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

man in diving suit on the sea bed holding a written sign in his hand, the writing hard to make outScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Portrait Instantané d’un Scaphandrier, an underwater photograph by Louis Boutan, 1899 — Source.

Orthobiotic Origins

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.

The next century found Spătarul’s descendant Ilya Ivanovich Mechnikov in Petersburg, proposing to a Jewish woman with splendid dark eyes, whose nickname, Milotchka, meant charming.

None other than Pushkin, she liked to point out, said the name suited her perfectly.

Milotchka brought a small fortune to the marriage, but Ilya Ivanovich had soon drunk and gambled it away, and the couple were forced to retreat to the old Mechnikov estate in Ukraine. Ilya Ivanovich occupied himself with planning meals and playing cards, and Milotchka raised the children.

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.

He and his older brother wrote a drama called “Burning Tea”, in which the hero offered a friend a cup that was too hot. The friend burnt his tongue. A duel ensued. After that, Mechnikov abandoned literature.

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.

He opposed taking the body as a source of evil. His mind was tormented by images of dervishes beating their heads in with clubs, Hindu fakirs hanging themselves by hooks, and Russian mystics castrating themselves. Ironically, he pointed out, despising the body turned humans into beasts:

“Hermits resorted to the lairs of animals, abandoned their clothing and went about naked with shaggy and disordered hair.”

Mechnikov held that the fear of death, though nearly universal, was nothing but superstition. He cited a Swiss alpinist who pointed out that tourists who’d had serious falls or nearly frozen to death reported feeling, above all, “a sensation of ecstasy”.

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.

His book, Studies of Human Nature, was a pursuit of scientific grounds for optimism.

Mechnikov traveled to Geneva in 1865, where he met Herzen, and to Italy, where he got to know Bakunin. Noticing Mechnikov’s sweet and nurturing disposition, the great anarchist named him Mamma.

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.

There were female pearl divers in Japan, he told Racoviță, who enter the water in nothing but a loincloth and stay down for several minutes at a time.

women in the waves diving for oystersScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Detail from Poem by Sangi no Takamura (Ono no Takamura), a woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai, ca. 1835 — Source.

Future of the Family

Exploratory expeditions might be funded by private patrons or subscription services, but there was still no substitute for a royal endorsement. When a Belgian named Gerlache received King Leopold’s support for a mission to Antarctica in a barque-rigged steamer, he renamed the vessel Belgica.

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.

Gerlache pulled some diplomatic strings and had the zoologist released from his martial obligations. He’d have to sail from Constantinople, and it was too late to circle all the way up to Antwerp, so Gerlache told him to head straight to South America.

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.

When Cook watched the Belgica steam past all the large modern ships in the Rio harbor, the iron vessel looked to him “like a bulldog surrounded by greyhounds — small, awkward, ungraceful.”

Racoviță had arrived early and gone ahead to Punta Arenas. They’d have to find him there, in the world’s southernmost town.

They stopped in Montevideo along the way, where dense smoke rose from chimneyed houses set along bustling granite promenades. They could find no butter, though, so bought tubs of condensed milk and cane sugar mixed with the marrow of cow bones, which turned out to be delicious.

Punta Arenas was a former prison colony, now a town of exiles and adventurers. Cook saw it as “a terminal moraine to a restless stream of human life, a true Magellanic metropolis.”

He befriended a German who, he said, ordered drinks in English, conducted business in Spanish, and prayed in Italian.

But crossing the city they stepped along dirt roads full of stagnant pools, heaps of ash, tree stumps, broken carts, and dead dogs. Cowboys were well-dressed, but miners, rich or poor, were “rigged in rags”.

Cook talked to a miner who’d tried to win the heart of an Ona girl — tall, black-eyed, wrapped in fur. She’d “agreed to be stolen”, he said, but then kept telling him she was going mushroom hunting only to disappear for days on end. He followed her and found her in the forest with a lover.

A fine-looking man, the miner had to admit.

He made them an offer: How about the lover join their household?

And now they live together, the miner said, and “there has been peace, and restfulness, and divided love in our wild home.”

Lemon and Fog

The Belgica finally set out toward the uncharted south.

They passed Point Virgins, then Port Famine. Skeletons of wrecked ships rocked in the shallows.

At Cape Anna, birdcalls echoed off the cliffs so loudly they couldn’t hear each other. The rocks below were covered with snoring sea-leopards. Whales spouted and breached. Ice fractured, sounding like cannon fire. At night, the sea glittered and the ice sparkled and it was impossible to sleep.

“A stillness in the atmosphere”, Cook wrote, “fascinates the soul but overpowers the mind”.

Racoviță and a geologist disembarked, and Cook followed them with his looking glass from aboard ship until they disappeared in the darkness. Then he could only hear the echo of the geologist’s hammer and the chorus of penguins that greeted Racoviță as he moved from rock to rock.

They passed a “zone of lemon” where the sun hovered above the water to one side but seemed to project its light from across the sky. Refraction through frozen mist made the sun seem to double and triple. The ice blink — white glare against low clouds — meant there was still ice beyond the horizon.

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 fog lifted and revealed a white world. The men stood on deck urging the ship on through the ice. A few sailors sat on the anchor chains discussing their prospects. It didn’t look good.

At noon they made a deep-sea sounding. They lowered five hundred and sixty meters of wire and brought up a cup of blue clay.

For two days ice rammed the side of the boat. Water froze and the ice expanded until it pressed in from all sides, eventually lifting the boat right out of the water. On March 4th they came to terms with their situation: trapped in ice that was only going to solidify for the next several months.

The atmosphere grew heavy. The sky was low and gray and the bands of ice ranged from white to smoky. The water was the color of lead. Everything was shifting, pressing, and cracking around them. The ice-pack that held them floated free, yet they were unable to move.

black and whote photo of a ship stuck in the ice, three explorers wearing snowshoes and skis to the rightScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Photograph by Frederick A. Cook depicting the icebound Belgica in 1898 — Source.

Eventually Racoviță and Cook disembarked onto the packed ice that clutched the Belgica. They were greeted by friendly penguins, approached by seals. Petrels dove into the icy waters. The world of ice appeared restful and content. It glowed ultramarine, reflecting a purple sky above.

The wind blew snow and cracking ice into hummocks, so it looked like they were emerging from a landscape with its own topography. Ice crystals grew into forms like jewels or blooming plants.

In order to conserve their food supply, Racoviță shot seals, and Cook, regretfully, beat a penguin to death with a ski. As they headed back to the vessel in the growing gloom, Captain Lecointe mistook Cook for some other animal and was about to try his luck with the rifle.

The aurora australis appeared above them — “trembling lace-work, draped like a curtain, on the southern sky.”

They continued to drift unobstructed. There was no sign of land anywhere around them, as if Antarctica were nothing but a “hypothetical continent”.

As night settled in, the sailors began to sing and whistle and play songs on an accordion. On deck they kicked up their heels and danced and told stories. In the cabin they cranked music boxes that plinked out cheerful tones.

“We are making the dead world of ice about us ring with a boisterous noise”, Cook reported.

At 4 pm on May 16, the last drop of sunlight disappeared below the horizon. Lecointe poured over his almanac and made some calculations. There would be no more sun, he announced, for seventy days.

Adrift on a Hypothesis

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.

Their eyes grew puffy, then their ankles. Their muscles lost all tone until they were soft as mush. Piles, hemorrhoids, headaches, neuralgia, rheumatism. It was impossible to concentrate.

Cook registered their slowing heartbeats becoming weak and irregular. A short walk heightened the pulse and after ten minutes it was hard to breathe. Their footing was so uncertain they had trouble walking straight.

Their cheeks grew pale and green. Their hair grayed but grew rapidly. Skin crept over fingernails. One of the crew members kept fainting, and his mind seemed permanently deranged.

“We have aged ten years in thirty days.”

A sailor named Danco had a leaky valve in his heart. He’d been in good health, but with the darkness his pulse varied and weakened and he started to fail. It was clear he wouldn’t see the sun again.

Then for a couple of days he revived. He grew cheerful, talked about how much easier it was to breathe. He said he was sure that after a bit of rest he’d regain his strength, then went to bed and promptly died.

To bury him, they hacked a hole in the ice with axes about a hundred yards from the ship. Cook made a speech about a man who said he “valued life because of the prospect of death”.

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.

As much as we might want to end our existence, Mechnikov felt there was something embedded in the universal will that urged us on toward propagation and multiplicity.

He liked to quote von Hartmann’s Die Philosophie des Unbewussten, arguing that we should aim for “the complete abandonment of the individual to the cosmic process, in order that the latter may accomplish its end and bring about the universal deliverance of the world.”

What role did the long Antarctic night play in the universal deliverance of the world? Would they be granted some secret, written across the sky by the aurora? Or would they all end up like Danco, dropped into the frozen sea, bobbing near a hypothetical continent, above a scoopful of blue clay.

Through the hole where Danco disappeared, Racoviță sent down a dredge and brought up a few isopods and a tangle of annelid worms. Watching them writhe on his worktable, he contemplated their sensitivities:

A plant turns to the sun. What do these worms want?

He pictured a blind body, squirming and twisting in the freezing muck. Could the hunger for nutrients give rise to a sense of smell? Did the need for sunlight lead to vision?

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.

He could hear Mechnikov cite his beloved Mainländar:

“The world is but the means for bringing about a condition of nonexistence.”

As such, our own annihilation should be anticipated with joyful expectancy.

It had been a long time since Racoviță had felt any joyful expectancy, and the death of Danco threw the entire crew deeper into a listless torpor.

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.

A few nights later, observing an eclipse of one of the moons of Jupiter, the captain was able to set his chronometer. Hunching over his calculations, he announced that they had passed Antarctic midnight.

Soon a glow began to increase at noon.

Cutting Through

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.

A week later, they could feel the sun’s heat for the first time, indescribably intoxicating. They wandered around the ice sunning themselves “like snakes in spring”.

Racoviță, pencil in his bare hand, in torn trousers and without a coat or a hat, strolled with a notebook making satirical sketches of the crew.

before and after photographs of the Belgica crewScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Illustration from Frederick A. Cook's Through the First Antarctic Night, 1898-1899 (1900) — Source.

Summer passed quickly, and they still couldn’t extricate themselves from the ice. Hoping for signs of open water, they studied the reflection on the underside of clouds, looking for dark veins. The sun appeared rarely. They saw only a cold blue light filtered through crystally haze.

The ice held together with surprising tenacity. Faced with the prospect of another winter, they tried to blow up the ice with explosives, but that just caused smoke and didn’t even make a hole. The only option was to saw through with saws and hack it with axes.

Working eight hours a day for eight weeks, fueled by piles of penguin and seal steaks, they cut through the ice on March 13.

The very next day, the wind changed. The ice expanded and drifted in every direction. They pushed north, and as they moved the ice broke up. Soon they were in open water, surrounded by easy swells. The ice blink vanished, and they headed for Cape Horn.

Before they reached harbor, Cook wrote, they felt half sorry to leave “this weird other-world life”. In a year, he thought, they’d long to return again to the death-like sleep of the south.

When they reached shore, they wandered like drunks, having completely forgotten how to walk on land. Their faces were the color of copper kettles, and their unkempt hair was streaked with gray, though none was over thirty-five.

When they looked through the open door of a house where two pretty girls were standing, it sent a charge through them, “like a Faradic battery”.

Racoviță predicted they’d all be married in six months.

Portrait d’un Scaphandrier

Returning to France, Racoviță was made director of a lab along the Catalan coast in Banyuls-sur-Mer. When he arrived, he found his old friend Boutan, last seen describing pearl divers in Roscoff, now experimenting with underwater photography.

The Englishman William Thompson had taken underwater photos decades earlier, but it was really no more than a technological stunt. Boutan wanted everyone to see the beauty of the subaquatic landscape.

As Racoviță unpacked hundreds of bottles of specimens he’d brought back from the southern ice, Boutan was encasing a small apparatus known as a detective camera into a hermetically sealed box and lowering it into the water.

Racoviță watched Boutan enter a diving suit and descend to work with his photographic installation, appearing hours later exhausted and drenched in sweat.

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.

The photographs required half-hour exposures and showed nothing but blurs and smudges.

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.

man in diving suit on the sea bed holding a written sign in his hand, the writing hard to make outScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Detail from Portrait Instantané d’un Scaphandrier, an underwater photograph by Louis Boutan, 1899 — Source.

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:

“Splendid parhelia, paraselenae, and mirage phenomena were remarkable and varied.”

In the Mediterranean afternoon, he described the effects of lack of sunlight through the Antarctic night: “discoloration of the mucous membranes, dyspnoea, acceleration of the pulse, dizziness, insomnia, a complete incapacity for prolonged intellectual work, and a swelling of the legs.”

He catalogued species, mostly small crustaceans and blind worms, that he had been first to identify.

The Antarctic, he wrote, is “the last unexplored expanse on the globe of sufficient area to offer room for fictitious creations of new worlds.”

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 the author of The Bathysphere Book: Effects of the Luminous Ocean Depths (Astra House, 2023) and the novel To Remain Nameless (Rescue Press, 2020). His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Guernica, and The Paris Review Daily.

The text of this essay is published under a CC BY-SA license, see here for details.