Thursday, April 9, 2009

Moby Dick I

When I linked to that Melville page the other day, I was hoping to highlight a couple of my favorite passages, so I decided to present them here.

In particular the first, and most famous, introductory paragraph speaks to me because it has a lot to do with why so many of us ride and race our bikes. The bike is where I go to find myself, to reflect, to challenge, to retreat, to subvert, and to join, all at once and severally. I know more than one fellow bike racer who feels their life was saved by discovering racing, and in some ways it is certainly true for me.

Melville was from Albany, and apparently somewhere in the ancient archives of early print journalism and folk tales there are stories of a white whale that swam up the Hudson from the sea some time in the 17th century. Some suggest that this was Melville's initial inspiration for Moby Dick.

The Hudson shapes, or has shaped, all of my rides, really, though I don't think about it much. Living in a river valley can be a profound reminder of human insignificance, with patient ancient mountains on all sides changing the weather with their moods, the seasons. Sometimes when I head across the river on 9J, or South on 144 down to New Baltimore, I ride along the river and try to imagine being a farmer in 1650 or 1750 or some equally unimaginably (from my modern perspective, on a bike made with as much technology as the early NASA craft) ancient year, and looking out on that muddy estuary to see the massive hump of that white whale. Or before that to have been a true American, a Mohawk, or Iroquois, and seen the unfathomable spectacle of Henry Hudson's Half Moon sailing up river in 1609.

As for the second excerpt, I think every bike racer with a chip on their shoulder owes a little something to Ahab. And of course, in terms of American literature, Ishmael is the patron saint of dreamers.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago -- never mind how long precisely -- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.-- (Opening Paragraph, Chapter 1)

His three boats stove around him, and oars and men both whirling in the eddies; one captain, seizing the line-knife from his broken prow, had dashed at the whale, as an Arkansas duellist at his foe, blindly seeking with a six inch blade to reach the fathom-deep life of the whale. That captain was Ahab. And then it was, that suddenly sweeping his sickle-shaped lower jaw beneath him, Moby Dick had reaped away Ahab's leg, as a mower a blade of grass in the field.... Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil; -- Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, where visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it.--Chapter 41 (Moby Dick)

Off to ride now,


No comments:

Post a Comment