"In real life the happy ending is justly scorned as a misrepresentation. For the world as we have known it, as we have seen it, yields but one outcome - death, distintigration, dismemberment, and the crucifixion of our hearts at the passing of the forms that we have loved. Yet in the Heroes Journey, the happy ending should not be looked upon as an accurate reflection of reality, but of a transcendence of the mortal human form above the never-ending cycle of pain and death that is the reality of this world."
It's strange what we take on in life to occupy our minds and distract us from social injustice, genocide, death and the general malaise of unspeakable horrors that we all know are taking place on a daily basis in some "other" corner of the globe, not anywhere remotely near where most of us call home.
As of late, I've become rather obsessed with the golden age of American whaling.
You'd think this would be odd for someone like me who has been taken to task for his stance on conservation, and has even been called an "Environazi" by some of the more rancorous denizens of the bowels of Deviant Art. And yet, it is so.
It all began back when I was in High School and I read "Moby Dick" for the first time. But the funny thing is, I was never assigned to read Melville's masterwork in grade school. I did it of my own accord and for no other reason that to immerse myself on the fo'c'sle head of the Pequod, and see exactly why it attained the status of a cornerstone of American literature.
My fascination with whaling has continued ever since, and has since lunged from a light simmer to a rolling boil once I moved back to New England, and subsequently, the slow additions I've made to the decor of my room, combined with it's unique architecture, makes my living space resemble nothing less than the Captains cabin of the Charles W. Morgan, the last wooden whaling ship in existence... with a 21st century laptop computer of course.
I had a rather odd realization yesterday.
I realized that the movie genre labeled by Hollywood as the "Romanic Comedy" contains practically identical elements to contemporary pornography.
Let me explain.
In the romantic comedy, wacky hijinks ensue when the quirky, socially awkward guy or the uptight OCD guy gets the hots for some lady, and the entire conflict of the movie revolves around "Will they or won't they?"
At the end of the movie, both parties overcome whatever internal baggage might have been holding them back, and the credits roll as soon as the newly-formed couple begins to lay down the foundation of their relationship.
Pornography is simply a video depiction of the sex act. We all know this. An over-dramatized and largely unrealistic view of human sexuality, ending, most of the time, with a male climax.
Now, you might be wondering what might make these two seemingly disparate things similar.
It's the cutoff point.
Th romantic comedy cuts off right before the relationship begins, completely denying it's audience any view of the two protagonists growing as a couple or overcoming any of the obstacles, financial, family-related, societal or emotional that are part-and-parcel to long-term relationships. The movie sells it's audience short by ending before the really dramatic story begins.
Pornography focuses entirely on the sex act and, for the most part, negates any emotion or intimacy involved in the deed. Human sexuality is an intricate, many-layered thing. Pornography sells it's audience short by showing the physical side of sex and, for the most part, nothing more.
It was the twin-engine of slavery and whaling that helped establish American Financial superiority after the revolution, and it was primarily whaling that provided enough capital to the colonies to even give them a fighting chance against the Redcoats to win their freedom from the crown.
Shore-whaling became a common practice along the beaches of New England and New York, where men would take small boats into the surf, after the whales. When the offshore whales became exhausted, they took larger and larger ships out to sea, seeking the increasingly-diminished whale populations. Eventually, onboard tri-works, the ovens used to render blubber into oil were developed, allowing whalers to make the 'round of Cape Horn, and cross into the pacific on increasingly longer voyages.
Like slavery, whaling exploited a natural resource to make large profits for the figureheads at the helm at the expense of the living capital at the root of it's enterprise. Although inarguably, slavery was a far more cruel practice that casts a much more grim shadow on our histories. Unlike slavery though, the living resource base of whaling needed to be destroyed for the whalers to make a profit. Hence the need for longer and longer voyages, to the point where they were no longer cost-effective. Even though whale oil still has value today, and is still used even to this day.
NASA uses whale oil to lubricate most of it's spacecraft. The Hubbel Telescope is quietly ticking away above us, it's inner gears running smoothly away with oil rendered from the Spermaceti organ of the sperm whale.
Whale oil was, and to a degree still is, one of the highest-quality illuminants and lubricants known to human kind. And before the development and refinery of petroleum, it made those who harvested it impossibly wealthy.
In 1851, the peak year of whaling in it's golden age in America, the whalemen earned over $11 million. A figure in the tens of billions in terms of today's money.
Focusing on the allegedly entertaining melodrama of two people coming into a relationship is to miss the point entirely. To conclude that the physical side of love is all that there is and is all that should ever be expressed about human relations is also to miss the point entirely. It seems an entirely human trait to focus on a particular point or facet of something and overlook the big picture.
While there is merit in having subtlety in one's world view "To see the forest from the trees" as it were, it is perhaps perspective that brings the most clarity and stability to our lives. While milestones and trivial events are ultimately part of the tiny minutiae that add up to a whole life, it is visionary strategists like the immortal Changqing (Better known as "Sun Tzu") who have expanded their consciousness, thought above the curve and provided broad-sweeping insight so grand and yet so fundamental to human existence that the wisdom has the stamina to endure for millennia.
Sun Tzu's insight into the art of combat and the fundamental violence of human nature, for example, have outlasted our modern notions of monogamy and marriage. Marriage, as it stands now in the United States only began to take the shape it currently holds at the end of the Victorian Era.
Gone now are the days od dowries and pre-arranged spouses, replaced now by a system allegedly based around love and free choice.
The American statistic that "50% of all marriages end in divorce" is somewhat exaggerated. The statistic doesn't take into account that those entering second and third marriages increase the odds of divorce considerably. Ergo, we have those vowing eternal love to one person to many different people skewing or data and making marriage seem more unstable in the States than it actually is. But even so, those who think that freely choosing your partner is a sure-fire means for a successful formula for monogamy need only look at the statistics and conclude that we've traded a system of hierarchical and soulless coupling approved by one's parents for one made unstable by the emotionally unbalanced, coming to realize that they ran headlong into a marriage neither party was truly ready for.
In spite of the posturing, indifferent attitude echoed by so many TV characters and standup comedians with "Y" chromosomes, the pull to get married in the States is a powerful one. Marriage means social acceptability and conformity with societal expectations. As Alec Baldwin put it bluntly in "The Departed"
"Marriage is an important part of getting ahead: lets people know you're not a homo; married guy seems more stable; people see the ring, they think at least somebody can stand the son of a bitch; ladies see the ring, they know immediately you must have some cash or your cock must work."
Marriage is big business in the US. About $86 billion annually, not even including addendum's for honeymoons. And the ceremony itself has even generated friction in the halls of congress. As many of us know, there are "Traditionalist" forces trying to bar gay marriages on the grounds that "Traditional" marriage is one of the cornerstones of the republic. The wedding ceremony itself has ballooned to the point where it's become more than a symbol for what it actually is, two people dedicating themselves to one-another, and more of a right of passage.
I speak from strictly my personal opinion when I say that for a lot of people in this country, getting married is a lot more important that actually BEING married.
Marriage in the states has become among the most sacred of sacred cows.
And as Mark Twain once said;
"Sacred cows make the best hamburgers."
There is a romance that's grown around American whaling. There is little love for 20th century whaling, if the success of "Whale Wars" and it's analogues are anything to go by. In truth, the 20th century was a much worse year for whales than was the 19th century. In the golden ages, before the advent of rocker-powered harpoon guns mounted on the bow of ships and elevated to a safe firing height, the only effective way to catch the maneuverable cetaceans were in whale boats, 30-foot, sleek crafts that could be rowed along at about 25 knots. Of course, a 65-foot, 85-ton bull Sperm Whale (or a "Schoolmaster" as solitary bulls were known to whalers) could make quick work of one of these speedy craft with one swipe of it's 14-foot flukes.
In the old days, the whales could fight back. But with the advent if the iron ships and more meticulous mechanization of the process, whalers could now hunt the bigger, speedier baleen whales that the nantucket whale-men couldn't hope to strike.
More whales were killed in 1951 than in the whole of the 19th century.
Perhaps this is where he romance of whaling springs, the dark poetry of a single man, armed with a piece of elongated metal, doing battle with Leviathan himself. White it is true that whaling today has it's dangers (when hunting the greater beaked whales of the Arctic, Icelandic whale-men send only single men out to collect the dead or dying whales, faring the task too dangerous for married men) whaling when wood-and-timber were all that stood between you and a titan of the deep was one of the highest ordeals of human athleticism, and still inspires awe even for these butchers of the sea after all these years.
First-time harpooners would often faint at the prospect of harpooning a whale, when actually faced with the immensity of the creature they were to slay. And even if they did have the courage to cary out their grim task, finishing off the tenacious tubes of gargantuan muscle, bringing the creatures in and harvesting their blubber and oil was an impossibly exhausting task.
Whaling was not a cheerful enterprise, but it made it's practitioners, the Quakers of Nantucket, the harbormasters of New Bedford and every of the 40 other whaling ports that jumped on the bandwagon in the early 19th century. In 1850, New Bedford surpassed London as the wealthiest city on earth.
Such a long legacy doesn't fade from the collective consciousness of a people so easily, people, now like myself, who live adjacent to where those old ways of life were strongest and who's legacy still reflects on us, in some small way, today.
If the contrived and ultimately not-true-to-life imaginings of screenwriters feeding us over-emotional lies and the 11,000 pornographic movies produced every year, feeding us overly-sexualized lies are anything to go by, it's that we as Americans, and by extension all of humanity seem to favor fantasy over reality, even at the expense of taking advantage of the actually enjoyable things life can offer us.
From the multi-billion dollar sports industry that sells false promises and super-human heroes who ultimately can't live beyond anything but ordinary human expectations, to the ilk who idolize the Renaissance era and dwell in the unfounded belief that times of yore were whimsical and magical instead of Feaudan and plague-ridden.
I know Penn & Teller already made this point in their "Nostalgia" episode of their showtime show "Bullshit," but I think it bears repeating.
Those who cling to fantasies of damsels trapped in towers being rescued by chivalrous knights are simply believing Victorian-era propaganda that has no bearing on actual history.
In Victorian England, a whitewash of history was committed and the Medieval times were made out to be a period of chivalry and honor.
In reality, your average knight was more likely to rape you than tenderly ask your hand in marriage. And one needs only read the 14th story "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" to see exactly how pure and virginal the damsels of the time REALLY were.
Furthermore, "Chivalry" which derives from a French word meaning rules and conduct for horsemanship wasn't intended to be applied as rules for men in terms of how to engage women.
The next time you hear a woman complaining that "Chivalry is dead!" You can proudly tell her that it never existed to begin with, at least not in the context they're using it.
The fantasy that life in a times of swords and sorcery, which was really alchemy, which was really chemistry approved by and done on behalf of the church, would be more fun or interesting than life now is just simply ludicrous. On the same screen you're reading these words now you could have access to every poet and expositor who ever left a written record, can study the scientific advances of the last 700 years from the invention of basic hygiene to the splitting of the atom. In medieval times you were, in all statistical likelihood, born as a serf under a Vassal lord, tilled the fallow field until you died, and if you were born a woman, your vagina was the property of the state, which is another way of saying that any nobel who wanted you, took you, and you had no legal recourse whatsoever.
It is a very human trait to prefer comforting illusion over cold, reality, even when the subtlety of that reality is far more infinite and interesting than any made-up fantasy ever could be.
Although, there is something to be said for the soothing effects on the psyche of reveling in fantasy. And so long as it is kept in moderation and doesn't interfere with you confronting and solving the problems your real life is presenting, there isn't any real, inherent harm in it.
It is okay, no and again, for grown ups to get dressed up and play medieval make-believe.
If I didn't tack on that addendum, then I'd be a bigger Hypocrite than I already am.
American whaling left it's indelible mark on our history and culture as a people, and, of course, on the oceans themselves.
Scientists estimate that before deep-sea whaling the sperm whale population was more than 1,300,000. More than a million of these creatures were killed over the last two centuries. Since hunting for them has been diminished but not ended by the International Whaling Commission, the population of this beast is now around 300,000.
The blue whale, the largest creature ever to exist on earth suffered particularly in the 20th century. Presenting a large, tantalizing target to the rocket-powered harpoons that felled this 200-ton cetacean, the numbers of this creature fell from 30,000, down to a mere 3,000. Today, around 11,000 of these titans of the deep make a very slow effort to regain their former numbers.
Even the might Arctic Bowhead, a creature scientists have proven can live up to 210 years, it's blood and metabolic processes invigorated by the cryogenic Arctic waters has been hunted from 73,000 strong down to a mere 15,000. A creature capable of living through two centuries of pursuit from hand-thrown toggle-headed harpoons to guns and rocket-powered apparatus still swims, still slowly living on the last foothold wild creatures have as man encroaches evermore on the once inhospitable Arctic.
It's one thing to appreciate the cultural heritage of a country that grew rich and prosperous enough to grow an army that could topple the third reich, getting it's first financial boon from the exploited labor of captured black people and the remorseless butchery of the world's largest and most beautiful creatures, it's quite another to think that such things should be encouraged or even continued in spite of the boon that resulted from them.
All one needs to do is look at the fall of the U.S.S.R. to realize that Socialism is not a viable nor even noble means to run a society, but whaling provides an apt allegory to show that the ceaselessly and necessarily expanding nature of capitalism simply can't be sustained when it relies on a finite resource.
Whaling was a dangerous line of work, and there was indeed a romance in it, even during it's height. Whalemen, particularly Nantucket whalemen would return to the task time and time again, not least because it was deeply engrained in their culture and a young man could hardly be expected to find a wife if he hadn't been a harpooneer on at least one whaling voyage, but the men who dealt death to these mighty creatures felt the power and visceral thrill of performing this grim yet herculean task. No doubt that stories of hunting whales were used to impress girls more than once throughout the course of history.
But to see whaling as a wholly-good practice undertaken by men who had no idea that all of their killing might somehow be detrimental to the oceans would be both oversimplifying and naive.
The larger the scale of American whaling became, the more profit-driven it became, which quickly translated to a living hell for those who were at the bottom of the tier of the whaling hierarchy. In paying for new clothes to replace the blood and gore-soaked ones that got ruined in the course of their duties, the whalemen often found themselves in debt to their masters after coming back from their voyages toward the middle of the 19th century. This was also why it was very uncommon as the days of whaling waned for a shit to come back with the full crew it had left with. Herman Melville himself abandoned the Acushnet, his first whaling ship, stayed in Tahiti for a time before he caught a British whaling ship back to New England.
To over-romanticize anything and not see it for it's scars and blemishes is to do it a disservice, almost to deny the fallible human hands that went into creating it.
It's easy to get lost even in something as esoteric as the culture of the American whalemen, to become immersed in it to the point of obsession and forget the fullness and grandeur life has to offer beyond the fantastic realm of one's interest.
The world is a big scary place, but one can't conquer one's limitations by hiding in pet projects and diversions.
... Well, on an unrelated matter, I won the prize for "Best Mysticete" in
's Marine Mammal Photography Contest.
Come all you young whalemen that's bound out for sperm
Come all you bully seamen that's rounded the Horn'
Our captain has told us and we hope he says true
That there's plenty of Sperm Whales on the coast of Peru
Well we've weathered the horn and we're now off Peru
And We're all of one mind of what we're all to do
Our masthead's all ready our boats are all manned
A rig and a roll my lads, our signal's all planned
It was early the next morning when we heard the brave shout
Twas the man in the mast who cried up "THERE SHE SPOUT!"
"We're away!" said our captain, "Oh where does she lay?!"
"Two points from our leeward, scarce a mile away!"
Then it's call up all hail lads and be of good cheer
Put your spears in your boats have your bow-lines all clear
Swarm up on them boats now, jump in me brave crew
Lower away down and after her, try the best you can do
Well the waist boat run down and of course got the start
"Lay on!" says the harpooneer "I'm hell for the long dart!"
And it's bend on your oars boys and make your boat fly
Whatever we've done, steer clear of his eye
Oh we gives him one iron and the whale he went down
But as he came up lads, out captain went on
The next harpoon struck him and the line paid away
And whatever that whale done, he give us fair play
Oh he raced and he sounded, he twist and he spin
But we fought him along-side and got our lance in
Which caused him to vomit and the blood for to spout
And in ten minutes time lads, he rolled them fins out
So we towed him along-side with many a shout
We soon cut him in and begun to tri-out
Now the blubber is rendered and likewise stowed down
And it's better to us lads than five hundred pounds
Here's a health to our captain and likewise our crew!
Here's a health to all whalemen that cruises Peru!
We'll spend all our money on the Spanish gals ashore
And when it's all gone lads, we'll go whaling for more...