Jack has fought for his life fair and square, he expects others to do the same, without whining if they lose. And he really, really wouldn't have whined if he was in their place. He's just not made that way.

Of course this take-it-or-leave-it, fair's-fair attitude to war depended on civilians not being involved. A large majority of the people who were hurt in the battles described in these books volunteered for them. Isn't it ironic that in the modern world the mafia and similar organizations honor the old aristocratic don't-touch-the-civilians code better than most states?

Stephen exists in a bubble of safety created by Jack personally and by guys like Jack generally. He hasn't fought for his life. During his duel with Canning at the end of the last novel he actually wanted to miss. Life is a given to him, and apparently a boring one at that. Dependency, even if comfortable, even if luxuriant, is depressing. If you do not feel yourself to be the master of your own fate, if you do not frequently see your actions having an effect on yourself and on others, you will be that much less happy for it - a toy in others' hands. You will instinctively sympathize with the losers of this world. For my own part, I was never more liberal than when I was unemployed for a couple of years after college, living with my parents, depending on them.

The best ways to deal with such feelings of loserdom are to try to turn oneself into a winner, or, if that's impossible, to at least refuse to whine about it. Succumbing to envy, hating all winners on principle, is the least socially-responsible choice. There is a reason why no one who feels that way ever admits to actually being moved by envy, instead hiding behind supposed humanitarianism. Envy is both pathetic on the individual level and harmful to a society as a whole. If the worst players on your team are furiously trying to trip up the best ones, your team will fall behind those teams that are united. The same is true of civilization and of humanity. The envy of a few has the ability to hold back the world.

The above is probably not the only motivating factor behind Stephen's liberalism - there's also his mixed ethnic background, his bastardy in an age when that was (with good reason, of course) looked down upon, his having been born into a minority religion (he's a Catholic), the herd effect of being an intellectual during the Age of "Enlightenment", and, finally, his being an alter ego for a writer born in a much more liberal period than his own.

But it may well not be a coincidence that in this book Clonfert, the character most acutely aware of his inability to measure up to Jack, takes up the liberal position in the argument about the value of human life which I quoted above.

And Stephen admits in a diary entry that his motivation for siding with the English in the Napoleonic wars is neither love for the English nor for humanity, but hatred for that particular historic moment's most spectacular, most flagrant, most unapologetic winner:

"And although my loathing for Bonaparte and his evil system is an efficient stimulant, hatred alone is a poor, sterile kind of basis." 

And yet he genuinely likes Jack. And if the sentiment Stephen expresses in the following passage isn't conservative, I don't know what is:

"...a ship at sea, particularly a small ship on a foreign station, is an enclosed village; and whoever heard of a long-matured judgment of a village being wrong? The communal mind, even where the community is largely made up of unthinking and illiterate men, is very nearly as infallible as a Council."

He's not wholly predictable because he tries to think for himself.

In my review of H.M S. Surprise I said that Stephen is the more interesting of the two protagonists. And yet Jack's letters to Sophie are some of the funniest and most endearing passages in these books. The one I'm going to quote, however, is more revealing than entertaining. Here Jack is talking about two French ships of war, the Minerve and the Bellone:

"...there is a rumor that someone, a Royalist or Papist or both, damaged their bottoms with an infernal machine: but I find it hard to believe that even a foreigner could be so wicked." 

Even though this royalist or papist would have helped Jack's cause, he still looks down on his sabotage as unsporting. War should be honorable. He knows that not all foreigners happen to share his views on honor, but his benevolence, his typical desire to look at everything in a cheerful, magnanimous light, conquers all in the end, and he ends up refusing to believe that any Frenchman could be so villainous as to help the British by dishonest, sneaky means.

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