‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’
It is possible for life to be a bowl of shit. Or it can be a much smaller saucer of shit. Conventional wisdom holds the latter to have the edge over the former, less shit being deemed by definition preferable to more. But I’m not convinced. See, the constant, the common denominator, is still shit. Perhaps apologists for the shit saucer school of thought are working from a theory that if you only have a saucerful, then there must be space at the table for other crockery, presumably full of things other than shit. You can turn away from the shit for a bit and stick a spoon in something else. Gazpacho, for instance. But what if there’s only a saucer? What if there’s nothing else on the table? What if there’s no fucking table? What if there’s just a standard-size saucer, brim-full to the meniscus with shit, hurtling through an otherwise barren and sterile universe? Maybe then it would be better to have a whole bowl, right? If only for the sake of variety? I mean, if the choice was shit of a single feather or a shit potpourri, perhaps the latter would hold more possibilities? More to ponder. More to learn from. Not to mention the vagaries of texture and discovery: the bowl might feasibly offer more than the saucer’s single skinny nugget of half-digested corn and lone parasitic nematode thinly versed in Keith Jarrett’s Köln Konzert or elementary string theory (or at least capable of waxing bollocks about it until three in the morning whilst sucking down one’s unsuspecting nutrients).
The occupants of the Raft of the Medusa understood this. Having begun their voyage in June 1816 aboard a great big galleon of shit (the Medusa itself) out of Rochefort for Senegal under the command of the serially inept Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys, they soon found themselves a hundred miles off course and snagged rotten on a sandbank somewhere off Mauritania. Anyone familiar with the animated segment from The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle for the song Friggin’ in the Riggin’ will have a pretty clear idea of how this must have looked at ground zero; including (but not limited to) some gallic Steve Jones, lurching from the crow’s nest, hammered on Pernod, belting out:
‘The second mate was Andy
By Christ, he had a dandy
Till they crushed his cock with a jagged rock
For coming in the brandy’
(‘Le deuxième compagnon était Andy
Par le Christ, il a eu un dandy
Jusqu’à ce qu’ils aient écrasé son robinet avec un déchiqueté basculez
Pour venir dans l’eau-de-vie fine’)
(Apologies for poor scansion in line three, the French are buggers with the trochaic trimeter.)
As their lumbering Bateau de Merde became wedged deeper into the Arguin Bank by the tides, so its 400 increasingly miserable occupants were presented with a conundrum; to sit tight, neck deep in shit (but still breathing) and await rescue, or to aggregate themselves onto an armada of smaller Canots de Merde and row the sixty long miles to the African coast. The pitch turned out to be fatally queered though; absence of foresight had allowed for only 253 bottom-spaces on the sturdy benches of les Canots. Which left 146 men and a lone woman (total fucking bummer for her, you’d think) to hastily fashion a raft of their own salvation (un Radeau de Merde) from hunks of the ailing Bateau itself, along with items of luggage, pots, pans, bed-sheets. The plan was to toss this ramshackle affair into the ocean, load it up with the 147 unfortunates and tow it behind the flotilla of Canots to terra firma and a warm welcome from cheerful negroes with enormous holes in their earlobes and plates in their lower lips. At first things appeared not all that bad; the raft floated, roughly. But as as the passengers began to pile on, so it began abruptly to sink. And here we have the watershed moment; the fulcrum shit bowl > shit saucer event. Our heroes had gambled what appeared to be a great big bowl of shit – albeit one with a kind of steady shitty equilibrium (and the hope of eventual extrication) – against a truly shitty little saucer of shit, rapidly disintegrating and barreling downhill. The only food on board was a single bag of biscuits, devoured within minutes. The last two barrels of water went straight overboard, casualties of early squabbling: the single cask of wine was consumed exclusively by Steve Jones and Paul Cook. Furthermore, towing the hapless raft proved more than les Canots could handle, so it was cut adrift with cheerful au revoirs! and promises of future salvation somewhere down the line.
And then what happens in any given Raft of the Medusa situation, happened. Internecine bickering broke out amongst the inhabitants; allegiances were formed and broken; duplicity, morbid self-pity and back-stabbing became the order of the day. Passengers imprudent enough to attempt sleep were booted into the sea without ceremony. Others, despairing of isolation and the worthlessness of their fellow man, hurled themselves off the raft to certain death rather than endure yet another encounter with some goitred eunuch pontificating dully on the seamlessness of misery, the absence of a God and self-proclaimed talent overlooked. As numbers dwindled, so the survivors clung together, only to find themselves throttled by the ceaseless neediness of their neighbours. Febrile madness took hold; those callow enough to assign decency where there was none quickly paid the price. Cannibalism followed hard upon murder, broad bedimpled buttocks and man-breasts being the snacks of choice. The viscous shit in the saucer festered, condensed, became thickened and crusted at the centre, liquefied at the rim.
When, thirteen days later, The Raft of the Medusa was ultimately chanced upon by The Argus (ironically sent out to search for a cargo of gold assumed to be still in the belly of the broken Medusa itself), only 15 of the original 146 men aboard remained, all in an advanced state of lunacy and sepsis. The woman was long gone, presumably defiled and whittled into jerky.
Such was the scene of french national shame depicted in oils by Théodore Géricault in 1818-1819. Interestingly, at the time the artist commenced work on the painting, he was a mere 27 years old and had been forced to break off a nine year affair with his somewhat older Aunt Alexandrine, his unflinching patron, flinching bedfellow and surrogate mother since the death of his actual mum in 1808. In late 1817 she had become rather awkwardly pregnant with what would naturally turn out to be both Géricault’s nephew and his son. Freaked out by the near-Oedipal shame of his situation, he retired to his studio, shaved his head and – deprived for the first time of an indulgent mother-figure – pursued a monastic existence with only his teenage assistant Louis-Alexis Jamar (they slept together in an adjacent lavatory) for company. He immersed himself in his depiction of The Raft of the Medusa, presumably finding a certain consonance in its themes of incestuousness, abandonment, lost hope and all-round shit-saucery. And yearning, of course. He painted from life, employing the naked Jamar for many of the characters (including the supine figure with shriveled genitals in the foreground), as well as three survivors of the actual shipwreck, Messrs Corréard, Lavillette and Savigny, whose lurid tales imbued Géricault with an additional reservoir of romantic horror, evident in the final work. According to the the art historian Georges-Antoine Borias, throughout the eighteen months it took to complete the painting “Géricault … began a mournful descent. Behind locked doors he threw himself into his work. Nothing repulsed him. He was dreaded and avoided”. Sadly, it seems this lifelong capacity to inspire avoidance never left him. Following a brief sojourn in London, he returned to Paris in 1821 and proceeded to hurt himself rather badly by falling off a horse, an injury exacerbated by his being stomped in the chest by a goat at a petting zoo in Amiens a year later. He died three years after this from complications of tuberculosis, the fall and ensuing cloven-hoof-stomping, and is buried in Père Lachaise, alongside the tragic lovers Abélard and Héloïse (the former sans génitales through eternity) and the novelist Honoré de Balzac, whose talents were more than commensurate with his, but whose name is much funnier.
Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa has fascinated, held and horrified generations of observers since it was first exhibited at the 1819 Paris Salon. The novelist Julian Barnes devoted an entire chapter of his A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters to Géricault’s magnum opus (and magnum it is, weighing in at 16 feet tall, 23 feet wide). In summary, he made the following observation:
‘All that straining – to what end? There is no formal response to the painting’s main surge, just as there is no response to most human feelings. Not merely hope, but any burdensome yearning: ambition, hatred, love (especially love) – how rarely do our emotions meet the object they seem to deserve? How hopelessly we signal; how dark the sky; how big the waves. We are all lost at sea, washed between hope and despair, hailing something that may never come to rescue us.’
His sentiment echoes Stevie Smith’s Not Waving But Drowning:
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
Despair squats where the present is mired in the participle. It’s not that ‘Shit Happens (to others)’. It’s that ‘Shit is Happening (to me)’. Géricault knew this; the slogan ‘La Merde se Produit’ was splattered on his studio wall in bitumen. His initial sketches for The Raft of the Medusa include a clear depiction of The Argus in the near background, offering rescue, representing salvation. Subsequent renditions moved the ship further and further into the distance. In the finished painting it is no more than a futile speck on the horizon. The passengers of The Raft of the Medusa marooned on a seamless ocean, slowly eating each other, knew it too. And so too do the passengers of every other lost and lonely Raft of the Medusa floundering upon its tawdry, parochial puddle of history. From Milan to Yucatan. Every woman, every man.