come_to_think (come_to_think) wrote,

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Captains Courageous

I just finished rereading Kipling's Captains Courageous, one of the great books of my life.  Here is part of a letter I wrote to a friend after I first read it, >30 years ago.  I was in a commune in Virginia at the time, and she had left it.

I see I was somewhat unfair to Kipling; I know a little more now about his experience with America & his attitude toward women.


10 December 1979


The week before my last letter...I read for the first time Kipling's Captains Courageous, which was on a chair in the Octagon Room.  It had a powerful effect on me: I cried several times while reading & rereading certain passages, and the experience colored my atmosphere for most of a week; I kept singing sea songs & mooning over it.

The book itself (in case you haven't read it) is a vivid & interesting period piece, impressively American when one considers the paucity of Kipling's experience with its subject.  It also provides further data on his ferocious misogyny (the villain is the hero's doting mother) & infatuation with unsavory adventurers (there is no doubt in my mind that the plural in the title is meant to put the hero's father --- a "captain of industry" --- in the same class as the sea captains who get their chance to make the boy grow up because the father has been too busy).  But my main response was to be reminded of how terribly anxious I am about not being grown up: being spoiled, having missed adversity.  The book aroused this anxiety (of course) directly thru its plot, but also indirectly and perhaps more powerfully & instructively thru its subject matter, in that it always gives me pause to be reminded of how terribly dependent I am on People Who Do What I Can't Do.  (Cf. Orwell, "Down the Mine"; Stewart, Storm; etc.)  And not just for necessities --- however defined --- but for codfish balls, at a time when Chesapeake Bay crabs were 25¢ a dozen.  Of course, fishing is not so dangerous these days, but I suppose I could calculate how many people like me it takes to kill another miner by keeping their rooms another degree warmer.  It makes me sick to hear people snigger at the power company, i.e. at people who go out in thunderstorms & rig cables so that we can have music to milk cows by.  Kipling knew the type: "Making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep."  But he didn't just shame people; he offered them a socially useful escape from the shame:  Just pass the "If" test with a score of 85% or higher, and you can say "I'm pulling my weight, and I could pull yours if I had to."  Even if you do it under duress, you still get full credit.

Socially useful, but so was Santa Claus.  The real question is whether either the shame or the relief ought to be afforded any intellectual respectability.  Let us see.

I'll consider the "powerful & educational" point first, tho in the meantime (it is now 14 December...) it has occurred to me that its interest is magnified for me by its being a distraction from Kipling's direct attack on my kind.  A spectacular power the market system has is to collect the tiniest wants of a multitude & concentrate them on a few, exacting the devotion or sacrifice of their lives.  This power is of great social value.  A thing like the New York subway system, for example, could actually be built on the mere plausible expectation of a billion nickels one at a time.  But the power to concentrate is also the power to crush; the market makes a crowd of all of us, like those crowds that, every year or two, kill some of their number by trying to get thru a doorway.  (It happened a lot at bomb shelters during the war.  When I read about that rock concert in Cincinnati, I reflected that I had thought of this metaphor several times during the previous week.)  In the book, the captain's wife "hated the sea s if it were alive & looking", but of course it was the market that was alive & looking, looking thru her eyes & finding its creations good.  Kipling mentions how much her house cost --- well up in the middle class, I supposed.  Gloucester lost 100 men a year, more or less, and the price of fish adjusted itself to bring another 100 in & support the charities that squabbled over their broods of widows & orphans.

Who were the people thus drawn over the margin?  They had to have guts, and from that a good 2/3 of virtue follows.  But they must have been a little crazy to strike such a bargain (the craziness --- money-worship --- being a kind that was held in even higher & more general esteem then than now), and they must have been made more than a little crazy by the consequences of having struck it.  It is remarkable that the normal response to "cognitive dissonance" --- to exaggerate benefits & scorn costs when both are large --- was altogether quenched in those people.  On the contrary, in their songs, ceremonies, & conversations they dwelt endlessly on the terrible price they were paying, & not at all on what it bought them.  And indeed, it is easy to imagine that after a few seasons' collective victory over danger & deprivation, the resulting high morale (at least for the men) became the main reinforcer, and the money almost an embarrassment.  (O... used to have on the wall of his room an old sea map with the motto "You have to sail --- you don't have to live".)

There is a stupid, sentimental taboo against such reflections these days.  You are not supposed to "blame the victim", tho that is precisely what you have to do if you mean to understand oppression.  People are sometimes exploited thru their virtues, but it is generally more profitable as well as more dignified to utilize their vices.  Look around you.

However, one must not stop there.  I can believe that (probably for reasons related to capital --- I have no head for economics and can never work out the details) it was impossible for one boat to make its own tradeoff between safety & income; it would have had to be done for the industry as a whole, & would have meant raising the price of fish & lowering the catch.  Ways of doing that come crowding in to the decadent 20th-century capitalist mind: a cartel, a strong industry union, occupational-safety laws, or (perhaps simplest) compulsory insurance.  I dare say they have all been tried; at any rate, fishermen too have rock&roll while they catch the last of the fish, and the prices are such as to purge most customers of any residual shame.

What a pity!, Kipling would say: another machine for forcing people to grow up has been dismantled.  He has a point, but he only pricks us with it; he does not see the issue whole, & therefore has only written a somewhat preachy adventure story rather than a tragedy.  Has anybody in fact written the tragedy?  There is a great deal in print about Wealth, but generally, it seems, propaganda about this or that benefit or cost.  Wealth makes possible a civilized & generous style of life for large numbers of people who could not make it as saints.  The pursuit of it induces people to take risks & to keep accounts, and thereby to practise two cardinal virtues: courage & a sense of scale.  (One of Screwtape's silliest lies is his statement that we cannot be tempted to virtue.)  Wealth also makes people soft, smug, & picky; the pursuit of it makes them narrow & ferocious.  The growths & decays of these good & bad effects in a given person are all interdependent & messy.  Noticing them all would no doubt be instructive, but most moralists find it more edifying to ignore two or three quarters of them.  Either the pursuit ennobles but the success corrupts (romantics like Kipling), or the other way around (socialists), or the whole thing is good (capitalists), or the whole thing is bad (Christians --- I mean ones that believe Christ).

Of course, the point itself has been disputed, most emphatically by Skinner..., who believes that good engineering can render adversity useless.  The Marxists, I think, also believe something of the sort.  And no doubt, indeed, a good deal can be done to grade & minimize the risks.  But I am inclined to agree with [Bertrand] Russell that sanity (or at least --- shall we say --- dignity) is impossible without a lively & intimate appreciation of the fact that most of the world was not made for us & is out of our control.  _Too_ lively, tho, and you're dead; yet the lesson can scarcely be learned under control!  That is another tragedy.  [Whoever] has grown up, and [whoever] has not, both need their consolations --- alcohol & cynicism, as Mencken says.

But whether one has or hasn't is one thing, and whether one is hung up on the fact is another.  I belong to that queer whom this question is continually active in determining self-esteem.  Indeed, it seems likely that I'll start worrying about getting old before I stop worrying about being grown up --- rot before I ripen, like those dreadful persimmons & avocados from the supermarkets.  Somehow (perhaps Adler has a theory) the question was made very important for me, and yet society, unlike Kipling, provides no straightforward way of answering it --- no rite of passage.  (A very characteristic fantasy I thought up about 20 years ago is: everyone, at the age of 16, has to take an exhaustive 2-week exam in Competence for Happiness.  Those who fail are shot.  That, I thought, would give the human race the requisite for high morale it lacks most: exclusiveness.)

Until this year,...I mainly defended myself against this anxiety by proclaiming that the very notion of maturity was morally valueless & useful only for bullying.  This year, however,...I...found that it had its charms.  In particular, it seemed to me that altho [certain people] had been on the whole nicer & more lovable than I, I had an obvious point of superiority to them & it deserved a name.  How can we make sense of this?

I think there are two fundamental beliefs that every mammal starts with & that one may reasonably expect an intelligent one to get over as [he or she] grows older: (1) one or two people are going to take care of me, & (2) they are infallible.  Both disillusionments are hard, & whether we avoid them or accomplish them we generally require a good deal of self-deception for comfort.  Thus (1) most of us manage to spread our dependence over a patchwork containing selected individuals for limited uses, plus various artificial & natural abstract institutions, plus ourselves.  But we usually try to persuade ourselves that nothing has really changed, by deifying (i.e. mommy-daddyfying) this or that piece of the construction, or endowing the whole thing with a spurious personality.  Hence the popularity of gods & gangsters & various mixtures.  And (2) most of us realize that the fabric doesn't cover everything & even our parents didn't really.  But we realize it as seldom & as dimly as we can.

So what I say to Kipling is: self-reliance is only one aspect of the task of diffusing & acknowledging one's dependence; it can even be overdone.  And what I say to me is: in view of the frightfulness of the process, honesty is a necessity but also an impediment, and I have in the main used it as an impediment.  Nor am I about to stop.
Tags: economics, kipling, self-reliance
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