- Troubled WatersLiquid Memory in the Wake of Disaster
Artists who undertake the commemoration of a disaster are faced with a dizzying array of aesthetic choices that affect how a calamitous tragedy will be tacked to the fabric of collective memory. This essay considers the strikingly similar implications of compositional and formal choices in two visual representations of disaster which, at first glance, bear no resemblance: Théodore Géricault's 1819 tableau, The Raft of the Medusa [Le Radeau de la Méduse], and Michael Arad's Reflecting Absence, a memorial to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in Lower Manhattan.
Géricault's Romantic painting (Figure 1) depicts a group of survivors of the shipwrecked Medusa, the frigate in a small fleet of warships that sailed from Rochefort, a port on France's mid-Atlantic coast, on June 17, 1816, and which ran aground on July 2 after striking a reef by a bank of shoals near the coast of Mauritania. The primary mission of the expedition was to reclaim from British occupation several territorial outposts in Senegal that French colonizers had originally established and which were returned to France as part of the 1815 treaty that restored monarchy in France. Among the nearly 400 passengers and crew on this voyage to the port city of Saint-Louis in Senegal were the French-appointed governor of the territories, Colonel Julien Schmaltz, the principal employees of the colony, several cartographers who were to map the Cape Verde peninsula for a future colonial settlement, as well as a large group of military personnel (including "an unknown number of blacks") to be stationed at the colony outposts and to form an army (Alhadeff 17).1
The Medusa's captain, Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, chose a route too close to shore and thus separated from the expedition's other ships, the Loire, the Echo, and the Argus. Two days after running aground, Chaumareys abandoned ship along with most of the ship's officers, Colonel Schmaltz, and their families to clamor onto the Medusa's six dilapidated lifeboats. Because the lifeboats were insufficient to carry all of the shipwrecked passengers, it was decided to tow the remaining survivors on a hastily constructed raft (68 feet by 20 feet) made from the Medusa's masts and beams (Eitner 159).2
After setting sail, however, an officer aboard territorial governor Schmaltz's lifeboat used a hatchet to cut the rope that was towing the unwieldy raft. The remaining [End Page 60] lifeboats did not come to the raft's rescue and sailed on toward Senegal.3 Approximately 150 souls were left adrift upon a rickety floating platform with only a meager supply of wine and water. The paltry foodstuffs and coin-sized compass they originally brought onboard were lost at sea within the first day (Corréard and Savigny 101–102). For the next 13 days, horrors of every kind beset the raft, which was initially so overloaded that its passengers, packed together like sardines, sat in waist-high water (87). Violent winds and stormy weather tossed many survivors overboard; others were smothered or crushed in the thrashing about. In a drunken delirium, some of the soldiers initiated a series of violent mutiny attempts that wounded and killed more than half of the raft's passengers. The remaining survivors turned first to cannibalism and then to something in between murder and euthanasia of the critically wounded in order to attempt survival (140–41).4 When the Argus finally spotted the raft after two weeks at sea, 15 of the 150 passengers were still alive, and five of them soon died at a hospital in Saint-Louis, Senegal.
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In its aftermath, the Medusa shipwreck became a political cause célèbre (Huet 155). The Medusa's captain, Chaumareys, was a Legitimist and formerly celebrated sailor in the King's Navy who hadn't helmed a ship in 25 years until the French Restoration of 1815...