Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Masthead and The Vortex

I was talking with a friend about a piece of writing from Moby Dick I'd read the day before. The chapter involves the narrator describing his experience of climbing to the top of the masthead and taking watch there for some duration of time, perched on top of a couple of planks, whale spotting. It then moves on to some particulars of developments in the masthead - the invention of the "crows nest" and various comforts which furnished this, a little seat, a tot of whiskey, a blanket.

  It then introduces the general character of dreamy young sailors lost in "Platonic reveries" up on this perch, neglecting their duties and lulled by the "cadence of the waves" these characters are set out as tragic protagonists in the melodrama of the last two paragraphs as the story almost shies away from comfortable developments and plunges headlong into a rhetorical and precarious closing two paragraphs.

These go as follows..

"..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 undiscernable 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 thee, 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 midday, 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. Heed it well, you pantheists! "

 My friend had had some experience climbing to the top of a masthead while out sailing and described to me his experience of ascending a mast to do some sort of repair, and being unaware of his surroundings until his task was completed, only then looking down and becoming overcome with the vertigo of his situation. Lucky for him this is unlike the unfortunate dreamers lulled into a false sense of security in the passage above, whose precarious grip within their physical environment is a metaphor of the peril their "soul" itself is in.

 I am not sure what the author, Herman Melville's position on pantheism is; but pantheism is defined as the general belief that the universe (or nature) and god (divinity) are identical. The idea that to even momentarily forget your precarious separation from the sea, as you balance upon the masthead is to risk oblivion - this is the central melodrama of this piece of writing, its sense of urgency and depth. In reality, perhaps most of us find it very difficult to get knocked off our perch, and are perpetually longing to connect with nature, to give up resolve, the minute we do manage it we want to get back on our perch though...

 Immersion in the world has many other expressions, perhaps less biblical or theologic- like surfing, or scuba diving. These seem like a more banal modern equivalent compared to the above text. Perhaps we no longer need to know what our place in the greater scheme of things is.

I thought I'd add the following to fill in a little more space, as someone unfamiliar with who Descartes is.

" The Cartesian universe is mainly matter, is endless and the whole universe is literally in flux, in a kind of fluid. Within it are infinite worlds revolving around their suns, each world and sun spinning, and within them infinite vortices of matter, one within the other, to the infinitesimally small. Emerson wrote that Descartes "had filled Europe with the leading thought of vortical motion as the secret of nature." Newton, in old age, complained bitterly that despite his proof that gravity moves the worlds, people still believed Descartes simply because Descartes had said it. "

Eliot Weinberger An Elemental thing

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