Nathaniel Philbrick’s history of the whaling ship the Essex is complex. Its complex in the sense that modern historical narrative is complex — filled-in with more details about the details than the narrative itself. Maybe that in itself should tell us something. Perhaps there is substance beyond the surface of the story that calls us to the whale ship’s story some 190 years later. The whale ship essex is about far more than survival. Its the story about being human in an age where humanness was defined by sharp boundaries. Those boundaries included the color of one’s skin, the identity of one’s religion, and the status one held in community. All of these and much more emerge in Philbrick’s telling of the Essex.
The overall narrative is fairly straight forward. The whaling ship Essex set out from Nantucket Massachusetts with a cast of characters fit for a shakespearean play. There was the youngish 28 year old Captain at his first command who isn’t as sure of himself as his position might demand. At his side was his ambitious first mate who comes off more nautical book-smart than sea-smart; he also seems more fortuitous whether by destiny or sheer force of will, thus making his name — Owen Chase — a name that seems right at home. Also on board was the young cabin boy Nickerson who’s memory plays a vital role in Philbrick’s retelling of the Essex, but who otherwise is rather inconsequential to the ship’s fate. There are the dumbshows that emerge from time to time, whether they are the Captain’s cousin or the three shipwrecked sailors that remain on a deserted island. And there is of course, the whale that delivers fatal blows to the whale ship, setting her crew loose on the high seas in three small whale boats and few supplies. If you watched the trailer to the movie based on Philbrick’s book, one might come away with the impression that the whale is the main character of the story. While the whale is certainly the antagonist that sets the Essex’s crew adrift in smaller whale boats to peril the open waters, Philbrick’s story is at core a human story. Its the story of a crew that suffers being separated, finding land that lacked significant water and food, and cannibalism — an eventuality of survival where so many shipwrecked persons tend to turn.
Much has been made of the connections between the Whaleship Essex and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Indeed, much has been written of late by numerous writers, including the Smithsonian Magazine, this review in the Telegraph, and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association’s discussion of whether Moby Dick was a real whale. To this end, Philbrick’s history is like all the others — connecting a writing that is so American to its context and creating a greater appreciation of Melville’s layers of complexity in Ahab’s pursuit. As Philbrick suggests, perhaps the Ambitious Owen Chase’s single-minded pursuit was to bring the whale that did in the essex to justice after obtaining his own command.
But as I said before — Philbrick’s work is not about a whale, but rather about the Humans after the Whale. What may be more interesting is the way men live after coming to the brink of living as non-men. The tale is certainly not unique. Edgar Allan Poe placed this question at core of his only novel The Narrative of Authur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, describing the anguish which four shipwrecked sailors consider the possibility of cannibalism. Yann Martel described the story telling capacity of humans to explain cannibalism. And court cases that have dealt with the legalities of the act have considered how legal structures deal with those accused. It is in this tradition, more than any other, that Philbrick’s work should be considered. Indeed, there are other books and works on whaling in the nineteenth century. But to explain how humans return from being non-human, Philbrick endeavors to live where very few have endeavored to exist.
In Poe’s The Narrative of Author Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Poe’s cannibalism story is quite small. After the crew of his unlucky vessel are shipwrecked and survivors are cast in boats, the Pym and his ship mates running low on food and water begin to wonder whether they should look to each other. The narrator’s initial instinct is to reject the possibility.
“I had for some time past, dwelt upon the prospect of our being reduced to this last horrible extremity, and had secretly made up my mind to suffer death in any shape, or under any circumstances rather than resort to such a course. Nor was this resolution weakened by the present intensity of hunger under which I belabored.”
The narrator makes plain that his plan was to avoid resorting to this type level of survival no matter the pain. Yet, its the urging of his comrades that brings him into the fold of those that would cast lots for who survived and eat the unlucky sailor. The sailor wants to make plain — its the act of the community that causes this action, not the act of the individual. Thus, at first forced to participate, and then convinced to acquiesce to this type of plan. Yet, when time comes to satisfy the hunger and thirst through the fallen man, our narrator says little.
He made no resistance whatever, and was stabbed in the back by Peters, when he fell instantly dead. I must not dwell upon the fearful repast which immediately ensued. Such things may be imagined, but words have no power to impress the mind with the exquisite horror of their reality. Let it suffice to say that, having in some measure appeased the raging thirst which consumed us by the blood of the victim, and having by common consent taken off the hands, feet and head, throwing them together with the entrails, into the sea, we devoured the rest of the body piecemeal, during the four ever memorable days of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth,and twentieth of the month.
Perhaps this is not so unusual. I have said in other places that the most human thing we do is tell stories to one another. Our stories and culture elevate humans above other creatures of the earth because through hem we create a collective memory — a memory that is moral, moving and rational. Its not surprising that Poe’s narrative would spend more time discussing the decision of whether and how to go about this act, where rationality and morals remain in one’s grasp. But after the decision is made, there is little to say, save the few strands of redemption that one might cling to, such as removing the markers of humanness from the victim’s body. The sailors of the Essex when they engaged in cannibalistic acts also detached the heads, hands and feet of their comrades so as to separate the humanness that once was, from the sustenance that remains. But to talk about it — to tell stories about what happened — that most human of activities — perhaps reveals the inhuman act that took place. Perhaps some things can’t be retold.
Captain Pollard of the Essex seems to have the opposite approach. According to Philbrick, Pollard tells what happened in detail, as if reaching beyond the grave to recapture some aspect of humanness — from either himself or his fallen sailors. These questions are not unique. Poe wrestled with these questions in the context of a shipping culture and suggests like in his other works that morals and choices do not require delving into a moral oblivion — they are far more simple. You are human or you are not, and when you’re not, then why should we expect you to act like a human — like telling stories.
The Narrative of Author Gordon Pym of Nantucket like the Essex conjures other real life events. In a manner that only Poe is able to achieve, there is mysticism, mystery and a strange convolution of time, since the events that are most related to Poe’s narrative take place nearly 60 years after the novel was published. (I’m not joking). Its not just the tale of cannibalism (apparently a not so uncommon occurrence for shipwrecked persons on the high seas) or the means in which it occurs (casting lots was also not so uncommon) but rather the name Richard Parker who in both Poe’s novel and in the case R. v. Dudley and Stephens, is the loser of the lots and confined to death and a cannibalistic faith.
Many rationales are given in the Dudley and Stephens case, including that the act was inconsequential (the boy would have died soon anyway); necessity (that not doing so would have doomed the others); futility (that there was no prospect of hope or survival anyway, so, in other words, why not). But non of these questions answer the question that Poe and Martel are seemingly trying to understand — if so, then what can we say about ourselves. For Poe, the answer seems to be nothing. For the courts, the answer is in its utility or lack there of.
There is another voice. Yann Martel asks the question in the context of a more complicated culture, where humanness can be described through different stories with different strands. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, another story about a shipwreck where the main protagonist is confined to a cannibalistic route for survival, forces us to consider the role of humanness and story telling in a far more straight forward manner. But unlike the Essex, or Poe’s Narrative of Author Gordon Pym, Martel talks at length about being eaten — the fear, the observation, and the ultimate act. Except that in Martel’s novel, the cannibalism is disguised in allegory and allusion, where those that cannibalize and those that are cannibalized are reimagined as animals. When pressed to explain how the narrative with the animals may be true, the protagonist tells a different story with his family and some crew in boats and one by one being subjected to cannibalism. Then the boy asks his interrogators:
“Which is the better story, the story with the animals or the story without?”
Like Captain Pollard of the Essex, Martel’s protagonist recognizes that to be human is to explain. But even in explanation, unlike Pollard, Martel’s protagonist struggles to bring the narrative actually alive. But perhaps what Martel’s protagonist suggests is that there is more than one way to tell the story of being human. Certainly the protagonist’s background as someone that had dabbled in the religious beliefs of Christianity, Hindu, and Islam, affirming his belief in all three suggests his willingness to find humanness is multiple stories.
Humans ability or inability to tell tales of inhuman things reaffirms the ways in which we do continue to reflect a moral understanding of humanness in our culture. Perhaps its not the stories we tell that shape the parameters of human culture, but rather the stories we don’t tell.