Learning life’s lessons from Moby-Dick

Well, it’s Dec. 22 and I’m dreeeeaming of a white whale. Not, I hasten to add, because I hope for blubber in my stocking Christmas morning. Rather, certain news stories about the fragility of life remind me of a strangely encouraging passage from Moby-Dick. OK, so I won’t need any pretentiousness under the tree. Nor, please, any works of Herman Melville. I love the scene in the musical Wonderful Town where the hostess’s attempts to spark cultured conversation at her party with references to his magnum opus fizzle out with “It’s about this ... whale.” Indeed. And from my youth I dimly recall descriptions of the skin of whales as tedious as they were unreliable. As to the moral of the story, I think it was something to the effect that if ever you are on a ship whose captain is totally insane in ways that are going to get everyone killed, you should, on some dark and stormy night, sneak up behind him, wallop his noggin with a sock full of sand, pitch him over the railing and the next morning feign astonishment that he is nowhere to be seen. But I digress.

Enduring Moby-Dick in some otherwise long-forgotten class, I was powerfully impressed by one passage in which Melville describes how a great length of harpoon rope is laid out in a fragile whaling boat “in its complicated coils, twisting and writhing around it in almost every direction. All the oarsmen are involved in its perilous contortions ...” Yet, he says, “Gayer sallies, more merry mirth, better jokes, and brighter repartees, you never heard over your mahogany, than you will hear over the half-inch white cedar of the whale-boat,” even though when the harpoon is thrown and the line begins to run there is an appalling danger of it wrapping itself round an arm or leg and dismembering you or dragging you to a bleak watery death.

The moral is not just that whaling is dangerous as well as wrong. Melville winds up the chapter “But why say more? All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.”

I’ve always remembered this passage. Actually over the years, I seem to have embellished it. For I distinctly recall him going on to note that the mere act of stepping into the street, where one might be run down by a carriage or felled by a dislodged roofing tile, is immensely more perilous than those who routinely do it ever notice. But I find no such text in the book now that I look it up.

Frankly, I believe Melville missed a great opportunity to edit out some of his more tedious passages about the structure of whale tails and insert my carriage and tile bit. Because he did not, allow me the privilege.

My purpose is not to be discouraging, least of all at this time of year. It is to suggest that because life is fragile we should treat it as more precious than we often do. Because you read the newspapers, you must know that the daughter of hockey hall of famer Bob Gainey, who after a troubled adolescence had found herself in part through sailing on tall ships, was recently fatally plucked from the deck of one by a rogue wave. You just never know.

I make no argument against sailing. Quite the reverse. To me a trip on a tall ship is a dream. I’d even settle for a short ship. What a wonderful way to spend a month or so of the unspecified time allotted to you on this planet. As for the risks, remember Melville’s warning: You are hardly safer in your study or in traffic. And the danger of missing life completely is greater than of having it end early. Including neglecting the companionship of our shipmates.

In theory, we all know we all sit metaphorically amid complex loops of rope that may at any moment drag us to our doom. And in practice, I trust, we look both ways before crossing the street. But let us also find comfort and joy with our fellows here on whatever narrow benches we occupy amid life’s stormy seas. Especially when we periodically notice the coils, silent and menacing, let it remind us to savour each moment we share in the warmth and light.

I shall say no more of whales, especially Melville’s revolting description of stripping the blubber. Christmas desserts are quite alarming enough without giving anyone any ideas. But here we are: Christmas is upon us and we live.

So lean over the coils and hug someone. And Merry Christmas to you all.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson