Essays, Recent

Alter-Energies: The Vitalities of Absence in Moby Dick

by Dan Beachy-Quick | Contributing Writer

When the mind relaxes the rigor of its daily ratios and lets some dram of the old chaos leak back in, we might find ourselves caught in the crisis of our actual condition. Ludwig Wittgenstein describes something of what I mean in his definition of philosophic work—that we discover we are in “a leaky boat that must be repaired while at sea.” I see in that image a ghostly echo of the Pequod and, more poignantly, the boats in which the whalers chase their prey, hurtling across the sea’s surface while, all along, a measureless depth lurks below them. A brushing glance of leviathan’s tail threatens to crack the hull and drown them all. This whaler’s condition is one in which the mind has no rescue from the body, for the two are one. You cannot think your way out of the dangers of such primary encounter—the world, like the whale, will strike the mind apart. But if Ralph Waldo Emerson is right, and “Genius is the repair of the decay of things,” genius of a kind might help. Genius here feels something different than intelligence, not an ability to stand apart and assess situation, but the opposite: an immersion that requires the active energy it results in. Genius repairs the boat while at sea. Genius reads the circumstance, reads the surface of the sea to sense something of what lives underneath—be it whale, be it god, be it some inscrutable, infinite thing. Various inscrutabilities haunt the depths of Moby Dick’s pages. The image of the book itself is one such haunted depth. The blankness of the page can be metonymy for Ishmael’s “midnight sea of milky whiteness” which births in a sailor a superstitious dread as if, in “the shrouded phantom of the whitened waters,” he has seen a ghost. Beneath the words on the page genius grows superstitious of the milky whiteness underneath. Reading is a fragile craft that keeps us on the surface of a depth into whose blankness we’d plummet if the craft doesn’t hold; but the reader also thrills at those moments when something of that infinite force breaks through—as long as the next sentence can be hammered into place, and keep the craft afloat.

I’m curious about the many places in Moby Dick when inscrutable energies punctuate the surface of mundane days and let some other force leak in. Ishmael and Ahab are characters uniquely attuned to such irruptions, but Melville and the milieu of thinkers he lived among also seem uniquely attuned to moments in which absence inverts into superlative presence. Henry David Thoreau notes such a moment in his Journal on January 22nd 1841:

I hear it complained of some modern books of genius, that they are irregular, and have no flow, but we should consider that the flow of thought is more like a tidal wave than a prone river, and is the effect of a celestial influence, or sort of ground swell . . .

Though written a decade before Moby Dick comes out, the sentence seems to predict the nature of its genius. It speaks of forces—spiritual, pneumatic, celestial—that manifest beneath the world and swell up within it. Melville picks up an aspect of the theme in a letter written to Nathaniel Hawthorne during the composition of Moby Dick: “My dear Sir, a presentiment is on me,—I shall at last be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg-grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg.” It is a subtle but distinct irony the image bears, but one that might typify something of the archaic metaphysics lurking within Melville’s poetics—that source is infinite, and tool finite. The spice wears away the grater. And so it might be truer for us to understand that, as the writer scratches away at the pages of the book he’s writing, that the book is wearing him away. A cosmic view suddenly inverts the daily platitudes. To work is to be worked upon, the active voice but a pasteboard mask the passive voice wears. We find these reversals in odd moments throughout Moby Dick, small revelations of reciprocity as fundamental law which, though we ourselves might not know it, show us our truer positions in the world. Witness Ahab in his cabin, charting lines on the nautical map:

While thus employed, the heavy pewter lamp suspended in chains over his head, continually rocked with the motion of the ship, and for ever threw shifting gleams and shadows of lines upon his wrinkled brow, till it almost seemed that while he himself was marking out lines and courses on the wrinkled charts, some invisible pencil was also tracing lines and courses upon the deeply marked chart of his forehead.

Sir Thomas Browne writes, in Religio Medici, an image of parallel dimension, attuned somehow to the same energy, vibrant or vibrating with the same thought:

there is therfore some other hand that twines the thread of life than that of nature; wee are not onely ignorant in Antipathies and occult qualities, our ends are as obscure as our beginnings, the line of our dayes is drawne by night, and the various effects therein by a pencill that is invisible; wherein though wee confesse our ignorance, I am sure we doe not erre, if wee say, it is the hand of God.

Ahab is unable to admit such ignorance. “Over spaces that before were blank,” he marks his lines where “all possibilities would become probabilities, and, as Ahab fondly thought, every possibility the next thing to a certainty.” The Captain’s writing practice stands as tense counterpoint to Ishmael’s, who seeks a reverse alchemy, turning certainty’s gold back into possibility’s iron, taking error as definition—“the whale is a fish”—and who writes an encyclopedia that works against knowledge more than it furthers it, as if a fact is a kind of fast fish the poet must learn to make loose again.

But I now leave my cetological System standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the crane still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.  

Ahab would pull God’s own hand up from the brine and cut it off, would strike the sun, would take the whale—agent or principal of the power he loathes—and kill it into fact. Ishmael is the other side of the same epistemology and lets the fact return to the infinite drift or draft from which it arose.

And yet I hear, in the back of my mind, Emerson chide me for the ease of the distinction I just made between Ahab and Ishmael. In “Circles,” he writes: “Aristotle and Plato are reckoned the respective heads of two schools. But the wise man will see that Aristotle Platonizes.” Perhaps the wise reader sees that Ahab Ishmaelizes, and Ishmael Ahabizes. Perhaps the wise reader sees that the circle of Emerson’s philosophical geometry binds both Ahab and Ishmael to a strange point marked by the circle’s nature—a point that is always end and beginning equally and forever and all at once, ends as obscure as beginnings. Both are students in the same academy, that whaler’s university called the world, where first philosophy lectures on the circle’s promise of eternal return, and Thales is the schoolmarm. Though never mentioned by name in Moby Dick, that earliest philosopher’s ideas undergird the novel’s world, act as loom to its warp and weft. That water is the primary element of all being. That all things are full of gods. That the soul is eternal. Such thoughts are elemental in Moby Dick, and make of mundane matters a tutorial in the mysteries. Ishmael and Ahab are both students attuned to the beauty and madness of those mysteries, that make of the world something more than it seems to be, though what the world is truly, loves to hide away. Ishmael expresses the energies of this condition more readily than does Ahab, and does so often in first philosophy’s language. Accused by one of the whalers of keeping lax lookout when atop the mast-head, Ishmael explains the difficulty:

Perhaps they were; or perhaps there might have been shoals of them in the far horizon; but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Cranmer’s sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.

     There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever.

The motion of the waves untangles some dense knot of self and self-awareness, let’s identity loosen into a deeper subjectivity, an I gone radically permeable to such degree that saying I makes no sense at all—no sense because all is senses, and the senses are woven into the stuff of the world that penetrates them, not grasping the world, but grasped by it, and the soul is claimed back into the infinity of which it is mere facet. Ahab studied the same lesson. He remembers it, seeing rescued, ravaged, Pip: “And who art thou, boy? I see not my reflection in the vacant pupils of thy eyes. Oh God! that man should be a thing for immortal souls to sieve through! Who art thou boy?” To that Sphinx-like question, “What is a man?”, Ahab and Ishmael give the same answer: a mortality that immortalities flit through. How much easier it is to plunge into the void we spend our days in, the void of “I think, therefore I am.”

Am-ness, Is-ness, Being-ness: it’s different for a whaler. Suspicions of what the world might be tend to undermine the evidence of what the world is. In another philosophical aside, Ishmael picks up the dropped thread: “This Right Whale I take to have been a Stoic; the Sperm Whale, a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his latter years.” Neither Ishmael nor Ahab are Stoics. They are students of the Sperm Whale, and being so, have learned a weird epistemology, one in which a theory of ideal forms has succumbed to something both more worldly and more wild—that notion of Spinoza, the conatus, that finds a single living principle unfolding through the countless fractals of the world entire. Thoreau belongs to the same school, writing in his Journal, so simply, in the summer of 1845: “All matter, indeed, is capable of entertaining thought.” Such a world is one of interpenetrating energies—a large, looming but luminous consciousness, in which we ourselves might be but a half-articulate idea. What should be impossible is near at hand. Thales might be among the crew. Pythagoras is there, too. “Oh! the metempsychosis! Oh! Pythagoras, that in bright Greece, two thousand years ago, did die, so good, so wise, so mild; I sailed with thee along the Peruvian coast last voyage—and, foolish as I am, taught thee, a green simple boy, how to splice a rope!” That philosopher of many lives, who claimed to remember them all—who put his arms around a beaten dog saying he heard the voice of an old friend in the poor creature’s bark—thought the diapason, that space between musical notes, as emptiness of divine tension. Ishmael sailed with that young sailor, teaching him to splice rope to rope, to make a singular length longer—a sailor who has spliced lifetime to lifetime for thousands of years, his soul a long rope coiled within him. That young sailor might suggest things back to Ishmael so simple the lesson would feel impossible to learn. He might offer Ishmael the simplest primer of all: the numbers one through ten, and the alphabet, too. He might suggest the mortal mind forms around the immortal lives of numbers and letters, those minor gods having no other way to exist but in the nervy circuits, taught in schools throughout the ages, though in our hubris, cause and effect grow confused, and we think we made up what made us. That god a-b-c saying itself forward and backward as if forever in the mind, in countless minds, mind after mind—another one of the immortalities that flit through our mortal frames.

But another lesson lurks in the little lower layer of Pythagoras’s green presence: reincarnation’s principle. That a life will build itself once again around a thinking so vital it hasn’t yet ceased. We might find minor proofs of this Spinozian unfolding in various scenes in Moby Dick, as in Ahab’s conversation with the Carpenter, working to replace his broken ivory leg:

“Look ye, carpenter, I dare say thou callest thyself a right good workmanlike workman, eh? Well, then, will it speak thoroughly well for thy work, if, when I come to mount this leg thou makest, I shall nevertheless feel another leg in the same identical place with it; that is, carpenter, my old lost leg; the flesh and blood one, I mean. Canst thou not drive that old Adam away?”

“Hist, then. How dost thou know that some entire, living, thinking thing may not be invisibly and uninterpenetratingly standing precisely where thou now standest; aye, and standing there in thy spite? In thy most solitary hours, then, dost thou not fear eavesdroppers? Hold, don’t speak! And if I still feel the smart of my crushed leg, though it be now so long dissolved; then, why mayst not thou, carpenter, feel the fiery pains of hell for ever, and without a body? Hah!”

That “old Adam” who is one of us all.  Individual life as eternal repetition of original life. Time heals everything but a wound. Ahab feels his ghost-limb alive and present. He can feel the itch on an absent ankle. Can stub a missing toe. But the conclusion such impossible sensation takes him to astounds as fully as does Ishmael’s realizing he set sail with Pythagoras: that we can step into seemingly empty space that is, outside our capacity to sense or know, filled with a body into whose presence we step whole. Far stranger than Ishmael’s recognition of metempsychosis, Ahab’s cosmogony includes sentient beings of strange dimensionality, as of the archaic divinities or the archangels, potent energies into whose “entire, living, thinking,” our entire, living, thinking enters. Emerson speculates similarly:

There was this perception in him, which makes the poet or seer, an object of awe and terror, namely, that the same man, or society of men, may wear one aspect to themselves and their companions, and a different aspect to higher intelligences. Certain priests, whom he describes as conversing very learnedly together, appeared to the children, who were at some distance, like dead horses: and many the like misappearances. And instantly the mind inquires, whether these fishes under the bridge, yonder oxen in the pasture, those dogs in the yard, are immutably fishes, oxen, and dogs, or only so appear to me, and perchance to themselves appear upright men; and whether I appear as a man to all eyes.

The thought breaks the husk of human hubris. A winnowing fan beats the mind’s pride and the tongue’s vanity into chaff the wind blows away—that same wind that fills the Pequod’s jib. Not a wind, but a pneuma; not a sea-gale, but a cosmic-gust, a celestial breath that weaves the cosmos together, stitching a solar intelligence within the sperm-cell, putting a moon’s mind in the human ova. Whalers not named but of that crew share their theories. Anaxagoras’s Nous; Empedocles’s One that Love loves into being and Strife strikes back into death; Anaximander’s Boundlessness. That ocean that stretches out to each horizon might make a whaler susceptible to such thoughts, witness to the infinite on which a single ship sails like a thought in a mind, replacing a leaky plank with a sound one, repairing the damage while in the danger, as there is no other way.

Ashore, I like to think, the universal rules still apply. Book closed the suggestions persist, enough so that walking down a city street and up the steps to the art museum risk running into revelation. Who knows how many bodies I walked through that day in Philadelphia now years ago: my life a little rumor running through the larger Idea. Me: a minnow swimming upstream. These thoughts first loomed up inside me back then, though I had no words for them. The strangeness made me dumb, standing there, looking at Sanford Gifford’s A Coming Storm, the very painting Herman Melville stood before, seeing in its dark cloud overarching mountains and lake, portent of the war to come. I stood and stared, feeling I’d trespassed unknowingly into an attention still tensing the air, “invisibly and uninterpenetratingly standing precisely where” Melville somehow still stands. It is a strange thought, I know, irresponsible but somehow true—one of the “Dim inklings from the shadowy sphere” the poem mentions. Or so I’ve come to think about thinking, dim inkling that I am, standing there still somehow, in the vital absence of Melville’s mind.

Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and translator. His books include Variations on Dawn and Dusk, which was longlisted for the National Book Awards. His work has been supported by the Lannan, Monfort, and Guggenheim Foundations. He is a University Distinguished Teaching Scholar at Colorado States University, where he teaches in the MFA program in creative writing.