Saturday, December 02, 2006

On Mirth

Patrick O'Brian. The Ionian Mission.

'Wittles is up, sir, if you please.'
It was a cheerful meal. Jack was a good host, and when he had time to concern himself with them he was fond of the little brutes from the midshipmen's berth; furthermore he was in remarkably high spirits and he amused himself and the young gentlement extremely by dwelling at length on the fact that the country they had just quitted was practically the same as Dalmatia - a mere continuation of Dalmatia - so famous for its spotted dogs. He himself had seen quantities of spotted dogs - had even hunted behind a couple of braces - spotted dogs in a pack of hounds, oh Lord! - while the town of Kutali was positively infested with spotted youths and maidens, and now the Doctor swore he had seen spotted eagles ... Jack laughed until the tears came into his eyes. In a Dalmatian inn, he said, by way of pudding you could call for spotted dick, give pieces of it to a spotted dog, and throw the remains to the spotted eagles.
While the others were enlarging on the posibilities, Graham said to Stephen in a low voice, 'what is this spotted eagle? Is it a joke?'
aquila maculosa or discolor of some authors, Linnaeus'* aquila clanga. The captain is pleased to be arch.** He is frequently arch of a morning.'
'I beg your pardon, sir,' cried the midshipman of the watch, fairly racing in. 'Mr. Mowett's duty and two sail on the larboard beam, topsails up from the masthead.'

In addition to the fun of vocabulary exercises, the exuberance over naturalistic science in its hey day, and the romance of the 'high seas' there are things that draw me to O'Brian that I cannot properly put into words. One of them is mirth.

It is not simply that there is mirth: it is the context, the participants, and its literary role.

The books are about naval warfare in the 19th century, mostly between England and France. It is bloody and to us primitive. But it is carried out by men who (some at least) repair to their very small cabins and ply away at Scarlatti, craft poetry and dream of glory, foreign lands and home. They are stories where the journey is the heart of it, that revels in dwelling on what these men do when stuck in a calm more than in the crack of the battle. In the above quoted book, the story ends before the obvious, main "plot climax" is even reached, but the real story has already been told.

What I am calling O'Brian's 'Mirth' is one of the key elements that makes all of this work together. It is blatantly masculine, often corny, comes in the most unexpected moments and results in a most unexpected level of enjoyment. The 'spotted dogs' is not really funny in an isolated presentation ... but because I've been engrossed in the whole book (or in this case the last ten as well), found myself laughing out loud.

As an author O'Brian manages to make characters engaging enough for the reader to take part in their mirth (which simply makes him a good writer), but he also manages to make real mirth a part of life (which potentially makes him a good human being). An even greater task would be to live a life that facilitates mirth in others by allowing it to well up from oneself (which would truly make one a person worth loving). If O'Brian is showing the way, then batten down the hatches, hoist the topgallants and clear for action ... but first, a little Corelli and a little port.

*c. 1758
**arch2 –adjective: 1. playfully roguish or mischievous: an arch smile. 2. cunning; crafty; sly. –noun 3. Obsolete. a person who is preeminent; a chief.

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