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Illustration: Joel Bentley

Thomas Cairns: Finely Distinguished Knowledge

Illustration: Joel Bentley


“‘Sir,’ said Stephen, ‘I read novels with the utmost pertinacity. I look upon them – I look upon good novels – as a very valuable part of literature, conveying more exact and finely-distinguished knowledge of the human heart and mind than almost any other, with greater breadth and depth and fewer constraints.’” (p. 253, The Nutmeg of Consolation, Patrick O’Brian).


          The addiction was immediate, and quite accidental. A few innocent pages into Patrick O’Brian’s extended narrative about “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, post-captain in His Majesty’s Royal Navy, and his friend Stephen Maturin, ship’s surgeon, naturalist and spy, and I was irretrievably snared. Granted, I am especially susceptible to getting caught up in fictional webs characterized by the clatter of a chaise-and-four running over the cobblestones of foggy London streets, the smell of gunpowder and the roar of cannon fire, and the deliciously tense formal restraint of a certain class of society in early 19th-century Britain. The 21 sequential novels published over 30 years have been called “the best historical novels ever written,” and while I might not go so far as that, for such energetically plotted adventure stories they conceal a surprising amount of depth and nuance.
          The Aubrey-Maturin stories achieve their addictive quality through a number of devices – the characters are complex and multi-faceted, the historical detail is almost excruciatingly exact, and a wonderfully dry wit saturates the narrative. In addition, the central relationship between Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin, more than any naval battle or domestic intrigue, gives the books a compulsive momentum and emotional core. But, I would argue, what ultimately defines the novels and makes them worthy of further reflection is the brilliance of O’Brian’s language.
          The books are a fantastic web of complex language, defined by rhythm, cadence and peculiar obscurity that form a complete narrative world. A new reader of O’Brian’s works will recognize his significant debt to Jane Austen and also the unavoidable fact that there are moments when the books are entirely incomprehensible. O’Brian regularly uses Napoleonic era naval jargon without any definition. This is not the cartoonish “ahoy matey” and “yo-ho-ho” of pirate movies, but an intricate world of specific terminology, purposely unintelligible to the reader. It is clear that O’Brian recognizes that most readers might be a little foggy on just what the “sprit-sail yardarm” might be, or what exactly the bellowed order “boom him off the backstay” might entail. But he clearly delights in the immersive properties of the language, buoying readers along in their vaguely amused ignorance by brilliant use of rhythm and cadence.
          In this way, the form of the novels mirrors the world described within them – the world of Napoleonic Europe with its strict societal and cultural codes of language and practice, and more specifically the rituals and language particular to the Royal Navy itself. A recurring feature in the early books is the introduction of new crewmembers to Captain Aubrey’s ships – frequently men who have been “pressed” from local prisons or picked up off the streets to aid in the national struggle against Napoleon. These “landsmen” are typically a “stupid, unhandy set of lubbers on the whole,” and tend to be useless as sailors, at least at first, finding the network of naval language that surrounds them just as incomprehensible as the reader does. Yet, over time, as the landsmen become initiated into the life of the ship, they demonstrate not just comprehension of their new world, but become actual participatory members of the community. As previously foreign rituals such as exercising the great guns in the evening and swabbing the deck each morning before dawn become embodied practice, the landsmen undergo an unconscious transformation into naval sailors, ready to crack on under close reefed topsails in a fierce squall or drive an axe into a French officer’s thigh when boarding an enemy deck.
          In this way, the Aubrey-Maturin novels are rather brilliant reflections on the relationship between identity and the uncertainty of human life. The strange language of the Royal Navy and its complex of holy practices are not extraneous to the sailors and ships, but actually constitute the floating worlds that glide along the ocean’s surface, seeking opportunities to erupt into thunderous violence against the enemies of good King George. The members of a sailing ship are unusually aware of the radical insecurity of life as they depend on the vagaries of currents, winds and the integrity of the tar, wood and canvas constructions which propel them to the far sides of the world. The language and rituals which define the lives of those immersed in them are meant to create a certain type of character, a certain set of virtues, so that when luck turns sour they will still be able to tie a crowned double-wall knot in the midst of heaving swell.
          Part of the attraction of the novels, of the roots of their addictiveness, of my frankly embarrassing love for them, is due to the incomprehensible language and not in spite of it. There is a certain appeal in the fact that a reader can see in a more explicit way what often remains hidden: namely the complex framework of language and repeated practices that shapes our own characters.
          As the quote at the beginning of the essay states, fiction has a way of conveying an “exact and finely distinguished knowledge of the human heart and mind.” Even pulse-pounding serial adventure stories like the Aubrey-Maturin novels can prompt us to imagine ourselves using new language. Crossing the boundary of fiction and undergoing immersion in a distinctly different world forces us to question what implicit networks of language and ritual practice we are enmeshed in, and what sorts of virtues these practices and languages are shaping within us. Not to say that the mystery of who and how I am becoming can ever be exhausted, but the questioning is not entirely in vain: a particular nakedness of self is exposed when the bewildering drunken veering of life collides with our best laid plans, when a mysterious ship appears hull up on the horizon, or when a confused, tumbling cross-sea tosses us in unexpected directions.

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