Thursday, October 28, 2010
The Unharming Sharks
- Herman Melville, Moby Dick
* * *
The effort it takes to unfuck your life seems easy on paper; it is another thing entirely to live out whatever fine thoughts encourage you. The savage banality of circumstance intrudes and the way forward, which seemed so clear just a moment ago, is lost in a tangle of doubt and uncertainty.
And yet there is always available to each of us the choice as to how we will engage the overweening prerogative of circumstance. Will we fold? flee? absorb the battering? Will we determine to live to tell the tale at all costs? Will we insist on our dignity, bred in the bone, as being sufficient to answer any questions life puts to us?
Mr. Melville was, by all accounts, an abject failure in the world he lived in. Forever broke, deep in debt, unhappily married and cursed with a gift that few of his contemporaries could fathom. He died, as they say, penniless and forgotten.
What such a life must have felt like to live! Unceasing war against his times. His skills were not viable in the currency of putting food on the table, yet beyond all question his works are without equal in American letters. Was he fucked, or are his works proof that he lived unfucked? Is this the measure we must take if we are fucked - that we must write Moby Dick in order to be unfucked?
No. That is no measure. That is simply what Melville did.
* * *
This morning I cleaned behind the wake of 30 or 40 homeless men, women and children; the sight of which pulled the air out of my chest: resignation, vacancy, fear and courtliness registering across their faces. I had missed my call time to be there to help this morning - the second time in as many weeks when I could not prioritize my commitment to be there and slept instead. I was late, but determined I should go and on the way there my heart raced and the old fear burned a little brighter: I am one step way from their ranks.
Is dissolution the necessary destruction in order to rid yourself of all hubris, conceit and fear? Like another great 19th century character, Ebeneezer Scrooge, are these the portents of things that will be, or what might be?
Your dissolution is compete when you decide it is, otherwise it is an endless torment, forever longing for the freedom you left behind. Destruction of your physical self is not required, only destruction of your habits of mind that limit you, that cause you to suffer without cause or greater purpose.
In Moby Dick, Ishmael is the only one who lives to tell the tale. Throughout the book, Ishmael and the rest of the crew are driven to their doom by Ahab's hatred and their willingness to be driven. Ishmael, at the end, is rendered a cork floating on the waves - an apt symbol for his life. Yet Melville affords him a remarkable grace in the closing lines of the book. After all that struggle, pain and death, Melville closes the mouths of more guileless predators and Ishmael is rescued.
That ending always struck me as nature's acknowledgment that she would not compound such man-made torment. It was the required rest after such labors.
Are you Ahab? Ishamel? or doomed Starbuck or Stubbs? Will you go willingly to your dissolution because another has made it so? Or will you choose something else? At what point does the Pequod of your life get dragged down?
Ishamel is saved by Queequeg's coffin, a symbol of life over death, and it is then, and only then the sharks become unharming. It is time to choose. Now. The dirty, sleepy, dazed two year old I saw this morning does not have a choice. His parents had chosen for him long before he was born.
What is your excuse?