I don’t remember the first time I heard the phrase “you’re a loose cannon” or “(so and so) is a loose cannon,” but it was probably on television or in a movie. It’s a fun phrase to say, and it denotes a person who is chaotic and unpredictable. Somebody calls the bombastic main character in an action film a “loose cannon.” The audience laughs all giddy. They love the reckless cavalier.
For years I thought a “loose cannon” referred to a cannon loosely screwed into its moorings that, when fired, would swing around. I imagined a cannon firing inaccurately, or one that would keep firing. A cannon that would fire as if with a mind of it’s own. I liked it when characters in stories were compared to a loose cannon or something like it. They were rogues who did things like save the day, or just plain got the ol’ job done. “That detective is a loose cannon!” “Yeah, but he’s the only man for the job.”
It wasn’t until I read Victor Hugo’s epic novel Ninety-Three that I was treated to the full meaning.
At the beginning of the novel, a French military vessel suffers the catastrophe of a cannon coming loose from its moorings altogether. The cannon itself is not secure to anything. The dislocated hunk of steel is set loose, given to the rocking of the vessel on the sea.
“Nothing more terrible can happen to a warship on the open sea and under full sail,” writes Hugo. He describes the scene as a kind of horror in which a machine becomes a monster, attacking on its own whim, without any discernible pattern of movement, colliding and smashing against everything in its way. It is one of the times, according to Hugo, that an inanimate object seems to be taking revenge on everything around it, even the ship itself. It is like some other force is channeling sabotage through it.
“How can one fetter that monstrous shipwrecking machine?”
A loose cannon is no small hazard. Ask any naval officer who has seen an object with such size and weight come loose on a small vessel on the rocking waves. How do you deal with a ten thousand pound brute? As a weapon, such a cannon can possibly render more damage to its own vessel than to the enemy. “The horrible cannon flings itself about, advances, retreats, strikes left, and right, flees, passes[…]crushes men like flies.”
I imagined once that it would be nice to be called a “loose cannon.” It would mean that I was a force to be recognized, that I made my own decisions, that I could not be controlled. To be a loose cannon would be someone strong and respected. After reading Hugo’s passage, I saw that I would not want to be equated with “a projectile that changes its mind, seems to have ideas and then constantly alters its direction.” A loose cannon can’t even control itself. A person like that has no rudder, no self discernment.
It wasn’t the cannon alone that did the damage, but the rocking of the ship itself. A loose cannon on a docked ship can do some damage. But add the force of the ocean and you have chaos. As a person, if you are a loose cannon, when your surroundings are unstable, your instability creates a situation beyond dire.
Not only do I not want to be a loose cannon, but I don’t want to be responsible for one.
To be called a loose cannon is not as rewarding as it may seem. It doesn’t make you a cowboy or a dashing rogue. It doesn’t make you strong. It makes you weak. You are unable to tame yourself.
Secure the cannon to its moorings. Then fire at will. That is the applied lesson I took from just two pages of havoc from a classic.