Well, what is the point of having a blog if you can’t now and then fire off some half-baked thought because it only just now occurred to you and you wanted to get it out there before it slipped your mind.
Ugh. That may actually be the primary reason for having a blog. It’s a kind of aide-memoire for the attention-deficit generation, of which demographic I consider myself to be a shining exemplar.
That said, I will push forward. Having recently published an entry that took more than three months to complete, I have some work to do to get the average down to something respectable—an entry a month, say.
Anyhoo, I have been reading Moby Dick to my son at bedtime. I used to read it to both of the older boys but it has been such slow going that the eldest outgrew the habit somewhere around chapter 35 so now it is just me and the nine-year-old. It has become one of my favorite parts of the day—well, of every day he is here with me. Usually, right around nine in the evening, he will suddenly appear at my shoulder and ask if I am going to be reading to him. I tell him to go ahead and get ready and I will join him. Then, when I think he’s had time to brush his teeth and so forth, I follow him up there and invariably find him in bed reading something else—Pearls Before Swine is a favorite or, recently, a large book about vampires written for girls—which he immediately puts aside, expectant of the imminent delivery of a dose of Melville.
My son's sustained interest in one of my favorite things gives me great joy, joy that is hardly diminished by his recent admission that, as he put it, “I’m glad you’re not reading me something great—well, I know it’s great and all—but not something I love, like, love love. I mean I love that you read it but it doesn’t really interest me, so I can fall asleep easily.” So be it. In the 7th grade I didn’t think I really loved Jeannie Anderson and by the 8th grade I realized how wrong I had been. The realization came too late for me to really get into Jeannie, chapter and verse. She had moved on. But Melville is not so fickle. He will wait for the boy.
Meanwhile, I read on. And it often happens that, as I’m reading, I’ll come to some passage, some metaphor or thought, some one of the many such moments for which Melville is so justly known, and, moved by the word, I will make some appreciative aside to the son.
“Man oh man,” I might say. “That was well said.”
Or sometimes, “Wow. I didn’t understand a word of that.”
Inevitably, silence is the only answer. He has gone ahead into the other realm.
Just such a moment occurred last night as I was reading to him from Chapter 58, Brit, a beautifully crafted gem of just a few pages. Melville has begun with an image of the sea as a vast, gentle meadow full of this stuff, this brit, “the minute, yellow substance, upon which the Right Whale largely feeds.” He goes on:
For leagues and leagues it undulated round us, so that we seemed to be sailing through boundless fields of ripe and golden wheat.
A modern reader can’t help but imagine that these fields have since been sown with salt and such visions are unknown to today’s mariners. This is the first frisson in the chapter.
But as beautiful as this imagery is, Melville quickly begins to describe the sea as a dangerous, violent and deadly place. The placid sea the Pequod sails through is, essentially, a graveyard. He speaks of the ancient ark, reminding us not of who was saved, but who was left behind:
The first boat we read of, floated on an ocean, that with Portuguese vengeance had whelmed a whole world without leaving so much as a widow. That same ocean rolls now; that same ocean destroyed the wrecked ships of last year. Yea, foolish mortals, Noah's flood is not yet subsided; two thirds of the fair world it yet covers.
You’ve been warned. But he regains his humor long enough to make this observation:
Wherein differ the sea and the land, that a miracle upon one is not a miracle upon the other? Preternatural terrors rested upon the Hebrews, when under the feet of Korah and his company the live ground opened and swallowed them up for ever; yet not a modern sun ever sets, but in precisely the same manner the live sea swallows up ships and crews.
He’s fronting, basically. Your land-based “miracles” are an everyday thing out on my bad-ass ocean.
He continues distinguishing the comparative safety of the land to the dangers of the ocean and then he ends with this, one of those Melville lines that just takes my breath away, because it seems to me to be an example of everything writing can be—not just the desire to put words on paper, but the ability to somehow put truth there as well.
Consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!
“My God!” I say to my boy. “Did you hear that?”
But he is asleep. I look at him. He sleeps soundly. It won’t wake him to move the hair back from his eyes. And then it strikes me that while I may have pushed off from that isle many years ago, it is still close at hand. Unreachable, for sure, but not out of sight.