Thursday, June 14, 2012

Civilized Bodies; Barbarous Souls

I'm re-reading "Moby-Dick" now, and boy it's quite the little knee-slapper.  I have the Norton Critical Edition, which is great, I love those things, half of the book is commentary, original reviews, personal letter of the author, etc.  At least half of what I read are mere page-turners, best-sellers, Railway-Novels, popular-fiction, but I do enjoy some real literature once in a while.

Mr. Melville got into big trouble for writing "Moby-Dick," it really ended his career.  People, lots of them, objected to his positive descriptions of what were called "savages" in those days; and his less than fond descriptions of Christian missionaries.  Some contemporaneous individuals got it though, or agreed with Melville through polygenesis.

One guy got it big time, writing anonymously for the London Observer in 1849.   It's a mightily abbreviated inclusion in the appendices of the Norton.  "Civilized Bodies; Barbarous Souls."  He writes of a voyage by the English ship, "The Highlander," traveling from the British Isles to New York City, a "New York Packet" no doubt, all sail and not too big, with a weather deck, three masts and some holds below, and lots and lots of rope holding the whole thing together.

The cargo?  "[P]oor Irish emigrants," this was the time of the Great Hunger, the Potato Famine, and the Highlander was evidently one of the infamous "Coffin Ships."  

"Five hundred human beings crowded in the hold of a vessel without ventilation, except at the hatches, without comfort, without cleanliness, without adequate food . . ."  The writer, to his credit, finds very disgusting the "cupidity of the captain" and the commercial instincts of the owners and shipping agents, who provide "no warning of the hardships in store for them at sea."

Inevitably, people got sick and died, as fever spread through the holds.  "[E]very day the tribute of mortality was paid to the stormy deep - six, seven, eight, nine and ten bodies of a morning, were thrown overboard."

But I'm not here to complain about the bad things that happened to the Irish long ago, no I am complaining about the bad things that we still do, with the same combination of knowing, unknowing, and commercial excuse making.  I might as well be bitching at the air and the trees for all of the good that it will do, but it's true.

The author laughs at the pretense of the White man, thinking himself better than the Cannibals and the Savages, and the "Turks" of the world, wondering, "may not some of them go to heaven before some of us?"

"We may have civilized bodies, and yet barbarous souls.  We are blind to the real sights of the world; deaf to its voice; and dead to its death.  And not till we know that one grief outweighs ten thousand toys will we become what Christianity is striving to make us."

Yes!  He even talks about our TOYS!  I will leave it to you to decide which deaths, and what sufferings imposed, are rendering us un-Christian these days.  There are plenty to choose from.

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