Thursday, December 08, 2005
Raft of the Medusa
I have been thinking a lot about the Painting “The raft of The Medusa” lately. I first started thinking about this painting while being forced with a four hour layover in Cleveland, If you have ever been to this shitty airport you will know why I refer to layovers here as the Raft of the Medusa. Today however I have been reading Paul Virillo’s Vision Machine, and I he discusses the paintings obvious political implications.
I have included a detail of the shipwreck from Houghton Mifflin.
Named for the hideous gorgon of Greek mythology, Medusa was originally built as a 44-gun frigate. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, she was converted to a troop transport, and 30 of her guns were removed. On June 16, 1816, Medusa sailed as flagship of a four-ship convoy dispatched to establish a garrison in Senegal, which had been repatriated to France as part of the peace settlement negotiated after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo and after the return of the Bourbon monarchy to the French throne. The captain of the convoy, Viscount Hughes de Chaumareys, was a royalist with no previous command experience. Pressured for a quick passage by the new governor of Senegal, Colonel Julien-Désiré Schmaltz, de Chaumareys disregarded the Naval Ministry's orders first by sailing ahead of his squadron and then by crossing the treacherous and poorly charted Arguin Bank off the coast of West Africa.
On the afternoon of July 2, sailing in good weather, Medusa ran aground roughly 50 kilometers off the coast of the Sahara Desert and 250 miles north of Saint-Louis, Senegal. De Chaumareys's efforts to refloat the ship failed because he refused to jettison any of her fourteen 3-ton cannon. A gale on July 5 only worsened the ship's plight. De Chaumareys proceeded to abandon ship, but rather than ferry the passengers ashore systematically, he allowed everyone to clamber pell-mell into the ship's six boats. These could only accommodate about half the ship's complement, and 150 people, mostly soldiers and sailors, were ordered onto a raft, hastily thrown together from spars, planks, barrels, and loose rigging, and poorly provisioned. De Chaumareys and Schmaltz planned to tow the raft, but it was so sluggish that they soon abandoned it. Those in the boats eventually made it to Saint-Louis.
Conditions on the overloaded raft were terrible to start with and worsened fast. Over a two-week period, drowning, starvation, burning heat, violent mutiny, and widespread cannibalism reduced the original complement to 15, including the ship's doctor, J. B. Henri Savigny, and geographical engineer Alexandre Corréard. On July 17, the delirious survivors were rescued by the French ship Argus. Seven weeks after the shipwreck, four more men were found aboard the Medusa, the last of 17 men who had chosen to remain with the ship.
News of the catastrophe quickly reached Paris. Savigny and Corréard's account condemning de Chaumareys and Schmaltz for their incompetence, callousness, and cowardice achieved wide circulation at home and abroad. Bonapartists seized on the tragedy to embarrass the Naval Ministry's nepotistic command structure and to attack the monarchy. De Chaumareys was tried on five counts but acquitted of abandoning his squadron, of failing to refloat his ship and save her cargo of gold, and of abandoning the raft. He was found guilty of incompetent and complacent navigation and of abandoning Medusa before all her passengers were off. The last verdict carried the death penalty, but De Chaumareys was sentenced to only three years in jail. The trial was widely denounced as a whitewash and confirmation of Bourbon corruption, and by 1818, public opinion had forced the resignation of Governor Schmaltz and the unprecedented passage of the Gouvion de Saint-Cyr law legislating for the first time a meritocracy in the French military.
Perhaps the best-known legacy of the Medusa shipwreck, though, was a painting by Théodore Géricault, first exhibited at the Paris Salon in September 1819. Popularly known as "The Raft of the Medusa," the painting is entitled simply "Scene of Shipwreck" and portrays the survivors at the moment of their seeing salvation on the horizon in the form of the Argus. In 1980, the remains of the ship itself were identified by divers on the Arguin Bank some 50 kilometers off the coast of Mauritania.
McKee, Death Raft. Savigny & Corréard, Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal. Weeks, "Notes and News."
The Painting Raft of The Medusa at the time was seen by the general public as a criticism of Louis the XVIII, Virillo see the painting as this “ The medusa is a kind of integrated circuit of vision, that would seem to bode a future of awesome communication”( Virillo, Vision Machine, p.38) I tend to see the painting in much the same way, that we as a culture have been shocked or numbed by technology, at the time the medusa was a marvel of technology, the incident today would be akin to the shuttle disasters, just as the reliance on technology and our unwillingness to let go of technology so too have we as a culture become shipwrecked metaphorically, we are stranded in a sea of obnoxious white noise of ad’s for fried chicken and sneakers have overcome our natural human senses. We as a species have lost touch with what makes us basically human. Instead we call our human conditions things like Seasonal Affective Disorder, seasons change and so does the world around us but we have embraced this dualism of identity. We believe now that our bodies have somehow gotten in the way of our minds, that somehow if we think hard enough we can see the true nature of reality. I would have to think that this thinking is a step further towards cutting the Raft of the Medusa loose. If we look at 9-11 as being a disaster both political and spirtual to the American mind framing in mind the powerful image of the Medusa, the Medusa pales in comparison to the powerful Phatic Image created by the terrorist attacks, burned into our memories is the image of the exploding towers, in much the same way that emblems of propaganda and corporate advertising are etched into our minds, so too are the images of 9-11. Just as the Medusa was viewed as a failure of the politics of the 1816, so too the image of the world trade center is indeed an emblem of the failures of American foreign policy.