Who knew you could still experience epiphanies on the eve of 85 and, worse, be seized with the irrepressible impulse to jot them down and send a limited few into possible comas?
"The unexamined life, on a whale ship or in Athens, led to ruin."
I’ve always loved Herman Melville, as a writer and a person. He said, “A whale ship was my Harvard and my Yale.” I said the same thing about the NYPD. He read a news piece on a whale that head butted a whaling ship several times, causing it to sink and send the crew into a row boat excursion that led to cannibalism and a few survivors. The event was much later memorialized in “In The Heart of the Sea,” on sale in virtually every shop on Nantucket Island—the voyage’s starting point.
Melville would “prefer not to,” yet wrote a thinly disguised epic of repressed homo-eroticism in “Billy Budd.”
You could, as Casey Stengel used to say, “Look this stuff up.”
But it is “Moby Dick” that brings us together today.
I long thought and accepted—vaguely and less than passionately—the notion that it represented man’s search for God. I’d read the book and seen the movie.
Recently, I saw the movie again and, just after, had what I hope was an epiphany.
Two sailors, commenting on Captain Ahab’s obsession, are talking:
“We were doing fine hunting and killing whales and reducing them to oil to light people’s lamps,” one more or less said—I paraphrase. Chasing a white whale was unnatural. An act of supreme hubris such as brought down Greek heroes because of their lack of humility and insight. The unexamined life, on a whale ship or in Athens, led to ruin.
And therein, I hope, lies the key to Melville’s view. He saw God in nature: the natural order of things and how the most dangerous and subversive act was to do the un-natural.
Harmony with nature, that is what the world required.
Great minds are great because they teach us important—even essential—truths.
Ezra Pound, that mad, fascist, unforgiveable anti-Semite, said, “The artist is the antennae of the race.” By this I took him to mean that the function of the artist is to take in society’s signals, process them and spew the findings out in poems, paintings, novels, symphonies and all other forms of artistic expression.
As prophets, artists convey an understanding that frequently eludes the grasp of us lesser mortals. Melville was offering a message that resonates, today, in a movement to save the environment.
By condemning the absence of harmony with nature, Melville was reminding us of the critical importance of our stewardship.
The lessons expressed 200 years ago—and 2,000—remain eternally true. Tree hugging is a timeless truth.