First, my thanks to Graham for recommending Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver!
In the Acknowledgements, Stephenson writes about some of the books which he used as sources for Quicksilver. 'Of particular note', he writes, 'is Sir Winston Spencer Churchill's six-volume biography of Marlborough, which people who are really interested in this period of history should read, and people who think that I am too long-winded should weigh. [p. x; italics original].' Running over nine hundred pages, Quicksilver is big. (So was Cryptonomicon.) Stephenson, it would appear, is in full agreement with Treebeard the Ent's remark to the effect that anything worth saying is worth taking a long time to say.
My early impression of Quicksilver is that Stephenson appears to be using fiction as a vehicle for celebrating the achievements of the modern: he is, it seems to me and in other words, an apologist, if not an apostle, of modernism. (Some confirmation for this impression can be found in the early goings of Cryptonomicon, in which Stephenson, describing Randy Waterhouse's life with his ex-girlfriend and her academic chums, pillories post-modern thinking and behaviour.)
Another impression of the work, reached much further in (if you'll pardon the double entendre), is that it depicts sex in a fashion more cynical than that which was expressed in Cryptonomicon. Whatever your view of the sexual goings-on of the characters in Cryptonomicon, all but one of their sexual interactions possessed a certain kind of innocence: namely, they were innocent of motives other than the mutual consummation of a relationship, however quirky. (The one exception was Laurence Waterhouse bedding a young woman who was a presumed spy for the Germans, but by the time they got around to getting around, it is a foregone conclusion that he won't be giving up any secrets to her.)
By contrast, several of the notable sexual escapades in Quicksilver signify more than just the consummation of a relationship (although they also do that), and their additional significance is never better than morally compromising, even if the results further the plot and lead to good things, overall, happening.
So, my approach to Quicksilver will focus on two aspects; first, Stephenson's apparent apostolate (as it were) with respect to modernity, and, second, how sex is used to control and corrupt - to put it baldly. Whence the label 'sex' on this post, because I'll be quoting passages in which it is somehow a feature. So, with respect to the latter, you have been warned.
The edition from which I am quoting passages is the hardcover edition published in 2003 by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. I am going to divulge various details as I see fit, so if you haven't read the book, you may want to do so.
There are more than a few passages which suggest that the characters in Quicksilver, if not Stephenson himself, are thoroughgoing 'modernists'.
"Anyway," Enoch continues... "that's how I got in the door. He lent me the horse because he and I are Fellows in the same Society, and I am here, in a way, to do an errand for that Society."
"Is it a Society of Barkers, like?" asks Ben, stepping in close to whisper, and glancing at the one who's proselytizing the slave. For by now Ben has taken note of Enoch's various pistols and blades, and matching with tales his folk have probably told him concerning that fell Sect during their halcyon days of Cathedral-sacking and King-killing.
"No, it is a society of philosophers," Enoch says, before the boy's phant'sies wax any wilder.
Enoch had supposed the boy should be disappointed. Instead he's thrilled. So Enoch was correct: the boy's dangerous.
"Natural Philosophers. [italics original] Not, mind you, the other sort—"
"An apt coinage. Some [ditto] would say it's the unnatural philosophers that are to blame for Protestants fighting Protestants in England and Catholics everywhere else."
"What, then, is a Natural Philosopher?"
"One who tries to prevent his ruminations from straying, by hewing to what can be observed, and proving things, when possible, by rules of logic." This gets him nowhere with Ben. "Rather like a Judge in Court, who insists on facts, and scorns rumor, hearsay, and appeals to sentiment. As when your own Judges finally went up to Salem and pointed out that the people there were crazy."
Ben nods. Good. "What is the name of your Clubb?"
"The Royal Society of London."
"One day I shall be a Fellow of it, and a Judge of such things." [pp. 13-4]
Commentary: The 'Ben' with whom Enoch (about whom more presently) is conversing is none other than a young Benjamin Franklin. (This part of the story takes place in 1713, when Ben Franklin would have been about seven years old.) It appears to be a central conceit of historical fiction - Stephenson's no less than anyone else's - that the fictional characters interact with or even inspire famous or soon-to-be-famous historical personages.Yet another passage, immediately following demonstrates a kind of modernist position (all italics original):
In this passage we are introduced to the Royal Society, Britain's paramount scientific society, which is to feature prominently in the plot of the book. We are also introduced to 'Barkers', a term, so far as I can tell, coined by Stephenson to describe a particular Protestant sect. Rather, like the term 'Puritan', it is sort of a catch-all. The 'Barkers' are the spiritual descendants of Cromwell and forerunners of the abolitionists.
Enoch himself is none other than Enoch Root, who makes an appearance in Cryptonomicon. Strange as it may seem, Enoch rather appears to be a deathless proponent of science and a behind-the-scenes worker for global improvement. (In Quicksilver, Root appears to be about the same age from the 1660s through the 1710s, and then appears, in Cryptonomicon, as a padre in the Second World War and then as a Roman Catholic priest in the 1990s.) Actually, he is very much remniscent of Gandalf. Perhaps he is Stephenson's Gandalf.
The 'modernist' touches in this passage include a reference to the Barkers' propensity for 'King-killing' (earlier [p. 9], Enoch says of a Protestant supporter of Cromwell that despite being disfigured on Archbishop Laud's orders, he 'kept up his agitation against the King. Against all Kings.'). One of the protagonists of Quicksilver is the son of this regicide, and his life's work is to bring about the Glorious Revolution, the permanent exile of the Stuart dynasty and the establishment of William of Orange as King of England. This character (Daniel Waterhouse) is as unlike Sam Vimes, one of the heroes of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, as can be, but both are used by their authors as foci of sympathy for republican motives. Monarchs, with their claims to divine right, have always been the subject of modernist scorn. (Not without reason, of course.)
Enoch's disparagement of 'unnatural philosophers' (by whom he means theologians and metaphysicians, as we shall see) and his definition of natural philosophers as 'just the facts, ma'am' sort of people is certainly a modernist trope.
So, while Stephenson himself may or may not adhere to what may be called a modernist worldview, in Quicksilver he is quick to introduce characters who do espouse such a worldview and who, as protagonists (or, as future Fathers of America), are meant to accrue to themselves the sympathy of the readers.
Meanwhile, given Laud's role as persecutor of Puritans and involvement with the Star Chamber, I am always somewhat uncomfortable by the fact that he is commemorated in the Anglican calendar (January 10th). But that is another matter.
"Since he came to America, Dr. Waterhouse has been infected with the local influenza, whose chief symptom is causing men to found new projects and endeavours, rather than going to the trouble of remedying old ones."
"He's not entirely satisfied with Harvard College, then!?" Enoch says wonderingly.
"Oh, no! He has founded—"
"—and personally endowed—"
"—and laid the cornerstone—"
"—corner-log, if truth be told—"
"—of—what does he call it?"
"The Massachusets Bay Colony Institute of Technologickal Arts." ...
"Sir, you are a learned and clear-minded gentleman," says the Don. "If your errand has aught to do with Philosophy, then is not Harvard College a more fitting destination?"
"Mr. Root is a Natural Philosopher of note, sir!" blurts Ben, only as a way to prevent himself bursting into tears. The way he says it makes it clear he thinks the Harvard men are of the Unnatural type. "He is a Fellow of the Royal Society!"
The Don steps forward and hunches his shoulders like a conspirator. "I beg your pardon, sir, I did not know."
"It is quite all right, really."
"Dr. Waterhouse, you must be warned, has fallen quite under the spell of Herr Leibniz—"
"—him that stole the calculus from Sir Isaac—" someone footnotes.
"—yes, and, like Leibniz, is infected with Metaphysickal thinking—"
"—a throwback to the Scholastics, sir—notwithstanding Sir Isaac's having exploded the old ways through very clear demonstrations—"
"—and labors now, like a possessed man, on a Mill—designed after Leibniz's principles—that he imagines will discover new truths through computation!"
"Perhaps our visitor has come to exorcise him of Leibniz's daemons!" some very drunk fellow hypothesizes.
Enoch clears his throat irritably, hacking loose a small accumulation of yellow bile—the humour of anger and ill-temper. He says, "It does Dr. Leibniz an injustice to call him a mere metaphysician." [pp. 16-7]
Commentary: Enoch defends Leibniz, but not by agreeing that he is 'infected with Metaphysickal thinking', and then questioning why that is a problem in either Leibniz's or Waterhouse's case (you will notice that Enoch doesn't question the implied accusation that Dr Waterhouse is likewise a 'mere metaphysician'), but by declaring that is 'an injustice' to call Leibniz a 'mere metaphysician'.Benjamin Franklin is not the only youth, yet to be famous, whom Enoch meets. Stephenson recounts him learning about the young Isaac Newton, in 1655:
Leibniz is, of course, Gottfried Leibniz, one of the few men to deserve the epithet 'genius'. It is proverbial that prophets are without honour in their own house, so, of course, Leibniz in his lifetime is dismissed by the Harvard crowd as 'infected with Metaphysickal thinking' and of the sort of person who would enspell another with nefarious enchantments. Despite the young Ben Franklin's outburst, it is clear that the Harvard crowd sees Leibniz, and Waterhouse after him, as an 'Unnatural Philosopher'.
Waterhouse's 'Massachusets Bay Colony Institute of Technologickal Arts' is, of course, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The real thing was not founded, it seems, until the 1860s, but the manner in which Stephenson goes on to develop Waterhouse's 'MBCITA' is a conceit of Stephenson's which allows it to have existed preceding the founding of the real thing. Waterhouse's Institute, in which he is trying to build a mill which will 'discover new truths through computation' is of the character of the real MIT, of course. It also points forward to Cryptonomicon, with Laurence Waterhouse and Alan Turing and the development of the first computers.
The presentation of the Harvard men is such as to cast doubt on their wisdom, so when one of them derisively mentions Waterhouse's 'Mill', we are, I think, to take from this that someday, someone, if not Daniel Waterhouse, will indeed 'discover new truths through computation'. (It should be mentioned that 'computation', in this context, is a Latinate euphemism for 'counting'; indeed, what modern computers do is, in effect, count things really, really fast). Stephenson's love for 'computation' was evinced in Cryptonomicon. While Stephenson is, I think, too clever to think that computers are going to save the world, to put it roughly, the idea that technological know-how is going to make the world a better place (which, we must agree, is the case to a certain extent) is very much a 'modernist' ideal. When Waterhouse's 'computation Mill' appears briefly later on in the book, it resembles a primitive version of the computation machines which his descendant Laurence Waterhouse witnesses in Bletchley Park.
Stephenson does a good job at avoiding anachronism by including, among other things, physiological commentary appropriate to the period. Thus, Enoch Root, when he clears his throat, loosens 'yellow bile'. Stephenson, of course, has to provide a parenthetical explanation of what 'bile' is ('the humour of anger and ill-temper'), for our benefit, but it is a good touch. Incidentally, despite the occasional complaints of characters in Quicksilver about doctors who bleed their patients unto death in order to balance their humours, especially at the deathbed of Charles II, they accept the physiological concept of humours, if only because they have nothing else to go by. (Incidentally, the website describing the humours appears to take them as fact: caveat lector.)
The upstairs was all one odd-shaped room with low adze-marked rafters and rough plaster walls that had once been whitewashed. Enoch hadn't visited many children's rooms, but to him it seemed like a den of thieves hastily abandoned and stumbled upon by a plodding constable, filled with evidence of many peculiar, ingenious, frequently unwise plots and machinations suddenly cut short. He stopped in the doorway and steadied himself. Like a good empiric, he had to see all and alter nothing.
There were broken and dismantled parts of machines that Enoch did not understand. Later, though, perusing the notebook where the boy [Isaac Newton] had been copying out recipes, Enoch found sketches of the hearts of rats and birds that the boy had apparently dissected. Then the little machines made sense. For what was the heart but the model for the perpetual motion machine? And what was the perpetual motion machine but Man's attempt to make a thing that would do what the heart did? To harness the heart's occult power and bend it to use.
The apothecary had joined him in the room. Clarke looked nervous. "You're up to something clever, aren't you?" Enoch said. ...
"So you took the boy under your wing—and if he's shown some interest in the Art you have not discouraged it."
"Of course not! He could be the one, Enoch."
"He's not the one," Enoch said. "Not the one you are thinking of. Oh, he will be a great empiricist. He will, perhaps, be the one to accomplish some great thing we have never imagined."
"Enoch, what can you possibly be talking about?"
... "Something is happening."
Clarke pursed his lips and waited for something a little more specific.
"Galileo and Descartes were only harbingers. Something is happening now—the mercury is rising from the ground, like water climbing up the bore of a well."
Enoch couldn't get Oxford out of his mind—Hooke and Wren and Boyle, all exchanging thoughts so quickly that flames practically leaped between them. He decided to try another tack. "There's a boy in Leipzig like this one. Father died recently, leaving him nothing except a vast library. The boy began reading those books. Only six years old."
"It's not unheard-of for six-year-olds to read."
"German, Latin, and Greek?"
"With proper instruction—"
"That's just it. The boy's teachers prevailed on the mother to lock the child out of the library. I got wind of it. Talked to the mother, and secured a promise from her that little Gottfried [Leibniz, of course] would be allowed free run of the books. He taught himself Latin and Greek in the space of a year."
Clarke shrugged. "Very well. Perhaps little Gottfried is the one."
Enoch then should've known it was hopeless, but he tried again: "We are empiricists—we scorn the Scholastic way of memorizing old books and rejecting what is new—and that is good. But in pinning our hopes on the Philosophick Mercury we have decided in advance what it is that we seek to discover, and that is never right."
This merely made Clarke nervous. Enoch tried yet another tack: "I have in my saddlebags a copy of Principia Philosophica, the last thing Descartes wrote before he died. Dedicated it to young Elizabeth, the Winter Queen's daughter..."
Clarke was straining to look receptive, like a dutiful university student still intoxicated from last night's recreations at the tavern. Enoch remembered the stone on the string, and decided to aim for something more concrete. "Huygens has made a clock that is regulated by a pendulum."
"A young Dutch savant. Not an alchemist."
"He has worked out a way to make a pendulum that will always go back and forth in the same amount of time. By connecting it to the internal workings of a clock, he has wrought a perfectly regular time-piece. Its ticks divide infinity, as calipers step out leagues on a map. With these two—clock and calipers—we can measure both extent and duration. And this, combined with the new method of analysis of Descartes, gives us a way to describe Creation and perhaps to predict the future."
"Ah, I see!" said Clarke. "So this Huygens—he is some kind of astrologer?"
"No, no, no! He is neither astrologer nor alchemist. He is something new. More like him will follow. Wilkins, down in Oxford, is trying to bring them together. Their achievements may exceed those of alchemists." If they did not, Enoch thought, he'd be chagrined. "I am suggesting to you that this little boy may turn out to be another one like Huygens."
"You want me to steer him away from the Art?" Clarke exclaimed.
"Not if he shows interest. But beyond that do not steer him at all—let him pursue his own conclusions." Enoch looked at the faces and diagrams on the wall [sketched by Newton], noting some rather good perspective work. "And see to it that mathematics is brought to his attention."
"I do not think that he has the temperament to be a mere computer," Clarke warned. "Sitting at his pages day after day, drudging out tables of logarithms, cube roots, cosines—"
"Thanks to Descartes, there are other uses for mathematics now," Enoch said. "Tell your brother to show the boy Euclid and let him find his own way." [pp. 30-3]
Commentary: Lots of interesting little tidbits, but let us first consider the main point, how this passage champions a modern conception of science - and, by extension, of the world.
It does so both positively and negatively. Positively, by Enoch's excitement (if he can ever be said to be excited) about the boys Newton and Leibniz and the significance of Huygens' clock. Huygens is the Dutch natural philosopher Christiaan Huygens, a genius in his own right. Stephenson focusses on his clock-making here, but later in the book his astronomical work is considered (and his telescope is used to advance the plot). Enoch waxes poetic, saying 'Something is happening now—the mercury is rising from the ground, like water climbing up the bore of a well.' That Enoch thinks of, or mentions, such luminaries as Huygens, Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, John Wilkins, and Descartes, and refers to the present as a time when 'the mercury is rising from the ground' - it is the modern scientific apocalypse, the Revelation of Isaac Newton the Divine. The seventeenth century in Europe was without doubt an age of genius (or, at least of many individual geniuses). Wilkins, incidentally, is credited by Stephenson as the writer of the (fictional) Cryptonomicon, a work on cryptanalysis and cryptology - both of which are features of Quicksilver as they were of Cryptonomicon (the novel), and almost with the same importance to the plot.
My pun on the name of the closing book of the Bible is apposite. Newton and Leibniz, as well as the other brilliant men of whom Enoch thinks (not to mention many other people), helped to make a new heaven and a new earth. It would have been even better had Newton ever been ordained, in which case he really would have been a 'Divine', but no such luck. Nothing Enoch says or thinks expresses this notion of a new age being revealed better than the line, 'Its ticks divide infinity, as calipers step out leagues on a map. With these two—clock and calipers—we can measure both extent and duration. And this... gives us a way to describe Creation and perhaps to predict the future.'
Another note sounding the modernist tune is the praise (admittedly subtle) of an empirical perspective. 'Like a good empiric, he had to see all and alter nothing.' Stephenson very well knows that twentieth-century advances in science have shown that we neither 'see all', nor do we 'alter nothing' of what we see: what is observed changes in the act of being observed. In seventeenth-century thinking, however, it was possible to believe that one could, indeed, 'see all and alter nothing' - and that makes one a 'good empiric'. It would have been anachronistic for Enoch to 'see through' his own perspective in that way. Enoch also declares that 'We are empiricists' and that Huygens is 'something new' and that 'more like him will follow.' There is something new, something revelatory, in empiricism, as Enoch sees it.
And at this point the negative side of Enoch's championing of the new, modern, world may be introduced as a contrast. This is done by Enoch's disparagement of older forms of what would have then been considered natural philosophy: alchemy, astrology, and the logic of the Scholastics. (To whom Enoch might also have referred as 'Schoolmen', which, I suggest, would have been less anachronistic and more English.) This disparagement is easier to see; Enoch vigorously (either in word or thought, since he does not utter his doubts about alchemy to a practitioner of the Art) contrasts the failure of these other methods with the 'new' way of doing natural philosophy. So I won't comment very much on this, except for Enoch's line about 'in pinning our hopes on the Philosophick Mercury we have decided in advance what it is that we seek to discover, and that is never right.' What Enoch is here contesting is the empirical method - observe and experiment - against what might be called the 'deductive' method - the consideration of universal principles and deductions made about the world therefrom. The modern world Enoch prophesies has plumped for the former and rejected the latter, although this is roughly and very generally put.
Stephenson does show a literary appreciation elsewhere in Quicksilver for the Art and for the astrological deities. It would be too much to quote some passages at length (and it has proved vexingly difficult to find them - another reason not to like books that are too damn long), but at least as literary tropes and images, alchemy and astrology continue to find new life, at least among authors with the knowledge and skill to deploy them.
Finally, the praise of Descartes is, I think, a clear sign of the 'modernist' perspective of the work, for Descartes is the whipping boy - not to say the scapegoat - of postmodern thought. (As he was, in his time, criticised for departing from received truth.) Such reading as I have done about postmodernism shows that postmodern thinkers all but universally condemn Descartes - apparently he is the Father of Modernity. A novel which celebrates the achievements of seventeenth-century Enlightenment Europe is one which, however indirectly, challenges the defining characteristic of postmodernity.
So much for Stephenson's apparent modernism. The potential of sex for corrupting or 'tainting' (faute de mieux) those who engage in it is actuated early on in Quicksilver. Daniel Waterhouse, thinking back to his Cambridge days, recalls his first sexual experience, courtesy of a prostitute brought into his bedchamber courtesy of his then-roommate, the Duke of Monmouth (the same Monmouth who would lead a rebellion against James II).
Nugget: A wench with paint on her face, squealing as she fell backwards onto Daniel's bed at Trinity College. Daniel getting an erection. This was the Restoration.
The woman's weight on his legs suddenly doubled as a boy half her age, embedded in a flouncing spray of French lace, fell on top of her. This was Upnor. [pp. 49-50]
Commentary: Not much to say about this passage, which Stephenson calls, literally, a 'nugget' (it is a flash of memory. Poor Daniel evidently doesn't get to enjoy the company of the women of questionable virtue which his roommate, Monmouth, and his cronies (Upnor, a fictional earl, being one of them) bring to the College. At this point he is still trying to be a good Puritan, so the fact that he responded to the woman with a perfectly natural (if embarrassing) physiological reaction may have been considered sinfulness on his part. I suspect that this kind of thing which he had to put up with helped wear Daniel down, for, immediately following a selection of these 'nuggets', Stephenson recounts how Daniel Waterhouse witnesses a murder, but refuses to risk death (at the hands of his roommate's cronies) in order to report it. The way is paved for his inability to do to right thing in a moment of crisis because he has been unable to do anything about behaviour that (at that point) he believes to be wrong on a day-to-day basis. It is certainly disruptive. Not much later in the book, Daniel Waterhouse is encouraged, in fact, by members of his family, some of whom are much more zealous than he in their commitment to Puritanism, to remain and endure such behaviour in order to complete his education.
Daniel, later in life, becomes enchanted by an actress; a friend of his arranges for them to meet, under circumstances designed to bring about the consummation of his desire.
The terms of the transaction were finally clear. Why did Daniel refuse to hate Roger? Not out of blindness to Roger's faults, for he saw Roger's moral cowardice as clearly as Hooke peering through a lens at a newt. Not out of Christian forgiveness, either. He refused to hate Roger because Roger saw moral cowardice in Daniel, had done so for years, and yet did not hate Daniel. Fair's fair. They were brothers.
As much as he had to ponder in the way of moral dilemmas vis-à-vis Roger, 'twas as nothing compared to half an hour later, when Daniel emerged, booted, bewigged, cravated, and jacketed, and equipped with a second-hand watch that Roger somehow begged off of Hooke, and climbed into the coach. For one of the women in there was Tess Charter. Thump.
When she and the other woman were finished laughing at the look on Daniel's face, she leaned forward and got her fingers all entangled with his. She was shockingly and alarmingly alive—somewhat more alive, in fact, than he was. She looked him in the eyes and spoke in her French accent: "Twooly, Daniel, eet eez ze hrole of a lifetime—portraying ze mistress of a gentleman who eez to pure—too spiritual—to sink zee thoughts of zee flesh." Then a middling London accent. "But really I prefer the challenging parts. The ability to do them's what separates me from Nell Gwyn."
"I wonder what separates the King from Nell Gwyn?" said the other woman.
"Ten inches of sheepgut with a knot in one end—if the King knows what's good for him!" Tess returned. Thump.
This led to more in a similar vein. Daniel turned to Roger, who was sitting next to him, and said, "Sir! What on earth makes you believe I wish to appear to have a mistress?"
"Who said anything about appearing to have one?" Roger answered, and when Daniel didn't laugh, gathered himself up and said, "Poh! You could no more show up at Whitehall without a mistress, than at a duel without a sword! Come, Daniel! No one will take you seriously! They'll think you're hiding something!"
"And that he is—though none too effectively." Tess said, eyeing a new convexity in Daniel's breeches.
"I loved your work in The Dutch Strumpet," Daniel tried, weakly.
Thus, down London Wall and westwards, ho!—Daniel's every attempt to say something serious pre-empted by a courtly witticism—more often than not, so bawdy that he didn't even understand it, any more than Tess would understand the Proceedings of the Royal Society. Every jest followed by exaltations of female laughter and then a radical, and completely irrational, change in subject.
The Earl of Epsom turned his head and gazed across Piccadilly at his... cousin, but showed no particular emotion. Daniel had shrunk far down into the coach, where he hoped he'd be enshrouded in darkness. To him, John Comstock looked almost relieved. How bad could it be to live in Epsom and go hunting and fishing every day? That's what Daniel told himself—but later the sadness and haggardness in the Earl's face would appear in his mind's eye at the oddest times.
"Do not become stupid now, just because you are seeing his face," Roger said to him. "That man was a Cavalier. He led cavalry charges against the Parliamentarian foot-soldiers. Do you know what that means? Do you see that great bloody awful painting there of Comstock's great-uncle and his friends galloping after that fox? Replace the fox with a starving yeoman, unarmed, alone, and you have a fair picture of how that man spent the Civil War."
"I know all that," Daniel said. "And yet, and yet, somehow I still prefer him and his family to the Duke of Gunfleet and his family."
"John Comstock had to be cleared out of the way, and we had to lose a war, before anything could happen," Roger said. "As to Anglesey and his spawn, I love them even less than you do. Do not fret about them. Enjoy your triumph and your mistress. Leave Anglesey to me."
Then to Whitehall where they, and various Bolstroods and Waterhouses and many others, watched the King sign the Declaration. As penned by Wilkins, this document had given freedom of conscience to everyone. The version that the King signed today was not quite so generous: it outlawed certain extreme heretics, such as Arians who didn't believe in the Trinity. Nevertheless, it was a good day's work. Certainly enough to justify raising several pints, in several Drury Lane taverns, to the memory of John Wilkins. Daniel's pretend mistress accompanied him on every stage of this epochal pub-crawling campaign, which led eventually to Roger Comstock's playhouse, and, in particular, to a back-room of that playhouse, where there happened to be a bed.
"Who has been making sausages in here?" Daniel inquired. Which sent Tess into a fit of the giggles. She had just about got his breeches off.
"I should say you have made a pretty one!" she finally managed to get out.
"I should say you are responsible for making it," Daniel demurred, and then (now that it was in plain view) added: "and it is anything but pretty."
"Wrong on both counts!" said Tess briskly. She stood up and grabbed it. Daniel gasped. She gave it a tug; Daniel yelped, and drew closer. "Ah, so it is attached to you. You shall have to accept responsibility for the making of it, then; can't blame the lasses for everything. And as for pretty—" she relaxed her grip, and let it rest on the palm of her hand, and gave it a good look. "You've never seen a nasty one, have you?"
"I was raised to believe they were all quite nasty."
"That may be true—it is all metaphysickal, isn't it? Quite. But please know some are nastier than others. And that is why we have sausage-casings in a bedchamber."
She proceeded to do something quite astonishing with ten inches of knotted sheepgut. ...
"Does this mean it is not actually coitus?" Daniel asked hopefully. "Since I am not really touching you?" Actually he was touching her in a lot of places, and vice versa. But where it counted he was touching nothing but sheepgut.
"It is very common for men of your religion to say so," Tess said. "Almost as common as this irksome habit of talking while you are doing it."
"And what do you say?"
"I say that we are not touching, and not having sex, if it makes you feel better," Tess said. "Though, when all is finished, you shall have to explain to your Maker why you are at this moment buggering a dead sheep."
"Please do not make me laugh!" Daniel said. "It hurts somehow."
"What is funny? I simply speak the truth. What you are feeling is not hurting."
He understood then that she was right. Hurting wasn't the word for it.
When Daniel woke up in that bed, sometime in the middle of the following afternoon, Tess was gone. She'd left him a note (who'd have thought she was literate? But she had to read the scripts.)
We shall make more sausages later. I am off to act. Yes, it may have slipped your mind that I am an actress.
Yesterday I worked, playing the role of mistress. It is a difficult role, because dull. But now it has become fact, not farce, and so I shall not have to act any more; much easier. As I am no longer professionally engaged, pretending to be your mistress, I shall no longer be receiving my stipend from your friend Roger. As I am now your mistress in fact, some small gift would be appropriate. Forgive my forwardness. Gentlemen know such things, Puritans must be instructed.
P.S. You want instruction in acting. I shall endeavour to help.
Daniel staggered about the room for some minutes collecting his clothes, and tried to put them on in the right order. It did not escape his notice that he was getting dressed, like an actor, in the backstage of a theatre. When he was done he found his way out among sets and properties and stumbled out onto the stage. The house was empty, save for a few actors dozing on benches. Tess was right. He had found his place now: he was just another actor, albeit he would never appear on a stage, and would have to make up his own lines ad libitum.
His role, as he could see plainly enough, was to be a leading Dissident who also happened to be a noted savant, a Fellow of the Royal Society. Until lately he would not have thought this a difficult role to play, since it was so close to the truth. But whatever illusions Daniel might once have harbored about being a man of God had died with Drake and been cremated by Tess. He very much phant'sied being a Natural Philosopher, but that simply was not going to work if he had to compete against Isaac, Leibniz, and Hooke. And so the role that Roger Comstock had written for him was beginning to appear very challenging indeed. Perhaps, like Tess, he would come to prefer it that way. [pp. 326-7, 329-31]
Commentary: Roger Comstock is a friend of Daniel Waterhouse, and a character very much like Tommo Cinnabar in Shades of Grey. A pander (as in this case), schemer, and occasional sycophant, Roger (related to the fictional Earl of Epsom, John Comstock, whose family has just been disgraced) is appealing, nevertheless, because he appears to genuinely care for Daniel, and, for all that he is a moral coward (as Daniel acknowledges), he is working toward a better England.
Daniel's own moral failings are highlighted by this passage. It begins with him reflecting on the fact that Roger accepts him despite knowing that he failed to report a murder out of fear of being murdered himself in his Cambridge days. Daniel also fails to live up to the high standards he himself once accepted - despite protesting the fact that Roger has hired Tess to be a 'pretend mistress', Daniel goes ahead to make the pretence fact. He is not, of course, married, but there is a sense in which what happens is a bit of a let-down. The letter Tess leaves for Daniel, and his own reflections, show that their relationship is characterised, not as loving, but as dictated by the parts they are supposed to play in the great seventeenth-century drama that is Restoration England.
In one sense, Daniel's failings here are of a piece with his moral failing earlier in the book. He agrees to play the part, go along with things, and not really stake a claim for himself, just as, earlier, he'd gone along with not reporting a crime he'd seen committed. Daniel Waterhouse does not seem to have the wherewithal to trust that he could have been a 'man of God' had he so chose - but he had never chosen, either to be or not to be. He simply drifted into his current course. The death of his father, Drake, and Tess's seduction really have little to do with his indecision about being a 'man of God'. He also appears to take an 'all or nothing' approach to the role he wishes to have chosen, that of the natural philosopher (a view very much influenced by that of his father, who expected that the Apocalypse would occur in 1666), in that he somehow feels he could not be one in a world with Newton, Leibniz, and Hooke. But he is, in fact, a 'noted savant, a Fellow of the Royal Society'. That Daniel thinks he can't be what he wishes to be because of other men is a failing of his own perspective.
One might press the point still further, with reference to Daniel's decision not to hate Roger. Now, I think he is right not to hate Roger Comstock for his moral cowardice, but it is hard not to think that he does so for, it would seem, the wrong reasons: he refuses to hate Roger, not out of some conviction that hatefulness is wrong, but, in effect, because Roger has been 'polite' enough not to bring up his own moral cowardice for all these years (the only character, other than Roger or Daniel himself, who does so is a despicable creature). Daniel may not be ignorant of Roger's moral cowardice, nor Roger of Daniel's, but by refusing to acknowledge their respective failings, they are abetting in each other in what amounts to wearing the Emperor's New Clothes. Everyone may see that you are naked, but if no one says anything, and in fact publicly express admiration of the finery you are pretending to wear, it is, if anything, worse than mere ignorance of your nakedness.
The significance of Daniel's having sex with Tess is not so much that the act itself is morally compromising (although the fact that Tess is effectively being paid by Roger to have sex with Daniel is not a sign that what happened was, in any strict sense, good), as that it dispels Daniel's illusions of being a moral agent. He is simply playing a part written him by another man. Now, it is all to the good if we acknowledge we aren't all we're cracked up to be - after all, Jesus said that the man who went home justified was the tax-collector who would not even look up into heaven but beat his breast and called himself a sinner - but it is preferable to try, and fail, rather than fail because one has not really tried.
This is perhaps a harsh assessment of Daniel's character; it is. But I am profoundly sympathetic for him, because in many respects he represents the experience of most of us. We are all more like Daniel Waterhouse than I think most of us (myself not excepted) would care to admit - we are more likely to be drifting through life and making decisions, not from a well-developed moral character, but as an 'act', as it were, a preconceived role given us by others. Those who are truly 'saintly' (in the meliorative sense) are almost always thought of as abnormally humble and self-abnegating. Moreover, better to be disillusioned of our notions of being good and so do less harm than to believe that we can do no wrong because we are good. Finally, one of the most moral insights we can come to is how poorly we exercise our moral agency. It was the tax-collector who went home justified.
Despite Daniel's moral failings (and he is hardly the worst character in Quicksilver), he accomplishes much that is good - because, finally, good deeds may be done by bad men. To put it more equivocally, and so perhaps more truthfully, we may never be sure that we are doing the right thing, and, however much we may do that is harmful, we are all of us capable of doing the right thing, if not consistently or characteristically.
Drama, and other forms of art, often tell the truth about our circumstances, about who we are as human beings, by means of 'imitations' (bluntly, 'fictions', or 'lies'). While there is something illusory and unreal, and hence, pejorative, about how 'acting' is portrayed in our passage, it need not be so. On the other hand, there is nothing intrinsic to art (of any kind) to prevent it from failing to tell the truth, either because of artistic failings (it is 'bad' art and fails to communicate) or because the message being communicated is bad (such as an artistically well-made film as Triumph of the Will).
Another instance of sex being used in a more ambiguous fashion is an encounter between another protagonist of Quicksilver, one Eliza, a former harem girl turned Amsterdam moneylender and spy, and William of Orange:
"Don't you want a Protestant King of England?"
"Of course! In order to defeat Louis, I'll need Britain."
"You say it ever so casually."
"It is a simple truth." William shrugged. Then, an idea. "I rather like simple truths. Arnold!"
Once again, Arnold was in the cabin... "Sire?"
"I need a witness."
"A witness to what, sire?"
"This girl fears that I'd be a fool to trust her, as matters stand. She is a Qwglhmian girl... [ellipsis original] so I'm going to make her Duchess of Qwghlm."
"But... [ditto] Qwghlm is part of the King of England's domains, sire."
"That's just the point," William said. "This girl will be a duchess, secretly, and in name only, until such time as I sit upon the Throne of England... [ditto] at which time she'll become a duchess in fact. So I can trust her to take my side—and she won't think I'm a fool for doing so."
"It's either this or the slow boat to Nagasaki?" Eliza asked.
"It's not so very slow," Arnold said. "By the time you arrive, you should still have one or two teeth remaining."
Eliza ignored this, and kept her gaze on William's eyes. "On your knees!" he commanded.
Eliza gathered her skirts—the only intact clothes she had left—rose from her chair, and fell to her knees in front of the Prince of Orange, who said: "You cannot be ennobled without a ceremony that demonstrates your submission to your new liege-lord. This has been the tradition since ancient times."
Arnold drew a small-sword from its sheath and held it out in both hands, making it available to the Prince; but not without striking several braces, bulkheads, and items of furniture... for the cabin was tiny and crowded. The Prince watched with sour amusement. "Sometimes the lord taps the vassal on the shoulder with his sword," he allowed, "but there is no room in here to wield such a weapon safely; besides, I am trying to make a Duchess here, not a Knight."
"Would you prefer a dagger, my lord?" Arnold asked.
"Yes," said the Prince, "but don't concern yourself with it, I have one handy." Whereupon he peeled his belt open with a quick movement of the hand, and dropped his breeches. A hitherto concealed weapon popped up into view, so close to Eliza's face that she could feel its heat. ... It oscillated with the beating of the Prince's heart.
"If you are going to tap me on the shoulder with that, you are going to have to step a bit closer, my lord," Eliza said, "for, as splendid as it is, it does not compete with the other for length."
"On the contrary, you shall have to approach closer to me," said the Prince. "And as you know perfectly well, it is not your shoulder that I am aiming for: neither the left one, nor the right, but a softer and more welcoming berth in between. Do not feign ignorance, I know your history, and that you learned this and many other practices in the Harim of the Sultan."
"There, I was a slave. Here, it is how I shall become a Duchess?"
"As it was with Monmouth, and as it shall be in France, so it is here and now," William said agreeably. His hand came down on the top of her head, and grabbed a handful of hair. "Perhaps you can teach Arnold a trick or two. Arnold, witness carefully." William pulled Eliza forward. Eliza's eyes clenched shut. What was about to happen wasn't so very bad, in and of itself; but she couldn't stand to have that other man watching.
"There now," the Prince said, "ignore him. Open your eyes, and stare into mine, boldly, as befits a Duchess." [pp. 597-9]
Commentary: It's the nape of her neck he's aiming for, right? Just as an aside, re-reading this, I am reminded of the servant of Abraham, sent to find a wife for his son Isaac, who put his hand between Abraham's thighs while making a promise about how he would go about finding said wife. Obviously that passage does not have the same feel as this one, but it is interesting how both share a common ground in that the fealty of a vassal or servant is demonstrated by sexual (or nearly sexual) touch.In the last passage I'll look at, Stephenson recounts an encounter between Eliza and a soldier of the Black Torrent Regiment, one Bob Shaftoe, in Amsterdam. I should say that despite my focus on sex in Quicksilver, it is not so prominent as you might be led to believe. It is just that, among the many things that one could have remarked upon, I found remarkable the fact that all of the particular depictions of sex in the work seemed to be morally compromising of their actors.
Of the few sexual acts depicted vividly in Quicksilver, I found this one to be degrading of its participants. Forcing Eliza to perform oral sex on him is, it must be said, a 'ceremony' devised by William of Orange to 'demonstrate [her] submission to [her] new liege-lord', but for all that William promises her ennoblement (and, in the event, carries through with his promise), she is offered no choice between this (and the consequent role she will play as a spy against, instead of for, the French) or 'the slow boat to Nagaski'. She is neither given a choice as to the terms by which she will submit to William, nor whether or not she shall submit at all. The 'slow boat to Nagasaki' refers to the Dutch trade with Japan; the Dutch enjoyed a monopoly on trade with Japan for several centuries, although in this context William and his manservant Arnold both imply that travel there is hazardous, particularly for known enemies of Dutch interests.
Actually, Eliza is not, strictly speaking, 'degraded' by being made to do something more or less against her will. True, she could have chosen not to go forward with this; but then, she faced immediate or eventual, yet inevitable, death at William of Orange's hands (or those of his agents). She, like, Daniel Waterhouse when he witnessed the murder at Cambridge, is caught in a difficult position. Her position is more difficult than Daniel's was, I think. Even if she does not object, in principle, to the act ('What was about to happen wasn't so very bad, in and of itself'.), the fact that she clenches her eyes shut because there is another watching suggests that at some level she feels a sense of decency being violated.
William of Orange comes across as particularly vicious in this passage, I believe, because his character is, it is suggested, supposedly better than that of his French enemies, or of such moral dilettantes as the later Stuart Kings of England or Monmouth and his cronies (one of whom was, as I believe I've said, responsible for the murder which Daniel witnessed). Yet, here he is, abusing his power, as freely, it would seem, as any Sun King or absolutist monarch. It is true that he would be foolish if he did not offer Eliza an incentive to spy for him against the French, rather than merely threaten her with deportation, for, as she herself says (earlier in their dialogue), she would be secure and out of his reach in Versailles. Yet what he demands Eliza do is not necessary. Had he chose, some other suitable act expressing her submission to her new liege-lord could have easily been conceived (or the actual dagger offered by Arnold). Moreover, his insistence that she look up into his eyes is not, as he interprets it, an act of boldness befitting a Duchess, but a denial of any right she may have for privacy (not that forcing her to perform oral sex on him isn't already bad enough) - he even acknowledges that he knows why she has closed her eyes - 'There now, ignore him,' - as if she could in so small a cabin! I have complained about those who abuse their power - as with the prefects in Shades of Grey (a link to which is provided in a previous segment of commentary), or the fay Bast in The Name of the Wind - and William of Orange's act here is nothing other than an abuse of his personal and official power both; personal, in that Eliza's life is in his hands then and there; official, in that the deed he is forcing her to do is being done in her role as vassal to a lord. (Or, what is worse, the deed is abusive of his personal power, but not of his official; indeed, I wonder how many abuses the powerful commit the circumstances of which obtain so that they can claim to have grounds to commit them in an official capacity.)
At the last resort, William's deed is neither pragmatic nor just; it is an expression of mere animality, an expression of the human lust for domination. Had Eliza performed the act on William under other circumstances, and decided herself to do it, things would have been different. But the circumstances were not other, therefore, I think my impression that this particular sexual act was a morally compromising one is correct.
Bob has requested Eliza's help in freeing a woman he loves from slavery (in England, no less); they are at the house of Huygens, where Eliza is staying.
In the woods by the sea, it might have been foolhardy for Eliza to speak frankly; but here she could summon the St. George Guild from their clubhouse with a shout. "Your willingness to repay me is of no account," she told Bob.
This was a cold answer, but it was a cold day, and William of Orange had treated her coldly, and Bob Shaftoe had knocked her off her horse. Now Bob looked dismayed. ...
"I was taken a slave just like your Abigail," Eliza said. " 'Twas as if Mummy and I'd been plucked off the beach by a rogue wave and swallowed by the Deep. No man came forward to ransom me. Does that mean it was just that I was so taken?"
"Now you're talking nonsense. I don't—"
"If 'tis evil for Abigail to be a slave—as I believe—then your offer of service to me is neither here nor there. If she should be free, all the others should be as well. That you're willing to do me a favor or two should not advance her to the head of the queue."
"I see, now you're making it into a grand moral question. I am a soldier and we have good reasons to be suspicious of those." ...
Eliza noted that he had shaved before going out on this morning's strange errand... and she wondered how it all worked—what train of thoughts made a man say, "I had better scrape my face with a blade before undertaking this one." Perhaps it was some sort of a symbolic love-offering to his Abigail.
"It is all a question of pride, isn't it?" Eliza said, stuffing a cube of peat into the iron stove. "Or honor, as you'd probably style it."
Bob looked at her instead of answering; or maybe his look was his answer.
"Come on, you don't have to be that quiet," she said, setting a kettle on the stove to heat.
"What Jack [Bob's brother, with whom Eliza had travelled in the past] and I have in common is an aversion to begging," he said finally.
"Just as I thought. So, rather than beg Abigail's ransom from me you are proposing a sort of financial transaction—a loan, to be paid back in service."
"I don't know the words, the terms. Something like that is what I had in mind."
"Then why me? You're in the Dutch Republic. This is the financial capital of the world. You don't need to seek out one particular lender. You could propose this deal to anyone."
Bob had clutched a double handful of his cloak and was wringing it slowly. "The confusions of the financial markets are bewildering to me—I prefer not to treat with strangers..." [ellipsis original]
"What am I to you if not a stranger?" Eliza asked, laughing. "I am worse than a stranger, I threw a spear at your brother."
"Yes, and that is what makes you not a stranger to me, it is how I know you."
"It is proof that I hate slavery, you mean?"
"Proof of that and of other personal qualities—qualities that enter into this matter."
"I am no Person of Quality, or of qualities—do not speak to me of that. It is proof only that my hatred of slavery makes me do irrational things—which is what you are asking me to do now."
Bob lost his grip on his cloak-wad and sat down unsteadily on a stack of books.
Eliza continued, "She threw a harpoon at my brother—she'll throw some money at me—is that how it goes?"
Bob Shaftoe put his hands over his face and began to cry, so quietly that any sounds he made were drowned out by the whirring and ticking of the clocks.
Eliza retreated into the kitchen, and went back to a cool corner were some sausage-casings had been rolled up on a stick. She unrolled six inches—on second thought, twelve—and cut it off. Then she tied a knot in one end. She fit the little sock of sheep-gut over the handle of a meat-axe that was projecting firmly into the air above a chopping block, then, with her fingertips, coaxed the open end of it to begin rolling up the handle. Once it was started, with a quick movement of her hand she rolled the whole length up to make a translucent torus with the knotted end stretched across the middle like a drum-head. Gathering her skirts up one leg, she tucked the object into the hem of her stocking, which came up to about mid-thigh, and finally went back into the great room where Bob Shaftoe was weeping.
There was not much point in subtlety, and so she forced her way in between his thighs and stuffed her bosom into his face.
After a few moment's hesitation he took his hands away from between his wet cheeks and her breasts. His face felt cold for a moment, but only a moment. Then she felt his hands locking together behind the small of her back, where her bodice was joined to her skirt.
... She pulled the knotted sheepgut from her stocking, stripped it down over him, straddled him, and sat down hard. He was distracted with pretending to be angry, and the sudden pleasure ambushed him. The sudden pain astonished her, for this was the first time a man had ever been inside Eliza. She let out an angry yell and tears spurted from her eyes; she shoved clenched fists into her eye-sockets and tried to control her leg muscles, which were convulsively trying to climb up and off of him. She felt that he was rocking her up and down, which made her angry, but her knees were grinding steadily into the hard wood of the table, and so the sensation of movement must arise from light-headedness: a swoon that needed to be fought off.
She did not want him looking up at her like this and so she fell forward and struck the table to either side of his head with the flats of both palms, then bowed her head so that her hair fell down in a curtain, hiding her face, and everything below his chest, from Bob's view. ...
She moved up and down on him for a while, very slowly, partly because she was in pain and partly because she did not know how close he might be to reaching his climax... But finally he came complete, in a long ordeal of back-arching and head-thumping.
He took his first breath, the one that meant he was finished, and opened his eyes. She was staring directly back at him.
"I hurt like hell," she announced, "I have inflicted this on myself as a demonstration."
"Of what?" he asked, bewildered, stuporous, but pleased with himself.
"To show you what I think of honor, as you style it. Where was Abigail just now?"
Bob Shaftoe now tried to become angry, without much success. ... [He] set his jaw and tried to sit up. He had more success in that—at first—because Eliza was not a large girl. But then from behind the dazzling hair curtain came a hand, and the hand was holding a small Turkish dagger—very nice, a wriggling blade of watered steel—which closed on his left eyeball and obliged him to lie flat again.
"The demonstration is very important," Eliza said—or growled, rather, for she really was very uncomfortable. "You come with high talk of honor and expect me to swoon and buy Abigail back for you. I have heard many men speak of honor while ladies are in the room, and then seen them abandon all thought of it when the lusts and terrors of the body overcame their noble pretensions. Like cavaliers throwing down their polished armor and bright battle-flags to flee a charging Vagabond-host. You are no worse—but no better. I will not help you because I am touched by your love for Abigail or stirred by your prating about honor. I will help you because I wish to be somewhat more than another wave spreading and spending itself on a godforsaken beach. ... [I]f I am to make a mark on this world, it will have something to do with slavery. I will help you only insofar as it serves that end. And buying the freedom of one maiden does not serve it. But Abigail may be of use to me in other ways... [ellipsis original] I shall have to think on it. While I think, she'll be a slave to this Upnor. If she remembers you at all, it will be as a turncoat and a coward. You will be a miserable wretch. In the fullness of melancholy time, perhaps you'll come to see the wisdom of my position."
Now the conversation—if it could be called that—was interrupted by a mighty throat-clearing from the opposite end of the room, gallons of air shifting dollops of phlegm out of the main channel. "Speaking of Positions," said a husky Dutch voice, "would you and your gentleman friend please find a different one? For since you've made sleep quite impossible, I should like to eat." [pp. 706-13]
Commentary: I omitted much of the lead-up to the deed itself and some of the details, partly because of a certain squeamishness on my part, but mostly because the passage quoted would have been too long: the point (ha!) at which Eliza sits on Bob's lap for the first time until the, ah, climax takes two full pages for Stephenson to describe; it is the most detailed sexual act in the book.
I was unimpressed with both Bob and Eliza in this matter. Eliza later receives a gentle dressing-down from Huygens (pp. 714-6), so I won't give her the gears too much - except to say that her 'demonstration' that Bob is not so wonderful a guy as he thinks he is was neither necessary to her decision to help him or not, nor all that good in itself. Her position may be stated, in her own words, as: '[I]f I am to make a mark on this world, it will have something to do with slavery. I will help you only insofar as it serves that end. And buying the freedom of one maiden does not serve it.' This is not wholly unreasonable (although even William of Orange earlier derides her 'all or nothing' approach to combating slavery, telling her a more incremental approach is best). But it can immediately be seen that she could have said as much without going to the difficulty of losing her virginity to a man she can hardly be said to love. She herself later admits to Huygens that what she did with Bob was 'stupid'.
As for Bob, that, as a competent soldier, he did not see the 'trap' Eliza set for what it was, sends a message about his sense of judgment (although he definitely appeared to be out of his element in the whole passage leading up to their having sex). After Eliza cut him down with the lines, 'She threw a harpoon at my brother—she'll throw some money at me—is that how it goes?', he could - and should - have left the house. Conversely, he could have taken the offensive, and said something to the effect of, 'not at all, I am offering a bargain; take it or leave it'. Instead, he passively allows himself to become a traitor to the living memory of the woman he presumably loves - 'Where was Abigail just now?' Bob became angry after Eliza told him that; what he ought to have done is to have become angry, not defeated, after she 'saw through' (though she need not have done so if he refused to accept her interpretation) his bargain, and before her 'demonstration'. Bob, thus, ironically emasculates himself at precisely the moment he 'proves he is a man' by copulating with Eliza. One feels, after all, that he is less of a man for doing what he did.
So much, then, for my treatment of the use of sex in Quicksilver. I think I have sufficiently demonstrated my point, that in this work it is, almost without exception, used as a tool of corruption or control, rather than as an expression of love.
Thus ends my marginal commentary on Quicksilver.