I read Moby-Dick for the first time as a senior in high school, and I hated it. (I hated everything I was forced to read, as a matter of principle.) But I’ve decided to give it another chance. So last night I cracked the spine of a brand-new copy. And I like it a whole lot better this time ’round.
Looking back, one of the things that bugged me back in high school was the absurdly highbrow references Ishmael is constantly making. It’s all “Pythagorean maxims” and “strong decoctions of Seneca.” I refused to believe that an admiral would speak like that, let alone a deckhand. Ishmael sounds more like the flatulent philosophaster Ignatius C. Reilly than an old salt.
Well, at some point in the intervening years, I learned that merchant marines were probably the best-read segment of the population. A friend of mine who worked on ships told me that, when you were out at sea for months on end, there were only three ways to pass the time: drink, play cards, or read. And there really is only so much rum a man can drink before he stumbles overboard. (This is before the invention of TV, mind you.)
As a matter of fact, ports across the world set up lending libraries for sailors, which were stocked with classics of literature and philosophy. A seaman would grab a translation of Don Quixote in Shanghai, return it in London, and then take a collection of Plato’s dialogues for the voyage to Cape Town.
It turns out Meville’s philosopher-sailor is more fact than fiction.
So is Wolf Larsen: the cruel, hulking captain from Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf. Cap’n Larsen murders his own crew members in between treatises by Herbert Spencer and poems by Robert Browning. His speech is a little more believable than Ishmael’s, but the character’s no more plausible. let that be the last time I underestimate a sailor.
In the first chapter, Ishmael says: “Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded forever.” It reminded by of a report I read a few years ago—a study of the Catholic priests ordained in the year 2019. Here’s what the report had to say about those new priests who’d served in the U.S. military:
Over five times as many Navy veterans joined a religious order, as opposed to becoming normal diocesan priests. By comparison, it appears that no Army vets became religious—despite composing a much larger percentage of ordinands.
Pretty amazing. You have to wonder: do men become contemplative because they spend so much time at sea? Or does the sea hold a special charm for men inclined towards contemplation?
For that matter, did sailors take to reading out of boredom? Or did intelligent men become sailors to be alone with their thoughts in that vast, thalassic solitude?
(Beats me. I tried to join the Navy, but they rejected me because of my childhood asthma. Then I tried to join the Carmelites, but withdrew from the postulancy after I met my now-wife. So, I failed both as a sailor and a monk, all before I turned 25. Not too shabby!)
Speaking of sailors, I’ve been watching clips from Prince Phillip’s funeral. I admit, the wife and I watched the first couple seasons of The Crown. (We stopped when it got depressing and gross.) Philip’s devotion to the Navy and his strong sense of duty remind me a lot of my dad, a U.S. Navy vet and deep-sea fisherman. Like Prince Philip, nobody would accuse Dad of being politically correct. I bet most folks who got to know either Philip or my dad would also say they contain hidden depths.
Much like the sea itself. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? When you spend so much of your life around the ocean, you learn that real depth—and real power—are often hidden beneath a placid surface. The sea doesn’t make a big show of itself… not until it’s ready to start snapping masts and cracking hulls.
At the Prince’s funeral, the sang the Navy Hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save”:
It’s not as popular here in the States, but it’s still very known in the Commonwealth Realms, where Queen Elizabeth still reigns. I heard it for the first time at the funeral of a very dear friend from Sydney—a veteran of the Royal Australian Navy. He was one of the bravest, funniest, kindest, and smartest men I’ve ever known.
Come to think, the rest have all been sailors, too.
O Trinity of love and power,
Our brethren shield in danger’s hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect them wheresoe’er they go;
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.