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Monday, February 22, 2016

Herman Melville & Ron Howard on the Realities of the Seafaring Life

In Herman Melville's first novel Typee, his protagonist Tommo sees the last remaining chicken on board as significant. All the fruits, vegetables, eggs, and meat are gone. All that remains is a single, solitary chicken. So when the captain orders the cook to prepare chicken for his next meal, Tommo knows that the ship will finally head to the nearest port, where they can gain fresh provisions.

After all, life can grow pretty bland, when all you have to eat are rock-hard ship's biscuits.

That's not the only hardship that Melville's protagonist Tommo faced. In the sequel Omoo, when Tommo ships out from Nuku Hiva aboard another vessel, he finds sleeping belowdecks rather challenging. No matter how hard the crews attempt to scrub the interior clean, every night the rats crawl from their hiding places, and scurry over the sleeping sailors. As if this isn't enough, at some point each night, the air fills with cockroaches. 

These insects swarm through the interior of the vessel, making the night just one more trial to be endured, instead of a refuge for respite and rejuvenation. Tommo doesn't know how long the sailors have shared their living space with such pests. All he knows is that people are getting sick and dying.

While I watched director Ron Howard's movie "In the Heart of the Sea," one thing that surprised me was the aftermath of the whale attack on the Essex. I expected the whale to harass and damage the ship, and figured the sailors would endure a harrowing time until another ship came to their aid. Instead, amid the rich whale-hunting waters of the Pacific Ocean, a great white whale destroys the small harpooners' boats, and then rams into the Essex with enough rip a great gash into its side. As water rushes into the ship, the whale continues to pound the ship. Masts break, the ovens crack open, and the fires ignite the whale oil stored in wooden barrels. Perhaps the Essex was as old, and as infested as Tommo's ship in Omoo. But whether the Essex was slowly rotting away, as in Melville's novel, or whether the wooden vessel met or exceeded factory specifications, all the determination and ingenuity of her crew can not extinguish the fires, or prevent the ship from sinking beneath the waves.

Another thing that surprised me in Ron Howard's movie was how the surviving crew slowly starves to death. Here they are, surrounded by all the fish in the sea, and they can't feed themselves. Today vacations pay good money to have sailors take them out sport-fishing. They capture big fish and even sharks, which they then cook up for their next meal. You would think nineteenth century sailors would be even more adept at fishing. Yet Melville never shows the sailors fishing in either Typee or Omoo. All the men care about are the stored beef and other meat they've brought with them, even if it looks and tastes rather yucky (a scientific term), despite their best efforts to preserve it. Oh yes, and they also care about all the alcohol they've stored aboard. This is supposedly under lock and key, but a few enterprising individuals prove adept at accessing, sharing with their friends, and lending everyone that little extra buzz to help them get through the day. In any case, in Ron Howard's movie, the crew of the Essex sail day after day, using the stars as their guide, hoping a ship will find them, or they will find an island where they can gain food to fill their empty stomachs.

While it's not mentioned in "In the Heart of the Sea," the sailors could have tried to reach Nuku Hiva, or another of the Marquesas Islands, where Melville (and his character Tommo) spend time living among the natives. But first mate Owen Chase had heard stories about cannibals who would devour any visitors to their shores. So he and Captain Pollard opt for the longer voyage to South America. As the sailors die of starvation, the survivors consume the deceased to preserve their strength. Later, when landfall proved beyond reach, they draw lots, and eat those who draw the short straw. Thus, in their efforts to avoid falling prey to cannibals, they become cannibals themselves, and fall prey to each other.

In Typee, Melville's character Tommo faces a similar conundrum. He can either starve on the barren mountaintop of Nuku Hiva, or he can descend into the more remote sections of the island. He has heard stories of the cannibalism practiced by the tribes that inhabit these areas. Yet he risks that fate, and discovers that such stories were overblown. In fact, the natives treat him as an honored guest. So greatly do they regard him that they do not wish him to leave. Rather than viewing him as their next meal, they invite him to become a valued member of their society.

But then, life often overturns our expectations. Sometimes, it is better to brave the dangers we fear most. Otherwise, we risk becoming those things we fear most.

Dragon Dave

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