Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Review of Master and Commander

Master and Commander, 1969, by Patrick O'Brian. Glossy's rating: 9.5 out of 10.

A common reaction to works of genius is "I didn't know human beings could do that". For example before I read Master and Commander I didn't imagine that a man could know this much about a bygone world.

Out of all the innumerable ways in which the Napoleonic era was different from ours, O'Brian again and again mostly just uses the ones that can help him make his next sentence, paragraph or plot twist more interesting. This creates the frightening impression that he might have known that particular world as well as normal people can only know the one into which they were born, and that he was able to pluck completely at will anything from it that good plotting or the promise of a good joke might have suddenly asked of him.

The two protagonists - Stephen Maturin and Jack Aubrey - are, respectively, a nerd and a gregarious, guileless natural leader of men. Obviously, anyone who could have possibly written such a book would have had to feel closer to the former than to the latter. It's interesting to note in this context that Maturin is half-Catalan and half-Irish and that in the novel circumstances lead him to participate as a non-combatant in British attacks on the Catalan coast and on Catalan shipping. The half-German, half-Irish O'Brian happened to have been involved in Britain's WWII effort as an ambulance driver, and perhaps as a spy.

If this book teaches us nothing else, it's that naval warfare in the age of sail was really, really complex. When one ship boarded another, pure courage had a chance to carry the day, but everywhere else it had to be supplemented by prodigious technical expertise, hard work, discipline and fanatical attention to detail. The reason why Britannia ruled the waves for so long is hinted at when Jack tells a midshipman:

"The pleasant thing about fighting the Spaniards, Mr. Ellis,"..."is not that they are shy, for they are not, but that they are never, never ready."

Later in that scene we are told that the Spaniards' "efforts were brave enough - one man balanced there to fire until he had been hit three times - but they seemed totally disorganized."

With Germany divided into dozens of states, England was left as the largest country in Europe that was full of fussy, detail-oriented people who worked well in teams. It would have probably taken a miracle for it not to have monopolized the seas.
It has often been said that Europe's working classes tended to have a better friend in the aristocracy than in the bourgeoisie. This is entertainingly exemplified in this book when a City stock broker goes into a long tirade against the common man while Jack and Stephen listen in disgust. It's impossible to imagine such speeches coming from either Jack or his lieutenant James Dillon, both of whom come from old landowning families. Since the aristocracy was martial in origin, it was bred to despise cowardice to a much greater extent than boorishness. The common sailor had more opportunities to act bravely than all the stock brokers of the world combined.

Just a little bit about that boorishness, though: the effect of alcohol on sailors, at least as it is described in the book, reminds one of nothing more than of the effect of gravity on bodies. Duty, the fear of whipping, the need to work for a living (and, of course, to pay for drink) are ultimately like chairs, ladders and floors in that they can only temporarily prevent bodies from falling towards their default state, in their default direction, which for sailors always seems to be drunkenness. Any time that they are left on their own in port, they get sloshed. Any time they're described as being whipped on board ship, it is of course for being drunk. When Jack orders all the prostitutes off his sloop in the beginning of the book, the crew's opposition is muted. However when Stephen suggests that the sailors' usual allowance of alcohol - a half-pint of neat rum a day per man - be diluted to promote health - the ship's gunner replies "Oh dear me,"..."if they was only to get half a pint of three-water grog we should soon have a bloody mutiny on our hands. And quite right, too."

I was curious to know how British naval officers of that era were made and promoted. It turns out that young men became midshipmen mostly through family connections, progressed to lieutenants by passing a test, were promoted to captains and then post captains again mostly through family and political connections, with the rest of their promotions automatically determined by seniority. And the lieutenant test wasn't blindly graded. None were depicted in the novel, but I've read up on them online: basically, a group of captains, some of whom you'd know personally, would ask you questions.

There was no shortage of bravery either in this book or, I'm sure, in real life, but the relationship between heroism and one's career prospects was not depicted as being particularly close. It makes you think: if even Britain during its heyday wasn't very meritocratic, what hope can meritocracy have anywhere else?

I'm sure that by somewhat narrowing the circle of people eligible for high offices the class system increased the mean IQ, decency, industry, etc. of the powers that be. But the way men got ahead within that rather large circle seems to have been as unmeritocratic, as full of pettiness and random chance, as anything in the modern world.

Last updated on 1/09/19.