In a comment on my super-brief “Descent into the Maelström” post the other day, Amateur Reader said, “This is one of the Poe stories where the narrator’s clinical tone doesn’t match events. All of these terrible things happen, and he sounds like he presenting the results of a lab experiment. Unsettling.” This was one of my principle reactions to the story as well—to one of the narrators, at least.
It’s a framed story, and the narrator of “Descent into the Maelström” is not clinical at all, he is the horrified one. A man brings him to the very edge of the coastline near the whirlpool, to “the summit of the loftiest crag,” where the seas thunder and he “struggled in vain to divest myself of the idea that the very foundations of the mountain were in danger from the fury of the winds.”
But his guide’s sang-froid is pretty wild. “You must get over these fancies,” he tells the narrator, who continues to describe the scene to us in vivid, bleak terms.
I looked dizzily, and beheld a wide expanse of ocean, whose waters wore so inky a hue as to bring at once to my mind the Nubian geographer’s account of the Mare Tenebrarum. A panorama more deplorably desolate no human imagination can conceive. To the right and left, as far as the eye could reach, there lay outstretched, like ramparts of the world, lines of horridly black and beetling cliff, whose character of gloom was but the more forcibly illustrated by the surf which reared high up against it its white and ghastly crest, howling and shrieking for ever.
When I read Poe like this it makes me wish I could hear him describe Cape Horn, too. Oooh.*
As for the lab experiment: Oh yes. As the guide begins the story of his ordeal in the maelstrom, our narrator looks at the whirl itself, a “deadly attraction” great enough to destroy “the largest ships of the line in existence,” and muses on its causes and fluid dynamics. The scientific explanation given in the story is interesting and plausible to me, but the guide “confessed his inability to comprehend it; and here I agreed with him—for, however conclusive on paper, it becomes altogether unintelligible, and even absurd, amid the thunder of the abyss.”
But amid the thunder of the abyss is exactly where the guide managed to keep his head. His story is one of getting caught in the whirl, years before, with his brothers on a fishing smack. His telling is clinical, and his actions too. When his boat is really and truly stuck in the whirl, going round and round with the decks perpendicular to the face of the earth (though parallel to the face of the water), he is coolly composed. “It may look like boasting—but what I tell you is truth—I began to reflect how magnificent a thing it was to die in such a manner, and how foolish it was in me to think of so paltry a consideration as my own individual life, in view of so wonderful a manifestation of God’s power.”
He changes his mind on that one, of course, because he does try to get out, and to do so he has to think some more about the dynamics of the maelstrom. This is the really clinical part.
I made…three important observations. The first was, that as a general rule, the larger the bodies were, the more rapid their descent—the second, that, between two masses of equal extent, the one spherical, and the other of any other shape, the superiority in speed of descent was with the sphere—the third, that, between two masses of equal size, the one cylindrical, and the other of any other shape, the cylinder was absorbed the more slowly. Since my escape, I have had several conversations on this subject with an old schoolmaster of the district; and it was from him that I learned the use of the words ‘cylinder’ and ‘sphere.’ He explained to me—although I have forgotten the explanation—how what I observed was, in fact, the natural consequence of the forms of the floating fragments—and showed me how it happened that a cylinder, swimming in a vortex, offered more resistance to its suction, and was drawn in with greater difficulty than an equally bulky body, of any form whatever.
Poe actually refers us here to “Archimedes, ‘De Incidentibus in Fluido.’” My edition informs me that “This quotation does not come from the Greek mathematician and inventor…Poe made it up as a joke.” Sounds like a Poe joke to me.
Really the whole thing sounds very Poe to me. A horrific situation and bizarre clinical ratiocination. Toss in hair turning white over night, a magnificent natural scene, shake, and you’ve got a story. Not to criticize; I think this one is pretty great really.
*Not that it’s really Poe, but in Wild Nights! Joyce Carol Oates’s book of short stories in which she mimics a writer’s style in each one to tell a story about that writer, there is a very, very fun what-if one: Poe, rather than dying in a Baltimore gutter, is picked up and dusted off by a mysterious benefactor who sends him to live, with a dog for company, at a lighthouse off the Pacific coast of South America. We get to read his diary as he loses his mind.