Friday, January 15, 2010

Inspiration--the Monkey of the Inkpot

This week for this feature, I'm going to write a bit more about the story of the Essex, which I've just finished.

One thing that strikes me is just how bloody the business was. I mean this should be obvious--they're butchering a whale, after all--but it doesn't strike home until you read an account like this just how messy and awful the process was. I'm no hunter and would have a hard time butchering regardless of the animal, but I'm also not opposed to hunting in principle--I'd argue that carefully monitored hunting of deer, for example, is an essential part of maintaining a balanced environment, since we've basically replaced the deer's top predator in many locations. But reading this gives me a lot of sympathy for the Greenpeace efforts to stop the Japanese whaling ships (admittedly I was already disposed to sympathize). Do I still feel like I want to write a whaling story after all of this? Much less so at the moment...though at the same time maybe removing that romanticism of whaling is a good reason to incorporate into a work of fiction.

Another thing that strikes me is just how extreme hunger and thirst can be and the effects on the bodies and minds of the survivors here. I've read in many fantasy (and other) stories about the main character(s) in dire straits, without food or water and struggling through a wasteland or something similar. Few if any of those stories have managed to fully evoke a true sense of the terrible effects of such deprivation. Fiction writers would do well to understand better the stages of hunger and thirst.

Last, I'll leave this quote that I found interesting. Not a quote from Philbrick, but one he includes from his sources. It's the patter of a mate on one of the whaleboats (once whales were spotted, the whaleships would lower their smaller whaleboats, usually three, to close with the whales). As Philbrick says, these were whispered words so as not to startle the whales, but spoken with what he calls an "almost erotic bloodlust":
Do for heaven's sake spring. The boat don't move. You're all asleep; see, see! There she lies; skote, skote! I love you, my dear fellows, yes, yes, I do; only take me up to this whale only this time, for this once, pull. Oh, St. Peter, St. Jerome, St. Stephen, St. James, St. John, the devil on two sticks; carry me up; O, let me tickle him, let me feel of his ribs. There, there, go on; O, O, O, most on, most on.
There's something weirdly hypnotic to this, almost poetic, but once you realize the incredible violence of the situation...there's just such a dissonance, such a juxtaposition that it draws me in.

I'm tempted, after reading this book, to read Moby Dick. Having read various excerpts of the book in lit classes over the years, I fear I'd greatly regret giving in to that temptation, however...

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