There be dragons!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Ahab says to Starbuck, "All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event ... some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me.... I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. The inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate."

Ahab twists into something unholy and terrifying the vision that all things are metaphor for something else. Yet in Moby Dick the vision is already twisted and terrifying; the god is an unreasoning whale, the sea is dark and protean, the crew is savage and brutal. The world is already a nightmare such that Ahab's vision is but a nightmare within the nightmare. The book itself is therefore a pasteboard mask, hiding through Melville's obscure language and copiously unnecessary minutia of whaling lore some dark vision of how things might be. If indeed everything is a metaphor for everything else, Melville intimates, how then can we ever know what is the really real? Aren't we just pushed about by dark forces that don't kill us outright but rather maim us and leave us to live on with only one lung? Dark shadows with condor wings, to borrow from Poe. It is a dark vision, indeed, and not easily softened by the platitudinous responses of Melville's more religiously-minded critics. St. John of the Cross offers this sort of reflection, to descend into the darkness w/o the hope of return as a thing necessary if we are to grow. Yet even the suggestion that this endurance of the darkness, the horse doldrums of uncertainty, might be for our betterment and growth is to delete the experience of its effectiveness. Maybe there is no betterment. Maybe things just happen. And your ship gets staved in by the malignant force with a hump like a white hill leaving you clutching for dear life to Queequeg's coffin, held liminally between the infinite depths of the sky and the infinite depths of the abyss.


  1. Copiously unnecessary? Perhaps.
    Fascinating and altogether leaving me richer for the experience of reading? Absolutely!

    Anyway, no matter how much one believes that descending into the darkness somehow betters oneself, thus eliminating the effect of plunging into the darkness and coming out, despair inevitably rears its ugly head. Is despair the right word? Hopelessness isn't the thing only I want to express. Sure, there comes a moment when we forget or rejects hope. When the whale crashes into the ship, who's thinking "I'll come through this and be better off haveing been through it?" No one! I would be saying my last prayers wondering why on earth I went on this damn expedition in the first place!

    Apathy? Yes, apathy. Shit happens, and yes, your ship is destroyed and you alone survive, but you could've died. After all, everyone else died. How come you get to live?

    Before going on, a question. Are you saying it deletes the effectiveness of the experience if we consider it beforehand, or does it matter when it is brought to our attention? Are we even talking about specific experiences, or just the world in general?

  2. Nicely put. Indubitably I'd be asking myself "what was I thinking going out to hunt a 10 ton beast with a toothpick?" Indeed, the 19th century authors all seemed to be despairing; they saw nothing behind the pasteboard masks and consequently they were like Ahab, trying to kill God rather than comprehend him. Melville stacks the story from the beginning (making his protagonist an outcast, having them hunt the whale rather than observe it) yet in so doing he presents the nightmare that American thought was wrestling. Is this the conclusion of freedom? Nightmare? I don't know. I do know that unbridled freedom that seeks to penetrate into the heart of mystery ends up killing the mystery, despairing, not wedding god but destroying him and thus themselves. The experience to which I refer is a specific experience of heartache, experiencing the void, the dark night of the soul, which I think is necessary to appreciate the world's beauty and which cannot be entered into with the idea that you will come out okay but which cannot be entered into either without the Theseus thread that God is good! the mantra repeated continually - God is good, this is for a reason, there is light somewhere; Frodo and Sam clinging to the idea that the quest has value even when Frodo can no longer see water or trees or anything. Dogged, determined, resolute continuous in the good even if it becomes as grim as the scorched earth around us. Well, enough for now. Have to go talk to parents of 10th graders. Fun.