Thursday, January 16, 2014

White Jacket

White Jacket, or The World on a Man-of-War – Herman Melville, 1598180703

This novel is not really a novel so it’s not helpful to judge it in terms of believable characters, heavy themes, appropriate drama, or scintillating dialogue. It’s a fictionalized memoir of Melville’s year on a man-of-war.

Micro-chapters of about three to five pages long describe various aspect of life and work in the world on a powerful warship. True, he calls out for reforms to ban flogging and damns the authoritarian military mind that protects members of a free republic. But mainly he describes ship’s duties, sleeping, theatricals, night watches, eating and various important and unimportant personages aboard. Readers into enthnographies of groups in closed and narrow institutions will surely enjoy analyzing Melville’s material in terms of (post-) modern theories.

I found the facetious tone grating at times but Melville is very funny in places. For example, the consultations of surgeons before an amputation is a brilliant send-up of professional conceits and courtesies and coverings on one’s hindquarters:

The assembled surgeons listened to this address with the most serious attention, and, in accordance with their superior's desire, now descended to the sick-bay, where the patient was languishing. The examination concluded, they returned to the half-deck, and the consultation was renewed.

"Gentlemen," began Cuticle, again seating himself, "you have now just inspected the limb; you have seen that there is no resource but amputation; and now, gentlemen, what do you say? Surgeon Bandage, of the Mohawk, will you express your opinion?"

"The wound is a very serious one," said Bandage—a corpulent man, with a high German forehead—shaking his head solemnly.

"Can anything save him but amputation?" demanded Cuticle.

"His constitutional debility is extreme," observed Bandage, "but I have seen more dangerous cases."

"Surgeon Wedge, of the Malay," said Cuticle, in a pet, "be pleased to give your opinion; and let it be definitive, I entreat:" this was said with a severe glance toward Bandage.

"If I thought," began Wedge, a very spare, tall man, elevating himself still higher on his toes, "that the ball had shattered and divided the whole femur, including the Greater and Lesser Trochanter the Linear aspera the Digital fossa, and the Intertrochanteric, I should certainly be in favour of amputation; but that, sir, permit me to observe, is not my opinion."

"Surgeon Sawyer, of the Buccaneer," said Cuticle, drawing in his thin lower lip with vexation, and turning to a round-faced, florid, frank, sensible-looking man, whose uniform coat very handsomely fitted him, and was adorned with an unusual quantity of gold lace; "Surgeon Sawyer, of the Buccaneer, let us now hear your opinion, if you please. Is not amputation the only resource, sir?"

"Excuse me," said Sawyer, "I am decidedly opposed to it; for if hitherto the patient has not been strong enough to undergo the extraction of the ball, I do not see how he can be expected to endure a far more severe operation. As there is no immediate danger of mortification, and you say the ball cannot be reached without making large incisions, I should support him, I think, for the present, with tonics, and gentle antiphlogistics, locally applied. On no account would I proceed to amputation until further symptoms are exhibited."

"Surgeon Patella, of the Algerine," said Cuticle, in an ill-suppressed passion, abruptly turning round on the person addressed, "will you have the kindness to say whether you do not think that amputation is the only resource?"

Now Patella was the youngest of the company, a modest man, filled with a profound reverence for the science of Cuticle, and desirous of gaining his good opinion, yet not wishing to commit himself altogether by a decided reply, though, like Surgeon Sawyer, in his own mind he might have been clearly against the operation.

One wonders in how many hospitals this scene is played out in our year 2014.

Obviously, this is not a classic for everyone, but readers of the Aubrey Maturin series will like this as will those who have braved Typee and Omoo and Mardi and Pierre.

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