Saturday, March 2, 2013

II. This Sex Which Is Not One

The events narrated in Under the Black Ensign take place in 1680, under the reign of Charles II.  The hero of the novel, Tom Bristol, is an American navigator impressed into the Royal Navy and serving as a common sailor aboard HMS Terror.  In the opening chapter, we find Bristol high in the rigging splicing ropes with a marlinespike, "his bare back rippl[ing]," and regarding, on the deck below, the mincing antics of the Lord High Governor of Nevis.  All Bristol can see of the Governor is "a circle of black hat brim and the extremity of his paunch."  

This little vignette is emblematic of larger themes of autobiographic prophecy in the Under the Black Ensign.  It is difficult not to see the svelte young Hubbard of the Carribbean Motion Picture Expedition gazing down at the obese, tyrannical Commodore of the Sea Org, pacing the deck of the Royal Scotman puffing one of his ever-present KOOLs.  Indeed, while this vision may be fanciful it is practically certain that some young Sea Org recruit or member of the Commodore's Messenger Org did in fact view the elder Hubbard in a similar situation, given his habit of punishing disfavored junior crew by exiling them to the crow's nest.  This is not the only vein of prophecy in the text, but a summary of the plot will be necessary to access the others.


The marlinespike was inoffensive enough.  In capable hands it might have laid a man out.  But Tom Bristol had shown few signs of wanting to lay anyone out, and if he had, it is certain that he would not have used a short piece of wood for the purpose.  And yet that marlinespike was to be Tom Bristol's passport to piracy.  
So opens Under the Black Ensign.  As Bristol hangs in the rigging contemplating the Lord High Governor's paunch, he inadvertently drops the inoffensive marlinespike, which crashes to the deck within inches of that august personage.  For this infraction he is sentenced to a hundred lashes, and his insolence in addressing the Governor as "sirrah" earns him another hundred.  Again, it is hard to quell a sense of dramatic irony when one considers the resonance between the sneering brutality of Captain Manville and the stories of Hubbard's own reign of terror in his years as Commodore.  Compare this passage, from the first chapter, with an anecdote from Wright's Going Clear:
"Flogging takes it out of them," said [the Lord High Governor.]  "If we let this insult pass God knows the results upon the rest of this mangy scum."
Captain Manville nodded.  "Ah, yes.  Flogging.  Bristol, stand to the mast and prepare yourself for a hundred lashes." (UBE, p. 6)
Hubbard chose a different punishment for another of the older members of the crew...He and two other Sea Org crew were made to race each other around the rough, splintery decks while pushing peanuts with their noses.  "They all had raw, bleeding noses, leaving a trail of blood behind them," a senior auditor recalled..."It was hard to say which was worse to watch: this old guy with a bleeding nose or his wife and kids sobbing and crying and being forced to watch this.  Hubbard was standing there, calling the shots, yelling 'Faster, faster!'" (Wright, Going Clear)
Unlike the Hubbard's luckless crewman, Bristol is saved by a pirate attack.  The pirates, in "an avalanche of furious color" board the ship with the buccaneer Captain Bryce at their head.  Bryce humiliates the snivelling Governor and the craven Captain Manville.  Gallantly declining to "dirty my rapier" with their blood, he puts them off in the boats.  Bristol's plight arouses his sympathy and when Bryce learns he is a "sea artist," he assigns him to his second officer, now captain of the Terror, the dishevelled, murderous and, (we are reminded ad nauseam,) "pistol-proof" bucaneer Ricardo.

In his new context, "the sailor's dream of Valhalla," Bristol first encounters the axis mundi of the novel, the midshipman Jim - a lad "handsome enough, [with] a low, pleasant voice."  Without elaborating, Hubbard notes that "midshipmen did not have a very wholesome reputation."  The torrid homoeroticism of Bristol's initial encounter with Jim suggests a plausible category of unwholesomness:
The familiarity with which Jim treated the bucaneer captain was easy and natural.  In fact, everything about the lad was that way.  The big blue eyes were frank and steady, and the yellow hair, caught up in back, made the eyes seem all the bluer. (UBE p.23)
Partially at Jim's instigation, tempers quickly flare between Bristol and the pirate, with further intimations about the economy of sexual power in this all-male society.  "You'll take it from Ricardo," says the malodorous brigand, "and like it."  The hero's honor cannot stand this insult, and they fight.  During the tussel, Ricardo strikes Jim across the face:
The jaunty cap fell off, and the yellow hair streamed down on either side of the handsome face.  The mark fo the blow was red as blood on the white cheek...   
"My God," cried Bristol, "she's a girl!"  (UBE p.26)
Bristol dispatches Ricardo and, in the moments before he is taken into custody by the quartermaster, "Jim" reveals herself to be, in fact, Lady Jane - the bride-to-be of the sadistic Lord High Governor of Nevis, captured on route to her nuptuals.
"I knew my fate at the hands of the crew wouldn't be so good...I took the uniform from the locker of a midshipman while the fight was in progress and put it on.  I knew a woman could pass for a boy, if the worst came of it." (UBE p.30)
Hubbard does not expand on what "the worst" that might come of it is, but one can turn to B.R. Burg or Pastor Joe Schimmel for the details.

These two initial sequences set the tone for the rest of the novel.  In the opening sequence, Bristol's insubordinate inclinations are realized by his subconscious; but he is rescued from the consequences of his unacknowledged attempt to brain the Lord High Governor by Captain Bryce, (which Hubbard would call a "covert act") who not only stops his flogging but realizes Bristol's desire to see the Governor degraded in a way which does not morally compromise Bristol.  In the same manner, his burgeoning homoerotic attraction to the unwholesome midshipman is defused by the revelation that this "handsome lad" is in fact a girl.

It seems unlikely in this connection that Kevin J. Anderson, author of the series introduction mentioned in the last post, has read Under the Black Ensign closely.  As we saw, he is eager to place Hubbard in the company of such luminaries as "William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, and Alexandre Dumas," and authors who "lived adventures [their] own characters would have admired," such as "Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Jack London and Ernest Hemingway."  What follows will make it clear that, had Anderson attended more closely to Under the Black Ensign, he would have included Virginia Woolf in the first list and Herculine Barbin in the second. 


Bristol is marooned on a small spit of land and shortly joined by Lady Jane/Midshipman Jim, who has been put off the pirate ship in her own boat, ostensibly bound for Nevis.  "For heaven's sake," he cries upon seeing her, "Jim!" Strikingly, Bristol addresses her as the male midshipman, and continues to treat her as a male and an equal: 
There were several pieces of canvas [in the boat], and he brought them back to the trees.  Spreading them out of the wind, he turned to Lady Jane. "There's your bunk, sailor." (UBE p.37)
This is a significant choice, the deliberate nature of which is further evidenced by the fact that during this episode Hubbard intermittently refers to her in the voice of the narrator as "Jim."  As we will see, Jim/Jane's gender is the crucial indicator of the novel's oscillations between social and sexual experimentation and its periodic retreats to conventional morality.

In short order, the two witness the wreck of a Dutch slaver on a nearby reef.  They board the abandoned vessel with the intent of obtaining provisions, and discover that the slaves are still chained below decks.  They decide, on humanitarian grounds, to release them.  The slaves are initially described in standard terms characteristic of the period:
[Bristol] knew the roaring mob which might leap out at him if he removed the [hatch] covers...With expert fingers, he threw back the boards that covered the opening.  Along with the stench came a low mutter, like that of animals suprised in a den...They were no more than red-shot eyes in the darkness.  A suffering voice came out of the darkness, uttering words in a foreign language.  (UBE p.43)
However, it turns out that, as Bristol puts it, "I guess it'll be all right.  One of them speaks English."  It transpires that the slaves are "Nubians," lead by a tall man named Amara who learned Bristol's language "from English captives of the Moors."  The one who speaks English is described as follows:
Bristol was tall, but this man was taller by almost a foot.  Some of the black's tremendous vitality still remained.  His head was well shaped, his brow high, and his full lips opened to display even, shinign teeth.  Aside from a white saber slash which ran from his ear to the point of his jaw, he might have been considered handsome. (UBE pp. 45-46)
Compared to Sax Rohmer's racist excesses in the saga of Dr. Fu Manchu (which was published over a period corresponding almost exactly to that from Hubbard's birth to his invention of Scientology) this is fairly tame stuff (although another prophetic dimension of the slave episode is the resonance between Hubbard's loving description of Amara's physiognomy and current Church leader David Miscavige's comments regarding Scientology's recent efforts to woo the Nation of Islam.)  The interesting thing about the slaves is not Hubbard's patronizing racism;  Rather, we should take our cue to interpreting this incident from the two described above, and try to see what conflict is being resolved.  The slaves below-decks are an undifferentiated mass of bestial force; above decks, they become an articulated disaggregation.  This recalls vaguely the psychoanalytic tradition with which the young Hubbard was "worked over" by Commander "Snake" Thompson aboard his father's ship: dangerous, subterranean desires are "handled," (to use one of Hubbard's favorite words,) by articulation in English and the light of day.

More importantly, however, the liberation of the Nubians anticipates the logic of psychopathology he later developed aboard the Flagship Apollo.  The slaves here also resemble the "body thetans" to whom many disorders of mental and physical function are attributed - disembodied souls which cling to the individual and retard his spiritual progression.  The process of auditing is intended, among other things, to enact a kind of interpellative exorcism on these confused noetikons.  The auditor, using his e-meter, is supposed to locate them and "handle them" essentially by hailing them.  This allows the body thetans to recognize their individuality and thus to "blow," leaving the embodied thetan free to proceed along the Bridge to Total Freedom (Incidentally, it is worth noting that the same verb is used in Scientology for apostasy.  The term "blow drill" refers to a protocol for returning fugitive apostates to the fold).  The slave episode foreshadows part of a lecture Hubbard delivered onboard Apollo in 1968, in which he recounts the story of a "very malignant body thetan" who is, in fact, a slave:
A guy did something to a slave girl at some time way to hell and gone back on the track and she's been around ever since. When they gave her a little bit of auditing and tried to boot her out, she left, but three days later she came back, and man, she really knocked that guy flat. He was the flattest PC - you ever saw, there is a case history on this. What they did was do the usual ... did the usual actions of three. The auditor however, on a meter and so forth, located and isolated what the thetan was, handled the thing, ran the incident one, incident two necessary to resolve the situation and finally and forever, why, the slave girl blew. 
Bristol and Jim/Jane's engagment with the slaves sits at the crossroads of Hubbard's adolescent exposure to psychoanalysis and his adult elaboration of dianetics and scientology.  It is an infrequently remembered fact that Scientology was, in its early days, a valued constituent of the anti-psychiatry movement.  This reaction to the profession's flagrant abuse of the mentally ill during the first half of the twentieth century, championed by members of the profession, advocacy groups, and celebrity intellectuals like Michel Foucault, was enormously successful in forcing various salutary reforms.  The fact that the Citizen's Commission on Human Rights, now dismissed by Wikipedia as "a Scientology front group," was co-founded by L. Ron Hubbard and eminent SUNY psychoanalyst and social critic Thomas Szasz indicates the degree to which anti-psychiatric views conferred respectability in some progressive intellectual circles.  Hubbard's later work in scientology remained a basically counter-psychiatric practice, retaining to the end the impression of its opposite.  It is in this context that the liberation of the slaves in Under the Black Ensign should be understood as  preliminary foray Hubbard's lifelong work of translating of Snake Thompson's corrupted Freudianism into the exactly reproducible, radically objective body of "Standard Tech" on which all Scientology auditing is based.


As in his mature work, Hubbard is not simply playing chicken with illicit desire.  In a 1952 lecture entitled "The Role of Earth," apparently delivered in London, he reminds his listeners:
Space is wild. There aren't any writers down here and there isn't any audience down here that could take real stuff about space.  It's wild. [...] You  wouldn't  dare  write  real science fiction  -  not  real  science fiction. Nobody's guts could take it, that's all there is to that.
In Under the Black Ensign, Hubbard is unable completely to restrain himself from exploring the wild.  The desert Carribbean island Bristol and Jim share with Amara and the rest of the slaves becomes a laboratory of social experimentation.  Hubbard describes a stateless and radically egalitarian society, which is contrasted explicitly with the stale, racist, Catholic mercantilism of the seventeenth-century Pacific and implicitly with the contemporary world of industrialist capitalism and Jim Crow laws.

Poingantly, however, Hubbard's experimentation in most settings led to remarkably stale and predictable results.  The stories recounted in "The Role of Earth" are boring episodes of tame space opera.  Battlefield Earth, as I have argued elsewhere, is remarkable for its unusual combination of florid prolixity and total lack of imagination.  Hubbard's genius lay in his glib ordering of cliche, and his representation of anarchist Carribean pirate society is representative: he repeats without substantive addition a story about pirate life which can be dated at least to the story of the bucaneer Captain James Mission, recounted in Volume II of A General History of the Pyrates first published in 1724 (of which more later).  Early in the narrative, Mission takes a merchant ship (which, like Bristol's slaver, is a Dutchman).  The incident is recounted as follows:

The Nieuwstadt had some Gold-Dust on Board, to the Value of about 2000
l. Sterling, and a few Slaves to the Number of Seventeen, for she had
but begun to Trade; the Slaves were a strengthening of their Hands, for
the Captain order'd them to be cloathed out of Dutch Mariners Chests,
and told his Men, 'That the Trading for those of our own Species, cou'd
never be agreeable to the Eyes of divine Justice: That no Man had Power
or the Liberty of another; and while those who profess'd a more
enlightened Knowledge of the Deity, sold Men like Beasts; they prov'd
that their Religion was no more than Grimace, and that they differ'd
from the Barbarians in Name only, since their Practice was in nothing
more humane.
Bristol and his liberated crew soon take a Spanish merchantman, using only "native canoes" manufactured by the Nubians, and make for Charlotte Amalie on the island of Sankt Thomas in the Danish West Indies.  They meet offshore two dour and miserly Protestant cargo-brokers, with whom Bristol has the following exchange:
"Have our slaves go over and begin shifting the goods," he said.
Bristol looked surprised. "My slaves?"
"Why...why, yes," the Dane replied, certain that he had somehow made an error, but not quite certain just whaterror it had been. "These men about your deck." 
"You mean my crew," replied Bristol, an undercurrent of anger in his voice.  "These men are free men not slaves.  I don't happen to be of your stamp, gentleman.  When I take lives I use the rapier, not the whipping post and starvation, and yet I am a pirate, while you and your brothers are supposed to be civilized beings."
"You mean," gasped Jersen, "that you consider them as equals?" 
"More than a naval captain considers his men as equals.  And I might remark," said Bristol with a quiet smile, "that I would rather sail with this crew than one of your breed."
As usual, Jim/Jane remains the master signifier as Hubbard elaborates this fantasy of an all-male anarchist society; throughout this episode, she retains (and improves) "her identity as Midshipman Jim Campbell," exaggerating her masculinity with gold braid, giant shoe-buckles, and a brace of ornamented pistols.  She insists, over Bristol's objections, on all consequences of her identity by going ashore to take the pleasures of the harbor with a few burly Africans.  However, Hubbard's experiment cannot stand this turn; onshore, she is recognized by members of the Lord High Governor's crew and forcibly re-interpellated as a member of the chattel economy of early modern marriage.  Bristol goes ashore when she fails to return, and finds that she has been packed off to Nevis for her destined marriage.

This is the chiasmus of the novel, and marks the end of experimentation; from here on out, Jane remains Jane, and the proper order of things is progressively re-instantiated in a protracted precursor to the flagrant cop-out familiar from later works of classical symbology.


While the denoument of Under the Black Ensign is predictably disappointing, it continues the theme of prophecy already identified.  Bristol and his crew storm the bastions at Nevis, and take the Governor captive in the moments before his wedding with Lady Jane.  The latter, turned Deus ex machina, produces a blanket pardon and privateer commission for Bristol, which elevates him to a rank superior to the Governor.  He forces the Governor to write a humiliating letter of resignation to the King, and takes Lady Jane as his wife.  Like Hubbard, Bristol is full of elevated Enligtenment rhetoric about the equality of man and the brutality of entitled monarchism until he becomes a rich autocrat, at which point he is only to eager to seize upon the prerogatives of his position.  This is reflected in Jim/Jane's final transformation back to domestic femininity, which begins with her capture by the Governor's minions but is permanently consolidated when Bristol not only rejoins the political economy he proudly denounced to the Danish cargo-brokers, but becomes its supreme authority in the Carribbean.

This post has briefly described Under the Black Flag as a text prophetic of Hubbard's later life and work, a sort of homonculus in which the outlines of both Hubbard's later maritime adventures and his counter-psychiatric system are present in nuce.  In the next (and hopefully final) installment, I will examine the relationship between Under the Black Flag and a somewhat later work concerned with similar themes.