Adelbert von Chamisso thought that whales might be tamed and driven like elephants, for the benefit of man. I learned this from After Nature by W.G. Sebald, which I was reading last Friday while sitting on the curb in front of my hostel, trying to fight off my jetlag. Later that day I was in a café and there I read, in the San Francisco Chronicle, while the letters in front of me were starting to blur, that a boy had jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. Then he had climbed onto shore, slightly injured. The article added that fourteen hundred people have jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge since it was built in 1937, two percent of whom survived. Closing my eyes for a minute I pictured the bay of San Francisco filled with whales, ridden by mahouts wearing fezzes and, from the bridge, fourteen hundred boys jumping down and falling in the water on all sides of the whales and on the oily skin of the mammals. In the background the sun was breaking through the clouds. The whole scene seemed to me a festive death ritual, and is associated in my mind with the fall of Icarus as pictured by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

© 2009–2023, Martijn Wallage