February 1, 2012

“Courage should be rewarded, and negligence punished.”

Filed under: awesome,books — mhoye @ 10:46 pm

Two and a half years ago, I mentioned that:

20:05 < mhoye> My dad has a story whose details I can barely remember.
20:05 <@humph> hit me

… but I was wrong, it wasn’t Admiral Nelson. It was Chevalier La Vieuville, from Victor Hugo’s “Ninety-Three”, and my brief retelling of it doesn’t do it anything close to justice.

One of the carronades of the battery, a twenty-four pounder, had broken loose.

This is the most dangerous accident that can possibly take place on shipboard. Nothing more terrible can happen to a sloop of war in open sea and under full sail.

A cannon that breaks its moorings suddenly becomes some strange, supernatural beast. It is a machine transformed into a monster. That short mass on wheels moves like a billiard-ball, rolls with the rolling of the ship, plunges with the pitching, goes, comes, stops, seems to meditate, starts on its course again, shoots like an arrow, from one end of the vessel to the other, whirls around, slips away, dodges, rears, bangs, crashes, kills, exterminates. It is a battering ram capriciously assaulting a wall. Add to this, the fact that the ram is of metal, the wall of wood.

It is matter set free; one might say, this eternal slave was avenging itself; it seems as if the total depravity concealed in what we call inanimate things had escaped, and burst forth all of a sudden; it appears to lose patience, and to take a strange mysterious revenge; nothing more relentless than this wrath of the inanimate. This enraged lump leaps like a panther, it has the clumsiness of an elephant, the nimbleness of a mouse, the obstinacy of an axe, the uncertainty of the billows, the zigzag of the lightning, the deafness of the grave. It weighs ten thousand pounds, and it rebounds like a child’s ball. It spins and then abruptly darts off at right angles.

And what is to be done? How put an end to it? A tempest ceases, a cyclone passes over, a wind dies down, a broken mast can be replaced, a leak can be stopped, a fire extinguished, but what will become of this enormous brute of bronze? How can it be captured? You can reason with a bull-dog, astonish a bull, fascinate a boa, frightened a tiger, tame a lion; but you have no resource against this monster, a loose cannon. You cannot kill it, it is dead; and at the same time it lives. It lives with a sinister life which comes to it from the infinite. The deck beneath it gives it full swing. It is moved by the ship, which is moved by the sea, which is moved by the wind. This destroyer is a toy.

I said that “after the battle the Admiral addresses the crew, commending the sailor for his bravery under fire, and then immediately orders the sailor keelhauled“, but the power of the original text is remarkable, and has a lot more blood pumping through it than my vague recounting of a vague memory did.

“General, in consideration of what this man has done, do you not think there is something due him from his commander?”

“I think so,” said the old man.

“Please give your orders,” replied Boisberthelot.

“It is for you to give them, you are the captain.”

“But you are the general,” replied Boisberthelot.

The old man looked at the gunner.

“Come forward,” he said. The gunner approached.

The old man turned towards the Count de Boisberthelot, took off the cross of Saint-Louis from the captain’s coat and fastened it on the gunner’s jacket.

“Hurrah!” cried the sailors.

The mariners presented arms.

And the old passenger pointing to the dazzled gunner, added,—

“Now, have this man shot.”

You know “Les Miserables” and “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame”, but despite the fact that you’d be hard-pressed to make a stage musical or a Disney movie out of it, this may well be Hugo’s best work. I’m only partway through it, and I’m starting to believe that it is a deeply underappreciated work of that belongs on your shelf next to The Art Of War and The Book Of Five Rings – a book that says one thing, and teaches ten thousand things, utterly justifying my sordid lifelong habits run-on sentences and punctuation abuse.

You should really read the whole thing.

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