Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Lowerings, Blood, Sharks & Whales

Yes, I am still slowly reading Moby-Dick and waiting for winter to salvage its lackluster performance.

In recent chapters, I was clearly in territory that Cormac McCarthy finds entertaining. Anyone who's read Blood Meridian will recognize a kinship with the gorey imagery from Chapter 61 "Stubb Kills a Whale":
     The red tide now poured from all sides of the monster like brooks down a hill. His tormented body rolled not in brine but in blood, which bubbled and seethed for furlongs behind in their wake. The slanting sun playing upon this crimson pond in the sea, sent back its reflection into every face, so that they all glowed to each other like red men. And all the while, jet after jet of white smoke was agonizingly shot from the spiracle of the whale, and vehement puff after puff from the mouth of the excited headsman [Stubb]....
     And now it is struck; for, starting from his trance into that unspeakable thing called his 'flurry,' the monster horribly wallowed in his blood, over-wrapped himself in impenetrable, mad, boiling spray, so that the imperiled craft, instantly dropping astern, had much ado blindly to struggle out from that phrensied twilight into the clear air of the day.
     And now abating in his flurry, the whale once more rolled out into view; surging from side to side; spasmodically dilating and contracting his spout-hole, with sharp, cracking agonized respirations. At last, gush after gush of clotted red gore, as if it had been the purple lees of red wine, shot into the frighted air; and falling back again, ran dripping down his motionless flanks into the sea. His heart had burst!
     'He's dead, Mr. Stubb,' said Tashtego.
     'Yes; both pipes smoked out!' and withdrawing his own from his mouth, Stubb scattered the dead ashes over the water; and, for a moment, stood thoughtfully eyeing the vast corpse he had made."
This brings to mind the heinous scenes of Apaches murdering and raping the cavalry and the very subtitle of Blood Meridian: The Evening Redness of the West. It's really one of Cormac's more infamous passages. Watch out here it comes:
"A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braid spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one who horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone landing of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.
Oh my god, said the sergeant."
That central phrase, "death hilarious," owes to my mind a debt of inspiration to Melville, who some pages later when, with the dead sperm whale secured to the Pequod, writes, "...sharks do most socially congregate, and most hilariously feast; yet is there no conceivable time or occasion when you will find them in such countless numbers, and in gayer or more jovial spirits, than around a dead sperm whale, moored by night to a whale-ship at sea."

Wherefore all this bloodshed and the celebratory, even orgiastic language to detail it? Is it simply some gratuitous male defect? Some savagery or primitive shadow on the soul? No. I suspect both a stark reminder of the more sinister forces at work in the world and an unbridled love of language, run amok. The illusion of order that we live upon rests on a foundation of others' blood and misery.

The first slaughtered whale (the corpse made by Stubb) hangs alongside the Pequod, meat-hooked in economical pieces for some 20 chapters before its spermacetti oil is collected and the unusable parts are dropped to the briny dark. The second sperm whale they kill appears in Ch. 81 when all three mates give chase to an old and maimed bull:
As strange misgrown masses gather in the knot-holes of the noblest oaks when prostrate, so from the points which the whale's eyes had once occupied, now protruded blind bulbs, horribly pitiable to see. But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.
Just as the whales of Melville's era had to die to provide the goods he outlines (both literally and sarcastically), our hands are no cleaner in attaining the easy life of first world comforts most of us enjoy. Of course we know that. But learning about where the metals needed to make the chips in our cell phones and smart devices originate or the stories of the slave children assembling our MacBooks overseas deserve more than the occasional buried news item or wringing of hands by a guilt-stricken First Worlder. They need to be stated loudly, perhaps even in exaggerated tones, set to music, given a close-up. Specificity and witness....

...I feel like I've lost my thread. Well, while I am not necessarily laughing along to Death Hilarious in Cormac and Melville, I am entertained by the fireworks of the language. I find it rare and powerful and even beautiful. And it's a convincing argument--at least while caught in the boiling waters of the sentences themselves--against Romanticism. I wonder who will write as forcefully about the horrors we continue to render on ourselves and on the rest of the world today.

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