Telling Stories of being human Reply


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.

Edgar Allan Poe and Mesmeric Possibility 4

Sidney E. Lind, writing in the 1940s, said of the “mesmeric lexica” of nineteenth-century America:  “It is safe to say that the terminology of mesmerism was bandied about in much the same manner as the language of psychoanalysis was to be eighty years later, and with, in all probability, as little real comprehension on the part of the public.”

Lind’s reference to psychoanalysis—signified, at that moment, by Austrian physicist Sigmund Freud—is particularly telling for 21st century audiences, who have witnessed an avalanche of criticism of psychoanalysis, a pseudoscience, according to the naysayers, the results of which are un-testable at best and bogus at worst.  Lind’s aim is not to destabilize the practices of psychoanalysis but to interrogate three short works by Edgar Allan Poe in which mesmerism features prominently:  “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” “Mesmeric Revelation,” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”  “These three stories,” Lind submits, “constitute a series within which the mesmeric experiment becomes more profound, irrespective of plausibility or implausibility, or of whether or not Poe in at least two of the three was hoaxing his readers.”

Lind’s point is well-taken.  In Poe’s day, the subject of mesmerism was “in the air” and therefore “it was logical that Poe, as a journalist sensitive to popular interest, should have exploited it.”  True, these three stories exhibit, often wryly, a profound familiarity with mesmeric techniques and influences.  But more is going on in them than Lind lets on.  Indeed, Lind goes to great lengths to contextualize these stories within scientific (or other) discourses on mesmerism in Poe’s era, but he overemphasizes their “unity,” “theme,” and “intention” (always mimetic) instead of their singular dialogic contribution.  That is to say, Lind treats the stories as “echoes” or “reiterations” of other thinkers rather than as unique theses in their own right.  For Lind, the stories are indebted to other sources because they derive their vocabularies and methods from these sources.  I would suggest that Poe’s stories are in conversation with various dissertations on mesmerism rather than mere signs of cherry-picking or copying.  Although Poe’s modus operandi or preferred genre is fiction, his supposedly plagiarized passages lend substance to the notion that he might actually have been dissertating on mesmerism, animal magnetism, or hypnosis.  The luxury of storytelling is that the storyteller can dismiss unverifiable data as hoaxes or products of imagination; nevertheless, the storyteller can at least hope to hit on something real, novel, or scientific.  Two examples, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, writing well after Poe, conceived of technological advances—most notably space travel—long before such advances were practical.

Lind’s work, at any rate, is impressively researched, laying the foundation for future analyses of Poe and his infatuations with mesmerism.  But why does Lind downplay Poe’s role in developing pioneering work?  All arguments are indebted to previous arguments; indebtedness does not take away from the originality or force of their articulation or genre.

Unlike Lind, Matthew A. Taylor calls attention to the distinctiveness of Poe’s contributions to “mesmeric theory” (for want of a better phrase) and its progeny.  He locates Poe in contradistinction to Herbert Mayo:  “Unlike Mayo, […] Poe radically deviated from the utopian utilitarian, or benign notions of mesmerism at play in most contemporary discourses on the topic, picturing instead the unsettling implications for human ontology consequent upon the idea that persons are less sovereign entities than manipulatable effects of external powers.”  In short, Poe considered mesmerism a bad thing, or at least a dangerous thing that did not lead down a road to human improvement.  “Poe concluded,” Taylor opines, “that an all-encompassing cosmic energy inevitably troubles human-being by suspending the autonomy and interiority of individual humans; the disorientation of normal, corporeal functioning and the literal loss of self-possession attending mesmeric practice illustrated for Poe the fact that people are little more than occasions for the demonstration of an impersonal power.”  If Taylor is right, then Poe’s take on mesmerism is not only unique but also quite sophisticated; it demonstrates a full understanding of mesmeric theory while simultaneously rejecting that theory.  More to the point, if Taylor is right, then Poe’s take on mesmerism stands on its own and demands critical attention.  Unlike Lind, Taylor seems to acknowledge Poe’s special role in shaping mesmeric theory—or, more precisely, mesmeric counter-theory.  In fact, Taylor seems to think Poe’s ideas about mesmerism reflect an entire cosmology about human nature and the imperfectability of humankind.  This is a tall claim.  For present purposes, it shows that Poe might have been worried about more than entertaining readers with fanciful mind-candy.  He might have been positing a worldview that flew in the face of prevailing physics (that “perverse yet consistent calculus that unites everything in existence under a single, universal law that, by definition, eliminates all difference—including, of course, the human difference”).  Poe, the relativistic Renaissance man, might have been demonstrating his facility as both scientist and philosopher.  To further establish Poe’s uniqueness, I might add to Taylor’s observations the theological dimension of “Mesmeric Revelation,” which accounts for evangelical objections to mesmerism without plainly endorsing or rejecting them.

Besides the three stories that Lind interrogates, there are, Martin Willis claims, “many other tales that exemplify [Poe’s] abiding interest in the contestation between the science and the human, as well as his fascination with the borderlands of scientific achievement, both in terms of their advancement to new states of knowledge and their place within the scientific pantheon.”  Poe’s interest in scientific trends was not a passing one.  Willis points out that Poe spent years studying science in general before turning to mesmerism in particular.  Whether Poe “believed” in mesmerism is unclear.  It seems plausible that his stories about mesmerism were meant, in Willis’s words,  to “consider mesmeric debates in the realm of fiction rather than that of science.”  I would argue that Poe collapses any distinction between science and fiction by teasing out various theses—which, for all he knew, might one day be proven—through the medium of imaginary characters.  In doing so, Poe forges a distance between theories and their authors: if the theories turn out to be “true,” future generations will consider Poe a genius; if they turn out to be bogus, future generations will claim Poe was merely hoaxing.  Thus the dual-advantage of employing fiction to hash out scientific hypotheses.  Regardless of whether Poe is ultimately “right” about any of his dissertations, which he dresses up as fiction, he demonstrates an impressive breadth of knowledge that should not be ignored.

Not all scholars have ignored it.  Antoine Faivre takes pains to explain how Poe appropriated scientific knowledge and then inserted it into fictional narratives.  He suggests that many readers have mistaken or misread Poe’s tales as “factual, non-fictional case studies,” which in turn has led to a “flurry of reactions and debates.”  My point is not to argue that Poe treats his stories as factual case-studies but to suggest that he left open the case-study possibility.  In other words, Poe might have wanted readers to misread his tales as factual, or else to have some later scientist come along and verify the “truth” of his hypotheses, notwithstanding whether they were in fact his, or whether they were intended as reasoned argument at all.

Lind allows that Poe might not have been hoaxing readers in writing about mesmerism.  “Mesmerism as a theme for fiction,” he explains, “was, like metempsychosis and the exploration of the realm of the conscience, so well suited to Poe’s principles of literary composition that it was natural for him to work this new field, to attempt to achieve the sensational without deliberately attempting to mislead.”  More than simply avoiding misleading commentary, Poe might have been dissertating with the hopes that, one day, scientists would look on his fiction as a catalyst for new and innovative practices.  While not aspiring to complete verisimilitude, Poe’s stories about mesmerism are highly sophisticated tracts, informed by trendy scientific theories (and their counter-discourses), and very probably marked with the faint expectation that their subjects, though fictional, might somehow contribute to future systems of knowledge.

See the following for further reading:

Faivre, Antoine.  “Borrowings and Misreading:  Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Mesmeric’ Tales and the Strange Case of their Reception.”  Aries, Vol. 7, No. 1 (2007: 21-62).

Lind, Sidney E.  “Poe and Mesmerism.”  PMLA, Vol. 62, No. 4 (1947:  1077-1094).

Torrey, E. Fuller.  Freudian Fraud:  The Malignant Effect of Freud’s Theory on American Thought and Culture. Lucas Publishers, 1999.

Taylor, Matthew A.  “Edgar Allan Poe’s (Meta)physics:  A Pre-History of the Post Human.”  Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 62, No. 2 (2007: 193-221).

Willis, Martin.  Mesmerists, Monsters, and Machines:  Science Fiction and the Cultures of Science in the Nineteenth Century. Kent State University Press, 2006.

Setting the Table Reply

The table is set. The greatest minds of literature are assembled. Robert Penn Warren, Herman Melville, Fydor Doystoyvesky, Edgar Allen Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and…You. That’s my table of course. Perfectly set with trimmings, wine and comfortable chairs. They would talk long into the night. I’d have so many questions. I would refrain. Asking questions would only lead to answers they did not want to give, questions they were forced to engage by an impolite host holding them captive by a warm table, succulent food, and the dribbled questions of groupies forever wanting to find some significance of themselves in the works of the author, and to have the author verify that significance of the individual as if the individual was as timeless as the work itself. Oh to hear Robert Penn Warren say that “You are exactly the sort of Jack Burden I wrote about!” Such need for validation is the common call of a modern man — unable to find his own self in the world. More…