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The Captain and the Glory

December 15, 2019

The Captain and the Glory, by Dave Eggers, was on the shelf one day as I walked by and I had to pick it up and leaf through it when I saw that it was described as a satire. It’s a little Menippean satire, which is a fancy way of saying it makes its criticisms by telling a story.

It didn’t take me long to get hooked; in fact, that happened on page 8 when I read this paragraph:
“There had long been a maxim on the ship, uttered by every parent to every child, that stated, ‘On this ship, anyone can grow up to be captain.’ It was a dictum that spoke of the ship’s dedication to opportunity and equality and an ostensibly classless society. When this maxim was first expressed, though, its originator meant that from any humble beginning, through decades of rigorous study and apprenticeship, through certifications and examinations, anyone might eventually ascend to the captain’s chair. But over the years, this notion had come to mean that any imbecile might decide on a certain Monday to become a captain, and by Tuesday, with no qualifications whatsoever, that imbecile could take charge of a 300,000 ton vessel and the thousands of lives contained within.”

There’s something about every part of the current administration, like that all political appointments for the last three years seem to have been made based on who might know the least about the area they’re in charge of: “because the Captain was suspicious of anyone who had done a job before, he chose carefully, to ensure that no one he hired to handle any part of the ship had ever seen that part of the ship before.”

The worst part (and best satire) is about the period we’re in now:
“Life on the ship settled into a kind of routine….Sometime around lunch, the Captain would grow bored and would steer the ship hard left and hard right, sending all objects and people not battened down careening through the ship, bones and glass shattering against walls and floors. Sometimes he would make announcements over the intercom, warning that he might start a war with another ship, and then, a few hours later, tell all the passengers on the Glory that he had changed his mind, or had been joking, or had never said anything like that in the first place.”

“What were those opposed to the Captain doing all this time,” the narrator asks. “Some simply figured that all captains had flaws—that there was a sameness to all captains, in that they stood on the bridge and steered and occasionally were subject to scandals and controversies and periodically had extramarital affairs with pornographic actresses while their wives were nursing their children, and chose not to pay taxes, and from time to time stole money from investors in failed businesses, and denigrated vast swathes of the population, and incited violence against Certain People and ended many lives in horrific ways, and threatened friendly ships and admired enemy ships, and appointed known felons and sociopaths to positions of power, and that all of it was a wash, and none of it was all that important vis-à-vis their own complicated lives.”

The captain’s supporters, on the other hand, “had feared, in their most secret hearts, that the…captain would become dignified and dull, but he had been captain for months now, and was just as unvarnished, unrehearsed, and unhinged as ever, and this made them very happy and very proud. They had not foreseen the towering cruelty and daily drowning of innocents, the putting-away and polishing-off, but this additional part of life on the Glory, though horrifying and against every belief system and moral code ever devised by humans, was new, and anything new was something different, and different was inherently good.”

The Captain and the Glory is a well-told tale and a timely reminder for Americans that it’s not enough to feel our emotions about the direction our ship of state is headed. If we want to preserve what we can of our institutions, we’ve got to be doing something almost every day, no matter how busy we keep ourselves trying to eke out a living, celebrate a holiday, or read and watch stories to help us forget where inaction has brought us.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 15, 2019 10:26 am

    I haven’t read Eggers since my son brought one of his books home from college. This sounds thought provoking.

    • December 15, 2019 10:40 am

      Maybe…but it’s very broad satire. In case you could possibly miss any of the jokes about the president’s cadre of liars-in-arms, there are occasional names given like they’re titles.

  2. December 16, 2019 11:54 am

    Wow, that is certainly on the nose.

  3. December 16, 2019 4:42 pm

    This sounds delightful! But also, sadly, only the people who agree with the criticism will be likely to read it.

    • December 16, 2019 5:15 pm

      Yes, but that’s true of so many things that are actually written down. There’s a bit in there about how the captain decrees that everything has to be shown on TV.


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