Shipwrecked Off the Coast of Japan
“It is not down on any map; true places never are.”
-Herman Melville, Moby Dick
So I spent about a month reading Moby Dick.
It was a combination of being extremely busy and exhausted, then going to Texas in the middle of all of that. I was thinking about quitting, but by the time I was halfway through it, I decided this was simply not an option. I’ll write a full proper review at some point, but given that I just finished it last night, and quite frankly I’m a bit fried, I think I’ll let my impressions marinate a bit. I read it for a few straight hours, being in the home stretch when I got off work, the last 125 pages or so, and I kept going and going and going.
Literally as soon as my shift was over, I went into the quiet empty break room, around 5 o’clock, and after responding to any texts I had, doing the cursory check of social media, I dove into it. As the hours wore on, and I got closer and closer to my prize, the completion, things on the ship got more and more out of control. Captain Ahab was met again and again with pernicious omens and ill-tidings, but he kept pressing on and on, like me through the dense pages of the book; through waves of archaic 19th century American English circulating in heavy churning swells of poetry and symbolism, strung together with nautical terminology and whaling references like the thick knotted tendons of the Pequod’s rigging. And the wind billowing out the sails was the destructive forward momentum of the story, the ever-approaching hour of self-destruction and doom.
They were hit by a Typhoon, in the seas near Japan, that tattered the ship’s sails, a gale which would have blown them towards home, back in the direction of Cape Horn, which they could’ve circumnavigated back to Nantucket, if it hadn’t been that they were moving against the wind. And the lightning cracked down in bright flashes across the black skies, dancing off of the lightning rods on the ship’s masts, alighting them with fire white as the ancient whale they hunted.
During the storm Ahab’s boat was stove, the very spot that he would stand in on the hunt broken, but he saw his special-made harpoon still mounted securely on the boat and took it as an auspicious sign. The leather sheath had fallen off its edge and revealed its barbs, fashioned from the tough iron nail-stubs of horseshoes, and he watched lightning strike the edge of the unsheathed harpoon. It glowed and Ahab snatched it from its place on his boat, the barbed metal edge white-hot, and he called out over the frantic crew, working tirelessly in the storm. He pledged his worship to the blindly destructive and elemental force of the lightning striking the rods of the masts above with white flames, and vowed to kill the whale.
He hoisted up the glowing barbs of the harpoon, which itself was cooled after it was forged by Ahab and the ship’s blacksmith, Perth, in a bowl of blood, drawn willingly from the ship’s pagan Harpooners.
Basically this shit was super fucking metal. Like almost everything Ahab does, it had the not-so-subtle undertones of a Satanic black mass.
Even down to how after the storm was over, their compasses were all inverted from the lightning, the true North now of both souls and mechanical instruments reversed. So at first, when they thought they were headed towards the Japanese whaling grounds, where Ahab lost his leg to Moby Dick initially, they were actually headed towards home. Ahab took note of the sun and quickly corrected this, aiming the ship in the sole direction of his deep and awful obsession. And these are only a mere few examples of all the ominous shit that happened as they drew closer and closer to the Japanese whaling grounds.
During the course of which, after having sat for several hours in the break room, much to the confusion of my coworkers, I eventually took the book and hopped in my car. I headed to Lux where I met Brandon, Marzana, and Julio, who were doing video work on their computers. And I got a coffee and went right back into it.
Things on the Pequod just got worse and worse. The first-mate, Starbuck, at one point, when he goes into Ahab’s cabin to wake and update him, as he’s been instructed him to do should anything change, took a musket from the rack on the wall and very nearly murdered the Captain in his sleep. He rationalizes that if he were to do so, he would almost certainly see his wife and child again, and more than this he would save the lives of the 30-plus men on board. He also considers taking Ahab prisoner in a mutiny and steering the ship back to Nantucket. But he rationalizes that the man was so obsessed, he could not be contained less he was bound by all limbs in tight inescapable cords and left on the floor of his cabin for the entire trip back, which would take a year or more.
To leave him alive would spell almost certain destruction, but perhaps there is a slim chance they could survive, he decides, if they continued on, after all they have reached the point-of-no-return. And Starbuck finally relents, he returns the musket to the rack on the wall, leaves the cabin, and tells another mate, Stubb, to go down and tell Ahab the news.
The ship was in the thrall of an absolute demagogue, he was able to rally them and call them to his cause, until it was absolutely too late. The plight of Starbuck, I imagine, wasn’t all that different from the Nazi conspirators who tried to assassinate Hitler as the war neared its end. This must be what General Erwin Rommel felt as he collaborated with the perpetrators of the 20 July Plot (Operation Valkyrie for Tom Cruise fans), only to be arrested by the Gestapo and given the option of honorable suicide, with a cover-story and state funeral, or public disgrace and execution. Rommel chose suicide and they say he died of his cyanide poisoning with a smile on his face, which his widow believed was for Hitler, who by this point had surely been doomed by his own mistakes. And then the Americans came from the West, through Normandy, and the Soviets from the East, repelling the Nazi war machine back from the white frozen wastes of Russian winter, where the fuel froze in the German trucks. The rest, as they say, is history.
The story, if it isn’t already obvious, is pretty resonant.
It deals with everything from demagoguery to the inherent folly of man’s war on nature and even the question of God. It was definitely one of the best books I’ve ever read, but by the time I finished the thing, I was pretty relieved to finally be done. I finished the book around midnight and then sat for a half hour or so on the couch and watched a little of The End of the Tour on Netflix, starring Jesse Eisenberg as Dave Lipsky and Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace. A really excellent movie if you’ve never seen it, it’s about an actual interview Lipsky conducted with Wallace while he was touring after the release and smash-hit of Infinite Jest. Most of the script’s dialogue, in fact, is derived from the actual interview tapes that Lipsky recorded as they went from Wallace’s home and across the country to different readings. Lipsky wants to be Wallace, the highly acclaimed author of the rare successful work of serious literary merit, and Wallace wants to be somebody else. Maybe something approaching a regular guy, who is contented.
After I watched for a little while, I went into my room and opened up Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima, just to get a taste of it before bed. I’ve had a growing pile of Japanese novels I’ve been hoarding for after Moby Dick, which quickly became more and more necessary, as I realized I wanted something with psychological depth and a good dose of philosophy, but shorter and more simply stated. Which is what Japan excels at in what is basically apart of cultural lineage.
Now this story is about a character, who is Mishima in pseudonym, coming to terms with the fact that he must live as a gay man as he grows up in post-war Japan. It’s not light reading, and there’s a lot of character and psychology to unpack here, but compared to Melville, it felt like beach reading. I felt utterly liberated now that the Pequod’s hull had been smashed to splinters and its masts had slowly sunk into the waters, off the coasts of then locked and isolated Japan. That Ishmael had escaped, as the sole survivor, floating for several days on a life preserver that had been fashioned from Queequeg’s repurposed coffin by the ship carpenter. Only to be found by the Rachael, a ship Ahab had refused to aid after its Captain had related that he had been scouring the seas after losing two of his sons in whaling boats that had pursued Moby Dick.
It felt like an utter breeze, like after all that work and heavy lifting I remembered what a joy reading could be and I moved through the first chapter of this thing, feeling as though I would devour it. I’ve got a whole stack too; I’ve got Mishima, I’ve got Soseki, Dazai, Kawabata, Tanizaki, and I’ve got an Akutagawa on order. And I’m pretty content with that for the foreseeable future, I think I’ll read some Russians too, Dostoevsky in particular, whose been circulating in my top-five writers of all time for the past 7 or 8 years. He wrote long books obviously, but again, compared to the leviathan, the whale itself, the American Bible, they’re cake. It’s not the layers, the psychology, the philosophy, it’s that combined with the rushing torrents of language, the barrage of archaic words, and the nautical terms.
After I read some Mishima, I fell asleep with my earbuds in and my phone on my chest, laying in the dark, with my dog sleeping on the foot of the bed, listening to a David Foster Wallace radio interview on YouTube from right after Infinite Jest was published.
I woke up the next morning, still dreaming of that colossal wreck, that the ancient ocean nonetheless swallowed, like the desert did the ruin of Ozymandias’s statue, and I felt like I had a book hangover. All of the centrifugal words and descriptions, falling down the empty ether of the inside of my head like a swirling noiseless Typhoon. But will I avoid books like this in the future? No, absolutely not. I’ll take a break, read things I find more palatable for a time. But it isn’t necessarily supposed to be easy. That’s the entire strength of Moby Dick, pushing forward through the gale and in those ominous chapters and pages before Ahab is destroyed, seeing his tears fall over the bulwarks of the Pequod and into the ocean. A brief instant where his iron resolve was diffused by the gentle rock of the waters and he felt, for a fleeting moment, of serenity, the calm in the center of the storm.
I’ll read it again in my lifetime, maybe a few more times to see how it changes with age. And though it isn’t the book I want to write and isn’t necessarily my ideal, it is nonetheless immortal. As the prehistoric whale itself, forever surfacing, spouting, and upraising flukes to dive down into the unfathomable depths, since prehistory, across oceans and forever in our collective imagination.