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.

No comments:

Post a Comment