Rorschach Test & Country Schoolmaster

November 20, 2012

Two things today, only two—water and vocation.

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.


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

November 19, 2012

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.

#1 one sentence, three words, a holy trinity

October 7, 2011
“Call me Ishmael.” It’s my favorite opening line in literature. Unforgettable. I thrill at its power and economy — a storyteller begins; the first person point of view is announced; a “you” is implied; an intimacy is established; a name is vouchsafed—and not any old name, but one that hums with Biblical significance: Ishmael, born of a lowly servant, a lost inheritance, an outcast and a wanderer, and perhaps most important, a central figure in three major monotheistic traditions, being tugged in different interpretive directions. If so much can happen in three words, what are we to make of the rest of the story, of its characters and events, and of our own Ahabian interpretations? Perfect.

The House of Mirth (7), or The Bed

September 7, 2010

I agree with E.M. Forster that Moby Dick, one of my favorite novels of all time, is a prophetic or transcendent story. So how happy was I to discover in The House of Mirth, which also strikes a profoundly transcendent note, a hitherto unremarked connection to Moby Dick.

Yes, both novels are fantastic. And both reverberate in haunting ways that compel you to search out the source of their music by snugly pressing your ear to the surface of things.

But I have something else in mind, prophecy and transcendence aside: two exquisite and entirely unforgettable scenes. And not just any ole’ scenes, I’m talking about—yep!—bedroom scenes, with a little man-on-man and woman-on-woman action, respectively.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

As you may recall, Ishmael is at the Spouter-Inn where, for lack of available rooms, he has to share a bed with a harpooner and cannibal. Alone, Ishmael thrashes about on an uncomfortable bed, unable to sleep. Finally he dozes off when Queequeg throws the door open and enters the room. “Such a face! It was of a dark, purplish yellow color, here and there stuck over with large, blackish looking squares.” When Ishmael’s fright wears off, he settles down for the night with his “terrible bed-fellow.”

Then we get this lovely bit on union, which goes way beyond brotherhood and male camaraderie.

Upon waking the next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife…. Queequeg was hugging me…in a bridegroom clasp.

A great and wonderful and immensely important scene in the overall plot development of the novel.

Now, maybe you’re uncomfortable with the whole man-on-man thing, and prefer a little mud wrestling without the mud. So here’s the set up: Lily has just narrowly escaped Gus Trenor’s obscene clutch. Disgusted and horrified, she desperately seeks refuge and comfort at Gerty’s flat, where…

There was but one bed…, and the two girls lay down on it side by side when Gerty had unlaced Lily’s dress and persuaded her to put her lips to the warm tea. The light extinguished, they lay still in the darkness, Gerty shrinking to the outer edge of the narrow couch to avoid contact with her bedfellow.

Affectionate by nature, Gerty avoids Lily because Lily hates being touched. But the urgency of Lily’s situation is just too great.

“Hold me, Gerty, hold me, or I shall think of things,” she moaned, and Gerty silently slipped an arm under her, pillowing her head in its hollow as a mother makes a nest for a tossing child.

Admittedly, the image of a mother soothing a child is pretty damn moving. Still I give my nod to Ishmael and Queequeg for starring in the world’s most literary (in part because transgressive)
bedroom scene.

Any other contenders?