“How deep is the ocean”

We have read in one sitting the 448 pages of Leviathan, or The Whale (London: Fourth Estate, 2009), written by Philip Hoare, an author whose biography did not suggest he would publish a book like this. But the truth is that Hoare has always had an obsession with whales and a deep reading of Moby Dick which inspired this text, written as a confession, as a particular whale encyclopedia, as an exercise in literary criticism and as an attempt to define himself at once. His desire to understand the whales reminds us the maxim of G. B. Shaw: “Man is as civilized as his understanding of cats.” How much more humane he will become, we think now, when he will also be able to understand the whales. The book won last year’s “Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction”, awarded annually by the BBC.

The compound title, Leviathan, or, The Whale, seems to refer to those two aspects that man has always seen in this animal: a monster which is as terrible as unfamiliar, or a mere object of business. But Hoare’s approach always offers a very balanced perspective, without any sentimental fuss, not even when he illustrates with full cruelty (inevitable at this point) the sad relationship between man and nature, and especially between man and the sea. There is a curious mixture of evaluative equanimity and obsessive infatuation in the discourse of Hoare, whose pursuit of the whale has brought him to live in the old whaling ports, to tour the historical sites and, finally, to actively collaborate with various groups that document and disseminate what is known about these beings and their environment.

Perhaps the chapter that has provided us with the most suggestive information was the fourth that outlines the relationship between whaling and the problem of slavery in the United States. Not coincidentally, in New Bedford’s museum of whaling, side by side with their greatest treasure, a 1:2 scale copy of a hunting boat, a portrait is hanging on the wall, that of Frederick Douglass, who promoted an unprecedented campaign to abolish slavery in this city. He was the first black man in America who publicly opposed slavery.
“In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries whaling and slavery coexisted as two highly lucrative transoceanic industries. And while the whalers were camouflaged as warships to chase pirates (and sometimes themselves housed fugitive slaves), the boats engaged in slave trade which tried to evade the Union blockade during the Civil War tried to pass as whalers. It was no coincidence that in 1850, when Melville began writing Moby Dick, the debate over slavery was nearing its decisive moment. The pressures that would end in tearing a whole nation, also granted to Melville’s book its symbolic force.” (Leviatán, o la ballena, p. 130; our translation back to English from the Spanish edition).
Following this intuition, we can conclude that the great white whale is also a certain type of a political monster. Not in Hobbes’ sense, but in that more widespread and popular sense which developed in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries and recently has been studied in profusion (just type the Spanish word “monstruos”, ‘monsters’ in this search window). This is the monster created by the fear of the irremediably alien, by the terror that we cannot incorporate it or understand it, and even by killing it we can never erase it from our nightmares.

Elena del Río Parra published in 2003 a study that has since become a classics: Una era de monstruos. Representaciones de lo deforme en el Siglo de Oro español (An age of monsters. Representations of the deformed in the Spanish Golden Age, Madrid/Frankfurt: Iberoamericana-Vervuert).  “From the late sixteenth century”, she says, “the monstrous being gradually ceased to be a bad omen, and became an object with open features … For much of the 16th century a literature was established and became unequivocal which saw in the birth or appearance of monstrous beings the sign of some evil thing to come. In the 18th century these manifestations lose their exclusive reading, and if they do not want to disappear, they have to be reinstated into various fields of knowledge. The belief in the deformed being as a bad omen begins to weaken in some places, while in other fields it remains very vivid, partly because there was an interest in feeding it. The monster is therefore an example to understand the process by which new ways of thinking were introduced in Spain, as well as the operating mechanism by which a true fact becomes, by way of adaptation, a commodity and a form of art.” (p. 20). Something similar happened to the beast that was the main figure of Melville, albeit two hundred years after the Hispanic phenomenon.

Nevertheless, the monster as a bad sign or evil omen – synonymous with the medieval “prodigy” – is still alive even in the enlightened eighteenth century, as late as 1727. It is demonstrated by the following creature – not mentioned by Elena del Río Parra –, whose history we read in the Lisbon National Library, many years ago, when its director was João Palma-Ferreira who died soon as a young man. The text accompanying the illustration is written in the form of a letter whose author tells to a friend about a monster, fifteen feet high, observed in the forests of Anatolia in 1726. Besides its features well observable on the picture, it is told to have one single horizontal bone instead of teeth, and to have been asexual. The bird heads emerging from its shoulders are eagles. And when breathing, its chest, on which the figure of a cross is seen, gave light. It was captured and brought before the Sultan in Constantinople. It did not eat and did not speak. A hermit told that it was an obvious sign that the Turks, for their obstinate observance of Islam, would be soon defeated by the Christians. The Turks then hurried to kill the monster and thereupon they denied its existence, not to give encouragement to the enemies. Of course, its crescent-shaped forehead and its chest bearing a shining cross leaves no doubt about its status as a political and religious monster. The eagles looking at each other encircle the Ottomans like the German and Russian empires, finally united against the common enemy.

This story, provided with details that try give it credibility, even in the Age of Enlightenment could pass for a true fact. It is not the monsters that cause fear. It is fear which begets monsters.

Emblema vivente, ou notícia de hum portentoso monstro, que da Província de Anatólia
foy mandado ao Sultão dos Turcos. Com a sua figura, copiada do retrato, que
delle mandou fazer o Biglerbey de Amafia, recebida de Alepo, em huma
carta escrita pelo mesmo autor da que se imprimio o anno passado.

Lisboa Occidental, Na Officina de Pedro Ferreira.
Anno de M.DCC.XXVII.

2 comentarios:

Anónimo dijo...

Thank you for the "Emblema vivente, ou notícia de hum portentoso monstro" comment. There is much to be worked on this fascinating topic. Elena del Río Parra.

Studiolum dijo...

Apreciada Elena del Río Parra: es un tema prácticamente inacabable, en efecto. Hemos disfrutado y aprendido mucho leyendo este libro suyo sobre los monstruos. Y hace poco leímos con el mismo gusto el magnífico Cartografías de la conciencia española en la Edad de Oro. Le mandamos un saludo muy cordial.