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The Seaward Peep: Three writers respond to Moby-Dick

ISSUE:  Summer 2011
Call Me Ishmael, by Charles Olson. Johns Hopkins,
October 1997 (reissue). $25

A Whaler’s Dictionary, by Dan Beach-Quick,
Milkweed, November 2008. $20

Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost
at Sea
, by Donovan Hohn, Viking, March 2011. $27.95

Moby-Dick is not about Moby-Dick. Not really. The white whale makes his appearance, of course. We have been promised that much. Moby-Dick emerges, finally, at the end of Melville’s great novel, in the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean. “There she blows!—there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby- Dick!” The white whale comes out of the sea in order to do battle with his human nemesis, Captain Ahab. An encounter with Moby-Dick on a previous whaling expedition left Ahab without one leg, shorn off by the massive sperm whale’s prodigious jaw. Ahab’s crazed obsession with finding and killing Moby-Dick becomes the guiding obsession for the entire book. Everyone aboard Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, slowly gets pulled into Captain Ahab’s obsession. But no one aboard the Pequod—not Ishmael, the narrator; or Queequeg, the harpoonist; or Starbuck, the first mate—is ever quite sure why they seek the white whale across the seven seas. “Oh, my Captain! my Captain!” cries Starbuck, “why should anyone give chase to that hated fish! Away with me! let us fly these deadly waters! let us home!” Captain Ahab understands it least of all, this obsession. “Is Ahab, Ahab?” he asks. “Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?” Ahab has moved beyond having an obsession; he is the obsession.

But it is not really Moby-Dick that drives them all out onto the open seas. It is something bigger, even, than a whale. Moby-Dick and Ahab are but creaturely manifestations of the more infinite subject of Herman Melville’s inquiry: the ocean itself. In a sense, Melville was writing to the ocean and he was trying to let the ocean speak back. The conversation starts in the opening pages of Moby-Dick as Ishmael is drawn outward and away from the land, into the nameless blue from the island of Manhattan, an island that, for Melville, was but a launching point for journeys into the sea.

Look out at the island of the Manhattoes, Melville writes in Moby-Dick. “What do you see?— Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep.” But what does a man peep into when he turns seaward? What is out there? What is there to glimpse when there is no land to be found and everything on all sides is but ocean and sky? Ishmael says it in the pages of Moby-Dick: “in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God.” You want to get a seaward peep because you want to glimpse truth.

During Melville’s time, the mid-nineteenth century, the boundlessness of the sea, the infinity of it, was, perhaps, its primary characteristic. The whaling industry—the industry that makes Melville’s tale possible—had become big business. Mankind was beginning, in full earnest, to tap into the resources of the great oceans. But the tap seemed only to touch upon the barest surface of an unfathomable depth. “Unfathomable”— impossible to fathom. A fathom is six feet, two yards. The original standard for its measurement, we’re told, was roughly the length, from fingertip to fingertip, of a normalsized man’s outstretched arms. When you talk about something being unfathomable, then, you are talking about something impossible for human beings to get their arms around. It is bigger than our grasp.

The highest truth is therefore going to be out there on the oceans, where the sightline stretches out into a shoreless infinity and the depth below you is unknowable, “indefinite as God.” The highest truth is going to stretch the very possibility of our fathoming by the very nature of its being. It is going to outstretch the grasp. That is what Melville sees in our collective drive to get a seaward peep. We have a desire to get beyond ourselves, to the point at which our capacity to understand would almost snap.

This is something that Charles Olson—critic, poet, and central figure of the Black Mountain School in the 1950s—noticed about Herman Melville and about Moby-Dick, too. Olson considers it particularly American, this obsession with space and with depth in its limitless expanse— the terrifying indefiniteness. “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now,” he wrote in Call me Ishmael. “I spell it large because it comes large.”

Olson published his book in 1947, adapted from a dissertation he wrote on Melville and Shakespeare. His big idea was that there were two versions of Moby- Dick. The first was a tale of the sea that did not include the character of Ahab. The second, the one we all know, includes Ahab and came about after Melville read a lot of Shakespeare, notably King Lear, who Melville fell in love with as a character that speaks a “madness of vital truth.” In reading Shakespeare, thinks Olson, Melville understood that his novel had to include the dark element. If the sea is unfathomable and as indefinite as God, the thinking goes, then it must also be as indefinite as Satan. Melville once wrote to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne that he had written a “wicked book.” Olson thinks of that as the Book of Ahab that exists within the pages of the larger work, Moby-Dick. It is, Olson says, “the drama of Ahab, his hot pursuit for the White Whale, and his vengeful pursuit of it from the moment the ship lunges like fate into the Atlantic.”

This drama of essential forces and the barely understandable madness of Ahab can only be written against the backdrop of the open seas because that is the only place big enough, indefinite enough in its cosmic-though-still-worldly significance, to hold such a tale. For Charles Olson, such a tale must be told by an American. That’s because America is “geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning.” And it is not just the land, since there are “seas on both sides, no barriers to contain as restless a thing as Western man was becoming in Columbus’s day. That made Melville’s story (part of it).”

It is a point that has been made time and again. The first stories of Western man happen upon a sea that is land enclosed. The civilizations of the Mediterranean Sea look inward by design. Even the word “Mediterranean” says it all: “medius terra,” “middle land.” The Mediterranean is the sea utterly surrounded and embraced by the land. Olson points to this fact in talking about the trip that Melville took after he finished writing Moby-Dick, the trip he took to see the old civilization around the Mediterranean. “The Mediterranean is a close sea, is in the middle of the land, is the old center of earth.” Dangerous as sailing the Mediterranean could be, especially in ancient times, it was nevertheless the exploration of a space that was inherently bounded. Odysseus travels far and wide during his wanderings in The Odyssey, but he always finds something as he bounces from shore to shore. The American experience is one of being opened into shorelessness, either toward the Atlantic and Pacific—oceans that are not enclosed by land—or in the experience of the “hell of wide land” that just seems to keep going and going as American civilization moves west. “The fulcrum of America,” writes Olson, “is the Plains, half sea half land, a high sun as metal and obdurate as the iron horizon, and a man’s job to square the circle.” Melville makes the same point from the opposite direction in Moby-Dick, calling the Pacific a “sea pasture” and discussing the oceans as “wide-rolling watery prairies and Potters’ Fields.” In so much open space, of land or of water, it is a natural thing to want to get your bearings, to figure out where you are.

Is it any wonder, then, that American literature of the nineteenth century returns obsessively to space, how to mark it and to take its measure? Mark Twain cast off his given name, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, to take up the name of a depth sounder. The call of “mark twain” was what the leadsman of a riverboat would shout out. It meant that the lead line trailing the boat was showing the second mark, a mark that signified that the water was two fathoms deep. Mark twain is two fathoms deep; it is safe water for navigating. That is something a human being can get his arms around, two fathoms. And that is the territory of American literature that Mark Twain staked out for himself. Mark Twain went about two fathoms deep in everything he explored. That was how far he was willing to let his literary imagination go. He explored those two fathoms with great brilliance. He was defined by the Mississippi, which he thought of as the most significant dwelling place for civilized man upon the entire globe. The Mississippi is a meandering river. There is a trickiness in navigating her. But there is nothing shoreless about the Mississippi. Maybe the biggest difficulty for river boaters like Samuel Clemens was to make sure that the river didn’t get too shallow in parts. He was always looking for mark twain, the place where there was just enough depth to move around in. Twain’s humor and warmth is, likewise, always human-sized. He liked the man or the experience that could be fathomed, that he could get his arms around. There are no Ahabs in the writings of Mark Twain. He told Americans about the safe water.

Or think of Henry David Thoreau living on Walden Pond. He lived there and wrote his book in the mid-1800s, within a few years of when Melville wrote Moby-Dick. What did he do? He sounded out the depth of Walden Pond. He needed to get the space right and to figure out the distances, to take measure. Thoreau was amazed by the general lack of curiosity in the depth of the pond. Most people seem to take it as bottomless, unfathomable. “Many have believed that Walden reached quite through to the other side of the globe.” But Thoreau does the work of sounding with a cod line and a oneand- a-half-pound stone. He finds that the pond is remarkably deep, though it has a bottom. It is one hundred and two feet deep, and with a rise in the pond of five feet since he did his sounding, one hundred and seven feet deep.

This pleases Thoreau, the idea that Walden Pond is deep, but not too deep to fathom. Thoreau even takes a moment to wonder what it would be like if all ponds were shallow. “Would it not react on the minds of men?” he asks. The thought bothers him. We need depth, he thinks, we need the idea and the experience of depth.

If Mark Twain is the thinker of safe water, then Thoreau is the thinker of hidden depths. He is the American for whom infinity could spiral out from an inch of space, when looked at properly. Thoreau explains it like this:

Our notions of law and harmony are commonly confined to what we can perceive; but the harmony that results from a far greater set of seemingly conflicting, but really concurring laws, is still more wonderful. This sense of harmony reflects our individual points of view.

Thoreau had a genius for holding those two perspectives simultaneously. He loved to watch the outline of the mountain in its minute changes—as the traveler walks along the space changes, the light changes, the day transforms. Yet he was always able to see the mountain as selfsame in its absolute form. He was a specialist in observing the particulars without losing himself in their infinity. When Thoreau sounded out Walden Pond, it was to know it in every detail, to run his hand along its topography by means of rock and string. But he had a natural instinct for limits. “Even when cleft or bored through,” Thoreau says of his hypothetical mountain, “it is not comprehended in its entireness.” And he was content to leave it at that. He was content to wander through the woods of Walden in a neverending odyssey of discovery. When Thoreau picked up a leaf, he wanted to know what kind of leaf it was, but then he wanted to think about the leaf as something unique too. There was a constant balancing act at play in Thoreau’s capacity for observation. He was wary both of the infinity that stretched out forever in the details and of getting lost in the meditation on absolute form. Depth, for Thoreau, was only meaningful when it could be related back to the human scale. There is even a moment in Walden when Thoreau dismisses the idea that the ocean holds any great depth. “Probably,” writes Thoreau, “the depth of the ocean will be found to be very inconsiderable compared to its breadth.” In one sentence, Thoreau makes Walden Pond equal in importance to the Pacific Ocean. And that was how Thoreau liked everything: Walden-sized.

Melville would have lasted about five minutes on Walden Pond. The call of the sea was, to Melville, the call of infinity. But how, then, do you measure the ocean, how do you come to terms with it? In a passage from Melville’s travel journal while he was in Egypt, Charles Olson discovers the following lines: “Finding it vain to take in the sea’s vastness man has taken to sounding it and weighing its density; so with the pyramid, he measures the base and computes the size of individual stones. It refuses to be studied or adequately comprehended. It still looms in my imagination, dim and indefinite.” On the face of it, these thoughts on the inadequacy of comprehension are not dissimilar from the thoughts on limitation that can be found in Thoreau’s musings. The difference is that Melville can’t leave it alone. The vastness looms in his imagination, haunting him. Where Thoreau is content in his wonder, Melville is driven to its core, where it burns and festers in his soul.

This brings us back to the whale. The whale is the sea’s greatest creation. The animal is massive enough, powerful enough, grand enough, adequate enough to swim and inhabit the ocean’s open waters. The whale is shoreless. That is why a beached whale is so incongruous, so distressing to the head and heart. When a whale ends up on the shore, a cosmic compact has gone awry

More important than simply being in the waters of the ocean is the specific mode in which whales inhabit those waters. Whales are sounders. They take the depth. They go down and they come up again. There is a straightforward explanation for this behavior. Whales are mammals. They need to breathe the same air as the rest of us mammals. They come to the surface of the ocean in order to take that air. And then they can go back down into the unknown crevices of the seas. But they must come up, they must come up again. And that is how we get to know them. The entire industry of whaling—the industry that brought Herman Melville into the oceans in the first place—was predicated on the mammalian behavior of the whale. The sounding of the whale and then its return to the surface of the water taught whalers to track and anticipate.

In the nineteenth century, in the days before electricity, oil extracted from whale blubber— sperm oil from Sperm Whales was considered the highest quality—provided a longer lasting light. As Herman Melville experienced whales, as he observed them from the whaling ships on which he traveled, he began to realize that whales were his access to the truth of the ocean just as they were, literally, his reason for sailing the seas. These great beasts were at home in the ocean. They experienced daily the reality of infinite depths. Just in the way that Thoreau used a cod line and a one-and-a-half-pound stone to feel out the depths of Walden Pond, Melville used the whale to sound out the ocean. He would know the ocean through the creature that most knows the ocean. He would know the being of the whale, if he could, the soul of the whale, if they had one.

In fact, Melville never understood much about whales. He couldn’t grasp the whale as a mammal. He mustered all his scientific acumen, such as it was, and definitively proclaimed the whale a fish. Melville writes (in a properly playful manner given the dubious grounds for his claim), “Be it known that, waiving all argument, I take the good old fashioned ground that the whale is a fish, and call upon holy Jonah to back me.” He merely adds what he considers the important detail of the directionality of its tail. “To be short, then, a whale is a spouting fish with a horizontal tail.” So be it.

This passage comes within what many consider the most confusing and off-putting section of Moby-Dick, where Melville makes of his novel a document of mid-nineteenth-century natural history, and not particularly good natural history at that. It all happens in Chapter 32 of Moby- Dick, titled “Cetology” (though the naturalist impulse comes back again here and there throughout the middle of the book). Cetology is the study of whales and Melville, via the narrative voice of Ishmael, is eager to delve into its business. “It is some systematized exhibition of the whale in his broad genera,” he writes, “that I would fain put before you.”

Melville then launches into fifteen pages or so that are, by his own account and by the account of most readers since then, of such little value with regards to science (or the readability of the novel) that it is often considered polite to ignore this part of the book. Not everyone, though, feels this way. The poet Dan Beachy- Quick, for instance, published just last year an intriguing volume entitled A Whaler’s Dictionary, inspired specifically by the “Cetology” chapter.

Beachy-Quick admits that Melville’s performance in that chapter is “more touching than pedantic.” It is a difficult task that Melville set himself since the one thing about whales is that, “they are always diving down.” But Beachy-Quick understands Melville’s need to define the whale, to catalogue and categorize the whale even if it ends in failure. The whale, as the creature that inhabits the pure world of the ocean as well as the surface world of human beings, is a potential link by which the one world can connect to and understand the other. Beachy-Quick says, “The white whale connects surface to depth and, in his strange, alien, inexplicable intelligence, carries knowledge from one world to another.” By understanding something about the white whale, then, there is some hope that Melville/Ishmael will have a greater understanding of his own desire to get the seaward peep. “The white whale is a creature capable of living in this hellish night darker than night,” Beachy-Quick writes, “but he is also a creature who contains that element that struck by flame turns into flame. Moby-Dick is a wick in the water and so promises, within the complexity of his symbolic nature, to illuminate what before was unlit.”

What is it, then, that is illuminated by the sounding of the white whale? What does he bring up for us to know from all the darkness? Meditating on the face of the Sperm Whale in one short chapter of Moby-Dick, Ishmael becomes fascinated by its forehead, comparing it to the foreheads of Shakespeare and Melancthon. “But in the great Sperm Whale,” we are told, “this high and mighty god-like dignity inherent in the brow is so immensely amplified, that gazing on it, in that full front view, you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcibly than in beholding any other object living in nature.” And beyond that, words fail him. Ishmael simply cannot explain it any further.

Along those same lines, Beachy-Quick makes an observation in the “Description” entry of his whaler’s dictionary. He says:

The assumption underlying our words is simple: that we speak in order to show meaning. Moby-Dick threatens such inherited notions of language’s purpose, language’s possibility of meaning. A word, like a whale, dives down. It sounds. The descriptive capacity we profit by when we speak may be but an accidental quality of language’s darker, depth-ridden, actual activity.

It is just like a poet to say something like that. It is the poet, after all, who spends the most time with the magical aspects of language, when words and phrases access something more than what is immediately available on the surface. When you work with language closely enough, making it say things, you begin to suspect that there are darker, depth-ridden mysteries to be found there. You begin to suspect that everything we actually say is just a glimmering of what we really mean to say, of what we could say if we could only get deep enough. Maybe that is an illusion, a trick that language itself produces in the act of producing meaning. But maybe not. It is, after all, consistently mysterious to linguists, philosophers, and scientists alike, how it is that we human beings smuggle meaning to one another through the utterance of guttural noises.

If nothing else, an abiding and central theme of Moby-Dick is that there are truths and they are hard to say. The whole reason that Ishmael goes off on his expedition, sails away on the blasted and infernal deck of The Pequod, is to indulge in the full measure of the seaward peep. The seaward peep, Melville explains to us again and again in formulation after formulation (none of which ever seem to fully satisfy him), is looking at the truth unvarnished. But the truth unvarnished is a very difficult thing to look at, partly because it is too big to see, and partly because its lack of varnish leaves it without specific contours. What is the point, you ask, what is the point of all this? Where is all this confusion driving? Why are we out on the oceans at the behest of a madman?

In the face of these questions, Melville always goes back to the beginning, to the desire: we want to get a seaward peep. That is how it all starts. Just remember how Ishmael explains himself at the beginning of Moby-Dick. He tells us why he ventures out to find a whaling ship: “Chief among those motives was the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself. Such a portentous and mysterious monster roused all my curiosity. Then the wild and distant seas where he rolled his island bulk; the undeliverable, nameless perils of the whale; these, with all the attending marvels of a thousand Patagonian sights and sounds, helped to sway me to my wish … I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote.”

Much has changed, of course, since Melville’s time. The oceans that we encounter do not, cannot have the same sense of wild, the same feeling of distance that they had one hundred and fifty years ago. But that itch for things remote still exists. The ocean is still held up as a symbol of the vast spaces beyond our ken. Whales, in order to be watched more than to be hunted, still serve as motivation for that itch. But anything will do, any flimsy excuse will suffice if it gets us out into things remote. For Donovan Hohn (whose contribution to the legacy of Moby-Dick is Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them), the excuse to go out to sea was nothing more than the loss of a few shipping containers of bathtub toys during a storm on January 10, 1992. The toys began to wash up on shores all over the world. Newspaper and magazine articles started appearing about the rubber duckies that navigated the seven seas. In asking what happened to the toys in their ocean journey, Hohn ends up sailing the oceans and telling a tale of the global economy, manufacturing in China (where the toys were made), of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (a swirl of marine litter in the North Pacific Ocean somewhere around the size of Texas), and our addiction to plastic.

At its heart, though, the book is just another man’s desire to get a seaward peep. Hohn wanted to get out there and explore the marvels of the Patagonian sights and sounds: “Surveying the colorful, oversize jacket of my atlas, a cartographic wonder made—its dust jacket boasted— from high-resolution satellite photographs and ‘sophisticated computer algorithms’ … fantasy did not strike me as extinct, or even remotely endangered. The ocean was far less fathomable to my generation of Americans than it was when Melville explored that ‘watery wilderness’ a century and a half ago.”

It is a fair point, and a tantalizing one. There has been a giant push to chart and graph and measure and fathom the oceans since Melville wrote his book. It happened roughly as Melville suggested it would in his travel journals during his trip to the Pyramids. “Finding it vain to take in the sea’s vastness man has taken to sounding it and weighing its density.” In the course of sounding the ocean and weighing it, we’ve discovered that it is a delicate thing, as well. Our industries can change its chemistry. Our activities can determine its contents, what lives and dies, how the waters are populated. The oceans have gone from being what Hohn describes as “indomitable, unfathomable, dangerous, and divine,” to what is today “the fragile wonder world of Carson and Cousteau.” We have discovered that the oceans are, like everything else in this world, something that we can potentially destroy that we, maybe, are destroying.

But then again, there is a limit to all this sounding, a natural barrier to the knowledge that can be gained from the oceans as a subject of scientific inquiry. The motion of the ocean, it turns out, is infinitely complex, just as Melville always suspected it was. Ishmael muses in Moby-Dick that, “however baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make.” And a version of that prophecy has come to pass. The scientific instruments we’ve developed to track the data of the oceans have discovered a hitherto unsuspected indeterminacy that seems the very structure of the sea. As Hohn puts it, “The ocean is not so much a place as a kind of weather.” That weather is composed of the play of hot and cold water, the swirling of tides and currents and storms upon the ocean’s surface. “What we think of as the surface of the sea oceanographers now think of as ‘oceanatmosphere interface,’ a member more permeable than it looks … Map the ocean? You might as well map the clouds!”

Hohn is telling a tale of the contemporary ocean that would seem, on the face of it, to be the tale of a place so charted, so explored, so understood that it bears little resemblance to the place of infinite awe that Melville knew. Yet, Hohn is never able to track down the bath toys, the little Moby Ducks that initially sent him on his journey. There are too many places they could have gone. They could be stuck in the ice somewhere in the Arctic Circle. They could be swirling around in the Great Garbage Patch that is too vast to track in all its particulars. They might have sounded long ago, falling down to the ocean floor anywhere across millions of unmarked acres. The complexity of the ocean and its currents, the fact that mapping it is like mapping the clouds, opens up the realm of infinity again.

You might say that infinity, now, is hidden within the fully charted oceans in the way Thoreau would have appreciated. It is not the brazen outward show that Melville went looking for. But it is there. The mystery is simply folded up instead of laid bare. Donovan Hohn experiences a revelation when he leaves the shore and finds himself upon the open sea. He begins to grasp truth in hidden infinity, in the realm of shorelessness. He sees that the reality we think we know, the everyday reality of the Manhattoes, melts away in the face of that truth. Hohn has been traveling around the Pacific looking for plastic. He says, “It occurs to me now, as it has before, that this is what I have been pursuing these past months, this is what I found so spellbindingly enigmatic about the image of those plastic ducks at sea—incongruity. We have built for ourselves out of this New World a giant diorama, a synthetic habitat, but travel beyond the edges or look with the eyes of a serious beachcomber and the illusion begins to crumble like flotsam into sand.”

That, I think, is a good way to think about the desire to seek truth that motivates men as they get their seaward peep. Melville’s truth is not, ultimately, a truth about the ocean itself. It is an anti-truth. The ocean is everything that is left when you wipe civilization away. Going out into the ocean is an act of obliteration. The ocean is so big and so empty that everything has the capacity to crumble in the face of it. It is, then, also like a time machine, rolling back the story of human history to the very beginning.

The fact that Moby-Dick is a novel about the ocean as an “anti-truth” thus makes it a kind of anti-novel. The great European novels that precede Moby-Dick are often described as Bildungsromans. We can translate Bildungsroman roughly as “formation novel” or “novel of education.” Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister is its archetype. In a Bildungsroman, we are taken on a story of development. Often, the story tracks the literal development of a human being from childhood to adulthood. Or it might tell the story of the rise of a family over generations. Or the development of civilization itself.

Melville’s novel shatters that process completely. Ishmael begins his journey in the heart of American civilization, on the island of Manhattan. But even before he sees the water, he is seized with dissatisfaction. He speaks of a “drizzly November in my soul,” of “growing grim about the mouth.” In short, Ishmael feels a lack, a discontent. He is driven by something gnawing at him from within. Not so different, in its early stages, from the situation in which Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister finds himself after a failed love affair with an actress. The difference is that Wilhelm Meister takes a journey deeper and deeper into the heart of civilization. He discovers genuine civilization hiding within the outward trappings of the superficialities of civilization. Wilhelm Meister, living in Germany at the end of the nineteenth century, has nowhere else to go, alas, but deeper in. Wilhelm Meister is a landlocked novel.

Ishmael sees things differently. He gets the itch and it makes him want to throw everything away. Civilization must be cast off. The bildungsprocess, the development process must be cast aside. He doesn’t want it. Ishmael is suddenly tantalized by the idea of open space, by the draw of nothingness. That American possibility of open space, truly open space, makes the impulse toward obliteration a real possibility. He can go out there. Even the density of urban space, the weight of Manhattan is not too strong to keep him. He can arrest the development process right there and go back to the beginning. He can cancel everything and then restart.

On the last page of Wilhelm Meister we find our hero compared to Saul, who went out seeking an ass and found a kingdom. Meister set out in despair, but managed to find his true place in society. “I know not the worth of a kingdom,” he says, “but I know I have attained a happiness which I have not deserved, and which I would not change with anything in life.” On the final page of Moby-Dick, the Pequod is sinking and Ahab is going down to the depths. The last vestige of civilization is being swept away. “Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

Coming into contact with the open sea is a fundamental act, a mythical act. It renews a man. Or so thought Melville. It makes living on land possible again. According to Charles Olson, Melville once told Hawthorne that he dated his life from his return from the Pacific. He didn’t have access to real life until he went out there, until he let the shoreless infinity crumble his illusions like flotsam. Olson says, “We are (inevitably?), as humans, Antaean: only in touch with the land and water of the earth do we keep our WEIGHT, retain POTENTIAL. Melville kept his by way of the Pacific.”

The question mark in Olson’s quote is telling. We do not know our limits. We cannot know if there is a point at which we have so transformed the oceans that we have transformed ourselves. So, perhaps, all we can do is keep going out there to check, keep trying to get a seaward peep. We haven’t forgotten Melville’s book yet, which is a sign of something. We are still obsessed with the white whale. We want, like Dan Beachy-Quick and Donovan Hohn, to get a peep just as much as Ishmael ever did. As Thoreau said about his beloved Walden, “While men believe in the infinite some ponds will be thought to be bottomless.” Melville believed in the bottomlessness of the oceans, a bottomlessness where “millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries, all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming, dreaming, still; tossing like slumberers in their beds; the ever-rolling waves but made so by their restlessness,” giving us WEIGHT and POTENTIAL just as much today as they ever did.


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