My aspiration​ to spend time at sea as requisite literary training died long ago, as a teenager, on a white-knuckled ferry ride to Elba during a torrential rainstorm. Not only was I seasick, I saw the population on board as hostile competitors to salvation. As the ferry lurched and rolled, we gave one another dirty looks, sized up whose head we would push under the waves to keep our own above the waterline. The thin membrane of civility frayed with every jerk and jolt, and the law of the sea, from the literature I loved most, seemed nowhere to be found. And so, this past summer, when I boarded a fast boat to Capri – that famous rock where Lenin and Adorno hiked, and where now those who can afford prices set for Russian oligarchs shop – I was not immune to the prospect that the good-looking captain in his tight white slacks might throw us to the sharks. I had decided that it is the fate of my generation never to have known the noble law of the sea, and to live, instead, in an era when the captain leaves his ship not last, but first. Call it the new spirit of capitalism, ushered in with all the other forms of ruthlessness that mark contemporary times, and painted into our naval history most vividly, and recently, by the tragedy of the Costa Concordia and its notorious captain, Francesco Schettino.

Schettino is tanned, with glittering ice-blue eyes and black lustrous hair, hair in which, apparently, traces of cocaine were found. He has a full-blooded and virile affect and exudes intense vanity, which pours in where intelligence might be absent, or might have vacated itself, at least temporarily, to accommodate such vanity, which argues for its own permanent residence in the mind and genitals, where there is plenty of room. A few hours after the 17-deck Costa Concordia set sail, with everything routine, Captain Schettino gave an order for the ship to slow down so that he could enjoy to the full his dessert and drain the decanter of red wine he was sharing with his 25-year-old blonde Moldovan stowaway. He then reported to the bridge for his off-course and showy fly-by of the island of Giglio.

That evening – Friday 13 January 2012 – Captain Schettino jumped or ‘fell’ into a lifeboat. This happened early in a long night of harrowing rescues. Schettino was conspicuously dry, and on land, while many hundreds of his passengers were still on board, or sliding down ropes past the liner’s enormous port-side flank, or jumping thirty feet into the water and attempting to swim for land, or helpless and praying, being either old, or infirm, or with children too young to climb down ropes, or after slipping on fuel-sloshed and tilting decks, having found themselves trapped in the depths of the ship where the water was rising. Thirty-two passengers died that night, by drowning or from hypothermia.

The island of Giglio, Schettino’s planned if unofficial fly-by, was where the Costa Concordia hit a rock, Schettino having failed, or refused, to take proper soundings, which is pretty much what happened on the morning of 2 July 1816, when Captain de Chaumareys piloted the French frigate Medusa into shallow water near the coast of Senegal – though in his case it was sheer incompetence rather than a deliberate decision. As crew members noted, the waters into which the Medusa was sailing were ominously warm. The captain did not take note. The sea went green, and crew members worried. The captain did not. Sand scrolled in the waves. Floating cities of kelp appeared: trouble, crew members knew. The sea went clear: they were screwed. The Medusa ran aground on the treacherous Arguin Bank. Chaos ensued. The captain abandoned ship, and worse, cut the rope to the raft of survivors he had pledged to tow. Only 15 of 147 on the raft survived.

Like the captain of the Medusa, Schettino sneaked off his own ship. He not only caused unnecessary deaths and ruined a £372 million cruise liner, as well – very nearly – as a section of coastline and the livelihood of the Italians who live on the island where the Concordia capsized, a ship that could cost more than a billion pounds to scrap: he was a coward. ‘Vada a bordo, cazzo!’ a Livorno coastguard captain told him, the call famously recorded, then played and replayed: Vada a bordo, Vada a bordo. I wouldn’t want to get back on board. Who would? It doesn’t seem so pleasant, to have to go down with the ship. It’s not at all tempting. But going down with the ship is the ancient ethical prescription of the profession Schettino chose. Never mind modern law and coastal jurisdictions: this is about ancient writ. Schettino refused the sublime injunction to sacrifice himself. Unlike Conrad’s Jim, whose moral lapse, abandoning the Patma, is later redeemed, Schettino, at this point, has found himself no empathetic Marlow. He is not ‘one of us’. We are obliged to have contempt for him, and we do.

In Journey to the End of the Night Céline’s narrator, Ferdinand Bardamu, describes the captain of the boat he is on: ‘a shady, breezy, racketeering type’, who ‘had gone out of his way to shake hands with me from the start’. Bardamu boards the Admiral Bragueton in Marseille, heading for Africa. In the heat and fetid air of the tropics, the other passengers congeal into drunkenness. With their flabby movements they look like squid. Meanwhile Bardamu develops delusions of grandeur, imagining that in the alcoholism, moral collapse, sexual frustration and cosmic boredom onboard, a seething and plotting among his fellow passengers has taken place, in which Bardamu has been identified as a kind of Schettino among them: an enemy and scapegoat who the other passengers have tacitly decided must be cornered and destroyed, or at least thrown overboard.

The year before the Costa Concordia fell on its side and killed 32 people, it starred in a movie. Godard’s Film socialisme has gambling and a brunch buffet, frantic disco, the banter of history, vanished gold, Palestine. Shot on HD, the footage transforms the enormous cruise liner into something mythical – dazzling, clean, massive, magnificent. There is the brilliant blue and rich yellow of its broad glossy decks and gigantic smokestack. The sparkling white of its bulk, and the white froth of its glorious wake. The ship is the dream, the passengers its dreamers. In one scene, Alain Badiou gives a talk on Husserl and geometry to an empty lecture hall on the ship, as if Badiou, too, is dreaming: the philosopher who doesn’t notice that there is no audience (or who understands that he is awake while others sleep, and can do nothing to rouse them). Godard’s film is divided into three parts. The first and third take place on the Concordia, but the third also interjects, into the ports at which the Concordia stops, historic newsreel and film images. When the ship arrives in Naples, Godard quotes, unattributed, Curzio Malaparte’s novel The Skin: ‘The plague had broken out in Naples on 1 October 1943.’ The plague is the Americans, who arrived that day, along with their American freedom, the presence or promise of which turns every woman, Malaparte chides, into a prostitute, and every man into a scheming wretch. The Skin celebrates, perversely and relentlessly, the desperation of Neapolitans, their double-edged gratitude to their American ‘liberators’. Naples, Malaparte declares, ‘the only city in the world that did not founder in the colossal shipwreck of ancient civilisation’, has survived only to face genuine ruin when the Americans arrive with their health, cheer, clean morals, tight-fitting uniforms and deep contradictions. But as Godard shows us, in his majestic views of the Concordia as an unearthly, glistening iceberg, pure and whole, the plague can be beautiful.

The cruise ship, Jonathan Franzen told the Paris Review in 2010, is ‘emblematic of our time’. I doubted this, despite the witty reportage of David Foster Wallace’s essay on their ‘nearly lethal comforts’ and the high artistry of Franzen’s extended cruise scene in The Corrections. I considered luxury liners an example of middlebrow surrealism, certainly not emblematic. But they keep coming into view. They monster-glide up the Giudecca Canal, intruding into the old, watery dream-state that is Venice, continuing to dwarf the campanile of St Mark’s Basilica even after the catastrophe of the Concordia. In truth the cruise ship is lodged deeper in my thoughts than I have wanted to admit. The first extended thing I ever read on my own, as a young child, was a magazine: Mad, issue #161, September 1973, which featured a spoof called ‘The Poopside-down Adventure’, about a luxury liner that sinks. I read that issue so many times – a manual and master-text, as I thought of it, for understanding adult humour – that I had it almost memorised:

‘Listen to me everybody! If we want to be saved, we’ve got to go up to the bottom!’

‘Up to the bottom?!’

‘Yes … up to the bottom! Because all the people who are down on top are dead!’

‘We’ve go to work our way up to the propeller room!’

‘Yeah? And what will we get there?’

‘The shaft!’

‘Now, we’ll need something to climb up! I know! We’ll use that fallen Christmas tree! It’s going to be hard climbing it, with the sharp metal ornaments, shorted lights and rickety frame! But it’s a sacrifice God wants us to make!’

For years I considered the Mad version the real story, and assumed that the Hollywood movie The Poseidon Adventure was its faulty copy. I didn’t know the movie, had no way to see it, and wanted my experience to be, as it felt to me, direct. The real Poseidon Adventure is an allegory of capitalism’s collapse, though I still haven’t seen it.

The Costa Concordia is not an allegory. But as in The Poseidon Adventure, there was corruption in the structure up above. The ship, which is owned by the American supercompany Carnival, apparently had a cheap, thin hull, which slashed open too easily. ‘I am not ashamed to say that I pushed people and used my fists to secure a place,’ one passenger later said. ‘I started yelling at people,’ said a volunteer from the town who went on board to save lives. He was described as ruggedly handsome (nine-tenths of those who come to the aid of survivors in such an emergency, locals who feel the urgent call to heroism as a natural order of life, are later described as ruggedly handsome). ‘“Don’t be animals! Stop being animals!” I shouted this many times, to allow the children in. It had no effect.’ Two years later, the ferry MV Sewol capsized off the south coast of Korea while the captain was in his quarters, smoking in his underwear. He was rescued. Three hundred and four passengers drowned.

The Love Boat, the 1980s television show, offered new passengers, new tangles and problems to unknot each week. It is a verso to Godard’s Film socialisme, which is the same banal cruise-line reverie, except seen, through Godard’s lens, with inexplicable grace. But Godard also filmed via spy cameras, surveillance cameras and phones. The effect of these views is a depersonalised Love Boat: same context, but without the love stories, and with a set of real passengers who are accidental extras. ‘Poor Europe,’ one of Godard’s characters says, ‘not purified, but corrupted by suffering. Not exalted, but humiliated by recaptured liberty.’ There’s no possibility here of a one-hour resolution.

The Love Boat, in contrast, as the theme song goes, ‘soon will be making another run’. No one on board is worried about historic suffering. ‘The Love Boat,’ the song continues,

promises something for everyone.
Set a course for adventure,
your mind on a new romance.
And love won’t hurt anymore.
It’s an open smile on a friendly shore.

Can you handle more?

Love exciting and new.
Come onboard, we’re expecting you.
Love … life’s sweetest reward.
Let it flow. It flows back to you.

Plague-free, this love on offer. A love that won’t hurt anymore. What a promise.

Was that song in my head as our boat passed Ischia, where love and cruelty batter Lenù and her reader in Elena Ferrante’s novels, and Sorrento, Captain Schettino’s home town, before sloshing to a stop at the port in Capri? No. The only thing in my head was coping in the human swarm, the pushing and the shoving towards luxury-brand luggage and then the exit. Luckily, a natural order, a consensual and even elegant hierarchy took hold: there were professional basketball players on our boat, and they got off first.

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Vol. 37 No. 4 · 19 February 2015

Going down with one’s ship, or being the last to leave it, is probably not the ‘ancient ethical prescription’ that Rachel Kushner suggests (LRB, 22 January). Like the related notion of ‘women and children first’ (which originated with the Birkenhead disaster of 1845), it seems to have been a 19th-century development, at least in the British maritime tradition. The 18th-century public was not unduly scandalised by sea captains who made a hasty exit from stricken vessels. When HMS Centaur was crippled by storms in 1782, Captain John Inglefield and the other senior officers requisitioned the ship’s pinnace, abandoning several hundred sailors all of whom subsequently drowned. Inglefield’s conduct wasn’t censured at the time; instead, his escape was celebrated in a powerful and much reproduced painting by James Northcote.

Carl Thompson
Nottingham Trent University

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