Saturday, April 28, 2012

Review of The Surgeon's Mate


The Surgeon's Mate, 1980, by Patrick O'Brian. Glossy's rating: 9.3 out of 10.

It seems unfair that most of my reviews of these novels are filled with criticisms. I'm having a lot of fun reading this series and have recommended it to real-life friends. Patrick O'Brian was far better at writing novels than I will ever be at anything in my life, so why all this nitpicking?

I agree with those who say that art is entirely to be found in how things are done, never in what those things happen to be. If you're passionate about political ideas, the honest thing is to write them up in some editorials. The value of novels, paintings, songs, etc. is properly judged by a different metric. But just as it's harder to work on the how than on the what of writing, it's also harder to describe it, to praise or criticize it intelligently. The lazy critic (hi there, folks) inevitably falls back on criticizing the what - mostly politics, morals and technicalities. And having neither been on a sailing ship nor read a thousand volumes of primary materials on the Napoleonic period, I can't even nitpick O'Brian's technicalities.

If I could understand what exactly made O'Brian's writing so entertaining, if I knew how it worked internally, and consequently what exactly I should be praising here, then I could probably write as well as he did. But I know that I can't do that. Plus there's the possibility that even he couldn't have talked about his methods cogently, that his gift worked mostly on the intuitive level. Since I don't want to end up typing "man, that was so cool!" next to thousands of page and line references, I find myself falling back on criticizing the politics and commenting on the sociology.

Today I'll start with Maturin's bastardy. At one point in this novel Stephen pleads with Diana to marry him so that her unborn child (by a real man of course - she would have never let someone like Stephen impregnate her) could have a legal father.

"Reflect, my dear, upon the condition of a bastard. His state is in itself an insult. He is born with heavy disadvantages under all the codes of law I know; he is penalized from birth. He is debarred from many callings; if he is admitted to society at all, he is admitted only on sufferance; he meets the reproach at every turn all through his life – any tenth transmitter of a foolish face, any lawfully begotten blockhead can throw it in his teeth, and he has no reply. I speak with full knowledge when I say that it is a cruel, cruel thing to entail upon a child."

What about the cruelty of misinforming the world, innocent bystanders, about who exactly the hijos de putas in it are? If I've learned anything at all in life, if I could impart any sort of wisdom on the younger generation, it is to avoid bastards.

All the legal sanctions and some of the social stigma that Stephen describes have now been laboriously scrubbed, but bastards are still far more likely to murder, steal, cheat and rape than those who come from real families. This implies that the sanctions and the stigma were not the cause of their awfulness. I'm so sure about the differentials in crime, in all categories of it, in all countries, that I'm not even going to look up the relevant statistics - it would be like going to the Wikipedia to find out if night is still darker than day.

By Stephen's "logic" truth in advertising laws are cruel. If bastards weren't indeed bastards, that word would be an honorific, or at least neutral. They themselves, by their behavior, have given it negative connotations.

The shunning Stephen describes is just a shocked, brutalized world's meekly defensive reaction. Didn't he himself institute a quarantine when the Leopard was beset with gaol-fever in Desolation Island? How selfish of him to deny the need for a quarantine in cases of the maladies from which he suffers himself.

I've read that in centuries past bastards were not permitted to attend many universities. I'm a live-and-let-live sort of person, so if they set up a university of their own that did not admit people born within wedlock as either students or professors, it would never occur to me to object. Having dealt with what I suspect is a representative sample of bastards in my life, I can easily imagine what this university would look like, as well as the quality of education it would offer, but if bastards desired to pretend that it was an equal of real universities, I wouldn't much care either.

No woman from any but the most gloomily uncivilized background ever starts out wanting to become a single mother. And no woman of any background that I am aware of starts out wanting to become a fully-realized slut like Diana or an actual prostitute. Even Diana herself vocally disapproves of other sluts in this book. So single motherhood can normally be seen as an utter failure to achieve one's life goals, almost like homelessness in men. Perhaps having been born to a single mother is an even worse sign than having a criminal father because, let's face it, some guys do start out wanting to become criminals.

O'Brian frequently tells us that Diana is extraordinary, and not just in her looks, but in her "spirit", nobility, etc. The reader can't see her face, but her behavior and conversation seem commonplace, petty, selfish, utterly unremarkable to me. She complains about being called a slut many times, in several novels, all the while continuing to behave like one. She complains about others gossiping maliciously about her at a ball while maliciously gossiping about others at the same ball, and having great fun doing it. It's even worse than "tell, not show" because the things we're repeatedly told about her fail to line up with what we're shown.

A reader may think that I'm just being bitter about women here in a typically nerdy fashion. Perhaps there's some of that, but bear in mind that the people who made a big Hollywood movie out of the Aubrey/Maturin novels did not mention her in it at all, even though up till this point (the 7th volume in a 20.5-volume series) she's been the third most important character in the books. Perhaps the screenwriters agreed with me that hers were the weakest storylines in the series.

Everyone who's both read the books and seen the movie will think that Russell Crowe was a better match for his part than Paul Bettany for his. Heath Ledger could have played the younger Jack, which reminds me of how much I liked Bettany in A Knight's Tale. He's a good actor, just not pitiful enough to play Stephen.

Some NFL quarterbacks possess Aubrey-like qualities. When at the end of a victorious action Jack single-mindedly seeks out the other ship's captain, one can think of a QB wading through the post-game mayhem to shake his counterpart's hand. In both cases the default emotion is the desire to show one's respect to a worthy opponent.

It's made clear throughout the series that the Royal Navy experienced a great oversupply of officers and a dearth of sailors. The admiralty had to turn down captains and lieutenants all the time, and a great number of them were unemployed. Sailors had to be pressed (conscripted), even from jails, yet there was never enough of them. I doubt that officers made more money than men of their class would have made as civilians. I'm assuming that sailors' pay wasn't inadequate by lower class standards either. I'd guess that the two classes' different attitudes to military service had to do with the ancient warrior/peasant split, made biological by millenia of selection.

The English proles of that time couldn't have been all that bad though: when Jack comes home after years of absence he doesn't need a key to enter his rather opulent house. It seems that there is no lock. That reminded me of the scene in Madame Bovary where Emma clearly enters Rodolphe's house without a key. Rodolphe was a country gentleman, a man of means. These are just two data points: England and Normandy in the first half of the 19th century. Were doors being locked in any other parts of Europe at that time? What were those parts? What about China and Japan?

Are there any places left on Earth now where house keys aren't needed? How about North Korea? Of course I can't think about this issue without being reminded of the evil effects of liberalism, of its hatred of exclusivity, which I mentioned in my previous review.

It's sad for me to report that we did lock our apartment when I was growing up in Moscow, as did everyone we knew. Of course bikes did not have to be locked and were never stolen, and one could enter the Kremlin without as much as showing one's ID or stopping at a checkpoint. I can vouch for the latter because I did it many times myself. In the 1980s we spent some of our summers in the countryside right outside Moscow, in a village house owned by friends of our relatives. I definitely remember that we never needed a key to enter it. When I asked my mom about it recently, she said that perhaps the owners locked up for the night, though that's pure conjecture. Neither of us actually remembers them doing so.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Review of The Fortune of War

"The Fortune of War", 1979, by Patrick O'Brian. Glossy's rating: 9.3 out of 10.

The background of this volume is The War of 1812 between Britain and the United States. Russia's War of 1812 gets a mention here too when one of O'Brian's characters talks about a subscription for the victims of the fire of Moscow, a disaster prominently featured in War and Peace. One point of agreement between O'Brian and Tolstoy is in their characterization of Napoleon as an ungentlemanly, unscrupulous, dishonorable, base individual. Both thought that during his wars the Emperor of the French had fallen far shorter of the aristocratic ideal than his enemies. In the Aubrey/Maturin novels this attitude is expressed by Stephen, but I've read an interview in which O'Brian confirmed that Stephen indeed spoke for him, the author, on this topic.

There definitely are other opinions on Napoleon. Nietzsche, who attached a great deal of importance to the aristocratic ideal and to its accompanying code of morality, actually said that Napoleon did a lot to revive those two after the drubbing that they took during the French Revolution. I don't know who's closer to the truth on this, but I will say that in my view Stephen Maturin has very little leg to stand on in criticizing a decrease in gentlemanliness in politics. This isn't because Stephen is portrayed as being dishonorable himself, far from it. But his liberalism, when taken to its logical ends, cannot but ensure the death of aristocratic notions of honor everywhere in life.

If every member of a group, let's say the officer corps of an army, or the scholars working in a particular area of what was then called natural philosophy, is able and willing to adhere to a strict code of honor, then the group can be spectacularly successful. If nobody has to worry about cheating, stealing, lying or any other manifestations of selfishness, the group benefits enormously and so do the members.

But if a caste of gentlemen is penetrated by those unable, unwilling, or both, to be gentlemen, then honor becomes a liability. Those who display it are quickly taken for chumps and victimized. The willingness of those who survive this to behave honorably within the group decreases. The group's efficiency falls.

Since liberalism is in theory against all sorts of castes, all kinds of exclusivity, and in practice very much against aristocratic exclusivity, it cannot be anything but harmful to honor.

In this book we see Stephen appalled by the whites-only policy of a Boston tavern-owner - I think that's typical of his general attitude to such things.

By the way, one doesn't even need to be a gentleman to root against liberalism on this. I can't imagine myself ever fighting any duels (if challenged, I'd surely back down), but I still consider it a tragedy that they're gone. I suspect that many fat, frumpy readers of Star magazine would be devastated if all female beauty were to forever vanish, if there were never to be any more Angelina Jolies. And I'm just as sure that many morons would be greatly saddened if humanity's production of geniuses were to suddenly cease. Lefties always assume that everyone is moved by envy 100% of the time, but it's not true. In some circumstances and moods we're capable of wanting our betters to be even better, and not just in such irrelevancies as sports. This is because in some sense the best represent us all.

Back to the book: an American Indian appears in it briefly, and in a very predictable way. A porter at a hospital where Jack and Stephen stay in Boston gives a speech straight out of the Native American Heritage Month (I just looked it up and it's November). The most remarkable thing about that speech to me was that it was delivered in the sort of English usually spoken by naval and intelligence officers and Stephen's scientific colleagues in these novels. Those who work with their hands usually speak very, very differently in O'Brian's fiction. But for 20th century political reasons he wanted the porter to sound especially dignified, and so the suspension of disbelief was violently dropped. That sacrilege makes me think of Stephen's words on p. 181, spoken about something completely different: "...but even honourable, humane men were capable of almost anything for unselfish motives."

A bit more on class: it's mentioned several times in these novels that bosuns (supervisors of the deck crew) often stole ships' supplies. No captain or lieutenant is ever shown stealing or breaking his word for selfish reasons. When O'Brian shows officers in a bad light, it's usually for flogging his sailors too much, which is very different. Simple sailors deserted on occasion, which involved breaking an oath, and in one scene some are even shown attacking their captors after surrendering - utterly unimaginable in Jack or in any of the other officers depicted here. When Jack physically attacks a bosun for stealing in an earlier novel, the bosun doesn't challenge him to a duel, as a gentleman would have.

So how does one become a gent? It seems that most of the officers described here are themselves sons of officers or of other kinds of gentlemen. The ones who are not, like Pullings, were promoted by their captains for, among other things, possessing gentlemanlike qualities.

Since this book is to such a large extent about America, the American Revolution is discussed, and with it the relative merits of monarchy and republicanism.

Stephen's American colleague Evans says 'But surely mere birth without any necessary merit is illogical?’

‘Certainly,' says Stephen, 'and that is its great merit. Man is a deeply illogical being, and must be ruled illogically. Whatever that frigid prig Bentham may say, there are innumerable motives that have nothing to do with utility. In good utilitarian logic a man does not sell all his goods to go crusading, nor does he build cathedrals; still less does he write verse. There are countless pieties without a name that find their focus in a crown. It is as well, I grant you, that the family should have worn it beyond the memory of man; for your recent creations do not answer – they are nothing in comparison of your priest-king, whose merit is irrelevant, whose place cannot be disputed, nor made the subject of a recurring vote.’

If I were to defend monarchy, that wouldn't be my first argument. I'd say that the person at the top should feel like a rightful owner, expecting to pass on to his children what he inherited from his parents, and not like a CEO-type temporary custodian of other people's stuff. Who but an owner will be motivated enough to fight corruption, laziness and indifference of the hired hands? Not another hired hand. In the end someone has to be outraged that they're stealing his stuff. Even public corporations are usually at their most dynamic while still being run by their founders - we can think of early Ford, early Walmart, Apple during Jobs's stints there. Ceteris paribus, a mere founder wouldn't be as effective as an owner, but he'd be certainly better than a stranger.

Of course Stephen can't use this argument to defend George III because in Britain of that time the king was already largely a figurehead.