Portrait of a Scaphander
Etymologically, Orthobiosis means something like “right living”, and the term has cropped up now and again in the history of science, always to invoke a promise of bringing our actual (messy, painful, diseased, confusing) lives into line with…well, something better. The “ortho-” in there comes from the Greek term for “straight” — straight like a line. The “-biosis” part means nothing less than “life” — life itself. But what in “life” is “straight”? Not much. Maybe nothing. Except, of course, time. Sure, you can sort of loop it (with memory), or kind of meander in it (with daydreams), but it is a damnable feature of time that, whatever our tricks or hopes, it runs on a line. The events line up. Historians, as a rule, love this. The “time-line” is the magic wand of historicism: no matter how complex things get, there is always chronology, and it orders things with a ruthless logic. So history loves its timelines. But story-tellers tend to squirm and jump. They tell yarns, after all — and yarns will tangle. In “Portrait of a Scaphander” Brad Fox tells a history-story that pulls on a life-thread in the tangle of things. But that only makes it all a little knottier, no?
— D. Graham Burnett, Series Editor
February 2, 2022
In the winter of 1660, Voivode Constantin Basarab sat in his chamber inspecting a colorless, serpentine creature with malformed legs, a head backed with frilly pink gills, and soft skin like a child. It had been found in the Dinaric Alps after a cave flooded — a larval fish-human incubating in the Balkan earth. Laying it aside, the voivode picked up a walking stick sent to him by a Moldovan courtier only to have a rolled-up piece of paper slide out. He inspected the note and found it contained detailed instructions on how to overcome the palace guard and assassinate the Moldovan prince. Glancing back at the strange animal, Basarab shut his mind against this subterfuge. He alerted his ostensible victim, and the authorities went in search of the plotter.
A talented linguist named Nikolai Milescu Spătarul was arrested, but the seditious courtier bolted and managed to slip past the border. He headed first to Germany, then appeared in Moscow, where he finagled an audience with the sovereign himself. Tsar Alexei was so impressed by the visitor’s linguistic skill that he hired the Moldovan to tutor his son, the future Peter the Great. Further on, the tsar entrusted Spătarul with a mission to China, and he returned three years later speaking Mandarin, offering notes on the geography around Lake Baikal, and bearing gifts from the Chinese emperor.
When Alexei died, rivals had the star courtier sent to Siberia, but Peter restored his old tutor’s honors, made him court interpreter, and deeded him an estate in Ukraine. Spătarul married a woman from Moscow and lived to be 72. The Romanian family name, meaning sword-bearer, was Russianized as “Mechnikov”. He spent his last years immersed in a work called Arithmologion, in which he discussed questions of theology, philosophy, and ethics in the language of numbers.
Her youngest son — Ilya like his father — was highly sensitive, with his mother’s large dark eyes. As a boy, he saw a fight between some villagers and soldiers over the mistreatment of a local woman (a soldier had pushed her down and stuffed her mouth with dirt) — and from that he developed a distrust of crowds and a horror of violence.
Instead, like his illustrious forebear, Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov devoted himself to matters of theology, philosophy, and ethics. He studied Buddhism and Taoism, disharmonies in the human organism, the immortality of cells, the immune system, aging, and the impact of cultured milk on digestion. His central obsession was a philosophy of life he called Orthobiosis.
But when Mechnikov’s first wife died of tuberculosis, he took a large dose of opium, trying to do himself in. When that proved unsuccessful, he stripped, doused himself with icy water, and walked out into the cold, only to find his mind captured by an image of dayflies swarming a lantern. The thought of their short lifespan awakened his sense of wonder, and he turned home to save himself.
Mechnikov finally settled near the Pasteurs on Rue d’Ulm in Paris and opened his home to cultivated visitors. He’d spent time with the Tolstoys while researching Studies of Human Nature, and Lev’s sons often visited him when in Paris. Among the young scientists who sought his support was an aspiring zoologist named Emil Racoviță, a luxuriously mustachioed Moldovan with a taste for acid humor.
Mechnikov recommended Racoviță to the Atlantic research center in Roscoff, introducing him to a French researcher there named Louis Boutan. Racoviță spent several months in Roscoff studying marine and coastal organisms. In the evenings he convened with Boutan, who was assembling notes from a recent trip to Asia where he’d been studying pearls.
Now Gerlache just had to get a crew together — a navigator, a captain, some adventurous sailors. He needed a zoologist with the right combination of competence and madness, and that was proving difficult. He asked all over Belgium and France. Finally the Pasteurs sent him to Mechnikov, and Mechnikov sent him to Racoviță. But when they sent for the Moldovan in Roscoff, they heard he’d been called home for military service.
Everything seemed to be ready — until the surgeon unexpectedly quit. They couldn’t very well travel without a doctor. Just then a cable arrived from Brooklyn, from a surgeon named Frederick Cook who said Antarctica was his lifelong dream. Gerlache wrote back to say they’d pick him up in Rio in September.
On February 17, sailing slowly near a group of rocks called the Alexander Islands, it began to rain. They woke up the next morning to find the deck and ropes covered with ice. The sails were frozen so solid it was impossible to lower them. There was no land in any direction. A fog descended, and they drifted “further into silence”.
The cold wasn’t the problem at first, Cook wrote: “I have shivered more in New York”. But then it got so cold the captain lost his eyelashes. One sailor, nailing up specimen cases between decks, put two nails in his mouth, and when he snatched them out, ripped off a piece of his tongue and lip and looked like he’d been burned with a hot iron.
Watching Danco’s body sink into an Antarctic hole, Racoviță wondered how he’d ended up in this place of frigid darkness. His thoughts turned to Mamma Mechnikov back in Paris, the benefactor who’d recommended him for the expedition — how after Mechnikov’s suicide attempts, he’d taken on oblivion as a philosophical concept. Racoviță had absorbed his discourses many times on Rue d’Ulm.
If it’s through need that our sensitivities become senses, what might we need next? Maybe to know where Danco is now that he’s dead. We are as blind to that as the worm is to the gloomy sky, so much so that we can’t imagine knowing anything about it at all. It’s a hole in the ice you slip through, never to return. But in fact the afterlife is as natural as the moon reflecting off the hummocks and the scent of seal steaks on the grill. It’s as close to us as the air is to the sea.
Captain Lecointe, looking at his miserable aggregation, declared they’d been overtaken by a case of “shivers”. He had them pull out their full-dress suits and come to dinner as smart as they could manage. He opened a crate of champagne from the hold and filled everyone’s glasses. They cooked a sweet concoction of chocolate, milk, and sugar mixed with reindeer fur, penguin grease, blood, and pieces of fishy meat.
Just past 11 am on July 23, Cook saw a wave of light spread across the vast cold sky, and then “a gleam of fire” burst through a purple cloud to the north. The featureless ice lit up rose, and the northern sky was streaked with bands of carmine. Though the sun barely showed above the snow at noon, and its form refracted and twisted so as to be unrecognizable, the whole crew of the Belgica celebrated. They ate penguin and watched the aurora. They played accordion all night and dealt cards out on deck.
The problem was that with depth the increasing pressure would crush the box, so Boutan had filled it with a membrane of Sumatran gutta-percha he could pump with air, equalizing the pressure from outside. But now in order to get the box to sink, it had to be weighted down with cast iron. But then it was so heavy that when he tried to move it, sweat poured down his forehead, fogging up the pane in his helmet. Blinded by condensation, he tried futilely to rub the pane with his nose or lick it with his tongue.
On certain afternoons, Racoviță put on the diving suit himself and drifted below the sea, its otherworldliness reminiscent of the hypothetical continent he’d just returned from. He luxuriated in the slow, encumbered movements and enjoyed the soughing of air through the hose. He watched Boutan, having roped the photographic instrument to a barrel full of air in order to lighten its weight, now push his copper, glass, and rubber box into position. This time, they’d used iron weights to submerge another barrel — full of oxygen and topped with an alcohol lamp under a glass bell.
Racoviță drifted over toward the Frenchman and helped him arrange his equipment. Boutan then climbed onto a boat, and from there he pulled a cord that exposed the photographic plate and injected magnesium powder into the alcohol lamp. When the powder hit the flame — pow! — a brief but bright explosion. In that flash of light, Racoviță saw, momentarily, a clear image of the engineer in a scaphander suit holding a sign — photographie sous-marine. Only later did they realize the engineer had been holding the sign upside down.
Racoviță emerged from the sea and went back to work on his Antarctic notes. Gerlache in Brussels and Cook in Brooklyn were still waiting for him to write up his findings. Now with the illuminated undersea engineer etched in his mind, he remembered the southern sun doubling and tripling through frozen mist months before:
But that turned out to be wrong. After wandering the sea floor with Boutan in Banyuls a while longer, Racoviță joined an oceanographic expedition through the Balaeric islands. A naturalist in Mallorca led the team into the magnificent Cuevas del Drach, extravagant caverns full of underground lakes where Racoviță identified several species of crustaceans. Having contemplated icy silence while adrift beneath the warm Mediterranean, the endless interiors of the cave offered him another, equally fictitious dimension of the planet.
Soon he returned to his home country and began exploring the recesses of the Carpathian Mountains. The endless tunnels near where he was born were as inaccessible as anywhere he’d been. He was crawling through a narrow passage in the Apuseni range where air throbbed back and forth as if the cave were breathing. He scooped water into his hand and once again found isopods — similar but not the same as the small, jointed creatures he’d pulled from the Antarctic hole where Danco had disappeared.
There had never been any light here. Even microorganisms were scarce. To find these flea-sized troglobites thriving in this inert earth challenged the fundamentals of how life was expected to work. Segmented bodies pressing into the creases of his palm — like Mamma Mechnikov, naked and inconsolable, dazzled by dayflies. In the iciest ocean, and here in the subterranean darkness, these modest creatures, largely unseen, met the world with their chitinous shells, blind and colorless, with miniscule growths full of nerve endings, sensitive as lips. Touching, tasting, the troglobites formed a squirming, writhing sentience that, wherever he went, emerged from the deep to meet him.
Brad Fox is a writer, journalist, translator, and former relief contractor living in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review Daily, Guernica, and in the Whitney Biennial. His novel To Remain Nameless was released by Rescue Press in 2020.
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