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Readings — From the March 2017 issue

Sinking Ships and Sea Dramas

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By Alexander Kluge, from a manuscript in progress. Kluge is a filmmaker and a writer. A collection of short stories, Drilling Through Hard Boards, will be published next month by Seagull Books. The cycle below was inspired in part by lines from the work of Ben Lerner, the poetry editor of Harper’s Magazine. Translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole.

i

A little-known fact: the bow of the Titanic sank into the icy water so quickly that for a long while a pocket of air survived in the salon. In it (that is, in a 300-cubic-meter ball of compressed oxygen), the ship’s band played on until five in the morning from a score brought from Southampton. They were certainly no longer playing for pay, or from loyalty to the ship’s owners or to the captain, with whom they had lost all contact. They played their medleys because any change in their actions would have plunged them into despair. What else could they do, sensing the water waiting outside every door of the brilliantly lit room?

The ship struck the seafloor at three in the morning. Skidding across a sandy dune, it came to rest at the bottom of a valley. The musicians felt the impact as a jolt, and the halt (of a hundred years or more — no one knows whether the Titanic will ever be raised) as a perturbation. For the first time in days: no forward motion. The background noise (gurgles, sirens, the sound of the boilers, people screaming to be rescued) against which they had pitched their fox-trots, operetta melodies, and tango tunes — all gone. The acoustics were such as entertainers rarely enjoy, but the musicians didn’t notice as they played on against hopelessness, played on for the sole reason that any change in their actions would only have increased their disquiet.

ii

In dense flurries, snow fell on Venice. Icy just hours before, the snow was now too warm to cling to the roofs of the palazzi. It was rapidly consumed by the lagoon’s green water.

This was no Arctic snow. The snow over the city came from Africa. Cold rage had risen in the mountains as French Army engineers — trained in repairing car bodies, amateurs with poison gas — used their canisters to spray the caves in which they thought the Tuareg rebels were hiding. The wails of the women they had killed filled their ears all night long, unappeasable, insuppressible, robbing France’s weary soldiers of their sleep. From the caves of the dead, the rage rose to the sky, lingering beneath the warm currents of the stratosphere and reaching Venice as a weather-wonder, a psychic state that turned to rain over the millennia-old city and returned to the earth’s surface. A cold rage. The snow only seems to have melted.

iii

They say that God lost interest in his creatures. He was ready to destroy what he had created, or to “withdraw from his creation” so that his creatures, humanity, would perish from natural forces.

A secondary interpretation of this “observed withdrawal of God” (confirmed by all reliable rabbis and prophets) seeks its cause in the high-ranking angel Ezekiel’s infatuation with an earthly woman and in the fact that one of Noah’s sons had claimed his brother’s wife and forced her to submit to him. Reasons, comments Rabbi Bekri, are not the raw material from which the Almighty draws his decisions.

According to legend, pious Noah’s prayers persuaded God to let him equip a seagoing vessel before humanity was annihilated, preserving through the Flood one specimen of each documented form of creation. That ship then reached Mount Ararat, where the passengers disembarked, beginning the first wave of globalization, albeit in the absence of beings such as unicorns or absolute evil, which had not survived.

A trustworthy scholar from the vicinity of Naples argues that this translation of the Holy Scriptures contains obvious errors. Barca (Ital. “boat,” i.e., Noah’s vessel) is confused here with the Hebrew word for a chest for holding documents. God, doubting his creation (i.e., doubting his “inscription upon reality”), allowed Noah to transport a chest full of books. These were rescued on Mount Ararat as “the only source of knowledge holding humanity together.” This source encompasses the ability to deal with texts. The human animal, Rabbi Bekri claims, differs from other animals not through vitality, obstinacy, or intelligence but through the knowledge of writing. Writings contain humility, that is, self-knowledge. However little we know, we can trust the keen perceptions of what is contained in the writings. (Because by nature, says Rabbi Bekri, we, homo compensator, are “equilibrists.”)

iv

Impressions of the here and now prevail, even at the moment of death. And so it is with the direction of the wind, the darkness of the horizon toward the coast, the reliable lights of the yacht that pass through Maxwell’s neutral eyes into his head. But there the putsch is in full swing. Arguments and counterarguments from the previous day. Business friends, rescuers, fail to pull off the rescue, the banks are machines, callous vehicles of execution.

He won’t wait for that. What significance has the fear of SS men advancing toward the partisans’ path when I counter it with subterfuge and flight? Or the fear of rejection in love when at this moment I cannot hold the dearest thing I have? None of these remedies can counter the force of the deficit that ruins Maxwell’s business empire. He cannot save his enterprises.

He proceeds to the stern of the yacht from the galley, where he has been tippling brandy with the captain and two companions, assistants who have been working for him for twelve years now and to whom he would like to pass on some advantage, had he any to confer. This outside world, made of fog, H2O, depth, masses of wind, is called the Bay of Biscay. For twenty kilometers around none of it can be precisely defined. Maxwell, the billionaire, deprived of his property by the bankruptcy to be revealed tomorrow, is overweight. Forty-seven kilos above normal weight. that is advantageous now, as he throws himself overboard, guided only by resolve.

Germany’s newspapers report the news of his death in a scant twenty lines. The International Herald Tribune devotes its front page to the dead businessman.

He had fought the German occupiers as a partisan in southern Russia. Later became a British citizen. Newspaper star, media czar.

We will miss him, said Lord Roscol, a guest professor at Harvard. Bankrupt businessmen deserve death, retorted William Detmold of the Chicago School. There is no capital punishment for financial collapse, Roscol replied. Hadn’t the very manner of his death confirmed he was in the wrong? persisted Detmold. In the wrong how? asked Roscol. Maxwell had no intention of causing a fiasco. I doubt that he ever acted recklessly in his life, as a partisan or as a British businessman or as a billionaire. The only willful thing was his death.

v

A woman on a sinking ship held her child close, the water rose to her hips, in the adjacent rooms rescue teams were heard. As the whimpering creature struggled in her grip she focused all her attention on her arms, cradling him. At that moment the ship tilted to the side; the woman slipped, her limbs deadened by the icy water, and realized that though she was exerting all the force of her being to cling to the child rather than reach for support, already her will had nothing more to draw on. The bundle vanished in the water. Seeking to grasp it, she reached her deadened hands into the murky flood. Thus, seeking, groping, she was grabbed by the rescuers, wrapped in blankets, and taken by stages to a hospital to be treated for hypothermia. On the adjustable bed she sat gazing fixedly, arms raised.

doctor: How can we restore her to her normal life?

mother superior: We’ll keep her safe from self-harm until tomorrow morning. You ought to give her a sedative . . .?

doctor: I’d rather not, after that shock.

mother superior: There are few precedents, not in our hospital.

doctor: No.

mother superior: She must have understood what happened.

doctor: Yes, but understanding doesn’t mean that she accepts it.

mother superior: No, she doesn’t accept it. She wants to express that she doesn’t accept it.

doctor: Doesn’t accept it yet?

mother superior: No, not at all, I think.

doctor: And what can be done about that attitude?

mother superior: I don’t think anything should be done about that attitude.

vi

Just forty nautical miles from the southern coast of Africa, shipwrecked sailors, defying the storm from the west in a lifeboat, encountered an uncanny apparition. Over the crests of the waves the form of a gigantic turtle loomed like an avenger. The sailors, though, felt no guilt whatsoever. They had never tasted turtle soup or partaken of the meat of such a creature. How did this encounter come about?

We would know nothing of the incident had not the shipwrecked men come ashore at last, fourteen miles south of Cape Town. Their account in the London papers was soon forgotten. But on the neck of the gigantic turtle, one of the sailors reported, under its shell, there was a wrinkle the size of a man, while others were the height of a tenement ceiling. The eyes of the swimming animal had had a “menacing” or at least an “intense” look. It was a mystery how the creature could have managed to swim in the turbulent sea. Apparently it had stretched its nostrils aloft and paddled with its front legs. Did the shipwrecked men paddle? No, they froze in terror. It was a “terrible sight” that would devastate them until the end of their lives. Had the apparition then vanished? It wasn’t an apparition. And it wasn’t a huge wave mistaken for a turtle? No, by no means. A turtle, extraordinarily large.

The sailor was questioned by an Oxford professor and member of the Royal Society. Such a sea creature, resembling a turtle but seven times larger than a whale, had never been seen in the oceans before — was the sailor sure that he was not mistaken? The teller of the tale, a Spaniard, replied: This is what I saw.

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