NPF: DELUSIONS

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 29th, 2016 by Ed

Anyone who has taken an English class at the high school level probably can respond with "Moby Dick!" when hearing Herman Melville's name. Fans or English Lit major types during college can go farther and tell you about Benito Cereno, Billy Budd, and Bartleby. Melville fans will also tell you that Moby Dick received no attention during the author's lifetime save for a few viciously negative reviews and it was not until 1920 that the literary world re-discovered it and decided it is great. But if you find someone who can name the books Melville wrote that actually were successful and popular, that's rare.

Today nobody in their right mind would read Omoo or Typee, and in fact you'd have a hard time finding someone who has heard of either. They were Melville's Hits, both in the once terribly popular "high seas adventure" genre. As the titles imply, both tales were set in the South Pacific (and were based on Melville's own experiences traveling there). These books are not good. "Dated" doesn't begin to explain how irrelevant this kind of writing feels today. In its time, though, these stories about adventures in foreign and exotic lands were popular given that most readers in the 1840s were unlikely to see much if any of the world during their lives. Today there's nothing mysterious or exotic about the South Pacific, for example, because at a moment's notice you can watch videos, see pictures, or get on a surprisingly affordable (although certainly not cheap) flight to see it for yourself. Traveling around the world doesn't impress us anymore. And it takes a lot more to titillate the imaginations of modern Americans than some "natives" speaking pidgin English in an island setting. We have movies about robots punching monsters, for christ's sake.

As a kid I was (OK, I still am) fascinated by maps and globes. I'd stare at them for hours sometimes, looking at different places with strange names and wondering if I would ever be there at some point in my life. And I'm not going to lie, well into adulthood I maintained the illusion of the Pacific islands as idyllic paradises. On more than a handful of bad days I imagined myself running away to a tiny island and living on the tropical beaches. The reality is not hard to uncover, and it isn't pleasant. Most of the Pacific islands are floating slums. They're tiny, packed with people, and largely devoid of economic activity. Oh, and the planet is going to swallow most of them soon due to rising sea levels. The Times ran a piece in December that I've read probably a dozen times about the Marshall Islands, a former US possession and now not-really but-kinda-still a US possession. Look at the videos and photos with that story. That place sucks. I don't want to dwell right now on the myriad reasons the Pacific is full of slums (hint: It's basically our fault) but it's difficult to think of a better term to describe what has become of these places. Suffice it to say that the fantasy is better than reality.

The more of the world you see, the less magical any of it seems. We can't expect that other parts of the world will be frozen in time for our enjoyment and appreciation as rich Westerners, but it strikes me as particularly sad that we've exported only the absolute worst parts of America to places that were doing fine on their own before Europeans arrived. Staggering obesity, even more staggering environmental degradation (remember the guano post?), Spam, Coke, McDonald's, shitty beer, and about 75 nuclear detonations by the US and France that leave several areas uninhabitable even 50-plus years later.

It's sad that reality and the shrinking of the world in general have burst our fantasy bubble of island paradises. It's even sadder to think of what it must be like to live there now, and the changes that a 70 year old person living there today must have seen during his lifetime.