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Oceans of Emotion: the Narcissus Syndrome

ISSUE:  Spring 1982

When in ancient times men heeded John Masefield’s call to set out to sea again, the business they did on great waters was serious stuff, in the words of the Psalmist to “see the works of the Lord: and his wonders in the deep.” These last included Leviathan, the symbol of might beyond man’s power to hook or harness. But when Jacques Cousteau sets out, again and again, it is to convert God’s wonders to a kind of underwater Disneyland, in which real-life Dumbos are provided by whales; Leviathan it turns out is a friendly creature who likes to have his belly scratched and makes sounds which when recorded resemble a chorus of giggling castrati. From Homer’s winedark seas to Shakespeare’s multitudinous seas incarnadine, the ocean in literature has provided man a bloody arena for battles, man against man and man against sea beast. If nature for Tennyson is “red in tooth and claw,” in Melville’s ocean it is red in fin, flippers, and flukes, not only because of the wildlife below the surface but because of the even wilder life below the decks of the Pequod, “Save the Whales,” advertise the bumper stickers, admirable sentiments surely, but a plea which tells us that something has definitely happened since Melville wrote Moby-Dick. We can call it the domestication of the seas, and with familiarity has come trivialization: Keats’s enchanged “faery seas forlorn” have become a styro-foam surf beating against an unredeemable plastic soda pop shore.

This is not to say that the ocean as a subject for romance is dead: a recent sea story of note was Peter Benchley’s Jaws, a successful experiment in recycling flotsam in which the Pequod was transformed into a tuna boat crewed by midgets. It has not yet been pointed out, I think, that a novel like Jaws became possible when Gregory Peck was cast as Ahab, who was thereby transformed from a Shakespearean hero-villain to a grey flannelmouth frustrated in his attempt to land the Whale Account. Ever since John Barrymore played Ahab in the first movie version of the story, which ended with the death of the Whale and the marriage of the Captain, Hollywood has consistently diminished the epic scope and tragic grandeur of Melville’s story. Jack Warner habitually referred to Moby-Dick as “that fucking whale,” which is hardly the Leviathan of the Old Testament. Then there was The Poseidon Adventure, in which Shelley Winters played Moby Yenta, a sea story with an entirely containerized plot. Most recently, there appeared Raise the Titanic, an epic of floatation, even as the Gimble heir made a bargain basement out of the Andrea Doria. Even now the recovered safe sits submerged in a shark tank as the television film which will record its grand opening is being produced, a barnacled memorial to P. R., Hype, and Accounts Receivable.

Pop culture is cannibalistic and feeds on itself, which is not to be confused with self-destruction, since it breeds proliferation, much as pollution nourishes algae. The lesson of this ephemeral metamorphosis is a simple one: we get both the seas and the sea stories we deserve, and we may for modernday purposes revise the lesson of Narcissus as presented by Melville, for our corporate image cast upon the water is no longer an ungraspable phantom but an untouchable pailful of garbage. Yet the essential point of the lesson remains the same: from Melville’s epic arena to Peter Benchley’s tank of plastic sharks, the ocean evoked by our literature is a reflection of man’s condition. This is the Narcissus Syndrome, and what follows is a brief outline of its cultural and chronological implications, or “20,000 Parameters Under the Sea,” because the midpoint where we fix the needle of our circumambient compass is occupied by Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo.

Halfway between Captain Ahab and Captain Cousteau, Nemo, like Ahab, is a romantic creation, while his ship, like Cousteau’s, is an assemblage of technological marvels. Nemo is both a misanthropic sea-wanderer and an early version of mad scientist, a child of Byron’s Childe Harold and the son of Mrs. Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein. As an undersea boat, the Nautilus is in a strictly literary sense a submarine, being a covert expression of the Enlightenment set in a Romantic ocean, a symbol of technological genius that will surface only to submerge again as a dreadful reality during the First World War, that terrible fruit of Enlightenment science which killed (among other things) the last vestiges of Romantic idealism. Like Melville’s Moby-Dick, Verne’s novel has a structure designed to accommodate an uneasy duality: the kinetic line of Ahab’s quest is balanced by the static cetology chapters, and the exciting narrative of Nemo’s mysterious voyage is weighed down by a textbook account of the sea life encountered along the way, a vast catalogue of marine wonders recorded by Professor Aronnax. Ahab goes after whales with harpoon and line, it might be said, while Aronnax prefers a look and Linnaeus, but the balance between romantic narrative and Enlightenment amplification is very much the same in both novels.


I will return to a discussion of Captain Nemo and the meaning of Verne’s creation, but first we must go back to the grand original of both Ahab and Nemo, Lord Byron. The ocean figures largely in much heroic literature, starting out with the Odyssey, but it was Byron who added the definitively modern dimension of angst. For Homer or Defoe the ocean was simply a large and dangerous place to get across, but for Byron it had depths beyond the merely spectacularly sublime: “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean—roll!” wrote Byron in his famous apostrophe in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which as an exercise in silliness is matched only by King Lear’s command to the stormy heavens. Roll on, indeed! What else is the ocean to do? But it is this empathic command that provides the key to Byron’s use of the ocean, which—in Childe Harold, The Corsair, even in Don Juan— becomes a reflection of his own psychic and poetic restlessness. In commanding the rolling ocean to roll, Byron attests to his own ceaseless wandering, and in stressing the ocean’s indifference to man’s fate—”He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan, / Without a grave, unknell’d, uncoffin’d, and unknown”—Byron is emphasizing his own complex alienation, identified so often with death.

“Thou glorious mirror,” Byron calls the sea, “where the Almighty’s form / Glasses itself in tempests,” but the Almighty he seems most often to see reflected in the ocean is the almighty George Gordon. “Dark-heaving, —boundless, endless, and sublime— / The image of Eternity,” Byron intones piously in one place, but then soon enough he gets on more familiar terms with salt water: “I have loved thee, Ocean! and my joy / Of youthful sports was on thy breast to be / Borne, like thy bubbles, onward: from a boy / I wanton’d with thy breakers.” Though Byron was nourished on Calvinism, this is a far cry from Robinson Crusoe’s struggling up out of the ocean’s dark embrace and looks forward to Walt Whitman’s multitudinous seas androgyne. It is, I think, no coincidence that Byron’s voyaging heroes are often borne by ocean waves into the arms of some accommodating lady—the saline solution—for Byron’s description of youthful sport expresses a degree of sensual contact reminiscent of Leander swimming across the Hellespont to his rendezvous with Hero. This feat Byron was himself to emulate, a wedding of his own athleticism with classical heroics. The ocean, it may be said, was never quite the same after Byron embraced it, a union that gave us Ahab and Nemo, Joseph Conrad and Captain Cousteau.

In Childe Harold Byron projected himself as a homeless, alienated voyager, who bids adieu as his native shore fades forever behind him for canto after canto of waters blue. In Don Juan, he replayed the same role but in a much more picaresque and comic vein. The heroes of both poems, however, are versions of a tourist for whom the ocean serves chiefly as a vehicle of movement, carrying them from place to place, adventure to adventure, scene to scene. But in The Corsair, not one of Byron’s greatest yet in terms of influence a long-lived work, he added the vital outlaw element, already made popular by Sir Walter Scott, creating a chivalrous pirate hero who is as adept in the bedroom as on the high seas. From that wanton dalliance Errol Flynn, like Venus, was born; the Corsair is the first in a long line of adventurers for whom wandering over the waves is a contact sport. In time, the gull’s way and the whale’s way will become Hemingway. Where in Childe Harold the ocean serves as a mirror of the poet’s moody soul, in The Corsair the hero is a projection of the ocean, an incarnation, a god-like equivalent to Triton, Neptune, Poseidon, who at the end of the poem simply disappears.

He will, as we have already seen, resurface, resurrected in a number of subsequent guises, and that the name of the Corsair is “Conrad” is one of those connections that illuminate. For if the romantic ocean begins to roll with Lord Byron’s Conrad, it ceases to move with Conrad’s Lord Jim, one of the first of those limping antiheroes who become legion in 20th-century literature. Perhaps the most memorable sailor in modern dress is Yank, in O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, a creature not of sails and wind but steam and iron, an inarticulate slob whose rage over rejection by a society dame inspires him to help a gorilla escape from a zoo: having killed Yank, the gorilla goes on (after play’s end) to become King Kong and ends up a bewildered boy in an ape suit in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, thus proving the longevity of certain myths set in motion by Romantic literature.

After Byron comes James Fenimore Cooper, who stuck close to the shore line in his first maritime novel, The Pilot, but who in Long Tom Coffin created a sea-going counterpart to Leatherstocking, an uncommon sailor and harpooner who is given an apotheotic death, providing a link between Byron’s Conrad and Melville’s even more mystical Bulkington. In Red Rover, Cooper at last put out to sea, creating a moody and charismatic pirate, his outlaw captain carved in Byron’s image like a figurehead—out of wood. Still, the ocean over which the Red Rover roves is Cooper’s, not Byron’s. It is no symbolic register of wanderlust but is, in terms of seascape, a watery equivalent of Cooper’s forest and prairie—a vast sports arena. If Cooper was the celebrant, in the phrase of a contemporary poet, “of wood and wave,” then in his novels the landscape is set forth in distinctly athletic terms, quite distinct from Byron’s vast water bed. Cooper’s heroes evince a version of muscular and ascetic Christianity, and though the Red Rover has a female companion, she (in an obvious allusion to Lady Caroline Lamb) is disguised throughout as his cabin boy, which may be a subtle allusion also to Byron’s pederastic proclivities but which also insures that the bond, at least metaphorical, is male dominated. So also Melville, his Ahab, Ahab’s Pip.

There is in Cooper’s The Pilot a description of John Paul Jones guiding a vessel through rocks and shoals that is at once a tour de force of seamanship and showmanship, demonstrating Cooper’s own as well as his hero’s skill at the helm. The heroes of Cooper’s nautical novels are always officers, even though they may be disguised as plain sailors during much of the action, for the maritime setting provided the class structure needed by those American writers who sought to emulate the romances of Scott. Even Melville yielded to this elitist impulse. But despite Cooper’s aristocratic bias, his courageous captains testify to the democratic impulse in their characteristic athleticism and display of shiphandling know-how. Much as Melville’s heroic tar, Jack Chase, in White-Jacket, is a “natural” aristocrat who can, when given the opportunity, assume the responsibility of command, so Cooper’s officers know the workings of every line and rope on their ships. The connection between Cooper and Ernest Hemingway in this regard is like the one between Hemingway’s old man and his marlin, and between the two stands Richard Henry Dana, Jr., who, though a graduate of Harvard and thereby an American aristocrat, chose to ship as a common sailor before the mast and who took frequent opportunity when recording his account of the voyage to demonstrate his almost incomprehensible command of salty jargon.

Dana’s sea is not much different from Cooper’s, despite the boasted view from the forecastle. It is a place of danger and a field for the display of athletic prowess. Cooper’s officer heroes may pace the stormy quarterdeck while Dana’s sailor folds frozen sails aloft, but the end effect is the same: Yo Ho Ho. By contrast, though Herman Melville starts out, in Redburn and White-Jacket, as an imitator of Dana, the resemblances are more obvious than true. Despite his own lengthy experience as a common sailor, Melville’s autobiographical projections are closer to Cooper’s heroes in being members of a seagoing elite, and his heroic Jack Chase is not only an Englishman but, like Cooper’s Long Tom Coffin, is a superior kind of sailor, a transcendent Tar. As captain of the foretop, he rules over an exclusive club of super sailors, to which White-Jack is elected, while Melville himself was relegated to the afterguard, an ignominious station assigned ex-whalers and other green hands. Ironically, it was Rudyard Kipling who revived Dana’s democratic theme in Captains Courageous, demonstrating how a spoiled rich kid could be improved by spending a season being salted along with the cod caught off the Grand Banks. But even Kipling’s boy hero demonstrates superiority with the sextant, and in the end he assumes his rightful place as a future captain of industry—not fishing boats. And Dana’s is likewise a cruise that ends with his return to Harvard and law school: as his fellow sailors often point out, Dana can always go home.


The most important characteristic distinguishing Melville’s sea romances from the works of Cooper and Dana is his use of the ocean—which is seldom. Not only does he give us very little detail concerning the seagoing life, but he provides few glimpses of the sea itself. Melville is first and foremost a social and a philosophical writer, whose gaze is often inward, whether toward the microcosmic shipboard organization or into the complex psychological workings of his monomaniacal whaling captain. The athleticism of Cooper and Dana is also largely missing: perhaps the most characteristic pose of the Melville sailor is one of repose, a kind of Whitmanesque loafing in the maintop, enjoying the company and conversation of muscular but otherwise supine sailors. Melville’s narrators, we have to assume, know the ropes, but they refrain from calling them by name. The one memorable image of Ishmael actually at work is in the matweaving episode, so central to the metaphysical meaning of the book, where the labor involved is described as “careless and unthinking,” completely in harmony with the “dreaminess” reigning “all over the ship and all over the sea, only broken by the intermitting dull sound of the [heavy oaken] sword.”

This chapter is followed by “The First Lowering,” in which Ishmael plays the anonymous part of an oarsman, and which ends not with a Cooperish victory, but with a swamped boat and the danger of drowning. When the ocean does figure in Melville’s romances, it is most often as a dreadful place, whether as the depths into which WhiteJacket plunges and almost drowns or as the saltwater jungle where dwell his tigerish sharks and elephantine whales. Like the Gothic ocean of Edgar Allan Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym, it is for the most part a cerebral arena, not an athletic one, serving much as the White Whale serves, as a terra incognita on which Melville scrawls his cosmic doubts and terrors. Where for Byron the ocean was a projection of transcendent self, of divine being, for Melville it is a 19th-century equivalent of nothingness, an immense, empty place. When sailors go swimming, Melville notes grimly, they stick very close to the ship: as an athletic arena, then, Melville’s ocean is restricted to the dimensions of a bottomless bathtub.

It is after all in the waters of a mere fountain that Narcissus saw his fatal image, the “lesson” that instructs us how to view Captain Ahab’s pursuit, whose quest for the White Whale approximates Byron’s egocentric projection of self: the Whale is a creation of his madness, and by that creation he is destroyed. Typically, Moby-Dick ends with a rolling ocean, “the great shroud of the sea roll[ing] on as it rolled five thousand years ago,” not, as in Byron’s apostrophe, at man’s command but, as with Byron’s drowning sailor, indifferent to his desires. Captain Ahab, in mounting his hunt, uses a primitive technology that gives him a Promethean outline— especially when he plays with the flaming corposants—and as a Gothic hero he bears a certain resemblance to Dr. Frankenstein as well as to Byron. If the sea beast is a monster, it is because Ahab made him over into one. As mad captain, Ahab is, therefore, to mad scientist close allied, and his voyage is for the most part a metaphorical one, a Faustian quest, to which the ocean is largely incidental. Melville’s ocean may be recognizable as the ocean, but it is about as close to the real ocean as Ahab is to a real whaling captain and the Pequod to the Achushnet.

Still, Captain Ahab has retained a powerful hold on the popular imagination, a one-legged spectre striding through minds blameless of having read the book. He is both our American Lear and our Don Quixote, as much a part of our mythstuff as are Dan’l Boone and Davy Crockett. Despite Cooper’s precedence, even preeminence, as a writer of sea stories, his Red Rover crosses over the years chiefly as a children’s game, while Ahab endures. Yet again, as a popular figure, Captain Ahab persists outside the complex philosophical framework within which he was conceived. As Richard Slotkin has shown us, in Regeneration through Violence, like Boone and Crockett, Ahab comes down to us in the form in which Peter Benchley recreated him, as a seagoing version of our most popular archetype, the Hunter. The Whale becomes correspondingly reduced in the popular version to that which is hunted; and when the horrific vision of the Whale as ocean incarnate—as “two long crooked rows of white glistening teeth, floating up from the undiscoverable bottom,”—was translated into Jaws, something surely was lost besides several human lives. Chief among the missing is the lesson of Narcissus, which is the message intended by Melville. In Benchley’s version of the story, the shark is not a projection of Quint’s imagination but is a divine judgment called down upon an immoral seaside resort. In effect, Benchley’s Shark becomes Ahab’s (not Melville’s) Whale and becomes considerably reduced in meaning thereby. In Benchley’s defense, however, let it be acknowledged that a shark is not a whale.

Still, the transformation is yet another example of the trivialization of the ocean, and Jaws, like the versions of Moby-Dick that have appeared in movies, classic comics, and Cliffs Notes, acts to filter out Melville’s complex vision and hopelessly to distort the meaning of the fiery hunt. Even so intelligent an old salt as Samuel Eliot Morison suggested that the general reader was well advised to skip the metaphysics and stick to the rattling good sea story of Captain Ahab’s quest. Which brings me again to the old John Barrymore version, a timeless example of the Holly woodizing of literary classics, which is of trivia the essence. The producers of the film felt that no man would have been driven crazy merely because a whale had bit off his leg, so they recast Melville’s story in the shadow of World War One: Ahab, like many a returning veteran, comes home with a missing limb and is uneasy about resuming his courtship of Hope Mapple (daughter of Father Mapple, the local preacher) because of his handicap. Hesitating outside her house, Ahab happens to catch a glimpse of Hope in the arms of his brother, Derek, invented (like Hope) for the occasion. It is, on Hope’s part, an innocent embrace, but it drives Ahab into a frenzy. Abandoning all thoughts of Hope, he sets out to sea again and tracks down the great beast that bit off his leg: Moby Hun. With the help of his friends, Queequeg and Fedallah, he kills it. He also kills his brother, Derek, who ill-advisedly signed on for the voyage. Having exorcised his several demons, and having in a manner far more dramatic than in the original illustrated Slotkin’s thesis about regeneration through violence, Ahab has prepared himself to regain Hope, thus proving that Hollywood writers in the Twenties were well versed in Hawthorne whatever the damage they did to Melville. Young Goodman Ahab catches up with Hope in that ultimate California, the paradise of honeymooners, Hawaii, where her father has gone as a missionary, obviously heeding the call that Jonah ignored.

Fun also can be made of the Gregory Peck version, which pinpoints (in a script by Ray Bradbury) Ahab’s encounter with the whale at Bikini Atoll. Ahab, presumably, is Edmund Teller, and out of that union Dr. Strangelove was born. Whatever the parallels intended by Bradbury, by reducing Melville’s great epic to a nuclear-fission trip, he considerably diminished its metaphysical lustre, at the same time demonstrating the universality of the original book. In truth, no movie will capture the complex truths of Moby-Dick, no more than Job can hook Leviathan, nor Charlton Heston do justice to Exodus— by which I do not mean the novel by Leon Uris. For we are talking about secular scripture, transcendent fictions that outlive generational interpretations. The Hollywood versions of the Twenties and Fifties tell us very little about Moby-Dick but considerable about the people and the times that produced them. That Ray Bradbury is chiefly known as a writer of science fiction is meaningful, for as we shall see, it is an easy trip from the decks of the Pequod to the labyrinthine corridors of the Enterprise in Star Trek, a quantum leap best made by way of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the which, as I have already suggested, was the first remake of Melville’s Moby-Dick: Captain Nemo in the Nautilus is in effect Captain Ahab in the belly of his Whale, at the controls of which like a demented Jonah he revenges himself on a world that rejected him.


The debt to Melville is established early on in Verne’s novel, not only by several open allusions to Moby-Dick but by suggesting that the submarine may be some kind of sea monster, surfacing and giving off a mysterious phosphorescent glow. If approached, the Nautilus, like Moby Dick, is capable of destroying ships; and when Professor Aronnax sets out in search of the mysterious creature, he theorizes that it is a gigantic narwhale. The Franco-American connection is strengthened by the name and nationality of the ship Aronnax first sets out in, the Abraham Lincoln (whose captain is named Farragut), a steam-driven marvel of martial technology, and by the name and nationality of the Canadian whaler, Ned Land, a throwback to the athleticism of Long Tom Coffin. A cross between Ishmael and Starbuck, Ned comes to develop a distinct antipathy to Captain Nemo and several times attempts to jump ship—in a submarine a distinctly hazardous undertaking.

Verne, who wrote a sequel to Arthur Gordon Pym, several times alludes to that American sea story also, and when the Nautilus is last seen, it is going down with all hands in the great Norwegian Maelstrom, an obvious allusion to Foe’s short story as well as a reenactment of the finale in MobyDick. Like Pym, Aronnax and his companions escape the disaster without telling us how they managed to do it, perhaps because Poe already showed how it should be done. These several literary echoes are not gratuitous, for like the many mentions which Professor Aronnax makes of the great oceanographer, Matthew Maury, they suggest that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a profoundly American book, if only because Verne’s use of the ocean as a romantic backdrop is subsumed to his technological stress. If Melville’s Whale is Nature incarnate, the ocean as animate beast, then the iron whale of Captain Nemo is as close to an incarnation of the Enlightenment spirit as technology can come, its weird electric glow a literal show of light, its resident Captain a modern version of Prometheus, being an outlaw, an inventor, and quasi-divine. It is as if Captain Ahab had put his magic corposants to work.

Thanks to Ben Franklin and Robert Fulton, electrical submarines are forever associated with Americans in France, and despite Nemo’s destruction of ships and his mysterious hatred of mankind (mysterious to anyone not familiar with the Byronic tradition), the Captain is a double-layered creation; for he is also generous, a champion of freedom, and he plays philanthropist to the cause of revolution with the gold he has recovered from sunken ships. If his name means, as Verne tells us, “No Man,” spelled backwards it is “Omen,” suggesting both a Byronic nihilism and Enlightenment prophecy. This puzzling mix is enhanced by the mysterious events that take place aboard the Nautilus and by the great secret of Nemo’s origins, the both endowing the Captain and his vessel with an aura other than electrical, to which his technological wizardry adds a final Edison- (or Oz-)like element. Nemo is above all else a transcendent example of Inventor, who has assembled a spheroid vessel impervious to most maritime dangers (though it is almost crushed like a cigar between two icebergs), and he demonstrates how man may not only maintain but sustain life at sea, obtaining food, clothing, even cigars from the great waters around him.

As Hero, moreover, he is a hunter, a cerebral version of Cooper’s athletic captains, and he entertains his guests with sea-bottom hunts, using air-powered rifles. Though this may be seen as an early version of scuba diving, Verne’s version of the sport is clearly intended to evoke the conditions of life in the American wilds. Written as the last Western frontier was closing, Verne’s novel is obviously pointing out a whole new area to be harvested. In his version of Moby-Dick, the whiteness of the whale becomes the shrinking white space on the imperial map, and what Nemo seeks is perilously close to what Conrad’s Kurtz is after in the heart of Africa. What Aronnax seeks is something else again: innocent of Nemo’s revolutionary zeal, he relishes the opportunity to view what has never before been seen by men, for Nemo’s several life-support systems make the ocean over into one vast aquarium.

Here, once again, is the essential domestication theme, demonstrating how man by means of technology—the hardware engendered by the divine gift of reason—may continue to enlarge his habitable dominion. Verne is often celebrated for the prophetic qualities of his fiction, having envisioned not only the submarine but a number of other technological devices not yet invented, but there is another, ironic side to the innovative aspects of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Much as the crude technology of whaling was rendered obsolete when whale oil was displaced by petroleum, much as the “romance” of the sea disappeared when sails were replaced by steam, so once the real submarine was invented, Nemo’s undersea world lost its novelty and exotic allure. Science fiction thenceforth took off for outer space, converting the cigar-shaped Nautilus into a rocket ship and Ned Land into Buck Rogers, while Nemo survives as a shrunken, mummified Dr. Huer—or the faun-eared Dr. Spock. Fantasy as a genre must always keep ahead of scientific knowledge, leaping ahead of other kinds than merely geopolitical frontiers, in search of white space not yet mapped, identified now with that space called Outer.

Still, Charles William Beebe was able as late as the 1930’s to make a lucrative career of exploring “Haifa Mile Down”— as his book boasts—and I was one of a generation of kids who grew up reading his accounts in the National Geographic of what he found down there, breathtaking adventures in the great diving bell called the Bathysphere accompanied by illustrations of incredible undersea creatures with enormous fangs and protruding eyes and other marvelous excrescences, monsters which I have only recently discovered were about the size of my little fingernail—Killer Plankton! Here again, as in the sights witnessed by Nemo and his guests, the marvels associated with romance as a literary genre, and here once again Captain Cousteau, who brings the Franco-American connection back home via a television system called NET. Cousteau as a Frenchman is the stuff that Verne’s fables were made of, not so much hypocrisy as hype, in which courage is compounded with nonsense into a kind of saltwater fudge.


Setting out in his modern-day version of the Nautilus, a Bathysphere that moves, Cousteau, like Nemo, walks and talks on the ocean floor, existing on familiar terms with Leviathan or exploring the Gothic interior of some wrecked and coral-encrusted ship. Other than serving a vague ecological end, Cousteau’s “Odyssey” (as he is modestly impelled to call it) seems undertaken for no other purpose than to promote Cousteau’s fame. As a carefully controlled drama second only to a Republican Convention, Cousteau’s Odyssey is also a celebration of machines, a resurrection of the Enlightenment spirit with all the wattage of Edison’s original bulb. If it was Cousteau who perfected the scuba gear anticipated by Jules Verne, then that invention has largely served the uses of play; and it is, I would suggest, the kind of adventure we call games that Cousteau’s Odyssey seems mostly to promote.

The. quality of that adventure is suggested by the name of his ship, Calypso, for there is a lotus-eating element in much that goes on, a loving and sensuous dimension. Much is made of the preparations for each dive, with long, fond camera glances at the dials, switches, valves, and like paraphernalia, with intimate peeps inside the secret recess of that immaculate bridal suite, the Decompression Chamber. So much film is devoted to details, such as dogging down hatches and tightening beautifully painted nuts on exquisitely colored bolts, of sticking male plugs into female receptacles, that Cousteau’s television specials resemble something by Alex Comfort: “The Joy of Diving.” Here again is the erotic Byronic element, but spelled out in terms of machines, Poseidon-snared in a net of hoses and wires. Whatever else Cousteau may be doing in the waves, he is not being wanton with them: he carves his straight navigational lines across the water in a high-powered rubber dinghy. He never just swims. Moreover, the foreplay takes place mostly on board his ship, as scantily clad men (always, as aboard Nemo’s submarine, men) crawl over and into their marvelous machines like figures carved on a Hindoo temple wall. The world aboard a ship is traditionally homoerotic, but what Melville only hints at Cousteau makes graphic, as the Captain like some ubiquitous and avuncular Pandarus presides over all arrangements. There is an element of athleticism here, but it is not the Anglo-American sports of Cooper, Dana, or Hemingway. Instead, the mood is Grecian, even to boys sporting with dolphins, with a definitively Mediterranean ambiance.

Yet another dimension is supplied by the voice-over narration, a hushed, this-may-be-their-last-dive manner, thereby implying not only a high degree of danger but momentousness, the kind of “first-ever-in-history” that is the stuff of latter-day Enlightenment hype, especially as it obtains at Cape Canaveral. Only the great skill of Captain Cousteau the Master Diver and the advances of modern technology stand between these beautiful young aquanauts and instant and horrible death. Once again: Yo Ho Ho. And Ho Ho Hum. What Cousteau is peddling is as sci mostly fi. While assembling around him genuinely sophisticated diving gear, his “research” yields less than Beebe’s deep dives; his version of Nemo’s Nautilus is a symbolically diminished submarine whose errand makes it a literal bathos-sphere. No matter how low Cousteau sinks, he explores depths not much deeper than an aquarium—and about as dangerous. But this too brings us back to Verne’s world, for the undersea wilderness that he describes is nothing more than a projection of what was already known about life under the surface of the ocean. Save for Nemo’s tunnel under the Isthmus of Suez and the zone of open sea at the South Pole, Professor Aronnax sees nothing not already recorded by science.

A similar kind of redundancy pervades Peter Benchley’s Jaws, the very title of which evokes the image of a yawn. In the manner of Melville on whales, the author loads us with all kinds of information about sharks but to a far different end. Jaws is a skillfully concocted fiction, a corporate product, designed to be a best seller, and, in the manner of Airport, Benchley’s book serves up the kind of factoids (as Norman Mailer calls them) that the general reader seems to demand of his entertainment—the seeds at the hard core of pulp fiction. Here again the Franco-American connection—for Verne was a pioneer in the mixing of melodrama and data— here reduced to canned spaghetti: where Melville used his cetology chapters to elevate Moby-Dick to epic stature, Benchley throws his facts in our eyes to blind us to the unlikely behavior of his special fish, who in haunting a particular beach behaves more like something out of The Exorcist than a real-life shark. Melville is certainly guilty of stretching science, having Ishmael insist against all the evidence that the whale is not a mammal, but his stretcher is for the sake of making a large truth even larger, while Benchley’s lies serve the cause of melodrama. Where Melville uses his cetology material to flesh out a nihilistic vision of the world, Benchley tells a fish story.

It seems to me, moreover, that Benchley commits a kind of literary crime, a higher plagiarism, with his heavy-handed equivalencies to Moby-Dick. As with Bradbury’s script, the vein is popular, which means it is varicose—reductive. Quint seems more closely related to Edmund Wilson’s man who hated snapping turtles than to Ahab: he bears no particular hatred for any specific Great White Shark but merely likes to kill all sharks. He is, once again, the latest avatar of Slotkin’s Hunter, but he is neither a redeemer nor among the redeemed. He is simply another of D. H. Lawrence’s American Killers, and though the killer gets killed in the process of killing the shark, the conclusion is not so much an apotheotic finale as a dead end, putting the stamp of horror-show on the entire story. Still, if Benchley’s fable had been simply an exercise in violence, it might have had a certain naive American integrity, a fishcake version of Mom’s Apple Pie. Instead, we are made to understand that the Shark is an agent of Divine Retribution, sent in to plague a resort community because of shady real estate deals, occasional adultery, and like abominations. Ahab’s Whale is a creation of his own imaginings, but the Shark is the product of financial speculation and sexual misconduct, or so we are to believe. In truth, the Shark is the avatar of trash cast upon the water, its gaping mouth a kind of seaborne Insinkerator, created in the same image that the real estate speculators and corrupt officials serve—Mammon.

As much as we may condemn Jaws as literature, we cannot overlook the story’s popularity, as a book and even more powerfully as a film. Not since Janet Leigh got sliced up in a shower stall has blood and water had such a sensational psychological effect on the movie-going public. Jaws obviously closed tightly around the universal psyche, sinking its teeth into that bit of fearful viscera deep inside us. For all of Benchley’s superficiality and misuse of natural history, never mind the Bible, he made tangible that which Melville blurred and made abstract with metaphysics. If men do swim close to their ships, Benchley suggests the reason why; whatever its effect on the reader, Moby-Dick did not make anybody afraid to wade into salt water. Despite all the scientific data about the ocean we have piled up in the century since Nemo launched his electric submarine, we still preserve within us a much older, instinctive dread of deep and dark waters.

The face we see when we peer into that water is no lovely visage but a monkey-like mask with wrinkled and trembling brow, the primordial beast inside us all that fears the beasts of the deep, a very real terror of very real teeth that we have sublimated into a psychic knot that will never be untied. So the most trivialized ocean yet invented, floating a plastic shark nicknamed “Bruce,” brought forth fears as ancient as life itself, suggesting that we may never be able to see the ocean for what it really is. Instead, we will go on taking two separate voyages, the one like Nemo’s a technological quest, a domestication of the wilderness waters, the other like Ahab’s mad search, a primitivistic hunt that is really a futile exorcising of the monkey man within. In both instances, however, the lesson of Narcissus still holds, for the face mirrored in the water is always ours, though often distorted beyond recognition.


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