Friday, July 1, 2011

White Water Rafting It Was Not

It was the best of times, that century between 1815 and 1914. They are the years of Hugo, Zola, and Flaubert in literature, Berlioz, Saint-Saens, Bizet, Offenbach, and Debussy in music,  and Delacroix, Rodin, Degas and the Impressionists in painting.  It was the worst of times. 1812 France has again been embroiled in revolution and Napoleon abandoned some 5000 of his troops in Moscow. He returned to Paris to continued national discontent followed by the 1813 invasion of Prussia, the defeat of the French in Spain, and the declaration of war against France by Austria and Britain. By May of 1814 Napoleon was off to exile at Elba.

Enter Louis XVIII who attempted to strike a balance between political factions and all seemed well or at least headed in that direction. Until you know who came back. Napoleon was back in town, Louis XVIII was not, and here we go again. Battles were waged against the Prussians, Napoleon's soldiers were divided between battle fields with 113,000 Anglo-Dutch and Prussian forces on the war path. Waterloo. It's over for Napoleon but it wasn't over for the revolutionaries and the royalists who couldn't seem to agree on borders, colonial expansion,  industry, agriculture, the church. You name it, they fought over it.

In June 1816 the frigate Medusa launched from France headed to Senegal not terribly far south of the Sahara Desert. Jonathan Miles in his book "The Wreck of the Medusa" details all of the background information of the voyage but all you need to know is that the Medusa set sail in the midst of enormous political turmoil to undertake a controversial task with its bow set for a pirate-populated distant land. It never made it.

On July 5, 1816, 195 years ago next week, the Medusa over 100 miles off course, ran aground adjacent to the Sahara, its life boats not numerous enough to carry the 400 passengers to safety. At least 146 men and one woman along with two casks of water, a few of wine and a day's worth of ship's biscuit  boarded a hastily constructed raft which immediately became partially submerged. The raft carried its prisoners to the very edge of human experience. For thirteen days the starving parched passengers experienced total mental collapse, death, murder at the hands of fellow crewmen and evidently that was just for starters. Only 15 survived the nightmare which was then blamed on the officers of the ship, King Louis XVIII,  and various other government officials.

Romantic artist Theodore Gericault produced the uncommissioned visual editorial of "The Raft of the Medusa" just two short years later with the occupants of the raft crowded together in a sea of humanity with the rescue ship the Argus off in the distance. Measuring a gargantuan 16' X 23', the first glimpse of Gericault's painting literally takes your breath away. I wasn't prepared for the larger than life sized figures being catapulted by the seas and one another into such misery. I wasn't prepared to have my breath drawn out as I was drawn into their agony. Such agony so incredibly captured on canvas by a 27 year old artist. It's a painting that seems to shout, "Look at me!" And look you must. And then you turn away from the grief and pain only to find that you have to look again. And again. And again. It's one of those unexpected experiences I wouldn't  trade for much if anything. The Raft. 195 years ago and still telling its story of the human condition.

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