2016-06-30
Best known in religion circles for her stint as Publisher's Weekly magazine's religion editor, Phyllis Tickle has an august resume: book editor, college dean, and poet-in-residence, among other titles. Her true skills as a thinker and observer of American religion are most evident, however, in her books, notably her spiritual memoir, "The Shaping of a Life," published in 2001. Now contributing editor at PW, Tickle has dedicated herself for the past few years to lecturing and writing, and to editing her "Divine Hours" handbooks for fixed-hour prayer.

"Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" is the long-anticipated first screen version of Patrick O'Brian's spellbinding series of novels depicting Britain's fight to reverse Napoleon's capture of Europe by pressing its supremacy at sea. In the movie, Jack Aubrey (played by Russell Crowe) captains the H.M.S. Surprise, a wily warship that succeeds despite inexperienced officers, still winds, and the presence of one man the crew fastens on as a scapegoat for their misfortunes.


I thought this would be just a good old fashioned sea movie, without much to talk about spiritually, but...
It reeked.

There was so much I don't know where to start. Where would you start?
Instead of starting with religion, I would put it in a secular historical context. This is sort of an updated Aeneid. It lifts out that metaphor, that structure that was so useful to classical people, of isolating a story around one man and usually one boat.

To look at authority, its proper usage, its origins and its misfortunes, the kinds of personalities it takes to make authority and hierarchy, there's no better way than to put a bunch of men on ship. I mean, you even get rid of women. The economy of the message is beautifully served by taking it down, just to an all male, restricted world, with one man as top dog.

I loved "Master and Commander" as a title. One would have been sufficient, but two drives home the point that God is both master and commander, and they are two different things. One owns you, the other tells you what to do.

So there are two ways to understand Jack Aubrey, as a human authority figure, but also as a stand-in for God, as master and commander of our lives.
Yes, they're double tracking the whole movie.

Taking him as God for a second--what does the movie say about our relationship to God?
Well, I think the movie talks about the God that a child perceives, or that even Western civilization perceives. Aubrey is a very anthropomorphic God. He deals with people within a physical universe. There's no way to change the circumstances. When the ship is becalmed, Aubrey says he cannot make it rain, nor the wind to blow. "I govern the wind; I am not its master."

I think God has many options beyond the physical. That confession--that he's not entirely God--is almost Gnostic in a way. He can't make the wind blow until Jonah is thrown over the side. It's resonant, not only of Jonah, but of the scapegoat out of Torah.

In many ways that Jonah sequence was the heart the movie, especially its religion.
It was. When he goes over the side, holding the cannonball... Death always opens a space--always, it never fails. There's a tear in temporality. And when that tear happens, everything stops. There is an exaggeration or distortion of time for those around it. So Aubrey can't control the wind. The sacrificial death has to happen. Something has to rush in through the hole that has been made by the spirit rushing out.

The Jonah in the movie didn't precisely parallel Jonah in the Bible.
The biblical Jonah is thrown over, of course, but he's rescued by the whale and comes back in order to do God's work. The Christian take comes along when St. Paul is on his missionary journey. They're about to throw somebody over and he says "You throw them over and this ship won't go any farther." It is the stopping of the scapegoat. So you've got all of that resonating through here.

The way religion was positioned, though, was more classical. The old toothless seaman--he wasn't blind, because you couldn't go as far as making him the blind prophet, but he did have to have something wrong with his head and was speechless. All of that placed him perfectly in classical religion. This could have been played in ancient Greece or Rome. If I were I were a film critic, I'd say that the lead-up to Jonah was almost too much.

I also could have done with one less Darwinian reference. It was almost... "And now let's interrupt this story and bring you a word about Darwinism and creation and intelligent design." It was not as subtle as one could have hoped.

But I think there's an echo, after Jonah has gone over the side, Aubrey says, "We don't all become the men we hope to be."
It was like when the doctor says earlier, "Does God make it or does the thing make itself?"

Right, and Aubrey seems to say that too. "We don't all become what we'd hope we might be...but we are all God's creatures."
That's right.

There's this question of, who are we? What do we do with what we're given? So I though it was more than Peter Weir saying, "Look how smart I am."
I agree that he was talking about people, not about that bug. That's why it bothered me. It was too obvious. The other thing is the cormorant. It appears just briefly, almost like an angelic host. The clear connection is that this is an angel, the other classic agent in world with an anthromorphized God, the angelic creature. It's played too clearly.

And when the cormorant vanishes, he finds the beetle.
Yes, of course, of all the things, why not a scarab, if you're doing classical references? I was stunned by the weaving in of the classical. What religion was there was not personal. It was either ritualized, as in the funeral services, or it was superstitious, as in the Jonah story. There is a God, and only God was going to make this thing go one way or the other, and Aubrey was His stand-in.

On a human level, the captain and the doctor stand for something else: perhaps the split between the call of duty and the call of human sympathy.
Yes, the doctor and the captain represent the two great tensions in human life, between pure, cold reason and, at the other end of the stick, great humanity and self-sacrifice.

They sort this out in that scene when they're drinking wine alone and Aubrey is mourning the guy who fell overboard. The doctor implies it's hypocritical of Aubrey to suddenly apply human values to that death, after lecturing him, the doctor, about the imperatives of duty.
He's telling him that you can never unscramble the contradictions. You can't go in there.

Which contradictions?
The contradictions inherent in life. We're going to make mistakes because we're caught within physicality. So long as we're caught, that's going to happen. When we try to catch God and hold him within this reality, we superimpose our own restrictions on him. You can't apply the rules of five dimensions to what we're doing here. Only when you break that fifth dimension with death, or sacrificial death, and briefly interrupt it, tear it open, do you let any of the air in from outside.

At one point, Aubrey says to the doctor that this vessel is a small town. As in any community, religion inserts itself, and it turns out to be a pretty scandalous version of what religion is.
And probably a fairly authentic one.

It becomes superstition, and this group psychology, a sort of mass hysteria.
Or a mass contagion. In that memorial service for the Jonah, the last thing Aubrey says is, "Forgive us for any failure of fellowship we might have showed him." I loved that line. I thought it was probably the most beautiful single line in the whole movie. It assumes the evil in a way that we cast upon him when essentially we threw him over.

That's backed up when a sailor tries to put the Bible, open to the Jonah story, in front of Aubrey and he shoves it away, almost to say, "What happened here is not religion."
I thought it meant, "We're too guilty for that."

So when he shoves away the Bible, it's as if to say that nothing that went on in the past 12 hours had anything to do with that book.
Yeah, or we are too guilty to handle that book was how I took it. You saw a side I didn't see, but it's an interesting side.

In fact, it's pretty frightening, this idea that the ship is a microcosm for the world. Aubrey says, "This ship is England." I understood that the lesson is that our little lives are also battles.
For 30 minutes after I left the theater, all I could hear was the T.S. Eliot poem "Little Gidding," where he says, "England is history and now." And I though that's a big part of what the movie's about -- the kingdom of God is England or the Kingdom of God is the H.M.S. Surprise. It's both history and now. It acutely drives home that idea of Eliot's, just before the Great War, that wherever it is you are, that's the world and it is both its history and its immediacy.



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