Think back to the last adventure- or action-type book you read. Wasn’t it cool? Didn’t it make you want to do things, like learn to shoot a crossbow, hack complicated information systems, travel to strange worlds, take on knife-wielding thugs, or transport a secret package that turns out to be a member of a royal family? Though if you were to actually find yourself in those situations, chances are you’d pee an amoeba-shaped spot onto the front of your pants and wish you were anywhere but there. Basically, and for the most part, these types of scenarios and adventures are best left to the movies, books, and TV shows.
Pierre Mac Orlan says the same. Written in 1920, his A Handbook to the Perfect Adventurer is a dry humored and smart look at how fun it can be to be an “active” adventurer, but how, in the end, it’s probably best to be the “passive” adventurer—a manipulative character of sorts who encourages the active adventurer to go on ahead, and then sits in the safety of his home reading about adventures and imagining what they would be like (all the sexy parts of danger inclusive).
Because it’s been far too long since I’ve written a review, I’m going to apologize, and then just wing it. This is a book you can easily read in one night (if you skip the endnotes, and most of the introduction [sorry, Napoleon! Mac Orlan’s background is fascinating and the intro is well-written, but I just wanted to “GET TO THE WHALE!!” already]), and one that should make you chuckle out loud now and then, unless you don’t get dry humor, but maybe instead you’ll pick up on that WWI facet, in which case, man, those was rough times, hope you don’t get flashbacks.
With short chapters and the occasional list, the Handbook is an entertaining blend of reality and fiction with language that is both playful and essayistic. Mac Orlan doesn’t give you a moment of rest from his instructive train of thought, beginning the first lines of the book with:
It must be established as a law that adventure in itself does not exist. Adventure is in the mind of the one who pursues it . . .
Because an adventure is only an adventure once you label it as such. As kids we devour adventure stories, recreate them in our backyards or basements; as adults sadly, the majority of us drift away from the Gulliver’s Travels and 20,000 Leagues level of adventure stories because we are painfully aware of how juvenile it all is. True, we find the detective, the futuristic—but for some reason, the level those types of books are on seem acceptable and even plausible (re the futuristic part). I can’t quite put my finger on it, but Mac Orlan isn’t so much saying that our imaginations die completely as we grow older, but perhaps our willingness to believe in a fiction more real weakens, instead opting for stories that are either more probable (zombies), or things so ridiculous (sexy[?] half-squid, half-jungle cat space goddesses), that we don’t have to do a lot of mental footwork to get into it.
Mac Orlan goes on to stipulate that the only position he as the writer can advocate safely is that of the passive adventurer. The person reading adventure novels, the person sitting snugly at home only imagining what it would be like to sink into quicksand, instead of being like the active adventurer (whose main features are “total lack of imagination and sensitivity”), who brings shame to his family (they would cry tears of joy if he accidentally got lost at a fun-park, never to return), is always causing trouble, and who would be better off far, far away from the rest of us.
The emphasis and preference placed on the “passive” adventurer is great, even though this type of adventurer is initially said to be a parasite that can exist “only on the exploits of the active adventurer.” But there’s much to be said for living vicariously through the adventures—real or fictionalized—of others, particularly if it means not dying in some stupid way at the hands of a half-squid-half-jungle-cat queen. Mac Orlan states the childhood of the passive adventurer must be completely opposite of that which the active adventurer leads, and can be achieved by a number of characteristics, including:
A conscientious study of the humanities (texts to restore in the future).
Discretion in lying.
A cult of sensibility.
A complete absence of what is commonly called “moral sense.”
A respect for traditions and discipline.
A hatred of violent games, of sports in general—at least in practice. When it comes to theory, the passive adventurer must be a well-informed sportsman.
Literary eroticism (in practice: normal relations with women).
Able to write “whore” in twenty languages.
Knows how to play a few sailor songs on the accordion.
And, most importantly,
Has a gullible friend who can be made into an active adventurer.
Basically, passive adventurers are knowledgeable book-nerds who get all kinds of laid while their unnecessarily macho friends are out futilely battling a band of alligators that have evolved to walk, talk, and kidnap rich heiresses (who probably had it coming anyway). Though all this could, of course, be applied to actual, tangible life, Mac Orlan equates the passive adventurer to being “a more or less conscious novelist.” There it is, my friends. The passive adventurer is someone who has essentially retained a pure imagination, someone who is a creator, someone who knows adventure inside and out without having to get his hands dirty, while the active adventurer is all “WOO, PARTY!” and not a lot of thought process.
While I wouldn’t say Mac Orlan would support an entirely Proustian lifestyle, he clearly favors the passive to the active, though he does maintain that the active adventurer has his purpose. It’s a Möbius strip situation: the passive adventurer creates these adventure novels that are then read by future passive adventurers, who then evolve to become the next generation of passive adventurers, who then create . . . And in turn, those who don’t evolve to become passive adventurers and instead pick up their machetes/slingshots/wasp spray on their way to become the next active adventurer—those are the people who serve as subjects for their passive counterparts. Without one, the other can’t exist.
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