Sunday, May 29, 2016

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

This is an account of the sinking of the Essex, an event that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick. Long ago I read the narrative of Owen Chace (that’s the spelling I remember), one of the few survivours. I recall it fondly, tho the starvation, dehydration, and eventual cannibalism among the survivours doesn’t make for happy thoughts. Philbrick had access to an additional account by a participant, a cabin boy whose account did not come to light till years later. This second voice gives a wider, less defensive view of events.

Philbrick usefully describes the Nantucket whaling industry. I remember how exciting it was to learn about whaling in elementary school. The subject was anything but dry. Nantucket sleighrides, capsized whale boats, peppy shanties, oh my gosh! I always felt kindly towards whales, especially sperm whales in the deep, battling giant squid. These wild exploits amazed me, even as I rooted for the whale.

Criminy, tho, it was an industry. For half a century, these creatures were hunted with growing efficiency. Mostly for the oil that can be extracted from their blubber, to light the human life, with the purer bonanza of spermaceti from sperm whales, for well-oiled watches. Baleen, I believe, went to corsets, and other uses were made. I don’t know if the meat was much used then. Redux would come in the shape of buffaloes. I remember film of modern whalers, with cannons for killing, and some well-tuned factory for the rendering.

And give OSHA a call: rowing out in whaleboats to poke a harpoon into a whale, causing it to wear itself out trying to escape. At which point the mate jabs the lance into the secret portions of life. Cruel is the grip of our economic hosts, that push us to these lengths.

One thin supposition was brought out: that the whale that attacked the Essex may have responded to a noise from the ship. During a hunt, Chace’s whaleboat needed repair. It was brought back to the ship and hammering ensued. Some thought the hammering might have sounded like a male whale to the perp, so the territorial whale attacked. No question whales are smart enough to have reasons for their actions, so I don’t know.

I’m not so keen to read the grisly parts, tho worry not, I’ve read accounts of the Donner party. I would not want to cast a moral shadow because I don’t know my own strength.

I saw ads for a movie version of the book last year. It looked like Hollywood express: vertiginous and suffocating. I’m sure it was one more glistening botch for Ron Howard. Just blitz us shining things of alchemical adrenalin.

When I read William Manchester’s book about the Krupp weapons-making dynasty, I kept thinking of the gouging machines (and people) ripping ore from Alsace-Lorraine, for all those masterful and masterless guns and ordnance and wolfish war.s The invigourated slaughter of the whales brings a similar feeling. The needs that we consider needs, right down to the latest Justin Bieber, dig bigger holes of nothing, this North Atlantic turbine.
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