Friday, November 14, 2014

Happy Anniversary to Moby Dick!




























image: Wikimedia commons (link). Click on the image to go to original, which has a "magnifying glass" feature.

November 14: On this day in 1851 appeared in print the US edition of Herman Melville's Moby Dick. The work had been previously published in England the month before (October of 1851) as The Whale, with a print run of only five hundred copies.

Melville's opus stands as a towering example of the process discussed in this essay, by which numinous truth descends from the realm of ideas, the realm of spirit, the realm of form, and clothes itself in the massy, dirty, bloody, ugly, realm of matter . . . for the purpose of rising again back to the world of spirit, dragging the material world (and us with it) along in its train.

In the vast and alien world of whaling, Melville found a canvas broad enough in which to wrestle with some of the greatest questions of human existence. The book, of course, is not about the endless details of whaling in which readers can sometimes become bogged down or overwhelmed, but rather the deeper questions towards which the physical "teaching aids" of the whaling life are constantly turned throughout the work.

For example, Chapter 60 (which can be found online, along with the rest of Moby Dick, in this Project Gutenberg edition), is entitled "The Line," and it is ostensibly an essay upon the whale-line which connects the harpoon to the whale-boat, about its characteristics, and the various ways in which it is rigged about the boats by the crews of various nationalities, and how it is attached, and the dangers it poses to life and limb as it runs out at lightning speed when a whale is struck by a harpoon and plunges into the deep in a burst of surprise, anger and pain.

But, as with everything else in Moby Dick, the intricate detail of the explanation is provided with the intention of suddenly making the leap from the physical, literal details being described, across the chasm to the realm of spirit, the realm of ideas, the realm of philosophy, where the lessons of the whale-line will suddenly be seen to be a metaphor for an aspect of human existence, and where the humble hemp will be shown to crackle with metaphysical meaning.

The final paragraphs of Chapter 60's description of "the line" illustrate this "turning the corner" or "making the leap" quite nicely, although any number of other chapters in Moby Dick could be used to illustrate the same move:
Again: as the profound calm which only apparently precedes and prophesies of the storm, is perhaps more awful than the storm itself; for, indeed, the calm is but the wrapper and envelope of the storm; and contains it in itself, as the seemingly harmless rifle holds the fatal powder, and the ball, and the explosion; so the graceful repose of the line, as it silently serpentines about the oarsmen before being brought into actual play -- this is a thing which carries more of true terror than any other aspect of this dangerous affair. But why say more? All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortal realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.
Clearly, to take Moby Dick for a book about whaling, or to complain that its incessant discussion of the grimy, miserable, and often gory details of life aboard a whale-ship often gets in the way of the "adventure story" about the obsessive pursuit of the white whale by Ahab, is to completely miss the point of the book -- to take it "too literally," so to speak.

In fact, to do so is a form of getting "bogged down" in the material world, and of missing the existence of an invisible world which throbs just beneath the surface of this one, always waiting to be called forth. In many ways, it is possible to say that the recognition of this invisible world, this spirit world, in ourselves and in the world around us, is the reason we are here in the material world in the first place. Previous posts which have touched on this concept include this one, this one, and this one.

Recent interviews have also mentioned Moby Dick, including this most recent interview with Marty Leeds and this interview with David Whitehead of Truth Warrior Radio recorded last month on October 20.

Happy anniversary to Moby Dick, published 163 years ago today! If you feel inclined, read a few chapters . . . and contemplate the ability of just about everything in this material world to serve as a pointer to realms of heavenly glory.