Having just returned from northern California, where I rafted the Trinity River and pursued my own leviathans (hooked two steelheads but lost both of them), I’ve been musing about water lately.
As a symbol, it almost always does work as a cleansing agent, washing away this or that stain, purifying one’s heart and mind, resulting in a spiritual rebirth of some kind.
In Melville, however, the watery part of the world isn’t identified with baptism or purification. Instead it’s aligned with phantasm, with reveries, dreams, and acts of imagination—and their powerful allure.
Of course I’m thinking of men posted “like silent sentinels … fixed in ocean reveries” and crowds who pace “straight for the water” and mountain paths that “ten to one” lead to “a pool in the stream” or even the painter who includes a “magic stream” to complete his work of art. I’m thinking of all these things, but mostly I’m thinking of this passage. Like Narcissus, we see our own “tormenting” image in “all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”
Man, I love that last sentence!
The “this” and the “it” make the cogs spin. Not to mention the “key.” Anyhow, the ocean is too murky, too deep and threatening, to purify or cleanse much of anything. But it makes for the world’s most irresistible Rorschach test. When you look into the ocean, the ocean doesn’t look back into you, sorry, Nietzsche. But you do see something of yourself in this dark, opaque mirror, in fact, mostly yourself, the more reflective you are—”Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.”
Time for a vocation?
Here’s a question for you. What was Ishmael doing before he boarded the Pequod? I mean, what did he do for a living? There’s good reason to think he was a mariner; he says as much. I “repeatedly smelt the sea as a merchant sailor.” Fair enough. But what did he do before that? I have a suspicion. It goes a little something like this. After explaining his habit of going to sea whenever he becomes grim and nasty, Ishmael insists he only boards a ship “as a simple sailor.” Then he touches on the difficulty of this transition, especially if you come from a wealthy family. Now here’s the bit I’ve been gnawing at like a terrier a beat up old rag.
And more than all, if just previous to putting your hand into the tar-pot, you have been lording it as a country schoolmaster, making the tallest boys stand in awe of you. The transition is a keen one, I assure you, from the schoolmaster to a sailor, and requires a strong decoction of Seneca and the Stoics to enable you to grin and bear it. But even this wears off in time.
Countless professions could be mentioned here, lawyer, doctor, banker, merchant and so on. But Ishmael zeros in on “country schoolmaster.” In the passage, the “more than all” and the reference to Seneca and the Stoics, but mainly the “I assure you” suggest that Ishmael is talking here from personal experience.
Plus, it neatly explains why Ishmael is so bloody smart, why his brain is chock full of historical, literary and philosophical references, and why he has an exceptional gift for the demands of narrative form.
Yes, he’s a country schoolmaster at heart.
I assure you.
Postscript. Please do take a closer look at the picture. It’s as gorgeous as New Bedford is creepy. Plus I snapped it myself. Meaning I caught one of my leviathans after all.