It is my good fortune that no teacher ever assigned “Moby Dick” while I was in school.
I’m only now reading Herman Melville’s masterpiece and regularly feeling gratitude to my teachers for not attempting to teach it.
I wouldn’t have known enough about life to get the jokes.
Chances are that if you haven’t read it you aren’t aware, as I wasn’t, of how funny this classic is.
Or how wise.
This week I came to a passage in which the crew is beginning the business of carving up a whale that has been killed and lashed to the side of the ship.
The “savage” Queequeg, as a harpooneer, draws the job of preparing the whale for butchering.
But let Ishmael finish his story as read by actor Anthony Heald, in the Audible version of Moby Dick.
The whale, be it observed, lies almost entirely submerged, excepting the immediate parts operated upon. So down there, some ten feet below the level of the deck, the poor harpooner flounders about, half on the whale and half in the water, as the vast mass revolves like a tread-mill beneath him.
It’s quite a dangerous feat.
A simple slip and Queequeg can be mashed against the ship’s hull or thrown into the sea in the midst of sharks gathering for a feast.
But Ishmael has a role in this.
For his safety, Queequeg is harnessed to a line called a “monkey-rope.”
At the other end is Ishmael, with the rope fastened fast to his belt.
So that for better or for worse, we two, for the time, were wedded, and should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more, then both usage and honor demanded, that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down in his wake.
As is his nature, Ishmael grows philosophical:
I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death.
But Ishmael took a lesson even as, in his words, he ...
jerked him now and then from between the whale and ship, which would threaten to jam him.
I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only, in most cases, he, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals.
What struck me was the set of examples he gave.
They came right out of today’s headlines.
If your banker breaks, you snap; If your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die.
Ruinous Wall Street bankers and a poisonous Massachusetts apothecary.
How could he know?
Reading philosophizing seduces one to philosophize.
So I found myself thinking, isn’t this why we’re going to the polls right now?
Aren’t we doing it precisely because we are tethered to so many others?
Ishmael noted that he had control of only one end of that monkey-rope.
As individuals, we have less control than that of our relationships with the likes of Wall Street bankers or Massachusetts drug makers or, for that matter, Syrian dictators, Chinese policy makers or even drivers with whom we share the road.
We can only collectively influence the vast web of monkey-ropes that bind us.
That’s why we have governments.
Reasonable people disagree over exactly how to handle those ropes, but they need to be handled.
We can only do our best to decide which candidates can do the best job.
Please, go vote.