Saturday, June 20, 2015

`A Curiosity That Was Stronger than the Stench'

It seems Moby Dick died not in the mid-nineteenth century, but on or about July 20, 1989, near the island of Ponza in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Our source is Gustaw Herling-Grudziński (1919-2000), the Polish writer, Gulag survivor, co-founder of Kultura and author of A World Apart: Imprisonment in a Soviet Labor Camp During World War II (1951). In 1955 he and his wife settled in Naples. In 1997, a selection from the journal he kept for more than thirty years, Volcano and Miracle: A Selection from the Journal Written at Night, was published in English.

In it he recounts a walk home that summer near the Anjou Castle (Castel Nuovo), during which he smells “a stench so intolerable that I automatically reached for my handkerchief and held it over my nose.” He sees people running to the port and hears the word balena. By now, Herling-Grudziński is “consumed by a curiosity that was stronger than the stench.” He joins two American naval officers, one of whom says, “God Almighty, it’s Moby Dick! Good old Dick, dead as a doornail and stinking like hell.” The other says, “Why did he swim here in his old age, what brought him here? Poor Dick. And poor Captain Ahab, wherever he is, if he could see his enemy now, the enemy he thought was eternal, the black carcass of the white whale that once incarnated evil, he would certainly look away in disgust.” (I’ve never heard American naval officers speak this way, but let’s grant Herling-Grudziński the journal-keeper’s privilege of creative memory.) The whale’s carcass is decomposing. It is “a slab of rotting meat.” There’s no way to determine the cause of death. “Moby Dick dead!” writes Herling-Grudziński:

“The American officer’s joke suddenly stopped being a joke. It was as if I literally believed that the unconquered hero of Melville’s metaphysical prose poem, the Biblical Leviathan, the ruler of oceans and evil, had overcome his impudent adversary, had swum around the world hundreds of times, shattering all the whalers he met on the way, defenseless in the face of his might, and at long last reached his final harbor to give up the ghost like a vagrant, a beggar in the gutter.”

The next day, Herling-Grudziński learns from the newspaper that a dispute over jurisdiction has arisen. The news story is accompanied by a drawing of a “municipal sanitation officer wearing a gas mask while immersed in reading Melville’s novel.” The city wants to dispose of the corpse with a flamethrower. The port authority favors dynamite. An agreement is reached and the eight-ton corpse is hauled by truck (one thinks of László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistanceoutside the city and buried in a grave measuring ten meters by three meters. The whereabouts of the disposal are kept secret:

“The paper did not say where, and what is more, the participants in the burial proceedings were sworn to silence, which calls to mind the secret burial of vampires in Transylvania. (There, just to be sure, they also drove a sharp stake into the ground at the level of the deceased’s heart.) Requiescat in pace.”

In what language did Herling-Grudziński read Moby-Dick? The original dates from 1851. Bronisław Zieliński published the first Polish translation in 1961. Cesare Pavese brought out his Italian version in 1932, and declared the novel his favorite: “a miraculous balance of minute, realistic technical details that describe the customs of the sea and of whaling and the wild supernatural sections of signs and prophecies, emanating like a halo from the ferocious and biblical Ahab” (quoted by Lawrence G. Smith in Cesare Pavese and America, 2012).

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