The Ungraspable Phantom of Life


Moby-Dick. I’d been itching to reread it. Books like this with significant mythological substance tend to work on you and mostly, of course, unconsciously. The formidable, mysterious white whale. The formidable, mysterious ocean. The formidable, mysterious depths of our unconscious and its unwieldly manifestations. I’d forgotten that Melville spells it all out plainly enough in the beginning pages of the book.

If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity…? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we  ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.

Indeed. Likewise I’d forgotten Melville’s knack for humor. But of course any great, so-called classic mythology must be shot through with humor so as to properly empower it, to balance and make real the play-of-opposites dynamic reflected, as if in a glassy pool, perhaps, that same sense of fraught endeavor that permeates and fuels our own lives. “I have to laugh ‘cuz I know I’m gonna die – WHY?” Kiss, “Detroit Rock City” from the 1976 album Destroyer. Great album title, great album graphics, great tune. Same predicament, same resonance, same mythic vibe.

But I’m not merely referring to the type of pointed irony expressed in a Kiss song; to the sense of impossible irony evoked by our confrontation with death, say, or the Mystery in a general sense; to the revelation of irony that we may experience as a last resort, of sorts, just shy of our insanity whereby we laugh at our unholy predicament because somehow there is nothing left to do. Ahab, of course, in the end, is swept away, literally and figuratively by this confrontation with life, death and ourselves; with the white whale (a Sperm whale, after all) symbolizing all the strength, force and potency of life. Why not weep? It’s a good question. Perhaps laughter better approaches, better effects an exaltation invoked by our experience of the divinity?

Meanwhile, well, a great myth will contain all manner of funny, hence inviting, endearing, humbling, welcoming and ultimately human scenes. Humor in its pedestrian sense right sizes an otherwise psychologically, pedagogically and aesthetically unmanageable myth into a story, a tale, a yarn worth telling and hearing. And reading.

Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.

A myth never resorts to deception, then. It never attempts to drive home a point or even to teach at all. A fable weaves a moral lesson into things, it beguiles in the manner a parent must beguile and deceive, however wholeheartedly, a child into paying attention to something that ought to be learned. Any great myth rather flaunts morality and lessons and everything to do with contemporary adjudications. A myth is free. It is freedom. Always. Or it is not a myth. It is truth – true fiction – and we recognize it as such intuitively. We see ourselves in it. We identify with its image or images and they affect us biologically like the air that we breathe and the food and drink that we consume. Myths are our adventure of life and death expressed without intention. A myth is a metaphor but, as the devoted reader will recall from the last post, it is a unidirectional congruence: myth => metaphor. Not all metaphors are myths.

Moby-Dick, then, is a legitimate and especially full blooded myth. It may be, I think, the greatest example of what I call new mythology or modern mythology wrought since the end of so-called Industrial Revolution in the West which is said, arguably, to have occurred more or less between 1760 and 1840. To make a myth is never a successful myth-maker’s intention. One can consciously address and utilize the mythic form – the structure of myth – include references to other myths and even parody and satirize myth and fail to create a myth. Myth arises from zeal and from the depths of the unconscious and by way of things – characters and their stories – not fully under the control of the writer. Hence, not by any intention of Melville’s is Moby-Dick so mythic and so great a myth. Nay. Melville was just a writer like the rest of us. Responding to his muse. And if his readership – the readers of his previous books, that is – and the critics of his time somehow mostly failed to identity with the images of Moby-Dick; namely, with Ishmael, Queequeg, Starbuck, Ahab and their conflict with the whale and their adventures upon the sea – with the waters of the unconscious and the mystery of life – then it can only be perhaps that the revelation wasn’t shocking or revelatory enough in its time.

Whaling from tall sailing ships in 1851 was perhaps still too common an industry, too familiar a vocation, too pedestrian a calling to be recognized, then, as anything as potently symbolic as it was to become mere decades hence, when somehow the story was rediscovered and its mythology properly happened, so to say, in the world. That, and Melville’s readership simply didn’t expect it. One reads Typee, for example, and discovers a fine adventure tale chock full of engaging characters and a worthy, even mythologically resonant story arc, a hero journey, a there and back again. But that book is not mythic in the sense that it will activate one’s unconscious and compel a person like me, for instance, to chew over the thing year after year, to encounter and reencounter it’s words and images and, inevitably, one’s self within it. So that Moby-Dick is a myth. It is fully functional within the context of awe, cosmology, sociology and pedagogical psychology. It is perhaps classic and indeed the best new myth ever written because, well, its four functions, hence its images have yet to do all their work on us all.

How, then, to reread Moby-Dick? Just pick up a copy, any copy and dig into it, right? Yes and no. Yes, because one can find a version catering to any part of the book that one is particularly sensitive or otherwise attracted to, namely, the story of the whale or the adventure of whaling or the conflicted nature of Ahab and so on. One can approach it in a more academic or scholarly manner and seek out, as I did at first, the latest Norton Critical Edition, for example. Which happens to be the third edition. Except I couldn’t live with the cover art. You can’t judge a book by its cover but you can hate the artwork nonetheless so that it kills the vibe, “harshes” the buzz, hobbles the mythology and ruins the experience. The nature of the physical book matters. So that I spent some weeks mulling over what goddamn copy I was going to read. As the book resides within the gnarly realm of the public domain, its editions, abridged or unabridged are ubiquitous. And most of them just don’t get it. They don’t grasp let alone seek to support the mythology.

Thankfully I fell upon the and discovered within a reference to Evan Dahm’s illustrated 2017 edition. Besides a whole realm devoted to all things Melville, here you will find a link to Dahm’s blog on Tumblr related to the project and his personal encounter with the story:

Illustrating Moby-Dick? Yikes, right? Well, mostly I would agree that it’s a doomed endeavor to concretize a myth in this way because the best myths rely upon our own images, the act of reading the words generates the most effective imagery for most of us at least. One can illustrate the Bible and the Mahabharata but always something about the effort fails to deliver, as it were.

Evan Dahm. I made a point to research his take on Moby-Dick before leaping into a purchase of his otherwise visually appealing craftwork at a hefty $70. For his book is not so much another edition as a personal expression of art-craft. There is no ISBN, for instance. And he crowd-funded the project, something that hardly guarantees anything but earnestness. But it turns out Dahm not only did his research but he’s what I would call properly invested in the mythology – he understands, that is, the depths, unholy or otherwise, of his own attraction to the tale, all that is fine and unsettling about any great mythology. We don’t ever fully understand or entirely grasp what puts us within the grip of a myth other than its fueling of our own zeal. When we relate to our personal myths by way of cultural myths we have the experience of being properly alive, a phrase I borrow from J. Campbell. And with that I will only go as far as to recommend this project, this iteration by Evan Dahm, as a worthy consideration.