Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Death by Transcendentalism: The Mast Head

A few weeks ago I wrote about Amy Stewart's backyard poison garden, and how the idea of nature as something that can restore your spirit, as in a garden, is still a relatively new one compared to the idea of nature as something that's going to kill you.

I don't think that these are inconsistent ways of thinking about nature. But I do think that acquainting us with death is one of the things that makes nature interesting, and even spiritually uplifting. Most gardens are the landscape equivalent of muzak: feel free to space out, they tell us, and just enjoy the scenery. But the poison garden commands respect: if you value your health, here's a botany lesson you won't ignore. Life in the poison garden is a lot richer than in a corporate campus planted with pansies.

Anyhow, the poison garden's rebuke to tiptoeing through the tulips reminded me of Herman Melville's famous lampoon of transcendentalist space-cadets, in Chapter 35 of Moby Dick: The Mast Head. I was going to incorporate this passage into the previous post, but it really deserves its own. More from Ishmael:

It was during the more pleasant weather, that in due rotation with the other seamen my first mast-head came round.

In most American whalemen the mast-heads are manned almost simultaneously with the vessel's leaving her port; even though she may have fifteen thousand miles, and more, to sail ere reaching her proper cruising ground. And if, after a three, four, or five years' voyage she is drawing nigh home with anything empty in her--say, an empty vial even--then, her mast-heads are kept manned to the last; and not till her skysail-poles sail in among the spires of the port, does she altogether relinquish the hope of capturing one whale more.


Let me make a clean breast of it here, and frankly admit that I kept but sorry guard. With the problem of the universe revolving in me, how could I -- being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude, -- how could I but lightly hold my obligations to observe all whale-ships' standing orders, 'Keep your weather eye open, and sing out every time.'

And let me in this place movingly admonish you, ye ship-owners of Nantucket! Beware of enlisting in your vigilant fisheries any lad with lean brow and hollow eye; given to unseasonable meditativeness; and who offers to ship with the phaedon instead of Bowditch in his head. Beware of such an one, I say; your whales must be seen before they can be killed; and this sunken-eyed young Platonist will tow you ten wakes round the world, and never make you one pint of sperm the richer. Nor are these monitions at all unneeded. For nowadays, the whale-fishery furnishes an asylum for many romantic, melancholy, and absent- minded young men, disgusted with the carking cares of earth, and seeking sentiment in tar and blubber. Childe Harold* not unfrequently perches himself upon the mast-head of some luckless disappointed whale-ship, and in moody phrase ejaculates: --
'Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll!
Ten thousand blubber-hunters sweep over thee in vain.'
Very often do the captains of such ships take those absent-minded young philosophers to task, upbraiding them with not feeling sufficient 'interest' in the voyage; half-hinting that they are so hopelessly lost to all honorable ambition, as that in their secret souls they would rather not see whales than otherwise. But all in vain; those young Platonists have a notion that their vision is imperfect; they are short-sighted; what use, then, to strain the visual nerve? They have left their opera-glasses at home.

'Why, thou monkey,' said a harpooneer to one of these lads, 'we've been cruising now hard upon three years, and thou hast not raised a whale yet. Whales are scarce as hen's teeth whenever thou art up here.' Perhaps they were; or perhaps there might have been shoals of them in the far horizon; 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...

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 ye, 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 mid-day, 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, ye Pantheists!

*I had to look up Childe Harold: it's a romantic narrative poem about a seafaring traveler in foreign lands, and Lord Byron's first big literary hit.

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