»  The Straggler, No. 83

October 19, 2009

   The Glorious Eighteenth

Softly the civilized
Centuries fall …
              — Alun Lewis, "Raiders' Dawn"

The monument to Captain Cook is on the western side of Kealakekua Bay, on the big island of Hawaii. It is pleasantly inaccessible. You can hike to it from one of the island highways — three hours, our guidebook told us — but we chose to come at it from the seaward side, paddling the mile or so across the bay in a pair of rented two-seater kayaks, Dad and daughter in one, Mom and son in the other. Landing right at the monument is frowned on, as the coral there is fragile. We came up instead to some rocks a hundred yards away, pulled the kayaks ashore, then swam over to the monument.

I can't claim any real familiarity with Cook, never having even read a full biography, but I long ago absorbed the sentiment, universal among his countrymen, that he was what Bertie Wooster would have called a very good egg. My 1911 Britannica concurs:  "Along with a commanding personal presence, and with sagacity, decision and perseverance quite extraordinary, went other qualities not less useful to his work. He won the affection of those who served under him by sympathy, kindness and unselfish care of others as noteworthy as his gifts of intellect."

Cook was clubbed and/or speared to death on this remote, lovely spot on the morning of St. Valentine's Day, 1779. He was leading a shore party in an attempt to capture the local ruler, to hold him hostage for the return of a stolen longboat. After killing Cook, the Hawaiians dragged his body away. Only fragmentary remains were ever recovered. Modern Hawaiians insist that Cook was not eaten. You can believe that if you want to.

The monument could use some work. The paint is peeling from it, and the grass around is unkempt. There are some touching little memorial plaques from visiting Anglosphere mariners set in the nearby rocks; but apparently neither the British government, which owns the plot, nor the authorities in Australia and New Zealand, places first mapped by Cook and sprinkled with his name, can spare a few thousand dollars a year to keep the great man's monument in decent trim.

Three weeks after visiting that melancholy place, I found myself thinking about it while sitting in New York's Metropolitan Opera House watching a performance of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. This was during one of those confusing bits in the last act, in a long space between decent arias, when I always lose track of the action and find my attention wandering. The opera, it occurred to me, was exactly contemporary with Cook's death. (Not that exactly, I found when looking it up afterwards: first performance May 1, 1786, seven years after the fatal scuffle at Kealakekua Bay. At this distance, though, contemporary enough.)

What a century that was! Thinking of Captain Cook and his tremendous accomplishments on behalf of human knowledge, some of Mozart's loveliest music flowing over and through me, I felt a flush of enthusiasm for their century and its spirit — amongst whose other major productions was this very nation of ours.

"Century" is of course an approximate marker. The 18th century is generally considered to have ended at Waterloo in 1815. Its beginning is more controversial; I have seen events from the Glorious Revolution (1688) to the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) offered as markers. Whichever we take, the 18th century contained much to deplore, as any long span of time must. Still it had that spirit, that sensibility … An age that embraced Cook, Mozart, and the Founding Fathers should not spend too much time apologizing for itself. Sir Kenneth Clark: "The smile of reason may seem to betray a certain incomprehension of the deeper human emotions; but it didn't preclude some strongly held beliefs — belief in natural law, belief in justice, belief in toleration. Not bad."

"Not bad" is not bad, as judgments on entire centuries go. Hard to believe any future historian will be as kind to our own age.

I used to take the 19th century as my personal favorite — all that wonderful science and math; the social improvements; the comparative peace. The more I learn, the less sure I am of this, and the more I favor the 18th. There was science a-plenty in the 18th, too, after all; and that science had, as Richard Holmes describes in his recent book The Age of Wonder, a romantic quality it lost sometime around 1830. The arts may have lost their footing at the same time: it is odd how many of the graphs in Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment turn to a long downward slide soon after 1800. Murray: "The environment for producing great art in any field became progressively less favorable over the course of [the 19th century] …"

And the 18th-century West was unified in culture as never before. Figaro illustrates the point. Music by an Austrian; libretto by an Italian Jew (who later became a U.S. citizen: he taught at Columbia, and is buried in Brooklyn); based on a play set in Spain but written by a Frenchman; the autograph score of the first two acts is now in Berlin; of the second two, in Krakow. An oriental equivalent would be a Chinese opera composed by a Korean, libretto by a Mongolian, based on a Noh play whose action takes place in Vietnam. I feel confident in asserting there is no such work.

As arbitrary as the numerical markers are, and as blighted with evils as any age must be, I think we are all drawn by temperament to one century or another. At least one writer, James J. Walsh, made a book from his own enthusiasm: The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries (1907). Walsh argued a good case: the great gothic cathedrals; the early universities; Cimabue and Giotto; St. Francis and Aquinas; Dante (just) and the Romance of the Rose; Louis IX, Edward I, and Frederick II; Magna Carta and the Guilds; Marco Polo … The 13th was busy and exciting, with only the Mongol conquests as a major civilizational blot.

Probably the 14th, 15th, 16th, and 17th have their champions, too, though personally I could have done without the Black Death, the sack of Constantinople, and the Wars of Religion. For maximum blessings with minimum blights, I'll take the 18th.