Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Surprize & Discovery in 1807 England

Today's topic was inspired by two truly marvelous stories: Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrelland the 2003 movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the WorldBoth are set in roughly the same era: the latter in 1805 and the former begins in 1807. All three deal with England during the Napoleonic Wars (hence the title).

England during this time was in the middle of a very feisty and contentious war with France. It was also an exciting time in History: there was America's Ograbme, impressments, Ali Pasha taking over Egypt, the international slave trade ending...It was definitely a time of great change, excitement, surprize (I use the archaic spelling) and, of course, most importantly - discovery.

Russell Crowe as Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey.
Photo Credit: weebly.com
For the unaware, Master and Commander is, put quite simply, the story of a British ship, the Surprize, trying to destroy its French enemy, the Acheron. But it is so much more than that! It is a wonderful movie, especially if you appreciate the time period and context in which it takes place. There is no Jane Austen and her Mr. Darcy here - rather, a rough, but playful, exciting, but sobering account of war and discovery on the high seas.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, on the other hand, is slightly different. By slightly, I mean alternate-history slightly. In an alternate England, magic was alive and well until the 1600s - when the Raven King and the Aureate magicians disappeared. Everyone knew the history of magic - but none knew how to conjure it - until Mr Norrell, and later, his wayward disciple, Jonathan Strange come along during the Napoleonic Wars, and bring magic back to Britain.

Both of these have a main element of discovery among them - but also showcase its effects quite well: the benefits, the joy, and the dangers resulting from curiosity.

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Discovery, of any kind, is always exciting and slightly shocking, by definition. To look upon or learn something that was never seen or known before is humbling, and yet there is a certain thrill about it. From discovering a new element, to naming a new species, to reading a previously unknown letter by someone famous, to unearthing a new artefact, to proving a new theorem - all provide a great sense of either hope or terror. Because, for every cure for polio or smallpox, there was also the discovery of Ebola and how to create an atomic bomb. For every discovery of America, there was also a great genocide and mass murder of countless innocent people. For as humans, we have been entrusted with the greatest gift of all: curiosity. But as humans, we also have a sadly notorious proclivity for using that curiosity for horrifying things. Keep this in mind.

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Mr. Norrell, the
greatest magician of the Age.
Photo Credit: fantasybookreview.co.uk
In Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the peaceful naivete of Mr Norrell and Jonathan Strange, bravely trying to use Magic for good, is upturned when Strange is interested in the darker, more dangerous arts, and tries to use magic for these. For me, this is like to nuclear power. The possibilities of nuclear power, when first discovered, are endless, and amazing - virtually limitless power from a few radioactive metals and fission! But then came the atomic bomb. Chernobyl. Three Mile Island. Today, we live in a nuclear age. The days when schoolchildren were taught how to hide from an A-bomb are thankfully gone, but the spectre of attack still lies heavy over our heads. Such is human nature. But don't think I'm entirely cynical...

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One of the most telling scenes in Master and Commander takes place when the Surprise first arrives at the Galapagos Islands, between young Lord Blakeney and Dr. Maturin:

Maturin: Here's an insect that's taken on the shape of a thorn to save itself from the birds.
Blakeney: Did God make them change?   
Maturin: Does God make them change? Yes, certainly. But do they also change themselves?  Now that is a question, isn't it?

There is a perfect reconciliation of science and faith here. Often these two are at bitter odds - which is correct? Which explains Life, the Universe, and Everything? As for me, I maintain that they are two different ways to explain the same thing - for me, God is equivalent to the Universe, Creation is the Big Bang, science is equal to faith, and a rosary is equivalent to a microscope. They are all one and the same.

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Mr Norrell is a most secretive person. He is narcissistic, in a way - he wants to be known as the only magician in England, and while he and Jonathan Strange become good friends, they eventually become opposing magicians. This is partly due to Mr Norrell himself - the old "hero creates his enemy" prophecy-trope.
You see, Mr Norrell owns every single book of magic in England. When magic was unknown he was able to purchase every one rather quietly and on the down-low, but when magic became respectable and fashionable, everyone was on the lookout. However, Mr Norrell was able to get to every single one - spending up to 2100 guineas on one rare book. He did this to hide information - in short, to ensure he was in control of knowledge. (Shades of 1984 here...) This is partly why Jonathan Strange went his own way, away from Mr Norrell - unable to read the great books of magic which Norrell hid, he felt there was more to knowledge and set out to discover more. Strange is in the right here, partly. To me, Norrell represents the old, traditional order - trying to keep stability and a semblance of right and wrong which has stayed in place for centuries. But Strange is the young discoverer - the pioneer, as it were. He represents discovery, science, and progress. He is to bring the world forward in terms of Magic - but, of course, there are many dangers in wait for him. (Does he succeed? Well...you'll have to read the novel to find out.)

*      *      *
Part of the main plot of Master and Commander is the promise Captain Aubrey makes to Dr. Maturin - to spend time to explore the Galapagos Islands and make naturalistic discoveries, particularly that of a flightless cormorant. However, Maturin's hopes are dashed three times - all due to the Acheron being nearby. At one point, Aubrey is all set to sail away and capture the Acheron, but Maturin wants to stay behind, studying all the new animals.
To discover new species! It must be so exciting and tremendous, the act of being the first human to look upon a certain animal, or at least to name it and study its evolutionary traits. Maturin surely felt this way, and I'm sure the other great naturalists - Darwin on the Beagle, Linnaeus and his taxonomic organization - felt this way. However, again - progress and stability clash again when Maturin petitions Aubrey to stay behind.
Dr. Maturin: Jack, have you forgotten your promise?
Capt. Aubrey: Subject to the requirements of the service. I cannot delay for the sake of an iguana or a giant peccary. Fascinating, no doubt, but of no immediate application.
Dr. Maturin: There is, I think, an opportunity here to serve both our purposes...I could make discoveries that could advance our knowledge of natural history.
Capt. Aubrey: If wind and tide had been against us, I should have said yes. They're not. I'm obliged to say no.
Dr. Maturin: Oh, I see. So after all this time in your service, I must simply content myself to...hurry past wonders, bent on destruction. I say nothing of the corruption of power...
Paul Bettany and Russell Crowe as
Dr. Stephen Maturin and Captain Aubrey.
Photo Credit: weebly.com
Capt. Aubrey: You forget yourself, Doctor.
Dr. Maturin: No, Jack, no. You've forgotten yourself. For my part, I look upon a promise as binding. The promise was conditional.
Capt. Aubrey: We do not have time for your damned hobbies, sir!
Bear in mind, Aubrey and Maturin are friends. However, sadly, this is what happens when progress and stability - the stability of the Empire - takes place. I might be reading too much into this, but in a way it's the same argument betwixt Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

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I hope you'll apologize for the strange way this blogpost was written - a series of vignettes, all slightly disconnected, is hardly the best way to go about writing. It's a bad habit I have gotten in. But I hope this was helpful. If anything, it's a polemic on human nature & discovery - and the outcomes they create when combined. Dwell on that, won't you?


1 comment:

  1. Well, you certainly have me dwelling... I love how you manage to reconcile faith and science in such a poetic sort of way. And you've just broadened my horizons. Way to go you. :)