Loomings. Or in the beginning. Or Mr. Interpolations is reading Moby Dick again, slowly.

Evidently I’m drawn to Moby Dick in much the same way that Ishmael is drawn to the ocean.

Of course I should be very cautious in drawing a parallel because it’s not at all clear why I’m drawn to Moby Dick, nor why Ishmael is drawn to the ocean. In a litany of “whenevers,” Ishmael explains his motivation for taking to sea and “of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.”

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as possible.

I recognize the hyperbolic language of male camaraderie here and wonder if Ishmael (didn’t he just invite me to call him Ishmael?) isn’t saying a lot more about his motivation than can be rightly said.

Presumably his discontentment is owing to the lack of freedom on land. After all, he’s trapped in the “insular city” and is “belted round by wharves” and is even “surrounded” by commerce, where folks are “pent up”—”tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks.”

Poor lad is unhappy, no doubt, and needs the ocean as a slave needs freedom. If a broad path is what Ishmael wants, he’ll certainly find it on the open sea.

But after carefully establishing imagery of captivity and confinement, Ishmael doesn’t contrast the land with the ultimate freedom of the ocean. Instead he acknowledges a deeper necessity. Call it a metaphysical necessity. So why does he go on a whaling voyage?

[T]his the invisible police officer of the Fates, who has the constant surveillance of me, and secretly dogs me, and influences me in some unaccountable way—he can better answer than any one else.

Indeed, this voyage “formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago…” and even cajoled him “into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment.”

In other words, Ishmael hasn’t the faintest clue why he takes to the ocean.

Just as I haven’t the faintest clue why I love Moby Dick.

So maybe the parallel is right after all.

18 Responses to Loomings. Or in the beginning. Or Mr. Interpolations is reading Moby Dick again, slowly.

  1. nicole says:

    Your conclusion is just what I was thinking after reading your second paragraph! But take heart, take heart, O Bulkington! (That is to say, I hope you may write about The Lee-Shore as well. And The Squeeze of the Hand!)

  2. Like that!

    But I think that you and he want more life, more life, and that is why you both set sail. And the book is like a bottle that holds the ship and sea and more life–and perhaps the ocean is a great sloshing, wild bottle as well.

    • Hi Marly, welcome. Of course I follow you on Twitter and am glad you dropped by. Has David Myers reviewed your work yet? I think he did; I’ll do a little sleuthing around. By the by, I like the image of sloshing bottles, as Ishmael is as great a sloshing bottle as the very ocean he embarks upon. A sloshing bottle within a raucous ocean. That is, he has murky unaccountable depths, too. Again, happy you visited. Cheers.

  3. I love the gathering of all the restriction language. Melville was in Manhattan, I believe, while writing those lines, so he may have had a literally insular city in mind.

    The irony, then, is that Ishmael solution is one with far less freedom in every direction. Or something that would seem less free to most people.

    Boy, that stuff about the funerals and hats is funny.

  4. Irony, indeed. Ishmael exchanges one kind of unfreedom on land for another on the sea, where he is “thumped and punched about” by menacing forces. As for Melville’s humor, Clifton Fadiman tells me in the intro of my copy of the book that Melville is awkwardly unfunny, which makes me wonder why I laugh so hard at funerals and hats, at orchard thieves and infernal head-peddlers, and so on.

    • nicole says:

      My mostly on-the-fly theorizing about this: life at sea is circumscribed, in ways both predictable (life and work on the ship) and not (weather, whales staving you in). Locked in with a set but small group of comrades, you have a sort of manageable freedom. A manageable community, that is to say, with well-defined norms and boundaries, and clear freedom aside from those. And by “manageable” in terms of community, I mean of a size where it actually is a functional community.

      Unlike, say, Manhattan, which is far too big to manage on that kind of human-community scale. It has its own set of social norms, but has grown too large to be dealt with in the same way and thus must develop more restrictive customs as strangers deal with strangers.

      (I am put in mind of one of my posts on The Long Winter.)

      • Yes, I remember that post. A good one. I think I disagree with you, in that life at sea is very Very VERY circumscribed. In political terms, it’s a dictatorship, and in the case of Ishmael, it’s a malevolent dictatorship. He and his other shipmates submit to the authority of Ahab for reasons I don’t fully understand. Suppose you want to protest or rebel or leave. There’s no where to go except over board—plunk. Here’s Ishmael riffing stoically on the unfreedom he voluntarily embraces: “Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about — however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way — either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.”

      • nicole says:

        Yes–and I agree/disagree with you. You are forgetting one of Ishmael’s most important messages (IMHO, natch): “Who ain’t a slave?”

      • Also relevant is that Ishmael is a water spirit in service to the ancient water god Leviathan. Freedom and slavery have different meanings to the representatives of cosmic forces.

      • nicole says:

        I endorse this message

  5. @Tom, what are these different meanings?

  6. Service to the elemental principles is the highest freedom! By “elemental” I mean fire, water, etc. Human free will is subsumed in the higher purpose. Is the ocean free? Is the air free?

    I refer you to Ahab in Ch. 134:

    “This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders.”

    Or perhaps Paradise Lost is the relevant text. Which angels are freer, those who fell or those who did not? I say those who fell, but I am merely human.

    Honestly, the last time I read the book this stuff was nibbling at me, but I kept thinking no way, nonsense, piffle. Until I got to the scene where Ahab forges a magic harpoon. Then I surrendered. Moby-Dick is many things; one of them is the Greatest Fantasy Novel of All Time, a peer of Milton, Dante, and Homer.

  7. Kat/Frisbee says:

    You can’t imagine how glad I am to see you back. I thought you’d fallen off the face of the earth!

    I’m afraid this is a bit lighter than the other comments hear.

    I read half(?) of Moby Dick, stopped after the Whiteness of the Whale, but have always meant to go back.

  8. [...] Kevin at Interpolations wonders why he adores Moby Dick. [...]

  9. [...] safely to shore after a nice long slow read of Moby Dick — but not before reflecting on just how little I know about why I take to Moby Dick as Ishmael takes to the ocean, and not before musing on the symbolism of water and Ishmael’s likely vocation as a country [...]

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