“perfection in everything”

Sometimes I read something that strikes me with such force, I wonder if others respond to it with the same intensity, or even anything approaching it. Usually it is a passage that delivers a powerful shock of recognition, as if the author has swept aside a curtain and there, with stark clarity, are your own most intimate reflections. It is for moments like that, even more than the wonderful and historically accurate adventures or the unforgettable relationship between the two main characters, that I so enthusiastically — and perhaps tiresomely — recommend to my friends that they read the Patrick O’Brian novels about British naval officer Jack Aubrey and surgeon Stephen Maturin, circa 1800. To be sure, the series has a cult-ish following, but I fear many more who might fall in love with it would never pick it up, mistaking it for some pot-boiler seafaring romance, or if they do begin reading it, bail out at the first difficulty with the period language and the baffling naval terms.

But those who aren’t put off in advance or in the early going will find serious reward.  Consider this passage from page 350 of my edition of the second in the series, Post Captain (all you really need to know about the situation is that Stephen Maturin has found himself forced by strictures of the contemporary code of honor into the prospect of a profoundly unwanted duel, and he’s borrowed pistols to practice his shooting):

“The evening, as he rode back, was as sweet as an early autumn evening could be, still intensely humid, a royal blue sea on the right hand, pure dunes on the left, and a benign warmth rising from the ground. The mild horse, a good-natured creature, had a comfortable walk; it knew its way, but seemed to be in no hurry to to reach its stable — indeed, it paused from time to time to take leaves from a shrub he could not identify; and Stephen sank into an agreeable languor, almost separated from his body: a pair of eyes, no more, floating above the white road, looking from left to right. ‘There are days — good evening to you, sir’ — a parson went by, walking with his cat, the smoke from his pipe keeping him company as he walked — ‘there are days,’ he reflected, ‘when one sees as though one had been blind the rest of one’s life. Such clarity — perfection in everything, not merely in the extraordinary. One lives in the very present moment; lives intently. There is no urge to be doing: being is the highest good. However, ‘ he said, guiding the horse left handed into the dunes,’ doing of some kind there must be.’ He slid from the saddle and said to the horse, ‘Now, how can I be sure of your company, my dear?’ The horse gazed at him with glistening intelligent eyes, and brought its ears to bear. ‘Yes, yes, you are an honest fellow, no doubt. But you may not like the bangs; and I may be longer than you choose to wait. Come let me hobble you with this small convenient strap.'”

Shock of recognition? Yes, I rarely ride horses among the dunes or practice my marksmanship with dueling pistols, but that exact sensation of a sudden habitation of the present moment, a dazzling clarity that renders the unremarkable completely extraordinary, has followed me from its first appearance, and sometimes my life seems to unfold insignificantly between those present moments, which contain all the meaning anyone could wish for.

Speak Your Mind