Friday, February 7, 2014

Going to Narrative Sea with Your Inner Captain Ahab

The opening paragraphs of Moby-Dick have a place for you among the  scattering of mementos and souvenirs you refer to with earnest affection as your household gods, your personal lares and penates.

In a lovely anomaly of time, these paragraphs remind you of Lenny Bruce, starting out on one of his bleak, pointed, and thus hilarious monologues. The speaker, of course, is Ishmael, who captures our attention by telling us, "Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as I can."

A sentence or two later, Ishmael reflects, "--almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me."

So far as you are concerned, Ishmael is spot on; you do have such feelings about the ocean.  Most days, even without deliberate design, you are within sight of it, as compelled to stop to observe it as you are programmed to observe women you find attractive.

Lenny Bruce tells the story of being in Miami Beach, unable to sleep, dressing, then taking himself for a walk along the beach, only to be set upon by a women calling out to him, "Help, help.  My son, the doctor, is drowning."

You of course see humor in Lenny Bruce.  He helped you understand humor.  You see humor in Herman Melville, even though none of the great mentors with whom you studied this work spoke of its humor to you.  You see the cultural guidelines between Lenny Bruce and Franz Kafka, although once again, you more or less settled on it as you read and reread Kafka in preparations for examinations, papers, and, later, for lectures you would give on Kafka.

You see nothing of intrinsic humor in the ocean, not yet, not until you add things to it such as some of your early attempts to learn to swim in it or times walking along the ocean's edge with your great canine pal, Molly, who not only swam in it with evident grace and relish, she delighted in finding dead seals or gulls at its watery edge.  You do not know why dogs are drawn to such smells of decay, but you do know they are indeed so drawn. 

 When Molly was your companion, prudence dictated to you the need to carry a spray deodorant in the car.  And you had to learn to abide Molly's expressions, directed at you, when you had occasion to use the spray deodorant on her, after she had gone to such trouble to take on this exciting new scent.

You are every bit as drawn to the ocean as Ishmael, by no means as a deck hand or sailor as he was, rather as one who uses it as a counterpoint to mindless communication with the senses and the vastness of things.  Staring at fires produces similar results.  So is the opportunity to watch the unfolding drama in the night sky, beginning with sunset.

You part with Ishmael in this respect:  You find the same sorts of adventure, pull, and rejuvenation in setting words down.  Melville, of course, saw him as an amanuensis.  Ishmael needed to be a man of some words if he were to be successful in imparting the depths and nuances of meaning that came from what was the essential conflict between Ahab and the Great White Whale he witnessed.

But Ishmael and you become brothers in this respect:  Ishmael was the only survivor of the story he was chosen to relate.  You are only a tiny drop of the ocean you so appreciate in terms of recording and commenting on the things that come washing up on your shores; significant numbers of brother and sister scribes take note of the times, places, and events you've witnessed.  You both set forth to chronicle events that are a part of a larger goal, the spreading out of events to see which parts are necessary to keep the story alive.

You can and should add that Ishmael had about a hundred-year head start on you, which is not the only reason he will continue to draw readers in.  You are still on a learning curve, trying to isolate those things that cause readers to decide it is time to get to reading as quickly as they can.

For all these places you go beyond the ocean, the deserts of New Mexico, the momentary intimacy of a warming fire, or the vastness of the night sky, the places where you go to delve, essay, and experience your own worlds are the places from which you return with stories and notes, waiting to find places on the shelves and ledges where you keep your household gods.

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