The Wreck Of The Medusa

Sunday, September 18, 2005
Sub category, book review.

I'm interested in hearing what the rest of you consider worth reading, and I hope that book recommendations will become a fairly regular feature here.

The The Wreck of the Medusa , by Alexander McKee, describes the disaster that befell the crew and passengers of the French warship Medusa when it ran aground off the coast of Africa in 1816. Due to incompetence on the part of those in leadership positions, 150 men and one woman were placed on a raft which was then set adrift. Two weeks later, fifteen of them were rescued, after going through what might be called indescribable suffering, except that McKee describes it in painstaking detail.

For the first day or two those on the raft maintained a degree of unity, but after that civilization crumbled quickly, and murder, cannibalism and mass insanity broke out.

The book closes with an examination of similar disasters, examines the psychological affects on those involved, and discusses the different ways groups of people react to high stress situations. Although he does not spend a great deal of time on the topic, McKee suggests that group cohesion is an important factor in surviving a disaster.


Rick Ballard said...

I spent the summer alternating between developing a strong distaste for Strauss and despairing at Oakeshott's prolixity. Now I'm taking a break with the Radosh's "Red Star Over Hollywood" and Sowell's "Black Rednecks and White Liberals".

It's interesting to tie the Medusa book into the behavior at the Superdome. I happened to hear a pastor speak last week who had actually been in the Superdome - he had gone to NO on the Saturday prior to Katrina to act as a chaplain and wound up inside until Thursday morning. He confirmed the tales of molestation, rape and murder. He said the predators would mark out the location of their prey during the day and then wait for nightfall to strike.

Does the Medusa book refer to the Chilean soccer team's survival tale at all?

MeaninglessHotAir said...

For the first day or two those on the raft maintained a degree of unity, but after that civilization crumbled quickly, and murder, cannibalism and mass insanity broke out.

Is that what happens to a joint blog after a while?

flenser said...


I also read "Black Rednecks" this summer. I'm embarrassed to say it was the first Sowell I had read, other than newspaper articles.

I think the Superdome is what brought the Medusa book to my mind. Although I've been taking an interest in this kind of thing ever since 9/11.

McKee spends about half a dozen pages on a rugby team which crashed in the Andes in 1972. I think that is the same incident you are referring to.

He attributes their high survival rate (sixteen of twenty six survived in the Andes in winter for ten weeks) to the fact that they were a close knit group, being a sports team and its supporters. They were also highly educated - several were medical students.

Rick Ballard said...

That's the one. It shows the steel like resilience of civilization within a tight group closely sharing the same values. The exigencies of the situation forced the breaking of a very strong taboo but individuals actually gave the group permission to sustain survivors in the event of death. A remarkable story.

Knucklehead said...

I'll join in hoping that there will be some discussions of books and also why we make the choices to read what we read.

For example, I tend to grab hold of particular books for what approximates four major reasons. In no order of particular importance (probably because I don't assign any such order of importance), I select books for reasons of:

Maintenence: they cover some topic I find useful over time and I feel the need to "weed the garden" so to speak. Typical in this category will be books generally sneered at such as The One Minute Manager, The Present, Who Stole My Cheese, Don't Sweat The Small Stuff, Everything I Needed To Know....

These are, of course, simplistic books which touch on things most of us are inherently aware of but I find it helpful to occasionally give some brief thought to. The common insights they offer tend to grow moss or weeds 'tween the bricks and need some attention from time to time. They also provide a healthy background sort of amusement as we go through our days and notice some of the people and insights and behaviors.

I also (admittedly infrequently) choose less "one sitting readings" sorts of books in this category that tend to fall into "business" (interviewing, managment, that sort of thing) and "history" (very old books that I've either wanted to read for some time or new books that I hope will offer some further insight on some historical topic I once paid greater attention to). Alf Mapp's Jefferson books, a recent John Adams book for which I can't think of the author and it isn't at hand, and a recent Ben Franklin biography are examples here.

The Current Situation: these are books that touch on, for lack of any better description leaping to mind, relatively current geopolitical happenings or trends. Because I'm muddle minded in general and the is a category I don't give sufficient attention few titles are jumping to mind but Kristol and Whomever's The War In Iraq and The Pentagon's New Map (a current background reading project I've just begun) are examples.

My Latest Inquiry: these are books about some specific topic that has caught my fancy and I wish to become familiar with. The Scots Enlightenment is my current inquiry. So I'll pick up books about this such as Crowded With Genius and How The Scots Created the Modern World and little side treks like Island At the Center Of The World.

And last, but not least, Well now, that might be interesting: these are books I'll grab just because something about catches my eye from some pile at a time of desperation for something to read.

Of course there's the odd "literature" and there's a sort of "reference" category that have been on the shelf and become dog-eared and filthy over the years because they are useful to life in general and/or the categories above. I've got some American Lit volumes, The Glory And The Dream and some other stuff that fall into this category.

I don't have any reviews at the moment but will gladly toss some up over time. I seriously doubt I'll put up much in the way of disciplined, standard sorts of book reviews, however, since I don't read that way. I try to let authors take me where they want to take me and then ponder the scenery along the way. There's the odd disgreement with some particular point made for which I have some degree of knowledge or philosophical issue but that's not my reason for reading books so I don't tend to dwell much on those things. If it turns out the author is meandering around without a clue about where the walkabout is headed I tend to toss the book and never finish it.

And wow, the comment publishing thingie has an HTML nazi making sure tags are properly opened and closed. Useful.

Knucklehead said...

I've had the good fortune to have never been caught in the middle of anything I could even remotely describe as a real disaster.

I have, of course, been in the middle of "mini-disasters" such as business projects gone awry, local storms cutting off some small segment of mankind from the "outside" world for short durations, that sort of thing.

In those cases where there was a general sense of cohesion, what some would describe as "shared values", dealing with the aftermath - the recovery and refocusing - run smoothly. The "block" digs itself, including those unable to dig, out of the snow or other storm debris. Simple resource get shared. In the case where the situation represents no real danger to life it often becomes a handy "excuse" to strengthen bonds. Neighbors sieze the opportunity to get to know one another a little better.

This extends to business "disasters". Where there is commonality of purpose and a sense of team cohesion, people tend to pick up the pieces, make whatever lemonade can be made, and plan out and begin to execute a recovery.

In cases where cohesion is weak the "disaster" spreads, blame is registered, shifted, avoided, etc, and recovery is minimal and slow and "refocus" isn't toward the original goal, or whatever opportunities the "disaster" uncovered but, rather, toward scoring points and grabbing turf.

Nebulous and anecdotal, of course, but consistent, I believe, with what far more rigorous study uncovers. People working at cross-purposes will achieve little. Under conditions of extreme stress they will make the situation worse. People working at common purpose will invariable achieve more and, under conditions of great stress, suffer less.

flenser said...
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flenser said...

Here is a description of the sinking of the ferry Estonia.

The events are too compressed in time to be an ideal example of what we are studying, but the elements are still there. And Langewiesche is always a great storyteller

Here is a snippet to whet your appitite.

"One man in particular comes to mind. He stood on the promenade looking completely composed, reassuring passengers around him that they would survive, patiently instructing people on how to don the life vests, and setting up an efficient system for the vests' distribution. Others played equally powerful roles. It was as if human society, having been torn apart, was starting to remake itself already—as if with time there could have been kings and queens on that drifting hull, and maybe even priests. But then the ocean washed them all away."

Knucklehead said...


That article about the Estonia was powerful stuff. Thanks for the pointer.