Living Appropriately: Musings From a History Teacher in Colombia

So I finally finished reading Moby-Dick a week or two ago. I had started it shortly after arriving here in the summer but it got put on the back burner after school started, as it got quickly bumped down the priority list about, oh, fifteen notches or so. As it’s one of the books that is generally considered to be in the canon of great American literature–one of those types of books that you feel like you need to read at least once in your lifetime–I was glad that I found the time to pick it up again and plough through it. And make no mistake, it certainly does take some ploughing through; it is one of those monstrosities, much like Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow (both of which, I will freely admit, I’ve attempted to read in the past but did not even get halfway through) that is filled with so much obscure, seemingly inane symbolism as well as detours and byways from the main plot that you can get bogged down in your tracks at times. But interspersed amongst all the randomness there are also beautifully-lyrical passages that make it worth your while; you can tell that Melville had read his Shakespeare.

To wit, compare one of Hamlet’s famous lines:

What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable!..and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

with Melville:

O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! not the smallest atom stirs or lives on matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.  

One other thing I’ll note about this story is that I was quite surprised to find that much of the action takes place in the Pacific Ocean and specifically the South China Sea–there is even a direct reference to Taiwan! (recall that this was written in 1851 and that the Portuguese had originally named Taiwan Ilha Formosa or “beautiful island”):

…the like of whom now and then glide among the unchanging Asiatic communities, especially the Oriental isles to the east of the continent—those insulated, immemorial, unalterable countries, which even in these modern days still preserve much of the ghostly aboriginalness of earth’s primal generations…Now, from the South and West the Pequod was drawing nigh to Formosa and the Bashee Isles, between which lies one of the tropical outlets from the China waters into the Pacific.

And similarly, I’ll conclude with one of my favorite passages from the book, which again waxes poetic on the primordial, rolling deep of the Pacific:

To any meditative Magian rover, this serene Pacific, once beheld, must ever after be the sea of his adoption. It rolls the midmost waters of the world, the Indian ocean and Atlantic being but its arms. The same waves wash the moles of the new-built Californian towns, but yesterday planted by the recentest race of men, and lave the faded but still gorgeous skirts of Asiatic lands, older than Abraham; while all between float milky-ways of coral isles, and low-lying, endless, unknown Archipelagoes, and impenetrable Japans. Thus this mysterious, divine Pacific zones the world’s whole bulk about; makes all coasts one bay to it; seems the tide-beating heart of earth.


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Andrew Leniton