For the third time since April, small crowds gather at the beach near my home to see yet another corpse of a dead whale washed ashore. Even for gawkers, an homage of solemnity surrounds this image of great defeat. A gentle and magical beast once gracefully at home in the mysterious reaches of ocean inaccessible to us, is now a heap of rotting surrender, rocking gently in the most derelict of slumbers by the relentless waves. Feet away from our local strip mall.
When we read Oedipus, he pointed out the passive structure of the line — the gift of my own beaten self. Because that is what happens when our will fails, we can no longer act. In those moments when we worry about the increasingly acidic and inhospitable ocean, we pick garbage off the beach, we sign petitions, ban plastic bags, we are careful about what sloughs off into our gutters leading to the sea. And I can’t help but think that this third beacon, a totem of majesty now throroughly exhausted, signifies that it doesn’t matter. And a part of me is like that slumped over dark mass of hopelessness, filling me with deep apology. And like a true gift, there is only a response of stillness — not transaction — just acceptance.
The first whale in April was a headliner. It was a 49-foot sperm whale, a species rarely washed ashore because they are at home so far from land. My son and I stood at the perimeter to pay our respects. In the meanwhile, scientists butchered the prized corpse for data. “Why did it die?,” my son asked. A spokesperson from the Academy of Sciences fielded questions, for some reason focusing mostly on a British vacationing family, whose youngest son was poking irreverently at a dead, starved seal pup a few yards away. While we eavesdropped, the spokesperson told them some facts about the sperm whale and what the scientists were looking for. “Why did it die?,” again. She recounted that the whale was later in life, because his teeth were worn down significantly. “Why did it die?” Then she added that although emaciated, the whale had a big meal of squid in his entrails. “Why did it…?” Finally she addressed my son, mostly to stop the grating repetition known only to young children who are ignored and don’t realize the futility of trying not to be. “We don’t know.”
Analysis is a form of subordination, of trying to assert a superiority. Steiner asks, do you ever find a representative from a faraway subsistent tribe in the middle of a North American city, studying our first-world behaviors? Most thinking is indeed a form of self-establishment, of self-congealing.
In real thinking, he said, you almost disappear. There is an intense turning towards — and it is to be in love with everything around you. But here, I go back and forth, wanting to know why so many dead things are being hurled against our shore, and I am met with a harsh refusal.
It is a crisis of consciousness to try to make beautiful things in what can be described as very unbeautiful times. As Steiner says, music never says no. And my god, there are so many seductions coaxing me away from real-art making, even just the projection of myself into this very writing — which Steiner says is an act of a minor craftsman falling short of any originality. But I must give testimony, for the hope that art happens and shows us the freedom not to be. A freedom that sometimes enters after the beaten self is off-stage, dissolving slowly into the sea.
“whatever we lose like a you or a me
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea” — ee cummings
(Detail from Turner’s Burial at Sea painting, 1842)