Monday, 5 November 2012

Discovery and Denial

A Mermaid by J.W.Waterhouse (1901). Royal Academy of Arts. Image source: Wikipedia

On January 8th, 1493, during his first New World voyage, Christopher Columbus, wrong again, mistook three sea cows swimming south of the Bahamas for mermaids. This had been a common delusion among sailors for centuries, whenever they saw the large grey creatures raising their amiable, long-nosed, whiskered heads above the ocean surface, and bending their fore-limbs like arms.  

Columbus was not the man to give up a preconception.The next day in his blog - sorry, log - rather than speculate that he had seen a new species, any more than he would ever admit landing on a new continent, he dissed his mermaids for being less beautiful than they were painted (no eran tan hermosas como las pintan) and for having masculine-looking faces (forma de hombre en la cara). From the distance of his ship, he was sure he had seen three butch sirens waving at him. CONTINUED

Oldest known engraving of a West Indian manatee, from Oviedo's La Historia General de las Indias (1535)

You'd think that a sailor would have to be very drunk to make this mistake, as manatees do not have long hair they spend hours brushing, or seductive bare breasts, or lure men to death with their singing; they are very large and gentle vegetarian aquatic mammals, more closely related to elephants than dolphins, who paddle slowly through the ocean, playing tenderly with their young calves, or cradling them in their flippers, and communicating to each other in high pitched sounds audible to humans. 

We see what we want to see. Columbus, brilliant navigator and entreprenueur,
was an accidental discoverer with a limited imagination whose actions were self-justified by his powerful Christian faith. The reports of his voyage he gave his sponsors, the Catholic King and Queen of Spain, had to fulfill the sales pitch that he had given them for finding a new trade route. Along the way he planned to amass a private fortune from governorship of any colonies he founded and a percentage of their revenues. 

His religious and commercial agenda was not going to be shaken by inconvenient new things, like manatees and a land mass almost as big as Europe with indigenous people and cultures. Even if in his heart of hearts he'd doubted that he had seen mermaids, he had no interest in capsizing established superstitions and hierarchies. You might say that he was a bit like a denier of man-influenced global warming nowadays.

In 45 million years manatees have never harmed anyone, and having once had their existence denied, they are now an endangered species, dying in unprecedentedly high numbers, and, big surprise, it is our industrial innovations that are destroying them, by cutting them in half with the propellers of high-speed boats, or drowning them in canal locks, or choking them to death with bits of discarded machinery - and the Republican Tea Party hates them. Modern right-wing American credulity and die-hard imperialism have a lot in common with Columbus.

For many people, it is unthinkable that humanity was not created to be the best in the best of all possible worlds; that we may be pointless is unconscionable. Despite all we've done, the worst we can think of to say about our enemy is that they are "inhuman".

Often, the people who come first in life's race are the most blinkered. Moral qualms and self-doubt are indulgences that get in the way of achievement. This helps explain the stupidity and criminality of so many successful world leaders and entrepreneurs. Denial is an essential survival tool; the more you admit to seeing, the madder you get.

"...the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck'd up from the sea
Contagious fogs....

....the moon (governess of floods)
Pale in her anger, washes all the air

"And thorough this distemperature": detail of Oberon and Titania by Francis Danby, 1837
illustrating Titania's "forgeries of jealousy" speech about climate change 
in A Midsummer Night's Dream (written mid-1590s), Act II, Scene I.
And thorough this distemperature, we see
The seasons alter....and the mazed world knows not which is which."