Thoughts on life after the PhD
“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare?”
At the top of a long list of books that I felt guilty for never having read (Ulysses, Great Expectations, War and Peace) was Moby Dick. Determined not to let these short weeks of (somewhat) free time be wasted on net-surfing and TV-watching, I bought a copy of the book and took it with me to a place where its impact would surely not be lost on me–Cancun.
Reading a book largely considered to be one of the greatest novels of the English language in a place mostly known for spring break college insanity is an interesting experience. Reading such a book 100% as a book–i.e., with little or no knowledge of all the criticism and interpretation surrounding it–is a rare pleasure. I made a point not to read Moby Dick‘s introduction until I had finished the whole book, determined to read it purely as fiction, not as an exercise. Kind of an impossible task, given how Moby Dick‘s characters and symbolism have worked their way into so many areas of popular culture (even one of those Progressive insurance commercials features Ahab). But I think I mostly succeeded.
From as un-interpretive, un-theoretical a stance as I can muster, I can say that Moby Dick is long–around 600 pages–and sometimes you get the feeling that when he ran out of ideas Melville padded his story with encyclopedic lists of whale anatomy, harpoon types, and the various parts of a whaling ship (sections that I’ll admit I occasionally skimmed). The book begins with a very present first-person narrator who gradually vanishes, it meanders from soliloquy to scenes written in the manner of stage plays to very technical musings on the practice of whaling. Toward its end it’s as gripping as the best adventure film, and every bit as gory–there’s a horrifying scene in which a sailor falls off the boat and into the partially slaughtered carcass of a whale floating nearby, only to be rescued when another sailor is brave enough to dive into the whale’s body to save him. Just when you’re feeling bogged down in the accounts of day-to-day life on a whaling boat, Melville will wow you with a piece of magnicent prose or a brief insight into the human psyche, and you’ll be compelled to keep reading. Ultimately, though, what stayed with me the most was Moby Dick‘s depiction of the harsh and brutal nature of commerce. Groups of men on a boat for three years at a time, living on wretched food and subject to all manner of injury and disease, desperately seeking animals much larger and faster than they are, spearing them and then hurriedly turning their bodies into a horrific mess of blood and tissue–all of it in the name of securing comparatively small amounts of oil for lamps.
Though the subject of the novel is primarily one captain’s obsessive search for a single white whale (a search that has little or nothing to do with securing oil), reading Moby Dick on the shore of a still-clean beach naturally made me think about the BP spill and our modern endless quest for a different kind of oil. Recent photos from Alabama show golden-brown waves lapping the shoreline–whole waves of the stuff, not balls or droplets here and there. A friend told me recently that the U.S. government could, in fact, plug the leak in a heartbeat with a few explosions and some cement–but it would mean losing access to all that lucrative oil, so they don’t do it. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not, but it smacks of the kind of doomed obsession that Melville so vividly described.
I read Moby Dick mostly while listening to the sound of waves crashing on a very pristine beach, where red flags warned me not to go swimming. I didn’t always listen, and one day while floating gently near the shore I was pummeled by a monster of a wave that sucked me under for several seconds and left me coughing up seawater and covered in scratches from tiny rocks and shells. The ocean really can turn from friend to foe in the blink of an eye.
At night I walked the mostly empty beaches and looked up at tons of stars and the dust of the milky way mingled with the occasional lights of boats on the horizon. (Note: “long walks on the beach” are not necessarily the relaxing, romantic venture that they might seem. Your feet get tired really fast in the sand, and all those pieces of broken shells and coral near the shoreline start to hurt after a while).
On a dive trip on a tiny boat I got horribly seasick–not quite enough to throw up, but enough to want to be off that boat and very, very far away from water. As the boat rocked endlessly up and down I tried to imagine enduring days or weeks of seasickness on a boat and realized that as a sailor on the Pequod I would have been begging to be sent home after five minutes. Moby Dick makes no real mention of seasickness, but surely Ishmael had to have been heaving over the side of the boat for a few days.
Moby Dick reminded me of countless other stories of obsession and determination against unimaginable forces–mostly, of course, of China Mieville’s The Scar, with its story of a floating city searching for an enormous beast that will lead it to a place of unlimited power or complete destruction. Or really any story of characters with mad, impossible goals or quests for vengeance that consume them:
“All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”
Ahab had his quest, we have our endless quest for petroleum even as it threatens to drown us in slime. Maybe this is what I really took from the book–that some of us will always be doomed to “burst our hot heart’s shell upon” some ludicrous and deadly goal, even if it means taking an entire ship down with us.
writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)
tales of travel, research, and life
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