Whatever the problems were that kept Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools1 from appearing during the past twenty years, it has been leading a charmed life ever since it was published late last March. In virtually a single voice, a little cracked and breathless with excitement, the reviewers announced that Miss Porter’s long-awaited first novel was a “triumph,” a “masterpiece,” a “work of genius . . . a momentous work of fiction,” “a phenomenal, rich, and delectable book,” a “literary event of the highest magnitude.” Whether it was Mark Schorer in the New York Times Book Review delivering a lecture, both learned and lyrical, on the source, sensibility, and stature of the novel (“Call it . . . the Middlemarch of a later day”), or a daily reviewer for the San Francisco Call Bulletin confessing that “not once [had] he started a review with so much admiration for its author, with such critical impotence”—in the end it came to the same thing.
Riding the crest of this wave of acclaim, Ship of Fools made its way to the top of the best-seller lists in record time and it is still there as I write in mid-September. During these four months, it has encountered virtually as little opposition in taking its place among the classics of literature as it did in taking and holding its place on the best-seller lists. A few critics like Robert Drake in the National Review, Stanley Kauffmann in the New Republic, Granville Hicks in the Saturday Review, and Howard Moss in the New Yorker, wound up by saying that Ship of Fools fell somewhat short of greatness, but only after taking the book’s claim to greatness with respectful seriousness. Some of the solid citizens among the reviewers, like John K. Hutchens, found the novel to be dull and said so. Here and there, mainly in the hinterlands, a handful of independent spirits such as Marie Louise Aswell suspected that the book was a failure. But who was listening?
Prominent among the circumstances which have helped to make a run-away best seller and a succès d’estime out of this massive, unexciting, and saturnine novel was the aura of interest, partly sentimental and partly deserved, that Miss Porter’s long struggle with it had produced. Most of the reviews begin in the same way: a distinguished American short-story writer at the age of seventy-one has finally finished her first novel after twenty years of working on it. As this point was developed, it tended to establish the dominant tone of many reviews—that of an elated witness to a unique personal triumph, almost as though this indomitable septuagenarian had not written a book, but had done something even more remarkable—like swimming the English Channel.
The more sophisticated magazine critics approached the novel mainly in terms of the expectancy that Miss Porter’s previous work had created. In Mark Schorer’s words, Ship of Fools had been “eagerly awaited by an entire literary generation,” which may overstate the matter but does point to the fact that over the years Miss Porter has become one of the representative figures of the heroic days in modern American letters—“the stylist of the 1920’s to the last,” to quote John Chamberlain’s review. For the survivors of her literary generation, as well as for many members of a later one, this has given her something of the same appeal that Mrs. Roosevelt enjoys among Democrats. Miss Porter’s reputation is particularly strong in the academy where she has taught off and on over the years and where her stories have been studied with special zeal and affection.
In short, the objective interest that Miss Porter’s previous work had inspired usually contained an element of reverence, and in reading the reviews, one had the feeling that almost everyone in the academy and in New York literary circles (where, as Time put it, this “gracious. . . Southern gentlewoman” has long been a “charming chatterer”) was either awed by or pulling for her—particularly those “in the know” who were aware of the troubles that she had had in writing her novel.
If the first paragraph of the reviews was likely to dote in one way or another on Miss Porter, the second was likely to dote upon the universal dimensions of her new book. More often than not, this universality was demonstrated by quoting the Preface: particularly Miss Porter’s statement that at the center of her design is nothing less than the “image of the ship of this world on its voyage to eternity.” However grandiose the claim might seem, the reviewers accepted it without question and lauded Ship of Fools as a novel whose theme “is the human race,” as a “parable of a corrupt faithless world,” as “a great moral allegory of man’s fate,” and so forth. That the only real sign of allegory in Ship of Fools is provided by the Preface (there are a few other details—the German ship’s name is “Vera,” etc.) and that the novel, if it is anything at all, is a straightforward and grimly realistic account of a voyage from Veracruz to Bremerhaven in 1931, that the characters are drawn as literally as one could imagine, that the surface of the writing is completely univalent—none of this stopped any of the more enthusiastic reviewers from finding themselves in the presence of a great symbolic vision of human life and destiny. As Dayton Kohler, an English professor writing in the Richmond (Va.), News Leader, put it, “Ship of Fools is an attempt to confront the mystery of being. . . . Here in microcosm is the world man has made.”
Another feeling repeatedly expressed by the reviews was that the return of Miss Porter had ended a winter of general discontent with recent fiction. At one level, this feeling took the form of an impatience with the genial popular novel that neatly solves the problems of its characters. However, a number of other reviewers were less inclined to express their gratitude for Ship of Fools by repudiating kitsch than by repudiating their image of what passes for serious fiction today. In their desire to behold again the “solid” novel that they had been deprived of by the idiosyncracy, morbidity, and super-subtlety of serious contemporary fiction, such reviewers were inclined to see in Ship of Fools a somewhat different book from the one Miss Porter had actually written. If Ship of Fools does not have a “flimsy plot” (Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel), this is only because it does not have any plot at all. If it has no “case histories” (Winston-Salem again) its cast of characters nevertheless includes a dipsomaniac (Herr Baumgartner), a nymphomaniac and drug addict (La Condessa), a religious maniac (Herr Graf), two paranoids (Herr Rieber and Herr Löwenthal), two child psychopaths (Ric and Rac), and—transfixed by their frustrations, compulsions, and illusions—a dozen or more thoroughgoing neurotics. Similarly, one needs to read only the first ten pages to see that Miss Porter re-creates “persons and events on their own terms” (Chicago Sun-Times) about as much as her title would indicate. For these reasons, among others, the novel has very little power, “rugged” (Newsweek) or otherwise, and its “myriad insights” (Newsweek again) all lie along the same fixed line of vision and impart much the same judgment of human experience.
Yet it is not hard to see what these reviewers had in mind. Ship of Fools suggests many of the qualities of the traditional “solid” novel that has virtually dropped out of sight in recent years. Like the 19th-century classics, it comes at life in a straightforward and comprehensive way, while at the same time it shows itself to be a very modern novel in its form and sensibility. There are many characters and they all have the uncomplicated distinctiveness, bordering on caricature, that allows the reader to keep them straight, and to know where he is with each of them. Miss Porter’s steady, clear notation of the strongly marked and typical manners and attitudes of her German burghers, pedagogues, and naval men, of her American natives and expatriates, of her Hispanic priests and revolutionaries, aristocrats and peasants, thus provides the sort of large-scale social inventory that used to be one of the leading features of the major novel. Though she has dispensed with the old-fashioned elaborate plot, she does contrive an almost continual movement of the narrative among the characters which serves much the same purpose as complicated plotting once did: it brings different classes (in this case nationalities) and types into relation and into the kind of revealing patterns of specific connection and conflict that can take on a large public significance. And tied as the novel is to crucial historical events such as the worldwide depression of the 1930’s and the coming of fascism, the over-all effect is that of a novelist, as confident in her sense of moral order as Dickens or Balzac, creating the private history of an age.
Seen, then, from a respectful distance, Ship of Fools can easily look like the real thing come back again—a spacious, resonant, self-assured novel that the reader can settle down with instead of the highly mannered, oblique, claustral novel of recent years, confined to the academy or the suburb or a vaguely specified limbo, equivocal if not hostile toward normative values. At the same time, the unconventional anecdotal structure eliminates the Victorian furniture of an elaborate and artificial “story” and gives Ship of Fools a lean, functional, modern look that accords with its distinctly contemporary Weltanschauung. In other words, it is a book not only for the coffee table but for the room whose main point of taste is the well-upholstered Danish armchair and the print from Picasso’s Blue Period.
All of which provides a few of the more obvious reasons why Miss Porter was able to win over about 80 per cent of the reviewers and presumably the hundreds of thousands of readers whose currents of taste the reviewers both direct and mirror. The other reasons are more subtle. Virginia Pasley, book editor of Newsday, a Long Island daily, remarked that the novel’s lack of an immediate story interest and its “incisive indictment of humanity” would put off many readers. “It was not written to please. It won’t,” she concluded. Yet Miss Pasley was completely wrong—for many of the reviewers chose to recommend Ship of Fools precisely for the two reasons that she had dismissed it as a possible best seller. Indeed, the reception of the novel seemed a good deal less like another gathering of the philistines than a massive act of aspiration—even of conversion. It was seized upon both as an opportunity to move the level of popular literary appreciation up a full notch, and to declare, once and for all, that life has come to be as unsatisfying and immoral as Miss Porter so “objectively” pictures it to be.
The efforts at literary enlightenment turned mainly upon the discussions of the novel’s action—the absence of a developing narrative, of any appreciable dividend of suspense, cumulative interest, or reversal of expectations that results from the highly episodic structure and the panoramic treatment of the characters. There was a good deal of talk about “the interplay of character” taking precedence over “the strategy of plotting,” of “vibrant tension” rather than mere “suspense,” of the writer’s “vision of chaos” and use of “thematic structure.” All of which indicated that a half century after the innovations of Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Mann, et al., the idea that the happenings in a novel are far less significant or even moving than the underlying design, usually symbolic, to which they point, appears to have filtered down into the popular literary mind. But the result of this theorizing was to shift the ground of discussion almost immediately from the novel’s narrative qualities to its themes, which led most of the reviewers to overlook its crucial weaknesses as a novel.
The main such weakness is that no effective principle of change operates on the action or on the main characters or on the ideas, and hence the book has virtually no power to sustain, complicate, and intensify either our intellectual interests or emotional attachments. Several reviewers have compared Ship of Fools to Mann’s The Magic Mountain but the comparison immediately discloses the differences between a plot of ideas that changes with the development of the central figure and a collection of incidents that are strung along a few themes. In The Magic Mountain, there is an order of development whose nature is uncertain and problematic as the central figure, young Hans Castorp, passes through a series of intellectual and spiritual influences that resumes much of the cultural history of pre-World War I Europe. The slow, subtle transformation of Castorp’s consciousness holds the various episodes together and also provides for a kind of intellectual suspense that merges with the drama of character. In Ship of Fools there is little such drama or suspense, for no character or idea is kept open long enough to provide for them. As Marie Louise Aswell noted in her review, Miss Porter’s narrative technique betrays at almost every point the hand of the unreconstructed short-story writer. Over and over again she isolates a single point of significance in an incident (peoples’ failure to communicate, their self-deception, their emotional barrenness, moral bestiality, intellectual folly, etc.) and one or two salient traits in a character (Denny’s bigotry and prurience, Mrs. Treadwell’s boredom and indifference, Captain Thiele’s childish authoritarianism, Fraulein Spöckenkieker’s stridency, etc.). As a result, the personages on the ship soon become predictable, and when their behavior is not merely repetitious, it is usually abortive and inconsequential, leading to no significant change or complication and merely further illustrating one or another of the themes of human hunger, animality, or evil. The sense of sameness spreads like a yawn and, as one of the characters remarks herself, “this voyage . . . must undoubtedly be described as somewhat on the dull side.”
The second type of missionary work that was done by the reviewers centered around Miss Porter’s characters. In general, two claims were made in behalf of this extraordinary collection of inveterate boors, malcontents, and moral cripples, who are mixed in with the grosser pathological cases. The first was that they were all superb creations (“any one or two of which,” as Louis D. Rubin remarked, “would be the making of a lesser writer’s reputation”); the second was that they are, individually and collectively, ourselves.
The favorite characters of the reviewers appeared to be La Condessa and Dr. Schumann. The former, with her young men and her drugs and her wise heart is little more than a stock theatrical voice crooning or shrieking in the wilderness inhabited by the fallen ladies of literature. Dr. Schumann—for all that he is supposed to be the main figure who experiences the truth of the substantial reality of evil by virtue of his sober, humane intelligence and his corrupting passion for La Condessa—is too enfeebled by a weak heart and a prudish malaise to have much force either as the victim or raisonneur of man’s sinfulness. Also this good gray physician becomes not a little absurd during the course of the banal romance—a kind of higher literary soap opera—that he and La Condessa are given to act out:
. . . oh do you know what it is, coming so late, so strangely, no wonder I couldn’t understand it. It is that innocent romantic love I should have had in my girlhood! . . . Well, here we are. Innocent love is the most painful kind of all, isn’t it?
“I have not loved you innocently,” said Dr. Schumann, “but guiltily and I have done you great wrong, and I have ruined my life. . . .”
“My life was ruined so long ago I have forgotten what it was like before,” said La Condessa. “So you are not to have me on your mind. . . .I shall find a way out of everything. And now, now my love, let’s kiss again really this time in broad daylight and wish each other well, for it is time for us to say good-bye.”
“Death, death,” said Dr. Schumann, as if to some presence standing to one side of them casting a long shadow. “Death,” he said, and feared his heart would burst.
The other two characters that tended to be singled out for special praise by the reviewers were the two American women, Jenny Brown and Mrs. Treadwell. What the reviewers sensed, though tended to sentimentalize, is that both women possess an intermittent autonomy, denied to the other characters, by virtue of a special fund of feeling that Miss Porter has for them. Jenny, an embittered and hollow version of the earlier autobiographical heroine (Miranda in “Old Mortality” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” Laura in “Flowering Judas”), is shown in the grip of a personal despair whose force is sufficient to shake her alive from time to time, so that she becomes something more than the stereotype of the liberated American and reveals something deeper and less predictable than her foolishness. To a lesser extent, this is also true of Mrs. Treadwell, an emotionally fragile divorcee with the rest of her life to kill. Otherwise, the characters lead lives on the ship that are tightly circumscribed by the baleful vision of human folly in which they are suspended, by the particular disfigurements, both personal and cultural, that they are fashioned to reveal. Unlike Dante’s Brunetto Latino, or Chaucer’s Pardoner, or Shakespeare’s Angelo, or Stendahl’s Sansfin (Miss Porter was compared to these and other masters by the reviewers in hailing her understanding of human nature), her figures are caricatures of moral infirmity and as such have only so much to reveal. After fifty pages they are predictable; after a hundred they are less revealing of human nature than they are of Miss Porter’s design and sensibility.
In fact, once the characters begin to be brought into relation or to have their innards exposed at all, the attentive reader can smell the formaldehyde of an overdetermined simulation of real experience. Thus Frau Rittersdorf comes aboard the “Vera.” Her first act is to take over the lower berth, though she has been assigned an upper; her second act is to place in vases “two enormous floral offerings she had sent herself” with cards from two male admirers. After dressing and ogling herself, she opens her diary and writes:
So in a way, let me admit, this adventure—for is not all life an adventure?—has not ended as I hoped, yet nothing is changed for indeed I may yet see the all-guiding Will of my race in it. A German woman should not marry into a dark race. . . . There are the fatal centuries in Spain when all too insidiously Jewish and Moorish blood must certainly have crept in—who knows what else?. . .
Elsewhere on the ship, Herr Rieber is already defending German honor and frolicking with the shrieking Lizzi Spöckenkieker (“How he admired and followed the tall thin girls with long scissor-legs like storks striding under their fluttering skirts, with long narrow feet on the ends of them”); William Denny is leering at two “Chili Queens”; and David Scott, Jenny’s cold-hearted lover, is instancing his hatred of her and his horror of life (“There was no place, no place at all to go”). In one stateroom, Frau Baumgartner is taking out her hostility to her husband (a helpless alcoholic and hypochondriac) on their sickly little boy, whom, despite the intense Mexican heat, she has kept dressed in a heavy leather cowboy costume. (“Mayn’t I just take off my jacket?’ he persisted hopelessly.”) And nearby, the supernaturally pedantic Professor Hutten is lecturing to his wife about their bottlefed bulldog Bébé (“We need not look for any radical change in his organic constitution”), while “in round maternal tones” she croons to the dog: “Don’t think your little Vati and Mutti are deserting you, my precious one.”
And so it goes for the next 460 pages, with only a few time-outs for an act of relative candor, dignity, or decency. All of which is supposed to constitute a true picture of human nature, and so it was generally taken to be.
This is the most remarkable feature of the reviews. One wonders which of those hapless or vicious grotesques Mark Schorer (who said that “It will be a reader myopic to the point of blindness who does not find his name on her passenger list”) found to represent himself, or what qualities Louis Auchincloss (“how easy it would be for anyone to turn into even the most repellent of these incipient Nazis”) would own up to that brings him so close to Herr Rieber with his clownish lust and serious wish to throw the steerage passengers into gas ovens. Moreover, one wonders why so many of the popular reviewers (“Katherine Anne Porter has seen all of us plain”) took as gospel the most sour and morbid indictment of humanity to appear in years.
There is reason to suspect that something more than reviewers’ cant was involved here, for the willingness of the reviewers to see themselves in Miss Porter’s characters bears a remarkable resemblance to the reaction of the American press to the disclosures of the Eichmann trial last year. Bypassing the specific circumstances that had produced and empowered an Eichmann, most of the editorial writers hastened to phrases like “man’s inhumanity to man,” which collapsed all political and moral distinctions, not to say the purpose of the trial itself. And in the mood of moral malaise that the trial seems mainly to have inspired, it apparently became increasingly easy to assert that we are all Adolf Eichmann, which immediately transformed Eichmann from a very special kind of 20th-century political figure into merely one more example of the imperfectibility of man.2
By and large, Ship of Fools was read as another brief in the same abstract trial of mankind, vaguely centering upon the Nazi treatment of Jews. “In 1931 the foulness [of the world] was the rise of pride-injured German nationalism. . .” (Time) . “To the author, anti-Semitism of any description is only one form of humanity’s general failure to perceive the commonness of all humanity.” (Newsweek) . In some cases the reviewers were proceeding on the basis of a statement Miss Porter made in 1940 that the stories collected in Flowering Judas were part of a “much larger plan,” whose ultimate purpose was “to understand the logic of this majestic and terrible failure of the life of man in the Western world.” But they were also reading the novel. That Miss Porter has no use for her Germans is perfectly clear, and in almost every case they are seen to be well along the road to Nazism (the book is set in 1931). But since she has no more use for most of her Mexicans, Swiss, Americans, and Spaniards, the road to Nazism soon becomes indistinguishable from the general highway to hell that runs down the middle of her novel, along which the various characters clown, scheme, or stagger. The only power of active evil is given to the troupe of Spanish dancers; in the main, the Germans merely sit nervously at the Captain’s table and speak their different varieties of Aryan cant while they bolt their food and look for chances to devour each other. There is no sense at all of the force of that monstrous romanticism, of the potential for active evil in the character of German nationalism, with its commitments not only to the purity of order but to the purity of chaos and self-immolation. In his recent novel, The Fox in the Attic, Richard Hughes understands these matters far more deeply than does Miss Porter. Hughes, too, sees the ludicrous pretensions of the early Hitler and his cohorts, but he also grasps not only the mythos but the energy of that “insane idealism” of hatred and love that created Lebensraum and death camps. It is the argument of Ship of Fools, indeed the main theme of the book as Dr. Schumann states it, that most people’s “collusion with evil is only negative, consent by default,” and that it is the “mere mass and weight of negative evil [which] threatened to rule the world.” This last may be merely Schumann’s own proto-fascist proclivities but it is difficult to distinguish his attitude from that of the writer who has been speaking through him. In any event, Miss Porter’s theme of man’s paltry sinfulness once translated, say, into the figures of Captain Thiele and Herr Rieber produces merely a bilious stuffed shirt whose fantasies of violence come from American gangster movies and an impotent buffoon who eventually cavorts around the ship in a baby bonnet. The threat of “the terrible failure of the life of man” that lurks at the Captain’s table is far less that of genocide than of sloth and gastritis.
This insistence upon a “general failure” of humanity creates not only a feeble portent of Hitler’s Germany but in time a brutally indiscriminate one. Among the Germans on board the “Vera,” there is none more wretched and repulsive than the Jew Julius Löwenthal, with his whining, puny hatred of the goyim; with his lack of curiosity, much less passion, for anything in life save kosher cooking and the opportunities to make a killing off the Catholics; with his tendency to spit disgustedly into the wind. A caricature of Jewish vulgarity, Löwenthal is otherwise coldly reduced to an abstract tribal paranoia. Thinking himself snubbed by Captain Thiele, he broods for hours:
He wished for death, or thought he did. He retired into the dark and airless ghetto of his soul and lamented with all the grieving wailing company he found there; for he was never alone in that place. He . . . mourned in one voice with his fated people, wordlessly he bewailed their nameless eternal wrongs and sorrows; then feeling somewhat soothed, the inspired core of his being began to search for its ancient justification and its means of revenge. But it should be slow and secret.
In brief, this successful peddler to the Catholics is the stage Jew of the modern literary tradition whom other Christian writers of sensibility (among them T. S. Eliot) have dragged out of the ghetto to represent the vulgar and menacing dislocations of traditional order:
My house is a decayed house,
And the jew squats on the window sill,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled
Far from exerting any understanding of or sympathy for Löwenthal—which he might have claimed if only because of the far from “nameless wrongs and sorrows” that he and his people will soon have to face in Germany—Miss Porter uses him in a situation whose implications are both historically misleading and morally vicious. At the dramatic center of the novel—both in terms of placement and by being the only conflict in the book that affects any appreciable group of characters—is an incident in which Herr Freitag, Miss Porter’s other well-intentioned but ineffectual German, is removed from the Captain’s table because it has been discovered that his wife is Jewish. He is then seated with the isolated Löwenthal, who immediately begins to persecute him and his absent wife:
She’s the kind of Jewish girl that makes disgrace for all the rest of us. . . I never laid a finger on a Gentile woman in my life, and the thought of touching one makes me sick; why can’t you Goyim leave our girls alone, isn’t your own kind good enough for you?. . . Be ashamed, Herr Freitag—when you wrong Jewish girls, you wrong the whole race. . . .
While Löwenthal baits him, Freitag thinks, “Here it comes again, from the other side. . . . I can’t sit here either.” And indeed the hostility toward him that he has also found in his wife’s circle, along with the contempt he receives from his fellow Germans, has the force of making him repent of his marriage and renew his identification with the mentality and destiny of the Fatherland.
Thus, the historical significance that Ship of Fools is designed to possess—and all of its detail of national and cultural traits as well as its supposed symbolic resonance are nothing if not pretensions to such significance—becomes a matter of implying that the fate of Germany and its Jews reduces to the encounter of two particularly obnoxious breeds of inhumanity, with the decent but weak German liberals caught in the middle, where they become the victims of their own milder impulses toward evil.
Such an implication (and there is little to complicate, much less correct it, in the course of the novel) bespeaks not simply a failure of historical understanding, but what is more inexcusable for a novelist, it indicates a failure of consciousness, a glib refusal to acknowledge any of the imponderables of Löwenthal’s fate:
All he wanted in the world was the right to be himself, to go where he pleased and do what he wanted without any interference from them [the goyim]. That no race or nation in the world, nor in all human history had enjoyed such rights made no difference to Herr Löwenthal: he should worry about things none of his business.
And the trifling attitude that lies behind the treatment of Löwenthal is only one example of Miss Porter’s compulsive tendency to simplify and close her characters and issues, to look down upon life from the perspective of a towering arrogance, contempt, and disgust.
It is just here that the reviewers went most astray in reading and puffing the novel. As some of the cleverer ones saw, Ship of Fools is not a novel of action or character or ideas, but one that is held together and given significance by its point of view, that is to say by the presence and pressure of Miss Porter’s sensibility. However, the personal aura of Miss Porter, that we began by noting, was particularly protective in this respect, for it guarded her against direct criticism of the main weakness of the book—the spirit in which it was written. To judge this spirit was inevitably to judge the “gracious . . . gentlewoman,” “the distinguished humanist” of acquaintance and reputation. The better critics—such as Stanley Edgar Hyman and Stanley Kauffmann—stopped just short of doing so. The others spoke of Miss Porter’s “compassion” and “concern,” “candor” and “objectivity,” “wit” and “humor.” The critic who went to greatest lengths to define and exult over Miss Porter’s sensibility was Mark Schorer:
There is nothing (or almost nothing) harsh in her book. There is much that is comic, much even that is hilarious, and everything throughout is always flashing into brilliance through the illumination of this great ironic style. At the same time, almost everything that is comic is simultaneously pathetic . . . moving to the point of pain, nearly of heartbreak. No, all that is conceivably harsh in this book is its magnificent lack of illusion about human nature and especially the human sexual relationship. Even that is not really harsh because all the sharp perception and unsparing wit is exercised by an imaginative sympathy that is not withheld from even the greatest fool, not even from the Texan oaf, Denny, whom the gracious Mrs. Treadwell, suddenly outraged beyond endurance, beats into insensibility with the sharp heel of her lovely golden slipper.
The remarkable thing about this passage, from what must have been the most influential review of the book, is that it does not contain a single word of critical truth. There is simply nothing funny about Ship of Fools and its pathos is represented by the type of artful corn that was quoted some pages back in connection with La Condessa and Dr. Schumann’s relationship. Seldom does anything “flash into brilliance,” for the “great ironic style” of the author who wrote “Noon Wine” no longer belongs to Miss Porter. Under the cold, smooth plaster of her prose is not a “magnificent lack of illusion about human nature,” but an alternately smug or exasperated or queasy hostility toward most of the behavior she is describing. This takes incessant little forms of showing up and putting down her characters, and almost any passage of description or dialogue brings out some of them. As I said earlier, Jenny Brown is one of the few characters that her author has any feeling for; yet not even she is allowed to escape from Miss Porter’s subtle, habitual snideness:
She hesitated and then spoke the word “soul” very tentatively, for it was one of David’s tabus, along with God, spirit, spiritual, virtue—especially that one!—and love. None of these words flowered particularly in Jenny’s daily speech, though now and then in some stray warmth of feeling she seemed to need one or the other; but David could not endure the sound of any of them. . . . He could translate them into obscene terms and pronounce them with a sexual fervor of enjoyment; and Jenny, who blasphemed as harmlessly as a well-taught parrot, was in turn offended by what she prudishly described as “David’s dirty mind.”. . .
My italics underscore the small jabs, the kind of compulsive cattiness with which Miss Porter’s “sensibility” operates. The most persistent and revealing example of her “sharp perception and unsparing wit” is in her relentless comparisons of almost all her characters to a whole menagerie of animals and birds—the idea being that their behavior is at bottom no different from the chain of greedy, malicious animosity that has been illustrated in the opening pages by the relations between a cat, a monkey, a parrot, and a dog. As for Miss Porter’s “imaginative sympathy,” one can read the frigid description of the incident Schorer notes in which the “gracious” Mrs. Treadwell, having alternately teased and pushed away a young officer on the ship through a whole evening, and having drunk herself into a stupor in her stateroom, squats over the unconscious Denny. With “her lips drawn back and her teeth set, she beat him with such furious pleasure [that] a sharp pain started up in her right wrist. . .”
Mrs. Treadwell’s violence is not directed at Denny so much as at “the human sexual relationship” she fears and hates and which he, like most of the other characters, embodies in a particularly hideous manner. Miss Porter’s attitude in this respect is most apparent in the treatment of the Spanish dancing troupe—particularly the two six-year-old twins—who are the evil characters in the novel, the focus of most of the speculations about original sin. From the moment they appear on the scene, the girls’ “sleazy black skirts too tight around their slender hips . . . their eyes flashing and their hips waving in all directions,” a sense of fascinated revulsion settles into the tone of the narrative and continues throughout the novel as the dominant strain of Miss Porter’s misanthropy. In its most overt form, it fixates upon the incestuous relations of the two six-year-old psychopaths, Ric and Rac; upon the malign sexual power and corruption of the adult dancers as they glide about the decks; upon the wildly lascivious Concha teasing one of the young passengers nearly to the point of murdering his grandfather in order to get some money to sleep with her; upon the sexual relations of the dancers themselves:
Their supple dancers’ legs writhed together for a moment like a nest of snakes. They sniffed, nibbled, bit, licked and sucked each other’s flesh with small moans of pleasure. . . . She saved herself like a miser in the dull plungings and poundings of those men who were her business, and spent herself upon Pepe, who was tricky as a monkey and as coldly long-lasting as a frog.
However, the atmosphere of cold, queasy sexuality, and the accompanying imagery of revulsion, radiates outward from the dancers to condition each of the other sexual relationships. La Condessa croons seductively to Dr. Schumann and he has “a savage impulse to strike her from him, this diabolical possession, this incubus fastened upon him like a bat.” Even when the incredibly stuffy Huttens make love, the reader finds himself back with Pepe and Amparo: the same stressed male violence, the same abased female satisfaction, the same description of their bodies “grappled together like frogs.” Sex on Miss Porter’s “ship of this world” is Denny’s constant goatish leer; it is the chasing of the “pig-snout” Rieber after the “peahen” “Spöckenkieker; it is the “monkey-faced” snickering of the Cuban students and the impassioned face of La Condessa, “her eyes . . . wild and inhuman as a monkey’s”; sex is Jenny’s gesture, “unself-conscious as a cat,” of slapping her inner thigh; it is the Baumgartners’ terrifying their child who lies awake in the next berth; in sum, it is David Scott’s moment of introspection when “slowly there poured through all his veins again that deep qualm of loathing and intolerable sexual fury, a poisonous mingling of sickness and death-like pleasure.”
This is what Miss Porter’s “magnificent lack of illusion” comes to. Her contemptuous and morbid attitude toward human sexuality plays a large part in deflecting her sensibility to its incessant quarrel with human nature and in leading it by inevitable stages to a vision of life that is less vice and folly than a hideously choking slow death. For Miss Porter’s versions of political action, artistic creation, religious belief, teaching, and so forth are no less skewed and embittered than her versions of copulation. Further, this clammy connection between sex and evil appears to rule out any feeling toward her characters other than a nagging exasperated irony, and to remove the possibility of any struggle toward deeper insight. As a result, the consciousness that is operating in the book, for all its range of view, is standing, so to speak, on a dime, and has little contact with the sources of imaginative vitality and moral power that renew a long work of fiction.
One can begin to understand, then, why Ship of Fools—apart from problems of technique and theme—remains so stagnant and repetitive; why there is neither the humor nor the pathos that Schorer raves about; and why there is nothing either “majestic” or “terrible” about Miss Porter’s image of human failure. Far from being a profound account of the “ship of this world on its voyage to eternity,” Ship of Fools is simply what it is: an account of a tedious voyage to Europe three decades ago that has been labored over for twenty years by a writer who, late in life, is venturing, hence revealing, little more than misanthropy and clever technique. “Ship of Fools is a work of mechanical art,” as Elizabeth N. Hoyt of the Cedar-Rapids Gazette put it—cutting through the sentimental and pretentious obfuscation which has surrounded the novel from the start—“but the soul of humanity is lacking.”
1 Atlantic-Little, Brown, 497 pp., $6.50.
2 I am indebted for this point to a study by Midge Decter of American press reaction to the Eichmann trial.