A tremendous number of people…work very hard at something that bores them. Even a rich man thinks he has to go down to the office everyday. Not because he likes it but because he can’t think of anything else to do. – W. H. Auden
An Austrian lawyer, Markus Groh, on vacation in South Florida, died from shark bite last month while scuba diving. (I’ll allow you a few moments to construct your tasteless jokes about cannibalism here.)
The who, what, when, and where of the story of this vacationing scuba diver’s death from shark attack is not so important as the WHY. The why behind the death of Markus Groh is something that we, skittering across the surface of the news as we do much of the time, might easily miss. But it raises a profound question about our culture that we don’t spend any time thinking about. And maybe we should.
Groh was participating in what has become the popular 21st century leisure activity – “extreme sport.” Media has introduced us to plenty of extreme sports. Some, like mountain biking, skateboarding/snowboarding, bungee jumping, and rock climbing have become mainstream enough that even children participate. Others, more extreme, exotic, and dangerous such as adventure racing, heli-skiing, and scuba diving with sharks have a lure of Thanatos about them that some of us – including Markus Groh – find, for whatever reasons, irresistible. In lives that have become more and more circumscribed by diminished freedom and increased expectation of “productivity,” in lives where we seek solace by blurring our social interactions between the real and the virtual, perhaps only in tempting death itself can we find some sense of our existential worth. Or lack thereof…
Here’s what the company that Groh was diving with says about how they create human/shark interaction:
Jim Abernethy’s Scuba Adventures of Riviera Beach…operates scuba diving trips in which the crew puts food in the water to bring divers into close contact with hammerhead, tiger and other shark species. (emphases mine)
Both hammerhead and tiger sharks are human eaters. So Groh, a solid,sensible Austrian and a man of deliberative nature, as all good attorneys must be (and one must be a good attorney to afford diving vacations in the Caribbean) chose to scuba dive in proximity to man eating sharks drawn to his dive boat’s area by crew members chumming the waters:
To insure the best results we will be ‘chumming’ the water with fish and fish parts. Consequently, there will be food in the water at the same time as the divers… – Abernethy Scuba Adventures web site
Groh chose to dive without a protective shark cage or a protective dive suit. He chose to scuba dive in waters with tiger sharks and other sharks capable of killing him while the sharks were being fed which is known to cause the fish to go into feeding frenzies where they become indiscriminate killing machines.
Obviously, being in such a situation would be incredibly adrenaline producing. One’s “fight or flight” reactions would be on maximum overdrive. And as the company warns, participating in such activity is a “potentially dangerous sport.” (Insert you own “No _____” response here.) Marcus Groh discovered how dangerous too late….
Denys Arcand’s brilliant and controversial film The Decline of the American Empire opens with this quote from the fictional monograph of one its protagonists, a history professor:
When people become more concerned with the gratification of their own appetites than with their responsibilities to society, the days of that civilization are numbered.
The film explores the self-absorption of the most educated and privileged among us – those who, like the protagonist in Michael Nesmith’s song “The Grand Ennui” are trying to stave off some sense of approaching doom by testing the limits of their ability to handle sex, drugs, alcohol, or other “extreme” behavior. In the case of the song’s protagonist, he’s drunkenly speeding along a Texas highway in his new Ferarri:
And as the headlights cast a glow on the road
I heard a voice inside of me
It said, “You lost the light
And now you’re moving through the night
Running from the grand ennui
Running from the grand ennui”
Markus Groh’s needless self-destruction certainly appears illustrative of the power of the risk involved in running from that “grand ennui.”
Later in Arcand’s film another character, also a history professor, offers this biting observation about the worth of the individual:
There are only 3 things that matter in history – numbers, numbers, and numbers.
We can argue, I suppose, about which view of history is important. Could the personal desires of individual citizens have enough effect on a culture to ruin it? Or is history only moved by the actions of significant numbers of citizens? Or we can argue if history matters.
We can’t, however, argue that people who would otherwise be considered smart, productive members of society seem to be dying in larger numbers while engaged in thrill seeking. Of course, we can laugh about it – most of us have enjoyed browsing the Darwin Awards web site. And we all have been guilty of the La Rochefoucauld response:
There is in the misfortunes of our friends something not entirely unpleasing…
Still, Markus Groh’s death is haunting. He wasn’t swimming at dusk or surfing or engaged in any of the behaviors commonly associated with inadvertent shark/human encounter that The Discovery Channel warns us about during Shark Week. He was actively courting danger in pursuit of some experience to meet a need he had to feel alive – quite likely because the rest of his life somehow didn’t meet that need.
Aren’t we all like that these days?
Categories: scholars and rogues