Law in Contemporary Society

Dudley and the Whales

When a different storm rose over a different sea, the frightened sailors cast lots to determine whose god had called it. The lots fell on a groggy passenger. “Take me up and cast me into the sea,” said the passenger. But when the lots fell on Parker, he said something else. He said: “What me?” And of course it was a fish that came along to eat Jonah. But when they finally cast away the boy, they’d eaten most of him. The fish only got the offal.

So who’s Jonah? He’s not Parker, even though the lots fell on them both. He’s not Dudley, even though they both saved the ship. Jonah, of course, was only a passenger. Dudley was the captain, father of three, the patriarch, not the reluctant prophet.

When a different patriarch stayed his blade, he spared a different boy from sacrifice. But Eben left out Abraham’s fear, the tremor that passed through Abraham’s body when he drew the knife, the way his left hand clenched with despair. Then God saved Isaac, so they sacrificed a ram instead.

So who’s Abraham? He’s close kin to Dudley, both drew the knife. But only Dudley used it. The part of Dudley that holds the knife to the boy’s neck, full of fear and trembling, is Abraham. The part of Dudley that plunges the knife into the jugular, that part is Jonah. Because after the knife goes in, the boy dies. But after Jonah plunges into the sea, the whale swallows him and requires penance of Jonah in exchange for freedom. That’s Dudley in the boat on the twenty-first day, he’s Jonah in the belly of the whale. Both did the thing calmly. The storm died down. The boat and its passengers were spared. In the belly of the whale, only penance remains.

On the seventeenth day, Dudley wrote his wife: “I am sorry dear, that I ever started such a trip, but I was doing it for our best.” He repented the sin already committed, the sin of taking to sea, but Dudley also repented the sin soon to be committed, the sin of sacrificing the boy and eating him.

The facts of R v. Dudley disclose Dudley’s prayer for forgiveness before the butchering. And even if not in that regard a sinner in the hands of an angry god, Dudley was more than a Christian. He was a citizen of the British Empire. He had always been a citizen, even on the boat. And when he finally found rescue, he filed his report straightaway, in accordance with Merchant Shipping Act of 1854, with Cheesman at the customs house. So while for the part of Dudley that was a child of god, the killing may not have been a sin, for the part of Dudley that was a citizen of the British Empire, the killing was murder under the laws of the Crown.

That is why Dudley called out before the magistrate: “It was the left side” where he’d stabbed Parker. That is why Dudley set about writing accounts as soon as aboard the Montezuma. It’s why Dudley cried when they extended bail. Not because of the bail, but because the mayor had said the defense of necessity was too grave for a mere magistrate to decide. By then, Dudley knew: The truth that was a truth before the law was a part of the truth that was the truth of his confession and penance. But the truth before the law could only be spoken by the court—or the Crown.

When a different captain sought a different object of desire, the ship and all aboard, save the sailor named for the son Abraham cast into the desert, sank. But the ship sank at the beginning of Dudley’s story, not the end.

So who’s Dudley? He’s closer to Ahab than he seems. He’s hunting the whale, penance, the truth-spoken that his sin is not a sin and that therefore no atonement’s necessary: wishing he were Abraham, staving off the part of him that’s Kurtz. But Dudley’s not just hunting the whale, he’s in the whale, atoning for sin—even though his sin wasn’t a sin. And finally, of course, Dudley is the whale. After all, if the lots fell to Parker as they did to Jonah, it was Dudley who ate the boy as the whale did Jonah. In truth, then, there’s a truth in Dudley’s penance that requires some seeking, and in that, he’s not just Jonah’s whale, he’s Ahab’s.

-- MattBurke - 12 Apr 2015



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r3 - 13 Apr 2015 - 20:33:12 - MattBurke
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