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Wednesday
Sep252013

The Temple

What do we know about war?  If we are fortunate, only the most attenuated of yarns, the most remote of whispers.  We do not wish to learn what powers or prophecies make men murder men, goad an otherwise upstanding people to thirst for the blood of another region's equally respectable denizens, and entomb those replete with a long and hopeful future in the lineaments of permanent youth.  Every historian by dint of his vocation must review the slaughters, the mayhem, the depravity of nations whose bare traces of civilization he likely plans to chronicle.  What remains after war?  Some say once you have lived through a war, you never live again.  Life becomes the endless repetition, both in sleep and waking, of the horrors witnessed and unimaginable wickedness done unto others.  Unto others?  Well, if we have survived, then necessarily unto others, because whatever was done unto us clearly failed in its intent.  Which brings us to a topical work of unforeseen literary endurance.

Our time is a century ago – the last months of the most destructive war Europe had ever seen, if merely a foretaste of an even vaster calamity – and our place is the Yucatán, where a singular item has washed ashore.  A bottled message written by a German U-boat commander who has outlived his entire crew just to be able to communicate a story that has little place in our reality and has nudged the commander's towards a veritable pandemonium.  Any preface to the brutality, however, should come from his own pen:

On the afternoon of June 18, as reported by wireless to the U-61, bound for Kiel, we torpedoed the British freighter Victory, New York to Liverpool, in N. Latitude 45 degrees 16 minutes, W. Longitude 28 degrees 34 minutes, permitting the crew to leave in boats in order to obtain a good cinema view for the admiralty records. The ship sank quite picturesquely, bow first, the stern rising high out of the water whilst the hull shot down perpendicularly to the bottom of the sea.  Our camera missed nothing, and I regret that so fine a reel of film should never reach Berlin.  After that we sank the lifeboats with our guns and submerged. 

The ruthlessness of such an act is worsted by the appearance of a seaman's corpse, "young, rather dark, and very handsome; probably an Italian or Greek, and undoubtedly of the Victory's crew," atop the resurfacing submarine.  Why would someone blown off a boat seek refuge on the vessel responsible for his doom?  An answer to that question may lie in the "very odd bit of ivory carved to represent a youth's head crowned with laurel" found on the body.  The trinket is seized by the commander's deputy, a certain Lieutenant Klenze, who deems it "of great age and artistic value," although he does not wonder long at how such an object might have come into the possession of an impecunious mariner.    

What happens next should not be revealed on these pages, because the narrative rarely yields asides to contemplate the beautiful and the elevated (our commander is not a sentimental man).  The mischief begins with the very seaman whose charm so attracted the expert eyes of Lieutenant Klenze.  According to Müller (whom the commander, a Prussian, swiftly dismisses as a "superstitious Alsatian swine"), that same beautiful lad so callously murdered by the cowardly superiority of a German submarine did not plummet to Davy Jones's locker when thrown overboard, but "drew its limbs into a swimming position and sped away to the south."  Our commander can barely tolerate normal, hard-working soldiers, so we know Müller's time on our earth is short.  Again we must defer to the narrator:

What worried us more was the talk of Boatswain Müller, which grew wilder as night came on.  He was in a detestably childish state, and babbled of some illusion of dead bodies drifting past the undersea portholes; bodies which looked at him intensely, and which he recognized in spite of bloating as having seen dying during some of our victorious German exploits.  And he said that the young man we had found and tossed overboard was their leader. This was very gruesome and abnormal, so we confined Müller in irons and had him soundly whipped.  The men were not pleased at his punishment, but discipline was necessary.  We also denied the request of a delegation headed by Seaman Zimmer, that the curious carved ivory head be cast into the sea.

Those who admire modern horror films will find in The Temple a blueprint for such entertainment that, when the story was composed in 1920 and published five years later, could not possibly be more prescient.  That the tale turned out to be its author's first professional publication may seem even more ironic considering Lovecraft's subsequent transformation of the field of supernatural and science fiction.  As he plots his own demise, and abets others in theirs, suspicions linger and swirl around the commander's wilful mind, suspicions that are not as easily dismissed as a superstitious Alsatian.  He ponders the strangeness of his predicament as, in very contemporary fashion, his crew members fall prey to a variety of bitter ends, some even emanating from the tip of his pistol.        

A reader not attuned to the sentiments of the period – although written some five years afterwards, one may safely conclude that the anti-German tone reflects Lovecraft's outrage over this infamous torpedoing – may find the whole business offensive, but our commander may still be pitied.  After all, he is a learned man who has stocked his quarters with reference books on oceanic flora and fauna to be browsed during "spare moments."  He categorically refuses to surrender to an American warship even at the behest of one unfortunate seaman, "who urged this un-German act with especial violence."  His own U-boat, that terrible shark of war, is incapacitated and herded further and further south by, he notes (he has studied those fauna texts all too well), a school of dolphins to depths these cetacea could not possibly probe.  And what then of our story's title?  We may be reminded of a term for something so vile that it must remain before the temple gates, never to enter.  And we may also think of our commander, for all his faults, as the lesser of two evils.     

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