Date: Fri, 19 Jun 1998 13:45:09 -0500
Subject: Review: ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON's The Merry Men
I enjoyed this story immensely. As in Stevenson's Dr. Jeckyll, this is a study in the 'subliminal', to use the pre-Freudian term (of FWH Myers) for the unconscious. An island surrounded by water... pretty perfect image for the mystery of the 'self': a circle of consciousness surrounded by the silent unfathomable.
The sea is a raw and direct representation of unconscious Nature -- and once more, Stevenson has looked to the heaven and hell within us, and the way we become each of these in the choices we make in our lives. The old man has transformed himself (reflected superficially in the changes in his home) with a fateful choice of action. He knows that in the process he has also forfeited his soul. It's just a matter of time, as his daughter says. And as he says: "at the hinter end, the lord will triumph; I dinna misdoobt that." It is an Old Testament God that the Uncle is pursued by and embraced with -- yet he is most shaken by his nephew's reference to the New: "...where is the man for whom Christ died?" With these words, his act becomes conscious between them, really a confession.
I think Stevenson knew exactly where he was going with the story. The physical landscape, the flow of the tide that exposes its hidden depths that one can walk 'dry shod' (as in the Red Sea) in its rhythms, the very names of the places and the ships -- all are suggestive symbolism. e.g.. Espirito Santo (Holy Spirit), Christ-Anna (grace of Christ) -- are the paraclete, an ancient and deeply ingrained unconscious symbol of communication between the mundane and the divine, the material and spiritual: the living who depend on faith and the dead who are one with mystery.
Other examples: The looking for letters in the swirling waters. The Negro communicating wordlessly -- This was a very effective symbol of the dead, and his mystery and nobility were part of that. The diving scene, where Charlie strips to his skin and plunges blindly for an answer, bringing up a leg bone to the surface, was a sort of dis-entombing, which is always an unnatural revelation of secrets. The bone is a cue. Just after it, the strangers make their appearance and set in motion the fate inscribed into the stone of the Merry Men almost as a ritual.
The hidden breakers become destructive as they reveal themselves. They are also the voices of the dead, the unconscious, the relentlessness of nature. When the Uncle joins his voice to theirs, he has lost his soul and is no longer human. As he sings with the Merry Men, he is dead, become part of silent nature. Thus -- his voice is silence as he is pursued.
In the dialogue of the ancient mysteries, silence was as important as sound. It was part of the concept that mysteries require an initiation because the divine is ineffable and knowledge of it is not for the profane... "...As Dionysius says, the divine ray cannot reach us unless it is covered with poetic veils." I think this was also Stevenson's intuition and an effective part of his artistry.
Thanks for the story.
".... You think that treasures should be buried? That is the opinion of avaricious men.... For what is the use of hidden music?....Mysteries are always mysteries, so long as they are not conveyed to profane ears." -- Celio Calcagnini
There were some questions concerning the atrocities I brought up about the American Revolutionary war...
}}}. . . I don't think that it would have ever occurred to a British officer of the 1770s to destroy anyone but the the soldiers of the colonialist
-- thinking here of the Southern campaigns and intrigues in the American Revolutionary War. While officers may not have been directly involved themselves, there was a strategy to turn the colonists -- loyalist and revolutionaries -- against one another -- resulting in heinous acts that we would now recognize as terrorism. Severed heads on the mantles, babies cut from mother's abdomens, blood on the walls -- that sort of thing. It was a tactic from the Brit's imperial campaigns, and we reap its harvest to this day in Ireland and South Africa.
I checked PBS, and wrote to their historians from the Liberty series (the link to the general site is http://www.pbs.org/ktca/liberty/series/index.html ) and had the following reply this morning:
Thanks for your question. I am the writer of the series, unfortunately it was written a while ago and I don't have immediate access to my sources so I can't give you the specific citations. There are many good accounts available of the war in the South. I based our interpretation of the events on an article my Ron Hoffman in a collection of essays on the subject.
The atrocity stories comes from diaries & letters of British, Hessian and American soldiers, for example the letters of General Greene. Tarleton's (a British officer) killing of soldiers who surrendered is well known. I am surprised that this should even be controversial because (unlike many other 'facts' about the Revolution) ALL historians, and all contemporary accounts describe the war in the South as bloodthirsty chaos bordering on anarchy. I'd be curious as to who says otherwise.