The secret man of the world
This semester I concluded my Shakespeare survey with The Winter’s Tale, one of the strangest and most marvelous plays in the canon. If you’re not familiar with the story, it concerns a Sicilian king, Leontes, who becomes suddenly and inexplicably convinced that his virtuous and pregnant queen, Hermione, has been cheating on him with his childhood best friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia. Leontes’ descent into jealous madness is terrifying; the first half of the play reads as a retread of Othello, only this time the victim of jealousy and the demon that goads him on are the same person. The first half of the play is straight-up tragedy; by the end of act 3, Leontes has banished or alienated everyone he loves; his son is dead and his infant daughter condemned to exposure in the wilderness; his wife too, apparently, has died. But change is in the air, turning on Shakespeare’s most improbable stage direction: Exit, pursued by a bear. The spectacular mauling of the man who carried out Leontes’ instructions to expose his daughter signals that we are entering a new phase of the story, a new genre. The winter of the first three acts turns to pastoral spring in act 4: sixteen years have passed, and Leontes’ daughter Perdita is now the beloved of the son of Polixenes, whose turn it is to play the jealous tyrant, outraged that a seeming shepherd’s daughter should presume to love his son. After further adventures she is restored to her father and her status as princess; the two kings are reconciled. But Shakespeare has one more trick up his sleeve: the miraculous resurrection of Hermione, who by stealth or magic has survived the passage of time and the change in genre. She appears on stage as a statue that comes to life, like Galatea, in one of the all-time great coups de theâtre. My students were nonplussed by this action on the page; you have to see it performed, and maybe you have to have a few years under your belt. Each time I see or read that final scene, I find it beautifully, bittersweetly moving.
It’s the gap in the fantasy, the gap in our fantasy of perfect reconciliation and restoration, that moves us—a metatheatrical move the more moving for its impossibility. The pop culture equivalent to The Winter’s Tale may be Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, in which the real, historical murder of Sharon Tate is miraculously prevented by the intervention of fictional characters, a couple of figures out of old Hollywood, stuntman Cliff Booth and washed-up cowboy actor Rick Dalton. The beatific image of Margot Robbie as a pregnant Tate, opening the gate to her house to welcome the battered, improbably heroic actor who saved her, is the cinematic equivalent of a statue come to life.
I thought of The Winter’s Tale frequently as I reread The Commodore, the seventeenth novel in the Aubrey-Maturin canon. Jealousy plays a major role in this story, along with the miraculous recovery of a beloved person seemingly made of stone. For the last two novels, disquieting rumors have reached Stephen about his daughter, Brigid, whom he has yet to meet. “Babies often looked strange and turned out charming later,” Sophie warns in one of her letters to Jack. When he finally makes the journey to the lonely, gothic country house in which she has been living under the care of Clarissa Oakes, Stephen is quietly, completely devastated by the autistic remoteness of “the slight, wholly self-possessed, self-absorbed figure":
An ancient white-muzzled kitchen dog shuffled in after them and the first relief to Stephen’s quite extraordinary pain – extraordinary in that he had never known any of the same nature or the same intensity – came when the old dog sniffed at the back of Brigid’s leg and without stopping her left hand’s delicate motion she reached down with the other to scratch his forehead, while something of pleasure showed through her gravity. Otherwise nothing disturbed her indifference. She saw her tall card-house fall, the tottering victim of a draught, with perfect composure; she ate her bread and milk together with Emily and Sarah, unmoved by their presence; and after a good-night ceremony in which Stephen blessed her she went off to bed with neither reluctance nor complaint. He observed with still another kind of pang that if ever their eyes met hers moved directly on, as they might have moved on from those of a marble bust, or of a creature devoid of interest, since it belonged to a different order.
Compounding the disaster is its effect on Diana; once again she has fled the scene of what she interprets as a personal disgrace. Once again, Stephen will have to go in quest of his wayward wife. It is rather extraordinary how O’Brian is able to keep up a will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic between two characters who have by this point been married for years!
Fortunately, Stephen has help. There is Clarissa Oakes, who was living with Diana as a companion and now serves as Brigid’s caregiver; more valuable still is Stephen’s monoglot Irish servant Padeen, an apparently simple-minded figure whose extraordinary compassion has been unaffected by his one-time addiction to opium and the barbaric treatment he received as a convict in Botany Bay. Stephen leaves Padeen in the remote house that Clarissa and Brigid occupy to protect them; when he returns, he is astonished and delighted to discover that Padeen has proven to be exactly the therapist his daughter needed. Later, Stephen explains the situation to Jack at one of their dinners:
‘You know about Brigid, of course. She is called an idiot, which is wholly incorrect: hers is a particular form of development, slower than most; but Diana does not know this. She believes there is idiocy, which she cannot bear…’ Jack too had a horror of anything like insanity, and a word almost escaped him. ‘…and feeling no doubt that her reluctant presence was not only useless but positively harmful, she went away. She believes that I should blame her for doing so: that is the first misunderstanding. The second is, as I said, that she believes in this idiocy, and I wish to tell her that she is mistaken. Children of this kind are rarer than true idiots – who, I may say, can be told at a glance – but they are not very uncommon. There are two of them in Padeen’s village in the County Kerry – they are called leanaí sídhe in Ireland – and both were I will not say cured but brought into this world rather than another. They were taken at the critical moment. Padeen is the sort of person who can do this. He is strangely gifted.’
I am not sure where O’Brian came up with this Irish term for what we would now call a person on the autism spectrum. If you Google “leanaí sídhe” you’ll learn about a fairy figure of Celtic legend, a beautiful female figure that takes a human lover; there may also be some connection to the Children of Lir, one of the sources of King Lear, a folktale about a lord whose daughters are turned into swans. Brigid is no succubus, but there is something enchanted about her; in a way, she is more like the love child of Jack and Stephen than she is Diana’s daughter. For Brigid, it turns out, is a natural sailor; when Stephen must smuggle his extended found family out of England to evade a plot against him, Brigid fearlessly and joyfully embraces life aboard a fast-flying Baltimore clipper, the Ringle.
There is something a little suspect in the faux-Irish O’Brian’s (born Richard Patrick Russ) embrace of Irish mythology; then again, it’s clear that the half-Catalan, half-Irish Stephen has always been this author’s alter ego, his character the clearest available expression of a certain ambivalence and sense of homelessness. Stephen himself has tendencies I might describe as autistic: an indifference to social conventions that he tries occasionally to overcome with strenuous conscious effort; utter concentration on his special interests coupled with a comical inability to learn ; attempts at self-medication, first by means of laudanum and later, in a move reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, cocaine in the form of chewed coca leaves. Jack is the hero of these novels but Stephen, if I may put it this way, is the novelist of these novels; the stand-in for an author desperately curious about human beings yet feeling himself in some way apart from them.
Speaking of Jack, and of jealousy: Jack has been promoted, as the novel’s title tells us, to the rank of commodore for the second time. The first time was back in The Mauritius Command; this time he is put in charge of a small fleet whose ostensible purpose is to check the illegal slave trade, but with the actual purpose of preventing the French from invading Ireland. Jack’s joy in his new command is tarnished by his fierce jealousy of his wife’s closeness to a man named Hinksey, an improbably robust and good-looking parson, very much in the Jack Aubrey mold, who has been spending a great deal of time in Sophie’s company while Jack has been at sea. Sophie herself is suffering her own fit of jealousy after attending a dinner party hosted by Mrs. Oakes at which both women wore dresses made of the same red silk acquired by Jack in the Far East. It is perhaps the one time, as Jack gloomily points out, that he is not guilty of the crime of which he is accused, but that’s no help to him. “The Commodore and Mrs. A have parted brass rags,” Killick says to Bonden, and no one, not even Stephen, seems to have the least idea how to put them back together again.
As we’ve so often seen, Jack and Stephen are very nearly opposites; whereas Stephen is always a little alienated from others and himself, Jack is fundamentally at home in himself, a creature of England and of the Royal Navy. The experience of jealousy drives him into unfamiliar existential waters, as recorded in a remarkable passage—possibly my favorite in the entire series. Stephen, staying with the Aubreys ashore, is awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of Jack’s violin being played at a much, much higher level than he has ever heard it played before:
Now, in the warm night, there was no one to be comforted, kept in countenance, no one who could scorn him for virtuosity, and he could let himself go entirely; and as the grave and subtle music wound on and on, Stephen once more contemplated on the apparent contradiction between the big, cheerful, florid sea officer whom most people liked on sight but who would never have been described as subtle or capable of subtlety by any one of them (except perhaps his surviving opponents in battle) and the intricate, reflective music he was now creating. So utterly unlike his limited vocabulary in words, at times verging upon the inarticulate.
‘My hands have now regained the moderate ability they possessed before I was captured,’ observed Maturin, ‘but his have gone on to a point I never thought he could reach: his hands and his mind. I am amazed. In his own way he is the secret man of the world; but I wish his music were happier.’
The secret man of the world. Stephen’s words ought to describe Stephen himself: Stephen the secret agent, the man in the world but not of it. Here, for a moment, the title belongs to Jack. It is music that brings them closest together, that demonstrates an intrinsic similarity in their souls, a similarity magnified rather than diminished by the irony that they are not together when it happens, that Jack doesn’t know that Stephen is listening at all.
Affection! thy intention stabs the center:
Thou dost make possible things not so held,
Communicatest with dreams;--how can this be?--
With what's unreal thou coactive art,
And fellow'st nothing: then 'tis very credent
Thou mayst co-join with something; and thou dost,
And that beyond commission, and I find it,
And that to the infection of my brains
And hardening of my brows.
These lines from The Winter’s Tale speak to the power of imagination to build worlds—in this case a malignant world built on jealousy. Leontes is struggling to think about the jealous fit that has overtaken him; it’s a remarkable document of the mind resisting itself. Affection here means something much closer to passion; daggerlike it “stabs the center” of Leontes’ sense of self and of his world. Even as he acknowledges that affection is powerful enough to bring “what’s unreal” and “nothing” to life, he makes a fatal leap of logic: if affection is powerful enough to make nothing into something, might it not magnify something into a heightened and unignorable state of reality, to the point of “the infection of my brains / And hardening of my brows” (that last an image of cuckold’s horns sprouting from Leontes’ forehead). Leontes knows that he’s infected, knows that he’s diseased, but believes that it is something that has infected him—his wife’s infidelity—when in fact it’s nothing, mere air, a mere “scutcheon,” as Falstaff would put it. Jack’s jealousy, his fear of having been displaced in his most intimate world, manifests in this scene as another kind of “air.” To my recollection, we will never hear of his achieving such heights in music again.
It all ends happily, of course. In a scene of uncommon frankness, Stephen reminds Jack that to cavil at Sophie’s supposed unfaithfulness is rank hypocrisy from a man frequently guilty of what he elsewhere calls “spouse-breach”; more significantly, the good parson is engaged to be married, which Jack takes as evidence that no affair with Sophie has taken place. With these ugly feelings out of the way, Jack can concentrate on his mission, which includes a stark confrontation with the horrors of the slave trade.
Jack, alas, is one of those small-c conservatives incapable of understanding systemic evil; he must see for himself before his moral faculties are roused. Stephen, who is in some ways less sensitive than Jack to the feelings of individuals, is a committed abolitionist; it is one of the few subjects on which he and Jack disagree. That is, until Jack captures a slave ship called the Nancy off the Bight of Benin and is horrified by the miserable conditions on board, which reminded me of accounts of the so-called Mussulmänner of the Nazi concentration camps. His indignant revulsion resembles his reaction to the French intelligence officers who tortured Stephen in H.M.S. Surprise. His moral imagination does not extend as far as Stephen’s; on some fundamental level, Jack is incapable of understanding evil.
Jealousy and fantasy are two sides of the same coin; jealousy is fantasy, even when, as Leontes proposes, it “co-join[s] with something.” The desire for sovereignty over other human beings is the evil to which this series continually returns; it is embodied by Napoleon, but in pettier ways by the tendency of high-ranking men to become “inhuman.” Jack Aubrey is a fantasy of the ideal leader; however high he rises, he retains his feeling for others and for those under his command. Even as Commodore, the next thing to a rear admiral, he retains his common touch. Or at least he does after he recovers from jealousy; before that time, his inner disquiet shook the state of his command, leaving the hands uneasy. In Shakespeare, the jealous imagination of kings and military leaders invariably manifests as a disease in the state. Jealousy is the fantasy that puts the poisoned ego at the center of the universe; the jealous man sees his very self threatened with destruction by humiliation, and his capacity for empathy with others is destroyed. A jealous man is ready to see the whole world burn so long as his dignity is somehow preserved.
At the end of The Commodore, Stephen addresses a group of his countrymen tempted by the military aid of the French, tempted by the opportunity to avenge their centuries-long humiliation at the hands of the English; “There is poison in the pot,” he tells them, in Irish, saving them from being arrested and executed by British soldiers who will search their houses for weapons. Does this make Stephen a hero, or a collaborator with oppression?
There may be in the cup
A spider steep'd, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
Is not infected. But if one present
The abhorr'd ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
With violent hefts. I have drunk,
and seen the spider.
Experience (I have drunk) meets imagination (seen the spider), and the result, for Leontes, is death and chaos. Does Stephen deny his imaginative identification with his humiliated nation, refusing to see the Royal Navy, and the friend he loves, as a spider? Or does he practice something more miraculous? “It is required / You do awake your faith,” says Paulina before the statue comes to life. On the last page of The Commodore, Stephen finds Diana again. “Are you the bread?” she asks. “‘I am not,’ said Stephen.” But he is the bread, and no words of forgiveness need pass between them for them to find each other whole and warm and alive, in the place of miracles that O’Brian calls Ireland:
“It is destroyed you are looking. Come up to my bed.”
“Must I come to your bed?”
“Of course you must come to my bed: and you are never to leave it again. Stephen, you must never go to sea any more.”
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