Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Review of Zealot

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem, by David Roberts (1850).
There’s a fire burning in Reza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and that fire is in Jerusalem, torched by the Romans in 70 C.E. to put down Jewish rebellion. The conflagration that destroyed the Temple winds up being a compass point and boundary to which all the people and events described in the book are related. Jesus may be the subject of the book, but the heart of the meaning of the text comes from that fire.

Aslan states in his introduction: “[T]here are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of he first century C.E.; the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so.” He hopes that “these two facts can help paint a picture of Jesus of Nazareth that may be more historically accurate than the one painted by the gospels.” The project he sets up sounds forensic with its promise of working from bare historical bones. But from the very first chapter the prose warns this is not the kind of book that’s coming. That chapter colorfully describes the assassination of the high priest Jonathan in 56 C.E., the dagger man homing in on the “peculiar melody” of the bells on the priest’s hem to get to his prey. There’s nothing wrong with Aslan’s decision as a popular historian to write this way, but it’s a clue that his book will not exclude the liberal application of imagination.  The chapter itself is winds up being an engaging description of the Temple that will be burned, its function in Jewish society, its connections with Roman power and the anger many felt toward it. Also telling is Aslan’s preference to introduce the Temple that will burn before he introduces the titular subject of the book.

“Hard historical facts” about Jesus ensue after this chapter, and for a chapter or so it seems Aslan will ground himself in them, but as the book goes on he brings in more and more scripture, which takes the story further from the objective premise of his introduction, and to this he adds his wonderful imagination. At no point in the book is there a sense that his source material, historical or scriptural, is less than sterling, but Aslan’s imaginative way of handling that material keeps raising questions about what he’s adding to the mix. Thankfully, he provides notes and a bibliography at the end that assuage some of this doubt, not that it can be erased, especially among scholars.

The book has been called controversial by a number of reviewers for reasons that must seem tired to those interested in Biblical scholarship, the possibility that Jesus was a revolutionary being one of them. Controversies come from the axes people grind, and the sparks of sharpening have shown brightly ever since the crucifixion. There is no end of controversies when it comes to the life of Jesus. But this book does have that other central source of light, that other fire of Jerusalem.

Jesus works his way to Jerusalem over the course of his life in Aslan’s book. From Nazareth Jesus commutes to the wealthy town of Sepphoras where there is work for carpenters. Sepphoras had been the seat of a Jewish rebellion that the Romans had razed in retribution. Sepphoras was being rebuilt “into an extravagant royal city fit for a king.” Here Jesus is inserted into a society in which disparity of wealth created by Roman and Temple power cannot be ignored. After his work as a carpenter Jesus studies under the zealous rebel John the Baptist. Jesus then forms his own messianic party with a traveling group of adherents that proselytizes through the region of Galilee and finally enters Jerusalem where Jesus runs afoul of the powers seated there. As a result of his challenges to those powers he is executed for sedition. Jesus’s mission, as Aslan describes it, is clearly to raise up the poor. And this poverty is a material one that results from injustice. It is also the stated mission of all the messianic rebellions described in the book. If there is a controversial meaning in this book, the first is in this concern, that is piqued in our day and age, with the disparity of wealth and its terrible consequences.

At the end of the first part of Zealot, chapters before Aslan describes the crucifixion, he tells of the sacking of Jerusalem 40 years later. This catastrophe is the result of a prolonged history of the abuse of power and disparity of wealth. And from this point on in the book this event is a measure of everything else. Did people live before or after it? Were texts written before or after it? What motives did people have before and after the event? The effect of describing the sack of Jerusalem early in the book after foreshadowing with the burning of Sepphoras creates an astonishingly haunting effect, and it must be Aslan’s intention.

Aslan describes the Jesus movement after the zealot’s execution as quickly becoming bifurcated between Jesus’s brother James’s cult in Jerusalem and Paul’s activity among the gentiles. James is described as being a very devout Jew (though not an ally of the Temple), earthy and devoted to the poor. Paul comes off as a bit weird: a mystic with little practical interest in worldly affairs who never actually met Jesus. James is executed shortly before the Romans descend on rebellious Jerusalem and decide to sack the city and destroy the temple that had been the center of Judaism. Paul is nowhere near this conflagration and survives, spreading his gospel that starts the Christian lineage we know in the West.

It is from this story that a second meaning comes, and it is related to the first concern with social injustice. With James and his followers wiped out, the original cult of Jesus was wiped out. With the destruction of the Temple and rise of rabbinical Judaism, so too was the original Christian mission itself. What survived was a comparatively otherworldly religion that offered salvation through belief and not through the work of justice that James and Jesus modeled. And here I believe Aslan throws a gauntlet.

Aslan asks, not explicitly but implicitly, whether a religious movement that values belief over justice, grace over works, is up to the task of dealing with the potential catastrophes of social injustice. The Fox News interview with Aslan was deplorable, suggesting that as Muslim he had no business writing about the life of Jesus. Yet in Aslan's challenge there is a detectable Muslim perspective, one that champions alms and charity for the downtrodden as acts that lead to salvation.

Of course the whole conundrum of faith versus works is nothing new to Christians, and it has been a vibrant part of their inner dialogue since Paul. Aslan has written a very readable book, but he has raised no new questions. His conclusions about the life of Jesus are disputable but not outrageous. His timing is important, though.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Sudden Influences

Is it only when a poet is young that influence happens like lightning? Does a co-arising of health, hormones and a brain that has not yet thought itself into deep ruts make possible illumination in a few words encountered at random? Because the following words chanced upon in browsing books on separate occasions definitely changed one young poet's life.

And the hunter, who believed
whatever struggles
begs to be torn apart:

that part is paralyzed.
          --Louise Glück, "Liberation"

As long as this evening lasts,
I am going to walk all through and around
the Temple of Diana.
         --James Wright, "Entering the Temple at Nîmes"

We do not need to know why, in the instance of each reading, the young poet felt a jolt between his eyes followed by a calm, swimming sensation. Initially each experience partook of more of the pathological than of the inspirational, and these events tend toward the idiosyncratic and the irreproducible, but we have already asked the question: "When does this happen?" And in asking we have already assumed it to be a general event, one that defines a community of the inspired, those who have reeled at the impact of a few isolated words. And we add this case now of a young man browsing books in a store in Iowa in the late 1980s.

The long-term effects were simple enough. In the first case the poet knew from then on out that clarity itself was a proper vehicle for the poetic. In the second case he knew how the poem could express, if not actually contain, a sense of wonder that can make life worth living. If we care for arguments, systems of values, a thoroughly diagrammable mechanism of transmission from the poems to the young poet who was their audience, we must remain disappointed. There is nothing in their words now or in the description of their having been read that will satisfy our question. The words of poetry come divorced from the context of the poems in which they appear, now as they did then, though they might be said to appear in the context of poetry in general. Our poet-reader appears out of the context of his life but within the context of other poets who read and are excitable. We have asked a question that arrives with facts, but we sense no satisfactory answer in the form of further facts. In a situation like this we have to ask another question.

What anxiety led us to ask our question about sudden inspiration in the first place? The question isn't really about causes but about repeatability and about speed. Time has passed since those days of inspiration. We are in a hurry. And tonight won't we find satisfaction in so much less than lightning?  We'll settle for less total inspiration because the question and its precursor anxiety derived from desolation. We are desperate. A drop of water counts for more today than lightning did yesterday. We hope to provide matured skill and a strength that amplifies value through our steady application of work.

In the end--and we know there's an end even if we don't know where it lies--it was the fact that inspiration happened at all that counts, and we lived to see just how brightly those moments blaze, even if we cannot approach them in the past as they happened or in the future as they have not. We cannot move or analyze anymore, nor do we particularly care to. It is that part of a summer evening when it has just turned cool.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Fisher to Someone Watching from the Bridge (reposted)*

On the river, where the ripple crests
part and link, a crappie's nerved lip
has nipped a circle into the surface,
and that wavefront reaches out
for a second and vanishes, exchanges
its perfect geometry for another that runs
slipping over itself, lapping up on silt
and earthed-over mouths of drainpipes.

If I have come here alone to throw
a bright hook and two lead tokens,
and if I handle the reel in fits
and finally settle the rod between stones,
know I have no talent or use for fishing.
I trust dumb luck that no cat or bass
will bother me with its need
to bite, that it will curve ever downward
and knit itself among the shadows of other fish
and the gloom of concrete pylons, swimming.

I don't care who you are. You are traffic.
Your shape, man or woman or simple child,
breaks up in sunlight. Even sunlight joins
the weave of the river, and the metal can
you rest upon that bridge rail catches
my eye only once. The glint winks out.

Boys used to cast their lines up there
and haul up flat, gray sunfish to take home
sewn together at the gills. I haven't seen
those fishers or their shellacked bamboo,
not in a while, not on this acidic river
where the last of the fish and the strongest algae
metabolize and reproduce under willows.

And if I look up and you have walked on
parallel to the family vans and tankers
marked with logos of fire, then another crappie
has nipped the water in the corner of my eye.
You, me, the fish, the water: we're scot free.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Having Placed an Order for Bonsai Pots/Thanksgiving

Three pots in the Pacific
have my name on them.
On a ship in a container
in a crate in a box,
three pots rise and pitch.
They travel from Seoul
in the dark
with my name on them.

Which clerks polished their glasses
and checked at blanks
on yellow paper?
Which heavy crane
swerved its column,
and stacked the container
upon the deck?
Which frowning crewman
drew down the tarp
with hooks and cables?
Which captain sleeps
through a mild squall
out in the middle of the Pacific?
What dream keeps him
asleep near the photo of his sons,
there, near my three pots
in the dark?

What color? I don’t remember.
Two months ago I sealed
the order for three glazed pots.
I have a euphorbia
thin-barked with thorns,
a pine that curves
on a just-thickened trunk,
a juniper still supple
to bend in a cascade--
a little dry at the tips;
it might pull through.
Three pots in the Pacific
have my name on them.

Call them whatever.
Call them lovers.
The one I loved
who didn’t believe me.
The one I didn’t love
who didn’t believe me.
The one I loved
who wouldn’t touch me.
Three different colors now,
glazed in the darkness,
three pots with my name on them
rolling out at sea.

Let go and let
them sail. On the other half
of the round world,
on the other side, over there,
when it’s dark, it’s dark,
and here it’s dark,
now, dark on the leaves
of trees, dark in the soil
they grow out of,
dark in the old pots
holding three trees.
For the clerk and the captain,
for the potter and the girls
who knew my timing was bad,
I am grateful. For all
the delays and the darkness
I am grateful. On a ship
in the dark they are waiting,
three pots with my name on them.

Monday, July 8, 2013

A Dull Disclaimer

Nothing I write is fueled by a critical literary theory. Unless it is possible to learn such theory by osmosis, I have been train in no specific critical theory. Critics I am fond of are Northrop Frye and Allen Grossman, but, again, I don't write according to any theory of theirs.

Some of my poems--by no means all of them--are difficult, but this difficulty derives from some necessity of a situation. In other words, I hope the difficulty is better than silence. No word is placed after another in order to make a subject obscure. I usually only try to appear clever in prose.

Whenever I've allowed my writing to be unduly influence by ideas, such as in the last 25 years, such abstractions have been of the "pointers for writers" sort, and silence is usually the result. In all forms of art it seems to be the case that for every bit of advice there's advice to the contrary. For those of us who are not quite clear about ourselves, we are prone to such interior squabbles. Fortunately, there are ways to walk away even from them.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Poe's "MS. Found in a Bottle": A Tour

One of Gustave Doré's illustrations for Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

I had originally hoped to write a full-fledged critical article about Poe’s “MS. Found in a Bottle”, an essay that made some interesting point or other. The story has otherwise inspired a series of annotations, and it is with the intention of making their vehicle that I write this post.

“MS. Found in a Bottle” is my favorite Poe story even though it is not his best. It shows signs of hasty composition (a vice with which I'm in sympathy) mostly in the way of inconsistencies and blind motifs. The two other stories by Poe with which it runs parallel, “A Descent into the Maelström” and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, are impossible not to recall while reading “MS. Found in a Bottle”, but what they reflect they do not clarify much. Neither do they amplify, for “MS. Found in a Bottle” has a power all its own. If this post has any point, it is to diagram the mechanism generating that power.

Two miscellaneous observations about "MS. Found in a Bottle" stick out for me. The first is that the story was a prizewinner in a newspaper prose competition. It is absolutely incredible that a newspaper of any era, let alone the first half of the 19th century, would award a story as alienating as this. The other point of interest I find here is the uncanny similarities this story has to UFO stories told in the last half of the 20th century. It is here I would most like to be able to draw some conclusions, but the whole mythology of UFO stories seems to empty itself of significant meaning as soon as it is examined. I can see no connection aside from common imagery and common effects. Fortunately Poe’s effort creates meaning where UFO folklore fails.

The text of the story is taken from a Project Gutenberg ebook. Much of the story’s text is presented, but thankfully not all of it. I recommend reading that text before or instead of reading this blog post.

The Tour:

MS. Found in a Bottle

Qui n'a plus qu'un moment a vivre
N'a plus rien a dissimuler.


This story is based on a fictionally “found” manuscript the way Blair Witch Project  and many recent horror films are found films. Poe often uses such devices to enhance the suspension of disbelief in his narratives. Here, as in other stories of his, the records of a diarist are to be taken for truth. But with the added head note, translated by M.J. Cummings to mean "Whoever has a moment to live has nothing to hide", Poe attempts to frame this story as a kind of deathbed confession as well.

OF my country and of my family I have little to say. Ill usage and length of years have driven me from the one, and estranged me from the other. Hereditary wealth afforded me an education of no common order, and a contemplative turn of mind enabled me to methodize the stores which early study very diligently garnered up.—Beyond all things, the study of the German moralists gave me great delight; not from any ill-advised admiration of their eloquent madness, but from the ease with which my habits of rigid thought enabled me to detect their falsities. I have often been reproached with the aridity of my genius; a deficiency of imagination has been imputed to me as a crime....

Here Poe establishes his narrator as being intelligent, and therefore competent to record facts, as well as being dull. Being dull precludes his inventing fantastic stories such the one he tells, and this handicap enhances the story’s credibility. The narrator’s dullness also winds up making him a vulnerable character in the face of incredible events, and that sets up the arc of the character’s development.

That "crime" would describe his lack of imagination becomes interesting in reviewing the story. It is a dullness, by its description, that disturbs function in a community. If a schism between individual and community is important in the narrative, this word is its verbal root.

I have looked in vain for a passage in Jorge Luis Borges to suggest in comparison to this paragraph, though it is here I detect Poe’s as his precursor very strongly.

After many years spent in foreign travel, I sailed in the year 18— , from the port of Batavia, in the rich and populous island of Java, on a voyage to the Archipelago of the Sunda islands. I went as passenger—having no other inducement than a kind of nervous restlessness which haunted me as a fiend.

The narrator has ordinary motives for travel and is writing, so far,  an ordinary travelogue, although “haunted me as a fiend” establishes a motive in the character that is extraordinary and therefore can lead to extraordinary places.

Our vessel was a beautiful ship of about four hundred tons, copper-fastened, and built at Bombay of Malabar teak. She was freighted with cotton-wool and oil, from the Lachadive islands. We had also on board coir, jaggeree, ghee, cocoa-nuts, and a few cases of opium. The stowage was clumsily done, and the vessel consequently crank.
Here a sense of ordinariness is created that will be both utilized for the sake of credibility and then violated to create a sense of the weird. This strategy has been used by writers in the fantastic literary tradition from Poe’s day (at least!) up until Stephen King’s. The introduction of far-fetched and dream-inducing cargoes, not to mention their disaster-prone stowage, points toward unusual perils. The ports of departure are themselves exotic from the 19th century American point of view. Where might the journey end?

One evening, leaning over the taffrail, I observed a very singular, isolated cloud, to the N.W. It was remarkable, as well for its color, as from its being the first we had seen since our departure from Batavia. I watched it attentively until sunset, when it spread all at once to the eastward and westward, girting in the horizon with a narrow strip of vapor, and looking like a long line of low beach.

This passage describes the first bizarre event of the story.  Plausibly constructed, it is the gateway to the bizarre.

However, as the captain said he could perceive no indication of danger, and as we were drifting in bodily to shore, he ordered the sails to be furled, and the anchor let go.

The first bizarre event is rationally accepted and dealt with. The captain accepts the anomaly glibly and makes no attempt to account for what has happened. The characters believe what’s happening unquestioningly. Why shouldn’t the reader?

I went below—not without a full presentiment of evil. Indeed, every appearance warranted me in apprehending a Simoom. I told the captain my fears; but he paid no attention to what I said, and left me without deigning to give a reply.

More of the same, but here the narrator adds the first note of dread. The dread also arrives with the first explicit break between the narrator and the community around him. This gap will widen.

As I placed my foot upon the upper step of the companion-ladder, I was startled by a loud, humming noise, like that occasioned by the rapid revolution of a mill-wheel, and before I could ascertain its meaning, I found the ship quivering to its centre. In the next instant, a wilderness of foam hurled us upon our beam-ends, and, rushing over us fore and aft, swept the entire decks from stem to stern.

“Humming” creates a dissonance in the description. What is first an event of nature makes a mechanical sound. We are less sure of our surroundings than we were both because of the violence of the event and because of this dissonance.

After a while, I heard the voice of an old Swede, who had shipped with us at the moment of our leaving port. I hallooed to him with all my strength, and presently he came reeling aft.

One other person survives this first disaster. Given later events the character ofnthe Swede may seem superflous, a blind motif and a distraction. The Swede will be import in Poe's story, even if the character's addition, to say nothing of his demise, is clumsy. If Gordon Pym shows a model, the Swede’s demise at the very least demonstrates Poe's habit of killing off co-survivors of nautical accidents.

The frame-work of our stern was shattered excessively, and, in almost every respect, we had received considerable injury; but to our extreme Joy we found the pumps unchoked, and that we had made no great shifting of our ballast….   [T]he hulk flew at a rate defying computation, before rapidly succeeding flaws of wind, which, without equaling the first violence of the Simoom, were still more terrific than any tempest I had before encountered.

This passage moves smoothly from describing a world of comprehensible problems and solutions to one of inconceivable causes and effects. We are swept along.

Our course for the first four days was, with trifling variations, S.E. and by S.; and we must have run down the coast of New Holland.

References to the world are still mundane and mathematical. Yet even in this reference the ordinary world slips into the distance as a thing to reckon by instruments. The environment is progressively weird.

And then the final physical ruptures with the ordinary world occur:

Just before [the sun's] sinking within the turgid sea, its central fires suddenly went out, as if hurriedly extinguished by some unaccountable power. It was a dim, sliver-like rim, alone, as it rushed down the unfathomable ocean.

Here the conditions described could have a natural cause, but by now we know they cannot be events in a normal world.

We waited in vain for the arrival of the sixth day—that day to me has not arrived—to the Swede, never did arrive.

I mark this as the final break with ordinary space and time. From now on there are no reliable markers of time. Presumably the rest of the manuscript could have been written in ordinary time of a few hours waiting for sunrise of the sixth day, but the effect of this sentence and the total effect of the story is to suspend time as we would know it.  Time for the Swede, after all, effectively ends in this sentence. Perhaps the character of the Swede exists in the story in order for Poe to produce words that cast us into another world.

We observed too, that, although the tempest continued to rage with unabated violence, there was no longer to be discovered the usual appearance of surf, or foam, which had hitherto attended us. All around were horror, and thick gloom, and a black sweltering desert of ebony.—Superstitious terror crept by degrees into the spirit of the old Swede, and my own soul was wrapped up in silent wonder. We neglected all care of the ship, as worse than useless, and securing ourselves, as well as possible, to the stump of the mizen-mast, looked out bitterly into the world of ocean.

Now that the world has ceased to operate correctly, the human order of responsibility also begins to fail, overwhelmed now by what is acknowledged as horror. Poe continues, “We had no means of calculating time, nor could we form any guess of our situation.”

We were at the bottom of one of these abysses, when a quick scream from my companion broke fearfully upon the night. "See! see!" cried he, shrieking in my ears, "Almighty God! see! see!" As he spoke, I became aware of a dull, sullen glare of red light which streamed down the sides of the vast chasm where we lay, and threw a fitful brilliancy upon our deck. Casting my eyes upwards, I beheld a spectacle which froze the current of my blood. At a terrific height directly above us, and upon the very verge of the precipitous descent, hovered a gigantic ship of, perhaps, four thousand tons.

I count this and the paragraph it is from as the climax of the story. The appearance of the ship within this setting of desolation and alienation is utterly unsettling. It remains so because it is a ship of its environment, unreal, ten times larger than the ship of the narrator.

In the process, by the way, of looking for a picture to decorate this blog post, I discovered that there is a contemporary subgenre of surrealistic portrayals of sail ships in storms. There is something inherently creepy and overtly thrilling about sail ships in storms, and some have thought, seemingly with Poe, to amplify the effect.

Her huge hull was of a deep dingy black, unrelieved by any of the customary carvings of a ship.

The ship is from no known port or nation. This may be one of the first figurations or precursors of the black helicopter of UFO and conspiracy lore: the black, unmarked vehicle of terror that visits abductees in the light of day.  Poe’s black ship and the black helicopters are elements of horror because they make an implicit promise of contact with human power but have no truly human origin. The ship comes from a bizarre world. The helicopter comes from an inhuman and inhumane bureaucracy.

But what mainly inspired us with horror and astonishment, was that she bore up under a press of sail in the very teeth of that supernatural sea…

Here Poe underscores that this is a ship of and at home in this weird place.

In the subsequent collision between the narrator’s ship and the black ship, the Swede vanishes and the break with human society is complete. Poe can take us to a place of even greater alienation. The narrator is literally flung from the last physical vestige of his world into what could have been rescue or at least a message from the world he has lost. Whaere he lands turns out to be an otherworldly artifact with occupants as strange.

When he begins to describe the crew of that ship, he moves about them, but they do not notice him. He is unable to interact with them in any way. Afraid, he hides.

A man passed by my place of concealment with a feeble and unsteady gait. I could not see his face, but had an opportunity of observing his general appearance. There was about it an evidence of great age and infirmity. His knees tottered beneath a load of years, and his entire frame quivered under the burthen. He muttered to himself, in a low broken tone, some words of a language which I could not understand, and groped in a corner among a pile of singular-looking instruments, and decayed charts of navigation. His manner was a wild mixture of the peevishness of second childhood, and the solemn dignity of a God. He at length went on deck, and I saw him no more.

It is a world populated by uncanny entities.

A feeling, for which I have no name, has taken possession of my soul —a sensation which will admit of no analysis, to which the lessons of bygone times are inadequate, and for which I fear futurity itself will offer me no key. To a mind constituted like my own, the latter consideration is an evil. I shall never—I know that I shall never—be satisfied with regard to the nature of my conceptions. Yet it is not wonderful that these conceptions are indefinite, since they have their origin in sources so utterly novel. A new sense—a new entity is added to my soul.

From here on out the text fqlls into frequent sections divided by rules that hint at indeterminate periods of time. History and time with it become insignificant. Narration itself comes into question as writing becomes broken and episodic. How does the narrator’s credibility hold up? He’s established as a character of limited vision. But that vision, so limited that he does not even acknowledge the absence of the Swede, is about to expand in spite of itself. This growth adds credibility and humanity to the narrator, cold as he remains.

Concealment is utter folly on my part, for the people will not see. It was but just now that I passed directly before the eyes of the mate—it was no long while ago that I ventured into the captain's own private cabin, and took thence the materials with which I write, and have written. I shall from time to time continue this Journal. It is true that I may not find an opportunity of transmitting it to the world, but I will not fall to make the endeavour. At the last moment I will enclose the MS. in a bottle, and cast it within the sea.

The grays, the prominent alien race from UFO tales, would at least have performed some kind of intrusive medical examination upon the narrator. This crew is no less alien than those from flying saucers.

While musing upon the singularity of my fate, I unwittingly daubed with a tar-brush the edges of a neatly-folded studding-sail which lay near me on a barrel. The studding-sail is now bent upon the ship, and the thoughtless touches of the brush are spread out into the word DISCOVERY.

I’m sure there is no end of structural and deconstructive analysis that has been spent on this passage. I would venture some myself if I were better trained in such theories. And, to be quite honest, I imagine such criticism is a very, very good way to approach the event of a narrator in a story absent-mindedly scrawling a text describing what is happening to him on the sail of the ship that’s carrying him there.

My tack is to ask an impertinent question: what realistic emotion would lead someone to literally do something like that and then recount it in this way? My only answer is: furious sarcasm. It is a sarcastic and egocentric (This crap only happens to me!) gesture toward the absurd and horrific. All in all, it’s the most sympathetic thing he has done in the story so far.

I have been looking at the timbers of the ship. She is built of a material to which I am a stranger. There is a peculiar character about the wood which strikes me as rendering it unfit for the purpose to which it has been applied. I mean its extreme porousness, considered independently by the worm-eaten condition which is a consequence of navigation in these seas, and apart from the rottenness attendant upon age. It will appear perhaps an observation somewhat over-curious, but this wood would have every characteristic of Spanish oak, if Spanish oak were distended by any unnatural means.

For many years this passage about an alien material haunted me. When I was younger such details entertained me more. “Very porous wood! Wow!”  Here again, there is a UFO parallel, say, in fascination with materials they are constructed with, such as in the Roswell narratives. Today I’m more interested in the reference to Spanish oak. The only significant connotation I can find now is that the wood is popular for making caskets. This may resonate with Poe’s obsession with premature burial, if the ship really is a great coffin. I wonder if Melville picked up on this with his coffin/flotation device for the end of Moby Dick? But such speculation only goes so far.

About an hour ago, I made bold to thrust myself among a group of the crew. They paid me no manner of attention, and, although I stood in the very midst of them all, seemed utterly unconscious of my presence. Like the one I had at first seen in the hold, they all bore about them the marks of a hoary old age. Their knees trembled with infirmity; their shoulders were bent double with decrepitude; their shrivelled skins rattled in the wind; their voices were low, tremulous and broken; their eyes glistened with the rheum of years; and their gray hairs streamed terribly in the tempest. Around them, on every part of the deck, lay scattered mathematical instruments of the most quaint and obsolete construction.

This paragraph, beginning with the most futile reference to time so far, also underscores the absence of significant time in the world he now inhabits with it’s ancient humanoids and obsolete technologies.

In the figure of the captain, though, a new sense of time and a new sense of shared fate start to manifest.

In stature he is nearly my own height; that is, about five feet eight inches. He is of a well-knit and compact frame of body, neither robust nor remarkably otherwise. But it is the singularity of the expression which reigns upon the face—it is the intense, the wonderful, the thrilling evidence of old age, so utter, so extreme, which excites within my spirit a sense—a sentiment ineffable.

The ship and all in it are imbued with the spirit of Eld. The crew glide to and fro like the ghosts of buried centuries; their eyes have an eager and uneasy meaning; and when their fingers fall athwart my path in the wild glare of the battle-lanterns, I feel as I have never felt before, although I have been all my life a dealer in antiquities, and have imbibed the shadows of fallen columns at Balbec, and Tadmor, and Persepolis, until my very soul has become a ruin.

And here is the awakening of a new self awareness, an insight that the narrator’s life has not been what he would have liked. Discovery has changed from a word revealed in something akin to unconscious automatic handwriting to an event happening in an objective world. In the process, he has achieved some kind of solidarity with the crew even if no conventional community happens.

All in the immediate vicinity of the ship is the blackness of eternal night, and a chaos of foamless water; but, about a league on either side of us, may be seen, indistinctly and at intervals, stupendous ramparts of ice, towering away into the desolate sky, and looking like the walls of the universe.

Then space again becomes measurable, even if it’s only referent is the  potential disaster of icebergs.

It is evident that we are hurrying onwards to some exciting knowledge—some never-to-be-imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction. Perhaps this current leads us to the southern pole itself. It must be confessed that a supposition apparently so wild has every probability in its favor.


The crew pace the deck with unquiet and tremulous step; but there is upon their countenances an expression more of the eagerness of hope than of the apathy of despair.

This knowledge, which has come now with the first person plural pronoun, is that of mortality which gives meaning to otherwise meaningless spans of time. As in Stephen Spielberg’s UFO story, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the final sense of meaning is derived from communing with the aliens, although the fact that Spielberg’s ship goes up while Poe’s goes down is significant. Close Encounters shows a hero entering a wonderful and eternal world through the bizarre. Poe’s story points toward the eschatological and to the mortal when meaning is also found. (Close Encounters, by the way, owes nothing to Poe and an awful lot to Dante.)

The ship enters a giant whirlpool that he describes as an “ampitheatre,” here becoming venue for a universal drama in which the actors are the only audience.

—and amid a roaring, and bellowing, and thundering of ocean and of tempest, the ship is quivering, oh God! and—going down.

Well, it just wouldn’t be a realistic or fun ending otherwise, would it? And the narrator's final exclamation strikes me as his only unequivocal words.

Unfortunately there is this afterward:

NOTE.—The "MS. Found in a Bottle," was originally published in 1831, and it was not until many years afterwards that I became acquainted with the maps of Mercator, in which the ocean is represented as rushing, by four mouths, into the (northern) Polar Gulf, to be absorbed into the bowels of the earth; the Pole itself being represented by a black rock, towering to a prodigious height.

This last stab at rational explanation seems to me unnecessary. Poe was familiar hollow earth theories that had vortices connecting the poles, much the way we now speculate about extra-dimensional travel through black holes. I can’t rescue this postscipt from being a distraction from the story, but it does seem more and more bizarre upon inspection. What did Poe intend? Does a cartographer’s artistic fancy become the scientific explanation of a fictional story? It’s all very convoluted and wonderful. To add yet one more Wikipedia link, here is their article on this text, which voices a couple of opinions more expert than my own, including the possibility that the hollow earth talk is satire; indeed that this whole text is a satire of nautical stories of the day.

At the end of the tour we see a story that masterfully creates an alienating world in which it was Poe’s ambition to put a character capable of gaining human insight. If there is a thesis I can develop later, it would come from this character arc.