Melville and Mortality

“Call me Ishmael” is not how Moby Dick begins.

Rather, the work opens with a scene of dusty old books, pervaded by a sense of mortality, followed by extracts “toward a Cetacean taxonomy” supplied by a “sub-sub-Librarian.” As a curator known to number the days, I might supply such extracts myself. Decades ago, as an undergraduate, Melville hooked me long before I reached the famous “opening line” some 15 pages later in my Library of America edition.

My copy is beset with markings and dog-eared pages. One bent corner opens to a chapter titled simply, “The Line,” where Melville patiently describes how easily a sailor could be thrown out of a little whale-boat, once a whale was harpooned, by the rapid uncoiling of the line. Melville abruptly concludes:

“But why say more? All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters around their necks; but it is only in when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.”

So deftly does Melville turn his prose to intense scrutiny of the noblest obscurities. For over twenty-five years, in whatever room I have lodged, I have prominently displayed this quotation above my desk, juxtaposed with similar insights from Ecclesiastes and C.S. Lewis.

These many dog-eared pages mark reflections which darted into my consciousness as a young man and have accompanied me in interior conversation all my adult life. To indwell Moby Dick is to recognize life as a drama on a scale of utmost grandeur and signficance — on this basis, Moby Dick is rightly regarded as the first truly American epic.

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