Saturday, October 15, 2011

Wisdom & Woe; Light & Darkness

(Image stolen from Eric Mongeon's old blog.)

So! By some strange ricochet of causality, I now find myself now employed and residing at a Quaker retreat in western Pennsylvania. Who saw this one coming?

(For the record: QuakersAmish.)

Friends from home and elsewhere have reacted with some surprise when I tell them no -- no, I'm not living on a farm (though the garden is very nice), I haven't run off and joined a cult, and actually, nobody here has even once tried talking to me about Jesus.

I do sometimes feel a little out of place in this crowd, but I knew that would be the case, arriving as a materialist (in the sense that I do not see any convincing reason to believe in the soul or spiritual energy except in in the metaphorical sense) and an atheist at a sojourn for the faithful. However refreshing it is to hear an older gentleman reply "the day shimmers with divine presence" when asked "whatsup" on a cloudless autumn afternoon, it nevertheless feels odd being placed in a group whose attitude and worldview consist of an indefatigable optimism.

I consider myself a pessimist -- but one for whom it is always a pleasant surprise to be proven wrong. Just because experience has taught me that one can usually expect people to act cruelly, deceitfully, greedily, and/or ignorantly (we are apes, after all) does not mean I feel at all glad when they do so, or that I am not moved by acts of kindness and grace.

My belief is that civilization and humanity are probably both fucked in the long run, which is a difficult opinion to express at the lunch table in a place like this. But to add that I also think human beings are astounding, brilliant creatures and that civilization's unsolvable problems are well worth trying to untangle might give the impression that I'm juggling irreconcilably opposing viewpoints.

I've come to reside in a community of people who cherish and look toward the light, while I maintain my preoccupation with the shadow. Most of my fiction is about flawed people living in a screwed-up world. My verse work (when I do produce it) is never especially cheerful, unless it's touching a subject that has nothing to do with human beings and their affairs. My comics are pretty much all about disappointment and violence. And yet I never really think of my work as being oppressively, gratuitously negative.

Maybe one way of explaining myself would be to analogize that one who is on familiar terms with the darkness is less likely to find himself lost when the sun is gone. Another might a reminder of the myth of the ancient king who habitually swallowed poison in order to cultivate an immunity to it.

I think this apparent paradox might best be illuminated by one of my favorite chapters in Moby-Dick. (Honestly, I'm surprised it has taken me this long to do a post about that book. It's no secret that I'm kind of obsessed with it.) Not only shall I post it here it its entirety for your reading pleasure, but sprinkle it with footnotes to help make it a bit more manageable for the novitiate. (Calling Melville a "dense" writer is a tremendous understatement.) I would be pleased if somebody cared to share their thoughts after reading.


Besides her hoisted boats, an American whaler is outwardly distinguished by her try-works. She presents the curious anomaly of the most solid masonry joining with oak and hemp in constituting the completed ship. it is as if from the open field a brick-kiln were transported to her planks.

The try-works are planted between the foremast and main-mast, the most roomy part of the deck. The timbers beneath are of a peculiar strength, fitted to sustain the weight of an almost solid mass of brick and mortar, some ten feet by eight square, and five in height. The foundation does not penetrate the deck, but the masonry is firmly secured to the surface by ponderous knees of iron bracing it on all sides, and screwing it down to the timbers. On the flanks it is cased with wood, and at top completely covered by a large, sloping, battened hatchway. Removing this hatch we expose the great try-pots, two in number, and each of several barrels' capacity. When not in use, they are kept remarkably clean. Sometimes they are polished with soapstone and sand, till they shine within like silver punch-bowls. During the night-watches some cynical old sailors will crawl into them and coil themselves away there for a nap. While employed in polishing them —— one man in each pot, side by side —— many confidential communications are carried on, over the iron lips. It is a place also for profound mathematical meditation. It was in the left hand try-pot of the Pequod, with the soapstone diligently circling round me, that I was first indirectly struck by the remarkable fact, that in geometry all bodies gliding along the cycloid, my soapstone for example, will descend from any point in precisely the same time.1

Removing the fire-board from the front of the try-works, the bare masonry of that side is exposed, penetrated by the two iron mouths of the furnaces, directly underneath the pots. These mouths are fitted with heavy doors of iron. The intense heat of the fire is prevented from communicating itself to the deck, by means of a shallow reservoir extending under the entire inclosed surface of the works. By a tunnel inserted at the rear, this reservoir is kept replenished with water as fast as it evaporates. There are no external chimneys; they open direct from the rear wall. And here let us go back for a moment.

It was about nine o'clock at night that the Pequod's try-works were first started on this present voyage. It belonged to Stubb to oversee the business.

"All ready there? Off hatch, then, and start her. You cook, fire the works." This was an easy thing, for the carpenter had been thrusting his shavings into the furnace throughout the passage. Here be it said that in a whaling voyage the first fire in the try-works has to be fed for a time with wood. After that no wood is used, except as a means of quick ignition to the staple fuel. In a word, after being tried out, the crisp, shrivelled blubber, now called scraps or fritters, still contains considerable of its unctuous properties. These fritters feed the flames. Like a plethoric burning martyr, or a self-consuming misanthrope, once ignited, the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body. Would that he consumed his own smoke! for his smoke is horrible to inhale, and inhale it you must, and not only that, but you must live in it for the time. It has an unspeakable, wild, Hindoo odor about it, such as may lurk in the vicinity of funereal pyres. It smells like the left wing of the day of judgment; it is an argument for the pit.

By midnight the works were in full operation. We were clear from the carcase; sail had been made; the wind was freshening; the wild ocean darkness was intense. But that darkness was licked up by the fierce flames, which at intervals forked forth from the sooty flues, and illuminated every lofty rope in the rigging, as with the famed Greek fire. The burning ship drove on, as if remorselessly commissioned to some vengeful deed. So the pitch and sulphur-freighted brigs of the bold Hydriote, Canaris, issuing from their midnight harbors, with broad sheets of flame for sails, bore down upon the turkish frigates, and folded them in conflagrations.2

The hatch, removed from the top of the works, now afforded a wide hearth in front of them. Standing on this were the Tartarean shapes of the pagan harpooneers, always the whale-ship's stokers. With huge pronged poles they pitched hissing masses of blubber into the scalding pots, or stirred up the fires beneath, till the snaky flames darted, curling, out of the doors to catch them by the feet. The smoke rolled away in sullen heaps. To every pitch of the ship there was a pitch of the boiling oil, which seemed all eagerness to leap into their faces. Opposite the mouth of the works, on the further side of the wide wooden hearth, was the windlass. This served for a sea-sofa. Here lounged the watch, when not otherwise employed, looking into the red heat of the fire, till their eyes felt scorched in their heads. Their tawny features, now all begrimed with smoke and sweat, their matted beards, and the contrasting barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, all these were strangely revealed in the capricious emblazonings of the works. As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul.3

So seemed it to me, as I stood at her helm, and for long hours silently guided the way of this fire-ship on the sea. Wrapped, for that interval, in darkness myself, I but the better saw the redness, the madness, the ghastliness of others. The continual sight of the fiend shapes before me, capering half in smoke and half in fire, these at last begat kindred visions in my soul, so soon as I began to yield to that unaccountable drowsiness which ever would come over me at a midnight helm.

But that night, in particular, a strange (and ever since inexplicable) thing occurred to me.4 Starting from a brief standing sleep, I was horribly conscious of something fatally wrong. The jaw-bone tiller5 smote my side, which leaned against it; in my ears was the low hum of sails, just beginning to shake in the wind; I thought my eyes were open; I was half conscious of putting my fingers to the lids and mechanically stretching them still further apart. But, spite of all this, I could see no compass before me to steer by; though it seemed but a minute since I had been watching the card, by the steady binnacle lamp illuminating it. Nothing seemed before me but a jet gloom, now and then made ghastly by flashes of redness. Uppermost was the impression, that whatever swift, rushing thing I stood on was not so much bound to any haven ahead as rushing from all havens astern. A stark, bewildered feeling, as of death, came over me. Convulsively my hands grasped the tiller, but with the crazy conceit that the tiller was, somehow, in some enchanted way, inverted. My God! what is the matter with me? thought I. Lo! in my brief sleep I had turned myself about, and was fronting the ship's stern, with my back to her prow and the compass. In an instant I faced back, just in time to prevent the vessel from flying up into the wind, and very probably capsizing her. How glad and how grateful the relief from this unnatural hallucination of the night, and the fatal contingency of being brought by the lee!

Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man!6 Never dream with thy hand on the helm! Turn not thy back to the compass; accept the first hint of the hitching tiller; believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly. To-morrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler, relief; the glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp —— all others but liars!

Nevertheless the sun hides not Virginia's Dismal Swamp, nor Rome's accursed Campagna,7 nor wide Sahara, nor all the millions of miles of deserts and of griefs beneath the moon. The sun hides not the ocean, which is the dark side of this earth, and which is two thirds of this earth.8 So, therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true —— not true, or undeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon's, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe.9 "All is vanity." ALL. This wilful world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon's wisdom yet. But he who dodges hospitals and jails, and walks fast crossing grave-yards, and would rather talk of operas than hell; calls Cowper, Young, Pascal, Rousseau, poor devils all of sick men; and throughout a care-free lifetime swears by Rabelais as passing wise, and therefore jolly; —— not that man is fitted to sit down on tomb-stones, and break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon.10

But even Solomon, he says, "the man that wandereth out of the way of understanding shall remain" (i.e. even while living) "in the congregation of the dead." Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

1. See: the Tautochrone Problem.

2. This one took me a few minutes to figure out. "Hydriote" refers to an inhabitant of the island of Hydra, off the coast of Greece. "Canarsis" is an alternate spelling of (Constantine) Kanarsis, a privateer, admiral, and statesman from Hydra who distinguished himself as a fire ship captain in the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire.

3. Incidentally, Captain Ahab is a Quaker.

4. Note: Ishmael/Melville does not begin describing this revelation until the next paragraph. This initial paragraph details the circumstances which fostered this "eureka" moment. I think that all of us, at least once (more often if we happen to be a bit "touched" in the head, unusually spiritually or analytically-minded, or in the habit of using psychoactive drugs) have had at least one experience like this -- when we witness an event under such circumstances and in such a state of mind that the fleeting physical occurrence makes contact with the immutable ream of Idea (metaphorically speaking, of course) and we descry in the event the demonstration of a universal principle. Melville was particularly susceptible to such moments.

5. Since many of us probably aren't too familiar with these nautical terms, the tiller is a steering mechanism. Essentially, Ishmael dozes off in the Pequod's driver's seat.

6. The "fire" metaphor is not limited to this one chapter. Captain Ahab, on a previous voyage, presumably fell in with a sinister set of Parsis (Zoroastrians), who were propularly regarded as fire-worshippers. Ahab speaks at length about the significance of "the fire" in Chapter 119, "The Candles."

7. Melville misreads or disregards the 19th Century conception of the The Roman Campagna. He perceives it as a place of disease and ruin; as representing the "dark part" of the Earth encroaching on and consuming the works of man, whereas the cultured folk of Europe regarded the Campagna as an integral stop on the Grand Tour -- a spot of picturesque beauty and natural splendor. The Great Dismal Swamp probably needs less explanation to the American reader, but Melville's assessment of the place is quite different from today's ecologically-minded consensus. (Historically, post-pagan Western authors have a tendency to treat raw nature with antipathy rather than reverence. Melville's feelings are somewhat...complicated.)

8. Hey, haven't I read somewhere that the human body is two-thirds water?

9. The King James version of Ecclesiastes, for your convenience. Post-update note: In the original text, the Hebrew term that the King James Bible translates as "vanity" means something closer to "vapor:" as in, "vapor of vapors; all is vapor." Before the English word "vanity" came to connote intemperate self-admiration, it indicated worthlessness, triviality, pointlessness, etc. ("All is meaningless. ALL.")

10. Most readers should probably (hopefully?) have a general awareness of the first group of thinkers/writers mentioned, but Rabelais is a bit more obscure. The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia's (heavily-editorialized) Rabelais entry is a lot more telling than Wikipedia's.


  1. Moby Dick sat in my closet for years unread, even as I ate up many longer but lighter works. I've lost what little patience I had when I could have become literate, hopefully I still have time. I read your excerpt and regretted not being able to give it the contemplation it deserves in context. Thanks for the opportunity, in any case.

    The bolded section makes me feel like I should be proud of misery, and I don't think I need any more pride.

  2. I think you'd like Ecclesiastes if you haven't read it already, Pat. I can only imagine it was written over a longer period of time than a shorter one, simply because it whips between optimism (which often coincides with thinking past the present, mostly through theology) and pessimism (which seems to deal more with wallowing in it). If you do check it out, keep in mind the Hebrews hadn't yet developed a strong sense of the afterlife; they basically saw God working here, now, and that was all.

    Here's a few sections I'd highlighted on my way through that you might appreciate (from the NIV translation), and keep in mind this was probably written almost a good millennium before Christ was born (or before common era if you'd so prefer):

    "All man's efforts are for his mouth/yet his appetite is never satisfied."

    "It is better to heed a wise man's rebuke/than to listen to the song of fools."

    "The end of a matter is better than its beginning,/and patience is better than pride.
    Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit,/for anger resides in the lap of fools."

    "This only I have found:/God made mankind upright,/but men have gone in search of many schemes."

    "There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless. So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of his life God has given him under the sun.

    When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe man's labor on earth--his eyes not seeing sleep day or night--then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforst to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it."

    "I have seen something else under the sun:

    The race is not to the swift/or the battle to the strong
    Nor does food come to the wise/or wealth to the brilliant/or favor to the learned;
    but time and chance happen to them all."

    "Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. So I said, "Wisdom is better than strength." But the poor man's wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded.

    The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded/than the shouts of a ruler of fools.
    Wisdom is better than weapons of war,/but one sinner destroys much good."

    "As dead flies give perfume a bad smell,/so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor."

    "Whoever watched the wind will not plant;/whoever looks at the clouds will not reap."

    "Light is sweet,/and it pleases the eyes to see the sun.
    However many years a man may live,/let him enjoy them all.
    But let him remember the days of darkness,/for they will be many./Everything to come is meaningless.

    Be happy, young man, while you are still young,/and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
    Follow the ways of your heart/and whatever your eyes see,
    but know that for all these things/God will bring you to judgement.
    So then, banish anxiety from your heart/and cast off the troubles of your body,/for youth and vigor are meaningless."

  3. "Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come/and the years approach when you will say,/'I find no pleasure in them'--
    before the sun and the light/and the moon and the stars grow dark [1]/and the clouds return after the rain;
    when the keepers of the house tremble,/and the strong men stoop,
    when the grinders cease because they are few,/and those looking through the windows grow dim;
    when the doors to the street are closed/and the sound of grinding fades;
    when men rise up at the sound of birds,/but all their songs grow faint;
    when men are afraid of heights/and of dangers in the streets;
    when the almond tree blossoms/and the grasshopper drags himself along/and desire no longer is stirred.
    Then man goes to his eternal home [2]/and mourners go about the streets.

    Remember him--before the silver cord is severed,/or the golden bowl is broken;
    before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,/or the wheel broken at the well,
    and the dust returns to the ground it came from,/and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

    'Meaningless! Meaningless! says the Teacher./Everything is meaningless!'"

    [2]- Not an eternal life, but Sheol--death, "the grave", eternal nonexistance, etc. A positive outlook on the afterlife is only vaguely hinted at throughout the Old Testament and isn't really considered heavily until Jesus rolls around.

    I know the formatting isn't perfect and is a bit difficult to read, but I couldn't think of a better way to preserve the style. Nearly all of the Old Testament verse is written in couplets, and on the odd occasion, "triplets" (I don't see them as triplets since the second and third verses both build off of the first instead of each carrying their own weight. There's probably a word for this out there some where?). But, at the same time, the couplets and "triplets" are stacked together in a bigger paragraph to express one whole idea.

    After writing this all out, I noticed you linked to Ecclesiastes, meaning you probably already read it and probably already know the format of Hebrew poetry. Derp! Figure I might as well post it anyways.

    Oh, and here's an excerpt from how to read Proverbs, just cause a lot of Ecclesiastes is written in the same style. Again, you probably already know this, but it might still be of interest to somebody else out there.

    "When reading Proverbs, it helps to have a basic understanding of the literary devices used, especially the use of 'parallelism.' Parallelism describes the tendency of Hebrew poetry to repeat a thought in a slightly different way. For example, Proverbs 10:10 uses synonymous parallelism: 'He who winks maliciously causes grief, and a chattering fool comes to ruin.' The second half of this proverb underscores and embellishes the message of the first half.

    Mostly, however, Proverbs 10 uses antithetical parallelism (contrasting one thought with its opposite), such as in 10:4: 'Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth.' The word 'but' often connects two antithetical statements.

    In both kinds of parallelism, the trick is to compare each phrase with its paired phrase in the other half of the proverb. For instance, in Proverbs 10:4, 'diligent hands' is paired with its opposite, 'lazy hands'; 'bring wealth' is paired with its opposite, 'make a man poor.' Sometimes these comparisons uncover subtle shades of meaning."

    And there ya go. I don't have much to say about the actual passage from Moby Dick, but I do feel like going back and reading it after reading this through. And, hey, did you ever get around to reading Pierre? It takes the ideals of "all is meaningless" to practically a satirical extreme, as far as I remember. If you haven't yet, I think you'd get a kick out of it.

  4. There's a bunch more I wanted to point out about Ecclesiastes too, but this was already a monstrous post and it's probably more fun if you figure it out yourself.

    Oh, and sorry for spamming your post with all of this nonsense. I just like the Old Testament a lot and have a tendency to go overboard when I cite it and quote it. It really is fascinating when you become submersed in it, though!

  5. Adam: FULL DISCLOSURE: the first time I "read" it was in audiobook format during a drive from Boulder, Colorado to New Jersey. Perhaps something similar could work for you?

    Proud of misery? Hmm. If you're miserable, I wouldn't think the eagle in your soul is soaring very high.

    Osode: Interesting stuff. Hmm. I need to get around to reading Proverbs at some point.

    When I was a young Episcopal, I read an illustrated, heavily-abridged kid's Bible and got a pretty good idea of the timeline, but not much of the detail or the poetry. I stopped believing at around age thirteen or fourteen, so I've never really got acquainted with "grownups'" version. (I almost wrote "the real text," but that's too careless a term in this case, no?)

    All I'm trying to say is at some point I'd really like to sit down and read the King James Bible cover to cover.

    And yeah, the Old Testament is something I want to look into more closely. Being raised as a Christian, my studies of course focused on the New Testament, and it never really occurred to me to look at the Old in its own context.