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Home / Books / Book Reviews / Book Review: ‘The Paradoxal Compass: Drake’s Dilemma’ by Horatio Morpurgo
Morpurgo's latest book addresses matters of energy and momentum, Copernican versus Ptolemaic understandings, the bases of human community, and our disturbing, often avaricious and rapacious relations to the physical world.

Book Review: ‘The Paradoxal Compass: Drake’s Dilemma’ by Horatio Morpurgo

“In his new context he appears as a king or as the illustration of a paradox, Rising forever solemnly out of his window sill and forever sinking back into it” [Reference to Richard II]

Often, when we think about what we are going to read, we might pause over the questions of whether it’s just going to be the same old stuff, or whether we’ll be learning something new about the real world in which we really live. One may see Francis Drake’s name in this title of this book and imagine his glorious Golden Hinde traversing unknown seas, and think, “I’ve read about him. What does he matter anymore?”

It all matters enormously, as Horatio Morpurgo explains in his latest book The Paradoxal Compass: Drake’s Dilemma when applauding Galileo’s fight to have the freedom to teach new things. Morpurgo adds that it’s a fight “to teach old things a new way, also” (70), and Morpurgo does just that: teaches old things a new way for today.

Morpurgo is an excellent example of an intellectual historian who does far more than work esoterically in cross-cultural areas. It is not just that his subject matter may be called hybrid, but also that, in addition to his scientific accuracy, his is the thinking of a writer and artist. This innovative combination we consummately need in these questionable, reality-conflicted times.

Horatio Morpurgo is a significant social and cultural figure, an active organizer of campaigns to protect the environment, including a successful movement to bring about a Marine Protected Area in Lyme Bay. In addition to environmental work, his literary essays and commentary on Central and East European affairs appear regularly in consequential sources. His first three studies reveal a wealth of eclectic, useful literary-cultural understanding.

His first book, from 2009, introduces his mingled literary-environmental approach: How Thomas Hardy Expressed His Doubt: Some Reflections on Weymouth’s Olympic Road and the Resulting Destruction of Bincombe Down. His Drake’s Graffiti (2010) explores the West Country’s complex relationship with the sea. In 2011, he published Lady Chatterley’s Defendant & Other Awkward Customers, with significant commentary on Paul Goodman, Ted Hughes, Samuel Butler and Thomas Hardy.

Morpurgo’s approach is praised for its intellectual alternatives to formulaic thinking. For instance, Ronald Blythe celebrates, “The whole collection has a freshness and a surprisingness which are a delight…for its vigour as well as its vision.” The whimsical titles epitomize the Renaissance-like reach of his mind. Writing about sociologist Paul Goodman, he speaks in behalf of that sometimes nearly invisible rarity, a public intellectual, and celebrates Goodman’s apocalyptic, radical understandings of popular culture and the conflicted crises of contemporary technology. Morpurgo writes in one voice with Goodman’s fraught conclusion: “Through its misapplication and ‘hypocritical distortion’ by commercial interest groups, technology had lost touch with science, with the freely inquiring spirit which first gave rise to it.”

The latest book, The Paradoxal Compass (2017), overtly addresses matters of energy and momentum, Copernican versus Ptolemaic understandings, the bases of human community, and our disturbing, often avaricious and rapacious relations to the physical world, as well as our troubled, troubling understandings of ourselves. The book both teaches new things and teaches old things a new way.

An idiosyncratic, thrilling study with a compelling title, it can become for the reader a true adventure – a simultaneous effort to discover and also to change. It takes place both then in the Age of Discovery and now in these disturbing times of global climate change when we are still hovering at the limits of the known and knowable, baffled in our own time and on the verge of constant discovery, just as centuries ago John Davis had found: “To see the New World, as others before him had already found, was at the same time to reach the limites of language” (30).

Quite fascinatingly and even a bit paradoxically, Morpurgo appears for us both as the objective scientist and as a stunned explorer. This book on Francis Drake’s life-threatening dilemma and the effects of the celebrated Paradoxal Compass, a new invention, becomes Morpurgo’s dilemma as well, his own accounting and sorting out of gaps and holes he encounters.

Morpurgo writes, “The travel narratives of the early explorers are riddled with memory holes and evasions: dates that don’t agree, glaring omissions, the merest glimpses of what we should now like to know so much more about. I’m drawn to these muddles that get hushed up and played down and rubbed out” (94). For the inquisitive reader, he immediately opens his far-reaching book with these self-same muddles and mysteries, adventures upon adventure, old questions and new answers, such as: Whatever is this paradoxal compass, and what is the dilemma, his own and Drake’s? All of these questions he weaves into his own foreground: today’s rapidly changing environmental uncertainties.

The book opens with a genuine sense of urgency which prevails throughout. The first pages provide a gripping sense of tactile danger. For instance, Davis and his men “heard the other side of the Atlantic before they saw it in the loud crunching of the ice, this ‘rowling of this yce together” (29). It introduces this remarkable navigator, John Davis, instructed in the use of the paradoxal compass, whose aim was to forge a route through the Straits of Annian and the legendary North West to get to the Far East that would effectively cut off the Spanish.

While living in Devon himself, Morpurgo increasingly recognizes that accounts of the Age of Discovery and specifically those of Francis Drake are incomplete, silenced, and thin: “our response to the Age of Exploration is clearly visible in the way Drake is represented by TV historians.” (3) He becomes certain that about this, as well as about the challenges of times about which “we really don’t know the story, that there are other ways to tell it,” finally there is so much “I do not know…” (22, 6).

Before beginning to explore Drake’s mysteries and dilemmas, he states that we are now “whether we know it or not, the uneasy heirs of that critical moment in human development. Only a new way of seeing that moment can finally make some benign sense of the global awareness it afforded us” (94). He is certain that only scientists “who understand the gravity of this know we have to tell a richer, better story” (175).

The book begins a lot in this first section called beginnings. These re-beginnings help draw readers’ attention to the relentless blend of objectivity, surmises, fears, and dramas of the early explorers, and also to the biographical interpolations and combined attentions of Morpurgo, both to the Age of Discovery and to its outcomes today in the seas and in our lives today. It is one constant weave and thrust, overture and thrill.

Before surging ahead to read, be sure not be miss the superb maps at the beginning of this beautifully rendered volume. Morpurgo’s ambitious study has three narrative sections: Beginnings, Questions Emerge, and Fetching the Future Home. The first two sections powerfully engage conflicts and successes in and before the Age of Discovery. The third focuses more exclusively on their environmental and social consequences.

Beginnings. Rather pertinently, Morpurgo early on problematizes time, concluding, “There were so many different forms of time here” (19). He tangibly introduces the emboldened and passionate cross-currents in the Elizabeth period, as well as today’s often disjointed, contentious responses. Often at sea, the explorers were “troubled with cogitations and perturbations of mind” when they were “confronted with ice, stranded and in fear of freezing to death, or of facing unpredictably huge whales, referred to sometimes as ‘the great stores of Whales'” (28). He gently lets us see that now too: “a new impermanence [was] settling into our lives through everything we thought we knew, reaches us not only around the world but back across the centuries” (29).

That is to say that as this lovely scientific narrative begins, we the readers are inside a palimpsest, their fears ours, their dilemmas ours, as well as the consequences of all the unknowns both in our time and centuries ago. Tantalizing references to the mysterious Francis Drake appear in a variety of contexts: his unacknowledged painting, the gaps in his story, his singular ambitiousness. “But what we don’t know about Drake and his voyage is different from what we do know but have chosen to ignore or play down.” (43)

Morpurgo measuredly presents the novelty of various explorers we might never have heard of who were looking for new methods of navigation and new, safer routes. Morpurgo’s initial contact led him to do two things: 1) to study the Drake that was, along with the Drake as he interpreted he might be, and to integrate the effect of Drake into his life in Devon, and 2) to answer questions about the consequences of that intriguing paradoxal compass which John Dee invented.

The paradoxal compass was not actually a compass. It was what is called a circumpolar chart which is paradoxal because what usually would be drawn as “a straight line on a plane chart appeared as a spiral on this new kind of chart” (61). It was paradoxal in that it “designated a navigational course in which a ship follows a rhumb line, i.e., a course which cuts meridians at a constant angle (other than a right angle).” Much of this innovation grew with the perception of a difference between the magnetic “north” and the polar north.

This Beginnings section illustrates the indelible courage and intrepidness of the explorers and navigators, not just at sea, but in trying to withstand and “integrate the traumatic changes…society was undergoing” (63). The paradoxal compass quickly afforded more freedom to the captains who could now “sail in high latitudes with greater confidence that ever before” (64). And thus, they acquired freedom in the icy norther route safe from Spanish ships.

Questions Emerge: With the relentless, suspenseful specificity of a writer of thrillers, Morpurgo reconstructs the story of Drake’s ship stranded on a reef off the coast of Indonesia, his authority challenged by his chaplain. He also tells the story of the lodestone and connects that to Galileo and to the developing Copernican Revolution. One beauty of this second section is that it weaves together two stories: that of persons struggling and that of physical elements being understood for the first time.

Starting with Robert Norman’s poem “The Loadstone’s Challenge,” Morpurgo explains that after reading the poem (published a year after Drake’s “treasure-laded return”) Galileo said of the loadstone as a mineral, “it seems to me that this stone opens to the human mind a large field of philosophizing…” (75). William Gilbert was a major connecting figure here, as Queen Elizabeth’s physician and one of the leading practitioners of the new experimental science. Having read Norman’s poem and having been read by Galileo, Gilbert asked the all-important question for his times and for ours, “what if the earth itself were a magnetically charged sphere, its vast body animated by a magnetic soul?” (74)

This question led in turn to the notion that the earth itself as a source of independent energy was itself moving, which challenged the very essence of Ptolemaic understanding. As Morpurgo puts it, “Boroughs to William Gilbert and Galileo Galilei and everything that followed from him.” (76) Galileo daringly suggests that possibly “it is the energy of the sun’s heat and light and the life they bring” which are being described as God-like, not the sun itself (80).

In 1600, Gilbert wrote Magnetism, from which Galileo brilliantly inferred that “Magnetism it must be that caused the planets to spin on their axis and magnetism, pervading the universe, shaped their orbits, too “(74). The great Galileo praised Gilbert, the first man to use the word electricity, stressing his courage in recognizing “that numberless things in nature remain unknown to the human intellect” (75). Overall, inimitable and daring Galileo made it plausible to see that everything could change into other perspectives: “The sky opened by the lynx-like thought of Galileo, with his first glass lens he showed that never seen before” (77).

While researching with the churning excitement of the Copernican revolution and its complete rethinking of the known universe, Morpurgo was trying to make peace with the fall of Communism. Fascinatingly, what he found was that the Communists were also interested in matters of energy, specifically in terms of coal. Morpurgo comes to see the positive role conflict plays in facilitating and precipitating change, in making old things new, and he explained this in terms of Galileo: “He taught old things a new way because he was riven by the contradictions of his own age.” (80) This is like Drake and Fletcher and Morpurgo himself. Morpurgo, thinking hard in a winter rental, feeling a bit bemused and unable to write, names the point of this compressed and impressive book you hold in your hands: “Such ‘imaginative’ elements may look ‘uninteresting’ to us, but no account of how modern science came about is complete without them.” (79)

During this long winter, he sees also what happens when we live in an environment with wars without end, witnesses the relentless stone blasting in Portland, and, thus, he recognizes for himself the precious finiteness of the world’s materials. These ruminations lead him to conclude that we, “as the uneasy heirs of that critical moment in human development,” need to understand Drake’s dilemma “so that we can finally make some benign sense of the global awareness it afforded us.” (94)

It took me this far into the book to understand just what Drake’s dilemma was and is. It is the result of an effort to over-control “material goods.” Because of insatiable greed or a search for profit, he became finally trapped and mastered by what he thought he had so securely “had.” Drake faced just such a life-and-death crisis for 20 hours. Morpurgo himself changes in the course of writing this account, becoming more defiant, when he outright condemns the “monstrous forces at work in the present world.” (93)

While the first part of the book, Beginnings, considers philosophical and scientific understandings on a very broad scale – for instance, the matters of matter – the second part, Questions Emerge, deliberately and tangibly explores particularities of personal actions; struggles among people for self-aggrandizement, control, and influence; and, most sustainedly here, what happened to Francis Drake and his men when Drake’s apparently secure, sun-like status threatened to implode, to be “in effect suspended” (121). This section reads like a intense narrative story, because Morpurgo wants to put the story together, knowing how much has been omitted, changed, and forgotten of this event, and also because he knows that we need to understand the consequences of what became Drake’s dilemma for the safety of our future global and personal safety.

In broad strokes, Francis Drake, in overconfident blindness, made a huge navigational error which caused his glorious, overloaded ship to become reefed for a momentous 20 hours. After that, and because of an event involving one Thomas Doughty whom Drake had had beheaded, the quixotic chaplain Francis Fletcher directly challenged Drake on religious and social grounds by using a combination of sinuous appeals, prayers, and direct addresses to the crew. Everything Drake tried to do at this point only accentuated the peril felt by the crew and exacerbated their uncertainties concerning the now clouded authority of their authority, Francis Drake.

Sometimes, the struggle between these two men reminded me of the intense antipathy and uncanny intimacy of Roger Chillingworth and Arthur Dimmesdale in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Morpurgo synthesizes and dramatizes the actions and usurpations during this compressed near-mutiny in January 1580, using important evidence from his research into one of the three incomplete accounts of what might have happened. Morpurgo cites a pointed reference to religion and devils and angels in one reference, and, in then in another, an overt allusion to the simmering mutiny unevenly under way. When Drake took control of the ship again and stopped Francis Fletcher, Morpurgo recognizes the extreme “unsettling” that had been averted. He concludes in general saying, “The Renaissance was an argument and this archive [in Exeter] is a great place to eavesdrop on it” (136).

Fetching the Future Home: This third section dramatizes the extremity of the problems confronting us today. Morpurgo cites people we have encountered earlier trying to understand why there was such savagery and killing in the seas, some pitifully trying to excuse it “because they could not yet know what would follow from their actions.” (140)  And, then, rather paradoxically when compared to the book’s opening which stressed all that we don’t know, Morpurgo writes fairly defiantly, “for we who do now know, what shall we make of the knowledge?” (144)

This last section is a rather objective love poem to where he lives, to Lyme Bay having to face the scourge of the scallop-dredge, and the disruption of the life habits of many species which are moving to new places often with a resultant increase in mortality. He provides a gentle overview of Lyme Bay over time and also a sharp condemnation of “the big business of plunder,” the explorers’ dangerous legacy of find, take and control, their obliviousness to the limits of the natural environment.

The section’s frightening subtitle is “The Burning or Glittering Light of the Sea,” a phrase which rather ominously connotes the savagery of these boundless attempts to control and own (139). The subtitle is Morpurgo’s plea for humankind to conserve, to make something of our knowledge so as to “reinterpret this legacy in the light of our knowledge” (177). He draws a parallel between Drake’s time and ours: “We face a historic rupture…unlike any that has gone before. I will argue here that at our own tipping-point we have much to learn from that turning point four centuries ago” (4).

I am grateful to Horatio Morpurgo for introducing these innovators and their innovations, many of whom I’d not heard of nor understood enough of before, for telling readers the story of what makes that paradoxal compass essential to understanding human scientific history, and for his refreshing earnestness: “I would rather that the old ones put us in mind of something new: that a vision of the ocean as, before all else, an opportunity to enrich ourselves has failed.” (177)

This book with its unforgettable title will indubitably make you question, wonder, look for more information and, finally, want to learn far more than you might have expected about Sir Francis Drake and his outrageous but magical journeys in his Golden Hinde, as well as how to contribute in your various ways to saving this planet from human greed, animosity, and blindness.

©2017 Linda E. Chown

About Linda Chown

Writer, professor and poet. I love writing which is clear and direct and deep. Three books of poems, one book on Doris Lesssing and Cartín Gaite, published papers on Virginia Woolf, Anne Carson, Kirsty Gunn, Lavinia Greenlaw, Edith Wharton, Oliver Sacks, Willa Cather, and many others. Lived in Spain for 17 years.

One comment

  1. Dr Joseph S Maresca

    We take old or existing experiences and cast them in new ways when knowledge engineers poll communities of experts to derive authoritative rule structures. Artificial Intelligence (AI) seeks to develop algorithmic representations to systematize complex decisions.

    The key to marginalizing greed is to develop sustainable communities which benefit many people based upon individual and collective cooperation. Another way to deal with greed is to tax over consumption so that society has the resources to deal with the excesses which plaque even model societies or optimal business constructs.