7 July 2010: Whale of a Tale

One whale of a tale for summer reading

I love synchronicity. Coursing through “Moby Dick” once again, I also read about the discovery in Peru of a 12 million-year-old tusked sperm whale skull, christened Leviathan Melvillei in honor of the classic writer.

Over the years, I encouraged my students to reread the great works from the perspective of the person into whom they would evolve and grow, and now as an aging — Gosh! I hate saying “old” — man, I’m taking my own advice. It was in high school that I first stumbled across “Moby Dick,” perched on the book rack in Sr. Leah’s English class. The image of men at sea grappling in turbulent waters with something far greater than they captured my 16-year-old imagination, and 40-plus years later, it fascinates more.

A political cartoon during the impeachment of Bill Clinton depicts him as Moby Dick heading for the deep with prosecutor Kenneth Starr wrapped with whale lines to him, which makes sense given Bubba’s former girth. It’s tougher, though, to fathom Barack Obama as the white whale, since he’s neither white nor whale-ish in size, but the metaphor works given the obsession by Republicans to cashier anything Obama.

Compared to Obama haters, Ahab of “Moby Dick” proves to be a noble character since he honestly confesses his hatred. First mate Starbuck accuses Ahab of madness, and Ahab acknowledges being beyond madness, “demoniac, madness maddened.”

“He tasks me; he heaps me. I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate.”

To appreciate essential elements of Herman Melville’s story, one should have a grasp of Old Testament lore. Ahab, named for the evil king whose blood dogs drank, admits he does not understand the inscrutable thing he hates but nonetheless hates it for what it has done: “demast” his leg as Clinton demasted George H.W. Bush and Obama demasted John McCain.

The story’s opening line “Call me Ishmael,” one of the most renowned in literature, serves as an allusion to the biblical myth of the cast-out son of Abraham. Immediately the reader sees Ishmael is not the narrator’s actual name but a metaphor like the rest of the story.

Ishmael is “tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote,” so scratching that itch, he invites readers to join the crew, a most democratic one, of the Pequod “to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.” Tough to do in or from Clear Creek, but that’s what back decks offer on a lazy summer day: escape from the world of the senses into that of the ultimate.

Herman Melville’s contemporary, Henry David Thoreau, observes, “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation”; instead, Melville offers a whaling metaphor for that maxim: “All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters around their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.” Is then our inherent quiet desperation a consequence of the halter’s imminent constriction?

When do we cross the line from passion to obsession? Playing our role, do we act as Ishmael the observer, Starbuck struggling to do the task for which he is hired, a crew member beguiled with the idea of gaining the gold doubloon by being the first to sight the White Whale, or monomaniac Ahab?

Another question for readers is whether we identify more with the ship’s three white, civilized, Christian mates, Starbuck, Stubb and Flask, or the three dark-skinned, pagan harpooners, Tashtego, Daggoo, and Queequeg, in particular who serves as Ahab’s true foil and model of Christian behavior: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Great literature can be Nirvana, a refuge for searching souls seeking to become lost. Some go to church, some to a museum, and others find themselves by losing themselves in the world of nature, backpacking, rock-climbing, or fishing, but it’s difficult to have good conversation about the mysteries of the cosmos and humankind’s inanities and complexities with non-humankind: rocks, trees and mountain tarns and lions, although they provide the place and space for reflection. And, it seems, difficult even with humankind due to busy lives being “frittered away by detail,” as Thoreau reminds us.

Things remote, forbidden seas, and barbarous coasts are otherworldly, but not in the literal, physical sense. Great writers can serve as guides in that nether world, and it is only by going there we are able to strike through “the pasteboard masks” that Ahab insists are “all visible objects.” Summertime is a good time to recall that.

Call me Ishmael.

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