scholars and rogues



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?

14 replies »

  1. Beautifully written as always, Jim.

    My personal take is that thrill-seeking on that level is clearly an indication of a life that sucks pondwater. See my post, below, on the emptiness of being born rich and of wealth, in general.

    I think you said it all when you said he had a need to feel alive.

  2. The first season of the BBC SF/horror show Torchwood had an episode titled “Combat” where the ultra-rich-and-successful were abducting aliens called weevils and going into cage matches with the dangerous aliens. The motivations were needing to feel alive, needing a real challenge, and/or feeling suicidal due to emotional pain.

    All “good” reasons for people to take on extreme sports.

  3. I know a man who was an MP in Saigon, and who had some of the more harrowing near-death escape stories I’ve ever run across. I remember him telling me how much he missed it. After you experience that, he explained, nothing else in life is ever really exciting again.

    I have another friend, a Russian ex-military guy, who was an advisor in Iraq during the Iran/Iraq war and who has since been sent by his employers to establish media operations in places like Chechnya. His stories are arguably scarier than my other friend’s Vietnam stories.

    I guess adrenaline addiction, if that’s what it is in their case, has the same kind of escalating effect that you find with certain street drugs. But what you’re describing is different, isn’t it? I guess I sometimes feel a twinge of the need for something extreme, living as I do in a society that packages and commodifies everything (I knew we’d passed an important milepost when I started seeing commercials for extreme toothpaste flavors). But damn – shark swimming?

    I believe this is our collective canary in the coalmine….

  4. If this truly is a metaphorical canary in the coalmine, then we have two choices as a civilization/nation – ignore it and participate in our own downfall, or flee the coalmine and rebuild after the explosion.

    I’m one of those annoying “rage against the dying of the light” kind of people when it comes to the really important stuff, and your analogy leaves just a tiny bit of room for that kind of thinking. After all, there’s a very, very small chance that the explosion won’t happen because someone clears away a ventilation shaft blockage before the big boom.

  5. Or we can chum the mineshaft even harder and let those so inclined Darwinize themselves out of the pool.

    (Hey – there’s always room for one more metaphor in the mixer….)

  6. Torchwood is fantastic.

    With regard to your post.

    There is something about getting out of your comfort zone – whether voluntarily or involuntarily. When I left a ‘safe’ marital existence I went motorbike (speed) crazy for 6 months. I had always been the responsible, think of the children parent before then.

    After I got it out of my system…I was Ms Suburbia Domesticity once again.

  7. Most people just have no bleepin’ idea what to do with their lives period.

    They’re empty vessels when they enter the work force.

    But work doesn’t always work. Extreme activities are a measure of how far people will go to find a purpose outside themselves to avoid looking within. Trite, but true.

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  9. I remember the first time I surfed Sunset Beach on the North Shore in Oahu. The waves were easily three times bigger than anything I had ever surfed before. After about an hour, I had the courage to finally catch the shoulder of a smaller wave and ride it. By the end of my stay, I was able to ride the big waves, albeit with fear. Being risk adverse, I found that taking small steps a little at a time is the best way to go to prepare you for big risks.

    They do that shark chumming thing in my area, and I think it’s irresponsible,and just plain crazy. Groh must have thought the sharks wouldn’t have bitten him as a matter of professional courtesy..


  10. “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.”

    So you’re basically asking “are these vacuous rejects serving as our bellwethers or are they simply those who exist only to provide examples to others of what not to do?” I think for the majority, they’re the latter. But you’re right, as a culture we are moving closer to the precipice.

    You bring up the whole “Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber” syndrome that these banal sort must be going through, but maybe it’s something else, too. There’s the old cliche about jocks beating up gays because secretly they have homosexual urges they can’t reconcile. Similarly, maybe these folks are suicidal (as I would argue Hemingway was). Some people lack the ability to injure themselves. When their lives have lost meaning, maybe they require someone else to pull the trigger. Mel Gibson’s character in Lethal Weapon strikes me as an early generation X figure for that sort of “go ahead and kill me, I’ve been trying to do it for ages, myself” persona.

  11. Jeff,

    As a skier, I get what you’re saying. Having worked my way from greens to double blacks (which I no longer try because I think I’m too old and my skills aren’t there any more – it’s possible to be a responsible hedonist, I suppose), I understand the need for a rush as well as the next guy. But while I snorkeled with sharks at the Disney water park in FL (where I suspect they have matters more controlled than tourists think), no one but a fool or damned fool would get into chummed water with ANY shark in the vicinity.

    You wrote: “Groh must have thought the sharks wouldn’t have bitten him as a matter of professional courtesy.”

    Now that’s just mean…accurate, but mean… 😉


    Yes, I’m asking if these people are “canaries in the coal mine” of our culture. I think they are. I think we’re in trouble. When this kind of risk taking has spread from those dedicated to life on the edge to those who live the “sensible” life, we’re at the edge of something sinister, I fear….

    Nice reference to “Macomber,” btw. Interesting that this finding of self through exposure to death is a theme throughout Hemingway – as it seems to be with many Xers. And of course we know Papa offed himself. Maybe it is about dealing with primitive urges. Maybe Groh saw himself as “too safe” and felt he had to “prove” himself.

    Seems a helluva stupid way to do so, though….

  12. The activity of putting blood and fish heads in the water to attract sharks has been going on for quite some time in Cape Town’s coastal waters. We call it “chumming” after “chum”, the noxious concoction that they place in the water.

    Scientists are out on this still, but it appears that chumming has allowed great whites (quite intelligent beasts) to associate food with people. And there have been a subtle increase in shark / human interaction in the past few years.

    So it goes.

  13. “shark / human interaction”

    Now that’s what I call euphemism.

    Maybe if I’m lucky tonight I’ll get to have a human/ribeye interaction.