Tuesday, May 9, 2000

What's the title mean?

I finished it. Read Moby-Dick for the fifth time and am going to read it again. It was nice. I read the last four chapters, The Symphony and The Chase – First, Second and Third Days, all at once, reclined in my bed before going to sleep. And it’s that paragraph near the end of The Symphony, isn’t it? That paragraph spoken by Ahab just as Starbuck thinks he has talked the old captain out of his mad quest.

“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? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! That smiling sky, and this unsounded sea!”

That’s the one the sums it all up for me, that makes me think of this book as the book I could have written, as the book I have written, as the book I keep writing again and again. But there's more. When Starbuck chides Ahab, calling it blasphemous to be enraged by a dumb thing, Ahab says:

“Hark ye yet again,—the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ‘tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

Be the white whale agent or be the white whale principal. What is that inscrutable thing? Is it the whale? Or is the whale just a reflection of that which is inscrutable? And will we ever know? Will we ever be able to tell the difference?

At the most fundamental level, the search for that inscrutable thing is why I read and why I write, thinking that some combination of ideas I pick up from books will translate into some combination of words I write, and the inscrutable thing will finally be laid bare before my eyes.