Patrick O’Brian’s The Thirteen-Gun Salute has me thinking about common knowledge and esoteric knowledge. What does everyone know these days? What does virtually nobody know? Most Americans my age sang the song “The Streets of Laredo” in school; few young people today know it. On the other hand, I’m guessing that only a few kids in the 60s knew what character sat at the top-left corner of a standard typewriter keyboard; every kid knows that now.
Pop culture homogenized American’s knowledge for a while. Whether they loved them or hated them, all of my firends in school recognized all forty of the top songs for any given week. With only three networks and no VCR, everyone I knew in the early 70s knew what night Bob Newhart was on and could name all the products advertised during the half hour just from their slogans or jingles. This dubious unity of consciousness seems to have disappeared to a great extent today. Pandora and iTunes make niche fandom feasible, and no one watches commercials anymore. On the other hand, every teenager today knows viral videos like “Friday” and “Charlie bit my finger.”
Whether in the sixties, seventies, or teenies, though, common knowledge in my lifetime has not included much in the way of poetry or philosophy. But aboard the fictional Diane, O’Brian’s Dr. Maturin says that man is a thinking reed, and Captain Jack Aubrey is familiar with the reference. I recognized the phrase from one of my very favorite books: Blaise Pascal’s Pensées. But I was surprised to find the bluff seaman taking its mention in stride. But then the English sea captain of 1810 had and needed a lot of education. Jack has to teach his young midshipmen astronomy and spherical trigonometry, and recitations of poetry take place frequently at the captain’s table. I don’t know if Jack’s knowledge of music was typical of the time, but he and Stephen play classical pieces regularly; near the end of this volume, they play Handel’s setting of Dryden’s "St. Cecilia’s Day."
In spite of my thoughts about common knowledge, the Aubrey-Maturin series is much more about the excitement of discovering new lands and new species unknown to any other westerners. The Napoleonic War was actually the first World War, with fighting on five continents and all four oceans. (There was probably action on Australia that I don’t know about, making it six continents.) And all the travel done by the crews of the warships brought them in contact with new (to them) languages, religions, customs, and dress, as well as new islands, new plants, and new animals. In one of the most spectacular passages, as Stephen climbs a tall mountain at Kumai (in present-day Indonesia, I think), he sees mosques give way to Hindu temples whose relief sculptures have been defaced by iconoclastic Muslims. At higher altitudes, the Hindu structures stop, and he finds no other signs of human existence until he reaches a Buddhist enclave on the peak. Here the gentle monks enjoy peace and share living space with several large species of animal who have known no human aggression for generations.
Sometimes the crew finds things well known to the rest of the world, but glimpse them in situations that the likes of me will not experience outside the imagination. Describing a rough sea, O’Brian already had me interested by waves taller than the ship, and thrilled me with the images of sails sagging when the wind is entirely blocked by these massive undulations. But he did something a lot like magic when he described a sight that had all the sailors staring: a mother whale and her calf swimming near the surface and suspended alongside the ship in one of the towering waves as if held behind a glass.