09 June 2013


Here, from John Le Carré's first novel Call for the Dead (1961), is a description of the sickness of how states "think" about people.  The speaker is Elsa Fennan, a survivor of the Holocaust, whose Foreign Office husband Samuel has seemingly killed himself after being vetted by George Smiley as a possible security risk.

It's an old illness you suffer from, Mr. Smiley . . . and I have seen many victims of it.  The mind becomes separated from the body; it thinks without reality, rules a paper kingdom and devises without emotion the ruin of its paper victims.  But sometimes the division between your world and ours is incomplete; the files grow heads and arms and legs, and that's a terrible moment isn't it?  The names have families as well as records, and human motives to explain the sad little dossiers and their make-believe sins . . .

It's like the State and the People.  The State is a dream too, a symbol of nothing at all, an emptiness, a mind without a body, a game played with clouds in the sky.  But States make war, don't they, and imprison people?  To dream in doctrines--how tidy! . . . 

You call yourself the State, Mr. Smiley; you have no place among real people.  You dropped a bomb from the sky: don't come down here and look at the blood . . .

However, we're meant to know that Smiley isn't really one of those bodiless bureaucrats.  Hopelessly in love with his compulsively faithless wife Ann, he's happiest in the world of seventeenth-century German poetry.  Told to abandon his investigation of Fennan's death when he presents his boss with an unwelcome hypothesis, he instead resigns his post, like an English Philip Marlowe (of course Raymond Chandler was English too).  He hated the Press as he hated advertising and television, he hated mass-media, the relentless persuasion of the twentieth century.  Everything he admired or loved had been the product of intense individualism.  But Smiley then turns to consider his former student Dieter, fifteen years ago a heroic spy and saboteur against the Nazis, now an East German spymaster: That was why he hated Dieter now, hated what he stood for more strongly than ever before: it was the fabulous impertinence of renouncing the individual in favour of the mass. . . Dieter cared nothing for human life: dreamed only of armies of faceless men bound by their lowest common denominators; he wanted to shape the world as if it were a tree, cutting off what did not fit the regular image; for this he fashioned blank, soulless automatons . . .

Can John Le Carré really mean this to represent the inner voice of the Smiley we've come to know, the voice that spurs him to action?  It has the off-the-rack certainty of all ideological speech.  Those bombastic adjectives: intense, fabulous, faceless, soulless; those boilerplate abstractions: hate, individual, mass, lowest common denominators, armies of faceless men, automatons; nobody uses language like that unless he's trying to sell you something.  And what indeed was the Nazi program if not the mirror image of Dieter's, renouncing the good of the masses in favour of the [Nietzschean] individual?  Of course Le Carré isn't Joseph Conrad, nor even Graham Greene: he's writing spy stories, not political novels, and his writerly craft is better-suited to narrative than to serious fiction's other aims.  Even Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, his finest novel, is written in the middlebrow vernacular of a thoughtful thriller, although its complex examination of the varieties of betrayal transcends the genre.  It's possible that Le Carré doesn't have quite enough subtlety as a writer for the fineness of his conception of the noir hero.  But it's possible too that he means us to infer that Smiley in using such language is trying to sell himself something--to find a "Deus volt" for himself-- as he prepares to go gunning for his old friend Dieter.

While Call for the Dead is less ambitious in scope than the later novels, its use of different styles of rhetoric is not untouched by irony.  For example, the widow Elsa Fennan is not quite so uncomplicated as she seems, and what she says oughtn't in the end to be taken unsalted.  Nevertheless, as Smiley's progress through Le Carré's later novels shows, his real tragedy is that she's telling the truth about him: he faithfully serves a State that is no less driven by abstractions than its enemy States and that freely offers individual people up as sacrifice for Its own inhuman purposes.  And perhaps it is impossible to work for a "dream" like a State without sometimes finding on one's own tongue that anti-specific rhetoric peculiar to dreams.  Speaking of Henry James's passionate respect for individuals rather than types, T. S. Eliot famously said that he had "a mind so fine no idea could violate it."  But men like that are rare indeed, and so are writers.

29 May 2013


While the Iliad has many female characters, it is not a poem about women.  Except for Andromache, Hector's wife, their main narrative function is to further the course of the war, whether as pawns, like Chryseis and Briseis, or more actively, like Helen, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite.  Even Thetis, Achilles's mother, when she brings him maternal comfort, brings it in the form of a new shield and armor.  The poem's subject--war--is intricately bound up with the relations of men, as comrades, antagonists, soulmates, but perhaps even more deeply as sons with their fathers.  A man is rarely named whose father's name does not follow immediately after, and the grief of fathers bereft of their sons is evoked in many places:                                                                                             
                                                               [and] Merops...refused to let his two boys march to war,
                                                               this man-killing war, but the young ones fought him
                                                               all the way...and Diomedes...stripped them of life-breath...

                                                               The son of Tydeus killed [Xanthus and Thoon] on the spot,
                                                               he ripped the dear life out of both and left their father
                                                               tears and wrenching grief...

Some of the heroes even bear their fathers' names as epithets: Telamonian Ajax; Tydides, for Diomedes son of Tydeus; the Atridae, Menelaus and Agamemnon, sons of Atreus; and of course Pelides, who is Achilles son of Peleus.  Since I've already raised the controversial idea that modern psychological phenomena may help us understand the ancients, not to mention the other controversial idea that literary characters may sometimes be interpretable as if they were alive, I shall go on to suggest that the way sons feel about fathers is at the heart of The Anger of Achilles.

What does Homer tell us about Achilles?  Son of Peleus and the sea-nymph Thetis, he was raised in Phthia, in northern Greece; when sent to join the Achaean armada he was

                                                               ...a youngster still untrained for the great leveler, war,
                                                               still green at debate where men can make their mark.

Instructed in warfare on the way to Argos by "the old charioteer Phoenix," he is so naturally gifted at it that he joins the Argives as their youngest chief and best fighter.  While I shall not in general allude to non-Homeric legends about Achilles (such as the one about his heel), Apollodorus writes that he was fifteen when named admiral of the Greek forces.  When the poem begins, then, nine years later, he is in his mid-twenties, and has spent his entire young manhood on campaign, among men of war.  Impetuous, strutting, and prideful, Achilles is touchy about having his pre-eminence in battle acknowledged by his more seasoned fellow captains, and hungry for all the fame there is.  Also of vital importance: he has fallen in love with the maiden Briseis:

                                                               I loved that woman with all my heart,
                                                               though I won her like a trophy with my spear.

This is "the strong/ Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles,/ Who would not live long" (as Auden calls him), in the ninth year of the war against Troy, when

                                                               [the] gods knotted the rope of strife and leveling war,
                                                               strangling both sides at once by stretching the mighty cable,
                                                               never broken, never slipped, that snapped the knees
                                                                                                                                    of thousands...

The Greeks are suffering a plague sent by Apollo at the request of his priest Chryses, to whom Agamemnon has refused to return his daughter Chryseis, a trophy of war.  Once the cause of the sickness is known, the other captains insist that Agamemnon return her; angrily, he acquiesces, but only if they make up his loss from their own shares of the booty.  Outraged that Agamemnon should seek to take back spoil already shared out, Achilles challenges him.  Their exchange heats up until Agamemnon, himself outraged by Achilles's rebelliousness, claims his lover Briseis for himself to make up for losing Chryseis.  Staggered, Achilles reaches for his sword, but is restrained by Athena in the name of Zeus, "Father of the Gods;" he then retires to his own encampment, on strike, with his fifty ship-loads of Myrmidons.

In all his pride, Achilles still longs to be contained within the loving authority of a father.  While his position makes him equal to the other captains, he is too young to feel at ease as their peer.  On the other hand, "godlike Achilles" is the most fearsome fighter in this group of heroes, and too proud to seem to defer to anyone.  The only authority he could possibly bow to is that of Agamemnon, his commander and military "father," and the pride of his strength requires that his deference carry no hint of servility.  When Agamemnon replaces leadership with tyranny by taking Briseis back, Achilles nearly reverts to his own authority--that is, to force--to redeem his honor.

Agamemnon's insult is twofold.  First, his despotic claim deforms the structure of authority which allows the other Achaeans to follow his lead without sacrificing their sense of independence or their honor.  In stripping Achilles of Briseis, Agamemnon forces him to submit to his command, rather than to serve freely as his ally.  Second, by reclaiming the woman whom we later learn Achilles might have married--the woman who pointed Achilles towards a life as a husband and father, beyond the purely masculine world of warfare--Agamemnon thrusts him back into the status of an immature youth.

Thus, Achilles has been both outraged and belittled by the only father he has at hand.  Of course Agamemnon isn't a very good father to his actual children either: as we know from other sources, he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia at Aulis, in order to raise the wind so the Greeks could sail to Troy.  Indeed, his own father Atreus served his uncle with a stew made from his cousins, and his ancestor Tantalus prepared his own son as a banquet to the gods, and was damned for it.  At any rate, having lost respect for his commander and resigned his place in the Achaean army, Achilles has nothing to sustain him but the brittle honor of an overgrown stripling. Moreover, since he refuses to submit to Agamemnon as war leader, there is no honorable action open to him.  Stymied into the passivity of a leaf-spring under tension, he broods in his tent, waiting for Agamemnon's regret to blossom.

Later, when Hector and the Trojans are pressing the Greeks hard, Agamemnon does send an embassy to Achilles, offering him riches and captive maidens and even the hand of his daughter, if he will take up arms again.  This refreshes his sense of insult: riches and women cannot repair the injury his trust has suffered.  As for "his daughter--I will marry no daughter of Agamemnon," he says, which is easily read as, "I shall never again think of him as a father."  Far from rejoining the fight, Achilles announces that he plans to sail back to Phthia the next morning:

                                                                                                      Mother tells me...
                                                              that two fates bear me on to the day of death.
                                                              If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,
                                                              my journey home is gone but my glory never dies.
                                                              If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
                                                              my pride, my glory dies...
                                                              True, but the life that's left me will be long.

Then Telamonian Ajax speaks, first as if directing an aside to Odysseus, then directly to Achilles:

                                                               He's made his own proud spirit so wild in his chest,
                                                               so savage, not a thought for his comrades' love...

                                                               Why, any man will accept the blood-price paid
                                                               for a brother murdered, a child done to death...
                                                               The murderer has paid enough, and the injured kinsman
                                                               curbs his pride, his smoldering, vengeful spirit,
                                                               once he takes the price...

                                                                                             You--the gods have planted
                                                               a cruel, relentless fury in your chest!  All for a girl,
                                                               just one...
                                                               Put some human kindness in your heart--
                                                               ...we long to be your closest, dearest friends.

Achilles relents: he won't sail away, but he won't fight the Trojans either, unless they get as far as his own ships.  Why does he relent?  An older man whom everyone respects, one of Achaea's greatest warriors, having assured him that he's loved and honored, has scolded him--but not to his face--for putting his own sense of wounded entitlement ahead of the aims of their fellowship.  Ajax speaks with the moral authority which Agamemnon could not muster, the same moral authority which allows coaches to give orders to players twice their size and fathers to help their sons into responsible manhood: the fatherly guidance which Achilles yearns for as he yearns for his fatherland.  Nevertheless, however chastened, he still refuses to fight under Agamemnon's command.

When Patroclus dies, Achilles is finally free to go into battle on his own account, and his spring is released.  Focused by the guilt of sending Patroclus out in his place, all his wounded pride and the rage of honor long-thwarted launch him like a leaf-bladed javelin through the Trojan companies at Hector. The Trojan commander is the only fighter on either side who approaches his own quality, and the only man suitable to stand in for the two people whom Achilles hates most: Agamemnon and himself.  As I said in my earlier essay, however, Achilles returns to war not as a warrior but as an avenger, not as a human being but as a berserker.   The Auden poem "The Shield of Achilles," from which I quoted earlier, evokes the desolate inhumanity of Achilles's inner landscape unforgettably:

                                                                       A ragged urchin, aimless and alone
                                                                       Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
                                                                       Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone.
                                                                       That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
                                                                       Were axioms to him, who'd never heard
                                                                       Of any world where promises were kept,
                                                                       Or one could weep because another wept.

Hector is the anti-Achilles: a great warrior who doesn't glory in war, he is both strengthened and softened by being husband, father, and citizen.  In the end, great-hearted as he is--and with everything to lose--he cannot outfight or outrun a killer whose hate has left him no longer human, or as Homer depicts it, who fights with the gods at his side.  And of course, since the living Hector is not the cause of Achilles's psychic wound but merely a substitute, his actual death cannot sate the anger of Achilles, who wants to go on humiliating him: he drags Hector's body behind his chariot as a funeral-offering to Patroclus, and spends the next nine days furiously dragging it around the tomb while Apollo preserves it from damage and decay.

Finally Zeus has had enough of this impious disrespect. "In deathless wrath/ that [Achilles] in heartsick fury still holds Hector's body," he overrules Troy's enemies Hera and Athena and sends Thetis to order her son to surrender the body to Hector's grieving father Priam.  Of course Achilles bows to paternal authority, "if Olympian Zeus himself insists in earnest," and Hermes conducts Priam to his tent.  How does Priam approach him?  He kneels, saying

                                                               Remember your own father, great godlike Achilles--
                                                               as old as I am, past the threshold of deadly old age!
                                                               ...no one [is] there to defend him...
                                                               No one, but at least he hears you're still alive
                                                               and his old heart rejoices, hopes rising, day by day,
                                                               to see his beloved son come sailing home from Troy...
                                                               Revere the gods, Achilles!  Pity me in my own right,
                                                               remember your own father!
                                                               I put to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son.

A father kneels in supplication to Achilles: a father who loves his son, a father who asks Achilles to revive the pity he has repudiated, a father who reminds him that he too has a father who loves him.  Reunited in thought with his real father, whom he knows he will never see again,

                                                               Those words stirred within Achilles a deep desire
                                                               to grieve for his own father.  Taking the old man's hand
                                                               he gently moved him back.  And overpowered by memory
                                                               both men gave way to grief.  Priam wept freely
                                                               for man-killing Hector... as Achilles wept himself,
                                                               now for his father, now for Patroclus once again...

At last, "one could weep because another wept."

                                                               Then, when brilliant Achilles had had his fill of tears
                                                               and the longing for it had left his mind and body,
                                                               he rose from his seat, raised the old man by the hand
                                                               and filled with pity now for his gray head and gray beard,
                                                               he spoke out winging words, flying straight to the heart:
                                                               "Poor man, how much you've borne--pain to break the spirit!
                                                               what daring brought you down to the ships, all alone,
                                                               to face the glance of the man who killed your sons,
                                                               so many fine, brave boys?..."

Fated never himself to flower into husband, father, citizen, but reminded that he too is a son beloved by his father, Achilles has renounced the berserker and recovered his generosity and tenderness, a man once again like other men.  So ends The Anger of Achilles.

26 May 2013


Recently, almost by accident, I was lucky enough to see Denis O'Hare's one-man production "An Iliad," adapted by himself and Lisa Peterson from Robert Fagles's Homer.  I left the theater staggered and awed by the brutal beauty of warfare.  For me, the climax of the piece was when O'Hare acted out the transport of bloodlust which impels Patroclus through the Trojan lines towards the walls of Troy, seemingly invulnerable in the armor of Achilles.  I found myself pushing back into my seat in appalled fascination, while at the same time unspeakably swept up in that warriors' fury, Eliot's "trilling wire in the blood," a passion so arousing, so overmastering, so immediate, that it seems as if only blood could calm it.  That murderous ecstasy is central to the Iliad, which depicts over and over again the moment when a young man named Scamandrius or Iphidamas or Phereclus--a hunter, shepherd, shipwright, beloved by his folk but far from home--has his lifeline broken by bronze into a name in a song and a muddy tangle of meat.

Those moments are horribly vivid.  In Book Five, Diomedes catches up to Pandarus, Troy's star archer, who had just broken a truce by trying to kill Menelaus at the mischievous prompting of Athena.  But Athena is really on the side of the Achaeans:

                                                                               ...Athena drove the [spear] shaft
                                                            and it split the archer's nose between the eyes--                                                                           it cracked his glistening teeth, the tough bronze
                                                            cut off his tongue at the root, smashed his jaw
                                                            and the point came ripping out beneath his chin...
                                                            his life and power slipped away on the wind.

Diomedes then wounds Aeneas, who a year after taking such damage has to flee the ruin of Troy carrying his father Anchises on his back:

                                                                             ...he raised [a boulder] high with ease,
                                                            flung it and struck Aeneas' thigh where the hipbone
                                                            turns inside the pelvis, the joint they call the cup--
                                                            it smashed the socket, snapped both tendons too
                                                            and the jagged rock tore back the skin in shreds.

There are hundreds of these savagely anatomical vignettes.  They punctuate the furious progress of a Diomedes or an Agamemnon, whose onslaught carries our consciousness along with it, as did Denis O'Hare's Patroclus.  As we are borne along, however, these abrupt slow-motion close-ups suddenly unhorse us.  The slaughter of Pandarus made me intensely aware of my own teeth and tongue, even while my hand was still getting its feeling back from clutching Diomedes's spear.  This may seem like no more than an unexpectedly modern kind of realism, dramatizing the physical violence of warfare at arms' length between spearmen in cowhide and bronze, but I think there's more to it than that.  Why would Homer choose to risk distracting his listeners from the sweep of the battle scenes, which is anchored in their identification with the victorious hero?  Were the ancient Greeks so different from us that such gruesome episodes could fail to remind them of their own bodies' softness, could fail to impose on their imagination, willy-nilly, the unstringing of the vanquished?

After the death of Patroclus, the rage Achilles had been feeling towards Agamemnon and his guilt about letting Patroclus wear his armor out into battle combine to drive him berserk:

                                                             A sound of grinding came from the fighter's teeth,
                                                             his eyes blazed forth in searing points of fire, 
                                                             unbearable grief came surging through his heart
                                                             and now, bursting with rage against the men of Troy,
                                                             he donned Hephaestus' gifts...
                                                             Here was a man not sweet at heart, not kind, no,
                                                             he was raging, wild--as Tros grasped his knees,
                                                             desperate, begging, Achilles slit open his liver,
                                                             the liver spurted loose, gushing with dark blood...
                                                             So as the great Achilles rampaged on, his 
                                                                                                                         sharp-hoofed stallions      
                                                             trampled shields and corpses, axle under his chariot splashed
                                                             with blood, blood on the handrails sweeping around the car,
                                                             sprays of blood shooting up from the stallions' hoofs
                                                             and churning, whirling rims--and the son of Peleus
                                                             charioteering on to seize his glory, bloody filth
                                                             spattering both strong arms, Achilles' invincible arms--

Early in this slaughter, he lunges at Demoleon, son of Antenor:

                                                            he stabbed his temple and cleft his helmet's cheek piece.
                                                            None of the bronze plate could hold it--boring through
                                                            the metal and skull the bronze spear point pounded,
                                                            Demoleon's brains splattered all inside his casque.

That last telling detail must have been familiar to anyone who had stripped the dead after a battle.  However, the splattering of "brains...inside his casque" could neither have been observed by Achilles, nor registered by Demoleon.  That line--which is to be found in several other translations, as well as elsewhere in the poem--is hyper-real, impossible to mistake for realism.  To me the line clarifies that all those other snuff-film close-ups (while described in accordance with the world of appearances--as perceived by an independent and freely mobile observer who can stop time at will) are also hyper-real.  In other words, these images are both accurate and imaginary.  Of course that imagination is the poet's, refined by hundreds of retellings, and of course it is risky to attribute our own psychological experience to the ancients, but exactly what was Homer conveying through this apparent dissociation from both Achilles's consciousness and from realism?

I think we are being taught something about the imagination of the warrior, especially the warrior gone berserk. When Achilles becomes a berserker, he has "forgotten himself:" he has put on the "bear-sark," the bear-shirt, and acquired the bear's strength and invulnerability.  The metaphor suggests that something has been added to him, that he is now super-human, but of course something has actually been subtracted: in repudiating fear and pity, in repudiating his antagonists' likeness to him, he has repudiated his own humanity, bound up as it is with the terrible knowledge of how easily bronze shears flesh.  At this point Achilles--who knows he won't live through this war--imagines himself invincible, a different order of being than "the Trojans."  How is this illusion sustained?

My eight-year-old son often rehearses "long-forgotten wars" in play.  Whether his agon is derived from Star Wars or some other context, the scenario is the same: two sides are killing and being killed, accompanied by terse comic-book battlefield jargon (along with grunts and other manly vocalizations) and explosive sound effects.  The good guys, to whom he stands as Athena to the Greeks, are preserved by their skill in battle (and also because like Zeus he holds the scales), and the losing bad guys are apparently bloodless, and sometimes 'actually' robots.  Unsurprisingly, externally-derived images which suggest threat or violence, especially as movies rather than stills, give him nightmares, so we try to limit and modulate his exposure to them.  I don't ask him what he pictures while playing, for fear of making him self-conscious and literal-minded about it, but I'd guess it's something like the Iliad--a long-drawn-out series of individual combats--without the blood.  A skirmish won, his camera cuts away and the action moves on.

I think that what allows a berserk Achilles to deny his share in human mortality involves rehearsing his war as my son does, entraining visions of the mutilation he imagines visiting on "the Trojans" as he falls upon them.  Although such visions arise from the same internal source as my son's playing and my own queasy excitement during Denis O'Hare's enactment of Patroclus, they are no longer innocent of reality: they are enhanced and reified by actual horrors seen in the heightened state of battle, horrors commensurate with the strength of men and metal, suffered alike by enemies and by friends.  Such circumstantial images exact ever more repetitious and forceful splitting-off from the involuntary quailing of the body, until they take on the kind of hallucinatory intensity Homer depicts.  Memories of traumatic events are often pictured as if from outside oneself--since they were lived through in a state in which consciousness was actively relocated outside the body for safety--and certain details seem sharper and more saturated with meaning than in typical memories.  I think Homer may be presenting his listeners with the psychological truth that Demoleon's savaging is imagined by Achilles--both beforehand and during the act--and that what he imagines is rendered hyper-real by his concentrated refusal to picture himself in Demoleon's helmet.  Were the archaic Greeks readier to slip into that split-off state--that berserker's grace--than we moderns are?  Probably not.

28 June 2012


Like most of us, I learned to read with the help of pictures.  Comic books remained favorite reading late into childhood, and there are panels from the "Classics Illustrated" editions of Journey to the Center of the Earth, The House of the Seven Gables, and Men Against the Sea which I still remember quite clearly after forty years.  Having graduated from books with pictures, my imagination was taught to make its own movies by the development of what one might call "headlong narrative lust": possessed by that same lust, my children become quite deaf while they're reading, just as I once did.  To me, reading is still driven by the engine of narrative, and my interest in considering other aspects of a text would have no real motive without it.  

When a narrative suddenly interpolates a list or catalogue into the text, interrupting that passionate onwardness of reading, it's usually about as welcome as a knot of half-cooked spaghetti in my carbonara.  It seems to promise nothing but boredom and anticlimax: I'm tempted to skip it, much as I skip wanton descriptions of landscape (which, come to think of it, are a kind of catalogue too).  Catalogues aren't supposed to be prose, they're archives for reference, and who wants to read a thesaurus in the midst of a thriller?  Having yanked us rudely out of the stream of time a narrative is happening in, a list reminds us that we're just ourselves, reading.  The story stops while the list is being read, just like when movie screens used to go blank for intermissions: when my daughter was three, the shock of such stopping would make her burst into tears when a movie ended, because she was so disappointed not to be still in it.

Reading a catalogue all the way through sacrifices living in the tale to a kind of contemplative quiescence.  It's a completely different mode of reading, comprising two distinct aims: the registration of each element in the catalogue piecemeal--my wife, speaking of flea markets, calls this "micro-hiking"--and the simultaneous effort to derive or imagine the relationship between elements without the guidance of plot or syntax.  Imagine Kipling's Kim, during his job interview for the Great Game, looking at Lurgan Sahib's tray of miscellaneous objects and trying to figure out what properties unite them into a collection.  However captivating such a puzzle might seem abstractly, when an actual list first looms up in the middle of a story, I anticipate the same tedium as any five-year-old contemplating a page without pictures.


Of course, I wouldn't be writing all this if that expectation of tedium were the whole story.  There's genuine pleasure in submitting to a well-crafted list--once that first impatient repulsion is overcome--a pleasure evoked by the sensory interest of each word or phrase in the list, the play of different elements' rhythms against one another, and the engineering by which a seeming hodgepodge of distinct particles aspires to (or even enacts) a sequence.  Some narrative lists manifest the mind of the writer or narrator in the act of composing them, others pretend to allude to taxonomies already formed.  Just as a long look at the night sky begins to hint at the underlying structure behind an appearance of random distribution--a lacy skein of stars surrounding bubbles of void--so a well-composed list hints at an implicate order in the universe it purports to describe, even while it may be subverting the idea of order.  An excellent example is this well-known list, from Borges's essay "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins," collected in Other Inquisitions:

"These ambiguities, redundances (sic), and deficiencies recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.  On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they are mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies at a distance.

Each successive element as it appears casts doubt on the criteria by which the catalogue has been devised.  They are alternately over-inclusive and over-specific; sublime, ridiculous, and indefinable.  Eventually the entire catalogue collapses, from something which pretends to be a comprehensive classification into nothing more than a manifestation of the apparent state of mind of the person devising it--who is of course an invention.  (Perhaps it is unnecessary to add that the actual Franz Kuhn played no part in this brilliant piece of whimsy.)  And yet (some inner metaphysician asks), might not there exist some meta-level on which these wildly different levels of abstraction--stray dogs, embalmed, fabulous, included in this classification, resembling flies at a distance--intersect seamlessly to parcel out the world?  After all, as Borges might have reminded us, certain modern cosmogonies postulate seven or nine dimensions, whose mathematics would allow objects galaxies apart--in the universe we think we know--to interact with and influence one another instantly, unpredictably, unimaginably. 

My next exhibit, from Patrick Leigh Fermor's Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, starts out irresistibly, 'dervishes of the Tower of the Winds' and all... and keeps on getting better:

"This was the road to Anavryti [in the southern Peloponnese], the approach march to our private invasion of the Mani. ...the bank manager of sleepy Sparta was waiting with his jeep as he had promised... I repeated my questions about the inhabitants of Anavryti... 'Yes,' he said, hooting his way through a clinking herd of goats; their twisted horns surrounded us for a moment in a tangled spinney: 'they all say they are Jews, but nobody knows why, or where they are from.  It's probably rubbish.'
     It was very puzzling.  Perhaps he was right.  And yet the Greek world, with all its absorptions and dispersals and its Odyssean ramifications, is an inexhaustible Pandora's box of eccentricities and exceptions to all possible rule.  I thought of the abundance of strange communities: the scattered Bektashi and the Rufayan, the Mevlevi dervishes of the Tower of the Winds, the Liaps of Souli, the Pomaks of the Rhodope, the Kizilbashi near Kechro, the Fire-Walkers of Mavrolevki, the Lazi from the Pontic shores, the Linovamvaki--crypto-Christian Moslems of Cyprus--the Dönmehs--crypto-Jewish Moslems of Salonika and Smyrna--the Slavophones of Northern Macedonia, the Koutzo-Vlachs of Samarina and Metzovo, the Chams of Thesprotia, the scattered Souliots of Roumeli and the Heptanese, the Albanians of Argolis and Attica, the Kravarite mendicants of Aetolia, the wandering quacks of Eurytania, the phallus-wielding Boumariots of Tyrnavos, the Karamanlides of Cappadocia, the Tzakones of the Argolic gulf... the Turks of Thrace, the Thessalonican Sephardim, the sponge-fishers of Calymnos and the Caribbean reefs, the Maniots of Corsica, Tuscany, Algeria and Florida, the dying Grecophones of Calabria and Otranto, the Greek-speaking Turks near Trebizond on the banks of the Of, the omnipresent Gypsies... the Bavarians of Attic Herakleion, the Cypriots of Islington and Soho, the Sahibs and Boxwallahs of Nicosia, the English remittance men of Kyrenia, the Basilian Monks, both Idiorrhythmic and Cenobitic, the anchorites of Mt. Athos, the Chiots of Bayswater and the Guards' Club... the Pontics of the Sea of Azov, the Caucasus and the Don, the Turcophone and Armenophone Lazi of southern Russia, the Greeks of the Danube Delta, Odessa and Taganrog... the exaggerators and the ghosts of Mykonos... the Franks of the Morea, the Byzantines of Mistra, the Venetians and Genoese and Pisans of the archipelago... the Anglo-Saxons of the Varangian Guard, ye olde Englisshe of the Levant company, the Klephts and the Armatoles... the Phanariots of the Sublime Porte, the princes and boyars of Moldowallachia, the Ralli Brothers of India, the Whittals of Constantinople, the lepers of Spinalonga... a wandering Arab I saw years ago in Domoko, the Chinese tea-pedlar of Kolonaki, killed in Piraeus during the war by a bomb--if all these, to name a few, why not the crypto-Jews of the Taygetus?"

"Both Idiorrhythmic and Cenobitic"--who could ask for anything more?  And here, to demonstrate the virtues of that Græcophile Leigh Fermor's talent even more plainly, is one of the original models for his list and for many others, (translated by Ian Johnston):

 "... But I shall list the leaders,
commanders of the ships, and all the ships in full.                            

Penelaus, Leitus, and Arcesilaus
led the Boeotians, with Clonius and Prothoenor.
Their men came from Hyria, rocky Aulis,
Schoenus, Scolus, mountainous Eteonus,
Thespeia, Graia, spacious Mycalassus,
men holding Harma, Eilesium, Erythrae;
men holding Eleon, Hyle, Peteon,
Ocalea, the well-built fortress Medeon,
Copae, Eutresis, Thisbe, city full of doves;
men from Coronea, grassy Haliartus;
men from Plataea, Glisas, those who held
fortified lower Thebe and sacred Onchestus,
with Poseidon's splendid grove; men from Arne,
land rich in grapes, Midea, sacred Nisa,
and distant Anthedon.  Fifty ships came with these men,
each with one hundred and twenty young Boeotians...

The Locrians were led by swift Ajax, son of Oileus,
the lesser Ajax, not the greater Ajax,
son of Telamon, but a much smaller man.
Though he was short and wore cloth armor,
among all Hellenes and Achaeans he excelled
in fighting with his spear.  Locrians came from Cynus,
Opous, Calliarus, Bessa, Scarphe,
lovely Aegeiae, Tarphe, Thronion,
and from around the river Boagrius.
Ajax brought forty black ships of Locrians
living across from sacred Euboea...

Warriors from Argos, fortified Tiryns, Hermione,
Asine, both with deep bays, Troezene, Eionae,
vine-rich Epidaurus, Achaean youth from Aegina, Mases--
all these were led by mighty fighter Diomedes,
skilled in war cries, and by Sthenelus, dear son
of famous Capaneus..."

And so on for another 232 lines.  Despite the Classical importance of this 'Catalogue of Ships,' I find it much more difficult to keep on reading through it--not to mention copying it out--than I find most of the other catalogues here.  I suspect that actually hearing it in Homer's incantatory voice--if I'd been born in Akhaia--might have supplied it with an interest otherwise missing.  What I mean is, I guess you had to be there.


By contrast, this next passage is a delicious primer in the art of pacing and grouping a catalogue--salting it with jokes and gossip, peppering it with names from the animal and vegetable kingdoms--so as to convert it into satirical drama:

     "From East Egg then, came the Chester Beckers and the Leeches, and a man named Bunsen, whom I knew at Yale, and Doctor Webster Civet, who was drowned last summer up in Maine.  And the Hornbeams and the Willie Voltaires, and a whole clan named Blackbuck, who always gathered in a corner and flipped up their noses like goats at whoever came near.  And the Ismays and the Chrysties (or rather Hubert Auerbach and Mr. Chrystie's wife), and Edgar Beaver, whose hair, they say, turned cotton-white one winter afternoon for no good reason at all.
      Clarence Endive was from East Egg, as I remember.  He came only once, in white knickerbockers, and had a fight with a bum named Etty in the garden.  From farther out on the Island came the Cheadles and the O. R. P. Schraeders, and the Stonewall Jackson Abrams of Georgia, and the Fishguards and the Ripley Snells.  Snell was there three days before he went to the penitentiary, so drunk out on the gravel drive that Mrs. Ulysses Swett's automobile ran over his right hand.  The Dancies came, too, and S. B. Whitebait, who was well over sixty, and Maurice A. Flink, and the Hammerheads, and Beluga the tobacco importer, and Beluga's girls.
     From West Egg came the Poles and the Mulreadys and Cecil Roebuck and Cecil Schoen and Gulick the State senator and Newton Orchid, who controlled Films Par Excellence, and Eckhaust and Clyde Cohen and Don S. Schwartze (the son) and Arthur McCarty, all connected with the movies in one way or another.  And the Catlips and the Bembergs and G. Earl Muldoon, brother to that Muldoon who afterward strangled his wife.  Da Fontano the promoter came there, and Ed Legros and James B. ("Rot-Gut") Ferret and the De Jongs and Ernest Lilly--they came to gamble, and when Ferret wandered into the garden it meant he was cleaned out and Associated Traction would have to fluctuate profitably next day.
     A man named Klipspringer was there so often and so long that he became known as "the Boarder"--I doubt if he had any other home.  Of theatrical people there were Gus Waize and Horace O'Donavan and Lester Myer and George Duckweed and Francis Bull.  Also from New York were the Chromes and the Backhyssons and the Dennickers and Russel Betty and the Corrigans and the Kellehers and the Dewars and the Scullys and S. W. Belcher and the Smirkes and the young Quinns, divorced now, and Henry L. Palmetto, who killed himself by jumping in front of a subway train in Times Square...
     In addition to all these I can remember that Faustina O'Brien came there at least once and the Baedeker girls and young Brewer, who had his nose shot off in the war, and Mr. Albrucksburger and Miss Haag, his fiancée, and Ardita Fitz-Peters and Mr. P. Jewett, once head of the American Legion, and Miss Claudia Hip, with a man reputed to be her chauffeur, and a prince of something, whom we called Duke, and whose name, if I ever knew it, I have forgotten.
     All these people came to Gatsby's house in the summer."


When an entire text resists the kind of headlong narrative pace I mentioned earlier, when reading it is a word-by-phrase experience similar to that of reading through a list, there's a special pleasure in encountering a list in a recognizable form, especially one that's been dramatized by a writer even more skillful than Fitzgerald.  Some of you will not be surprised to learn that I'm speaking of James Joyce (who was very fond of lists, as Ulysses shows) and of Finnegans Wake.  This is an excerpt from a catalogue of gifts, following the style of joke bequests or Christmas presents, brought by Anna Livia Plurabelle--the personification of Dublin's river--to all her children.  Reading it aloud enhances its pleasure: the rhythm of the text seems to follow the twists and turns--the 'baltering' and 'soodling,' as Auden has it--of a river making its way to the sea:

"she'd neb in her culdee sacco of wabbash she raabed and reach out her maundy meerschaundize, poor souvenir as per ricorder and all for sore aringarung, stinkers and heelers, laggards and primelads, her furzeborn sons and dribblederry daughters, a thousand and one of them, and wickerpotluck for each of them.  For evil and ever.  And kiks the buch.  A tinker's bann and a barrow to boil his billy for Gipsy Lee; a cartridge of cockaleekie soup for Chummy the Guardsman; for sulky Pender's acid nephew deltoïd drops, curiously strong; a cough and a rattle and wildrose cheeks for poor Piccolina Petite Macfarlane; a jigsaw puzzle of needles and pins and blankets and shins between them for Isabel, Jezebel and LLewellyn MMarriage... a drowned doll to face downwards for modest Sister Anne Mortimer... Wildairs' breechettes for Magpeg Woppington; to Sue Dot a black eye; to Sam Dash a false step; snakes in clover, picked and scotched, and a vaticanned viper catcher's visa for Patsy Presbys; a reiz every morning for Standfast Dick and a drop every minute for Stumblestone Davy... a whippingtop for Eddy Lawless; for Kitty Coleraine of Buttermans' Lane a penny wise for her foolish pitcher... for Seumas, thought little, a crown he feels big; a tibertine's pile with a Congoswood cross on the back for Sunny Twimjim... penteplenty of pity with lubilashings of lust for Olona Lena Magdalena; for Camilla, Dromilla, Ludmilla, Mamilla, a bucket, a packet, a book and a pillow... a Missa pro Messa for Taff de Taff; Jill, the spoon of a girl, for Jack, the broth of a boy... 
     My colonial, wardha bagful!  A bakereen dusind with tithe tillies to boot.  That's what you may call the tale of a tub!"


Next, I offer a certain kind of catalogue in nearly its purest form, a miscellany of words, higgledy-piggledy, from the extraordinary novel Garden, Ashes by Danilo Kiš.  This reading list, in its sublime uselessness, reminds me of Dorothea Casaubon's unfortunate husband (Edward, not Isaac), trying to derive the key to all mythologies:

"Conscious... that I am demystifying the significance and magnitude of my father's undertaking, I nevertheless repeat here that there was nothing extraordinary or grandiose in his intentions at first.  In the beginning... these were [to be] modest tourist baedekers containing notations on landmarks, museums, fountains, and monuments, sometimes including brief commentaries on customs, religions, history, the arts, and culture.  But once my father had started consulting encyclopedias and lexicons for this purpose... he assembled an enormous listing of literature in the most diverse disciplines... and the lexicons came to be replaced by alchemical studies, anthropological studies, anthroposophical studies, archeological studies, studies in the doctrine of art for art's sake, astrological studies, astronomical studies, studies in autobiography, cabalistic studies, Cartesian studies, cartographic, cataleptic, cataplectic, causalistic, causistic (sic), characterological studies, studies in chiromancy, comedic studies... studies in dichotomy, diathetic studies, diluvial, diplomatic, dualistic, dynamic, eclectic, ecliptic, ecological, economic, embolismic, embryological, emotionalistic, empirical studies, studies in empirical criticism, studies in empirical monism, empiricist studies, encyclopedic, entomological, Epicurean, epizootic... paleographic, paleontological, paleophytological, pantheistic, parasitological, particularistic studies, studies of pedigrees, phantasmagoric studies, phantasmic, pharisaical, phenological, phenomenological, philological, philosophical, phylogenetic... toponymic, toxicological studies, studies in unanimism, uranographic studies, studies in urbanism, urological studies, utopistic, venereological studies, studies in versification, voluntaristic studies, vulcanological, Zionist, zoogeographical, zoographic, zoological studies... Abbreviations became subchapters, subchapters became chapters.  The original idea of a combined guidebook-baedeker had become just a tiny, provocatory reproductive cell that was dividing, like a primitive organism, in geometrical progression... the underlying text and marginalia and footnotes had absorbed this delicate, utilitarian, unstable structure that now stood almost invisible and wholly adjunct on the varicolored map of the world of essence..."

It was the question "Why is this particular list so difficult to read?" that prompted me to write this essay.  Even at a quarter the length of the original passage, this excerpt seems interminable.  Its confusion of modes is nearly as wild as that of Borges's catalogue, but Kiš has left us no point of entry for understanding how the terms are associated.  Each term seems interesting at first--diluvial, embolismic, paleophytological, pharisaical, uranographic--but without the occasional word 'studies,' the repetition of which is stultifying in itself, this would just be a bewildering mess of glittery, unconnected adjectives.  No meaning can be derived from the sequence of terms, since it's strictly alphabetical.  Even the narrator's father's ostensible task of compiling a guidebook doesn't guide our understanding.  This catalogue's bizarre but suggestive juxtapositions play against its length and the monotony of its structure to produce moments of fascination quickly swamped by nausea, tedium, and a feeling of overloaded repulsion.

It took me a while to see that this catalogue's resistance to being read, its senselessness, was a performance.  It is not really meant to be read, although it had to produce the same combined effect of flashiness and frustration--seduction and abandonment--wherever the reader entered it.  Kiš meant it to be a tease, but not a pleasant one.  Paradoxically enough--for a piece of writing from which narrative thrust has been actively eliminated--it is meant to serve a definite narrative purpose.  Kiš's point is that this guide for writing a guidebook, so carefully alphabetized, goes nowhere.  It comprises nothing less than a lifetime of false starts: it expresses not only the narrator's attempt to represent his brilliant but manic father's inner quagmire, but also the mixture of fascination, nausea, tedium, and overloaded repulsion he himself feels, in trying hopelessly to come to terms with his father.  To put it more simply, the narrator's effort to reach his crazy father drives him crazy; trying to read his catalogue drives me crazy.  Only a writer of consummate skill could have composed a list so maddeningly boring.


And finally, to demonstrate that alphabetical lists not incorporated into a narrative can offer a very distinct pleasure, here are some random definitions from the glossary to The Poems of Edward Taylor, edited by Donald A. Stanford.  Taylor was a Puritan divine in Westfield, Massachusetts from the 1670's until his death in 1729.

Angell:  English coin (1470-1634) showing archangel Michael slaying the dragon
Baracadoes:  barricadoes, barriers
Beetle:  heavy mallet use for driving stakes
Bemegerim:  inflict with a severe headache
Buskt:  dressed, attired, adorned
Butter teeth:  buckteeth, large projecting front teeth
Chalybdine:  of steel, steely
Chuffe:  swollen, puffed out with disease
Coursey park:  course-a-park, a country game in which a girl calls out a boy to chase her
Crincht:  cringed
Crouce:  pert, brisk, lively, jolly
Dead head:  the residuum remaining after distillation or sublimation; worthless residue
Delph:  quarry, mine
Emmet:  ant
Empt:  empty, exhaust
Fardells:  bundles, esp. burdens or loads of sin
Fleer:  make a wry face, laugh in a coarse manner; mock, sneer; flare
Foist:  stink, musty smell
Frim:  vigorous, flourishing, luxuriant
Gastard:  astonished; terrified; struck with amazement
Glaver:  flatter
Glout:  frown; sullen look
Grudgens:  gurgeons, coarse meal
Harish:  mad
Hopt:  happed, covered, wrapped
Keck:  retch, reject with loathing
Kit:  small fiddle
Layes:  layers or courses of masonry
Learch:  lurk
Mammocks:  scraps, shreds, broken pieces
Maukin:  scarecrow
Mence:  adorn, grace
Mullipuff:  fuzz-ball (used as a term of contempt)
Neckt:  dialectal pronunciation of 'naked'
Obsignation:  ratification, action of sealing
Officine:  workshop, laboratory
Olivant:  horn of ivory
Paintice:  penthouse, a sloping roof, awning, canopy, shed
Pald:  enclosed with pales, surrounded, fenced in
Panchins:  pancheons, circular pans made generally of earthenware
Peps:  pepse, pelt, throw at
Pickpack:  pick-a-back, on the shoulder or back, like a bundle
Pillard:  one who is peeled or stripped
Pink:  peep, blink, wink
Quorn:  quern, a simple mechanism... for grinding corn
Riggalld:  verb formed from the noun riggal 'ring-like mark' (or 'groove in wood or stone')
Rive:  pierce
Sawceboxes:  persons addicted to making saucy or impertinent remarks
Silverlings:  shekels
Slatch:  lazy idle vagabond
Standish:  inkstand, inkpot
Tazzled:  tangled, fuzzy
Wamble:  feel nausea
Womble-crop:  nauseate, make sick

Had enough?  Feeling a bit wambly and listless?  Sorry.  I'll return you to your story.

09 June 2012


Your name is Hawkins or Starbuck, Selkirk or Hardy, or even Christian; your captain is called Drake or Cabot or Aubrey.  You are in mid-ocean, off the vexed Bermoothes, or on the Spanish Main, or in those straits you will--if God spares you!--name after your lost captain Magellan, a bare cable's length from a lee shore.  Your ship--Unicorn, Surprise, Endeavor, Santa Maria--is enveloped in a lurid, formless, orange light sticky with dew, the sea is "sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter's mould" (Benito Cereno) and the studdingsails hang limp in the dead air while your whole crew whistles for all you're worth.  But your tongue cleaves to the roof of your mouth, your eyes are fixed on the glass which is dropping like a plumb-weight, and your nerves are taut as a harpoon line, awaiting the order to strike sail, for the hurricanoe's coming on...

And then the gale is upon you--and time stops.  Sails not hauled down in time are instantly replaced by rigidly horizontal tatters, or else the masts are overborne; cannons careen loose over the gun-deck, the cargo breaks free and shifts promiscuously, heaving the vessel towards her beam ends from starboard to port and back again, and the undermanned pumps slowly lose ground to the water that pours in through the strakes as the hull flexes and lurches in mountainous seas.  Surely this is the apotheosis of "messing about in boats"--the grit, the panoply of expertise, the urgent cleverness of a tiny universe of sailors staving off annihilation one improvised inch at a time.

We all know this scene, even--or perhaps I should say especially--those of us with no practical knowledge of sailing.  And of course this is a scene from the age of sail, not from the present; it is from a time when the wall between man and drowning was far thinner and more delicate than a steel triple bulkhead, when right action in concert was all that stood against the long rolling dark.  Writing about Heart of Darkness in an earlier essay (March 2011), I suggested that the combination of humble--almost domestic--skills needed to sail a ship was exemplary of a particular level of civilization.  Margaret Cohen, in her book The Novel and the Sea, describes that combination this way: "To achieve success, [Robinson] Crusoe calls on craft's compleat competences, such as knowledge of geography, arms, shipbuilding, and carpentry.  He also exercises craft's human traits, notably prudence, patience, protocol... resolution, jury-rigging, and the pragmatic imagination.  Maritime craft, which is exemplified in the mariner's skill under conditions of great duress, is an ethical as well as a practical discipline."  That ethic, allying a modest but unshakeable professional devotion to the mastery of a braid of practical skills, is a high achievement of civilization, with generations of refinement behind it.

Richard Hughes's narrative In Hazard takes place on board the steamship Archimedes in 1929, when sail had largely been supplanted by steam.  This is what he says about sailing: "It is only lately, when the supply of sail-trained officers has begun to run short, that most of the first-class steamship lines have begun to accept officers trained in steam alone: have begun to train such officers themselves.
     This seems an anomaly, to landsmen: that steamship companies should actually require their officers to have been trained in sail: landsmen are inclined to smile, as at a piece of foolish conservatism--as if London bus drivers were required to serve for seven years as stableboys and grooms, before they were allowed to handle motor buses.  With so much technical knowledge to acquire anyhow, why waste the man's time in learning a useless and outmoded technique as well?
     The answer is a matter of virtue, really.  For an inclination towards virtue... is not enough in itself; it must be trained, like any other aptitude.  Now there is a fundamental difference in kind between the everyday work of a sailing vessel and the everyday work of a steamer.  The latter does not essentially differ from a shore job: it is only occasionally, rarely, that emergencies arise in steam.  But every common action in the working of a sailing vessel, all the time, partakes of something of the nature of an emergency.  Everything must be done with your whole heart, and a little more than your whole strength.  Thus is a natural aptitude for virtue increased by everyday practice.  For changing a jib in a stiff breeze is a microcosm, as it were, of saving a ship in a storm.
     So the officer in sail acquires a training in virtue that may later, in steam, mean the saving of some hundred lives, and a million or so of property."

This extraordinary book--which reads like a documentary account containing characters from a novel--tells the story of the Archimedes's four days under a monstrous hurricane.   In a manner typical of Hughes, the narrative moves quite casually from an allusion to the immense strength of the ship's structure to a rapid and seemingly inevitable chain of disasters.  First, in the teeth of the gale, the steering mechanism jams.  As the ship loses its forward thrust, it turns broadside to the wind, the force of which heels it over at a 35° angle.  The gale, producing a relative vacuum over the deck on the leeward side, yanks the hatches off as it would have yanked off roofs on land, and spray begins to fill the hold.  Part of the cargo is old newspapers and tobacco, which begin to absorb water: because they are stowed above the rest of the cargo, the ship becomes topheavy and rolls still closer to the water on the leeward side.  That's just the beginning.  The funnel's guy wires are warranted to withstand a hundred tons of force, but the wind rips it off the ship anyway.  As a result, the draft required to keep the furnaces fired fails.  And so on, and on.  The suspense lies in whether the increasing weight in the hold will founder the ship before the storm subsides.  (I imagine it's no accident that the vessel in this story is named after the man who learned to measure the volumes of solid objects by measuring the volume of water they displace.)  The circumstantial detail in this book is terrific.  Two midshipmen calm the worst of the waves by dribbling lubricating oil onto the sea through the bow and stern latrines, having wrestled full oil-drums across a sloping deck as wind and spray threaten to throw them overboard.  The officers and crew have to keep screaming at each other even in the calm at the eye of the storm because the unrelenting din has temporarily deafened them.  When they finally get steam to the pumps again and empty tobacco-brown water out of the bilges, fish rise belly up through the water, poisoned by nicotine.

The Archimedes does make it in the end, by dint of the same grit, nobility, and desperate cleverness which a sailing vessel calls upon in extreme weather, and--just as in sailing--by dint of luck as well.  There is one conspicuous difference though.  In the pastiche I opened with, the work of luck goes hand in hand with the skillful work of hands.  Sailing ships can be jury-rigged and repaired; pumps are manned by men; and the course of the wind is engineered by the manipulation of sails.  The heroism of seafarers goes hand in hand with a mastery of the component crafts of sailing.  Captain Aubrey travels with a carpenter and his assistants, a full set of tools, and spare wood for repairs.  Even a dismasted ship can sometimes be usefully towed by oared boats.  Hughes, however, takes pains to point out that even the finest of engineers can do nothing to repair or supplement a steamship's means of propulsion while at sea: the propeller shaft of the Archimedes is impossible to shift by hand.  In Conrad's Falk, a steamship is left so helpless when its propeller shaft breaks that the crew has resorted to suicide and cannibalism in the Southern Ocean before they are finally rescued.  Not only were they unable to change their fate, but they could not sustain such fragile esprit de corps as they once had.  As in the trope of the post-apocalyptic survivor surrounded by useless scrap metal, the high civilization of the sailor has given way to a kind of de facto barbarism.  And while sailors are subject to savagery too, when luck and wit fail them, the 3600-mile journey in an open boat undertaken by Captain Bligh and those of his crew who didn't join the mutiny on the Bounty shows us that a Hobbesian state is not inevitable even under extreme privation, so long as the discipline inherent to sailing can still be evoked.  Hughes and Conrad both seem to imply that unless the training in virtue which sailing offers can be acquired elsewhere, barbarism in technical matters risks entraining moral barbarism as well.