February 28, 2014

Land-locked and sea-lost

Turning to what’s important to us when the elements leave us nothing else.

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon.... What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?

One of my favorite things about Moby-Dick (M-D) is that it contains the phrase “seaward peep.” Just once. And none of the other 10 uses of “peep” in the novel tops that one. “[T]he spring verdure peeping forth even beneath February’s snow” comes close, and not just because it’s seasonal—though we’re equally unlikely to see that happen by the end of today, at any rate.

The green’s gone for now and there’s never been a sea. And I think, for the first time, I feel well and truly landlocked (to use a word that appears, surprisingly, just once in all of M-D, with a hyphen in the middle of it). That’s the best way I can describe the particular shade of interiority that this year’s hall-of-fame winter has taught me. I’m not an island: I don’t feel lonely (don’t worry, Mom), I don’t feel isolated, and I certainly don’t feel any tropical vibes. No—I’m loosely engulfed in barren, disconnected expanse. My ebbs and flows are carefully circumscribed by the functional impossibility of escape, of recourse, to any place that can be called outdoors.

I’m not even an outdoorsy guy—why, in these very pages I’ve previously likened myself to Squidward, and I stand by that (albeit with some grating, tedious reservations). But I still hate that any excursion these days, even a brief one, inevitably causes me, “like an ignorant pilgrim crossing the snowy Alps,” to slowly double over, no matter how many layers protect me. The need to hide my face and eyes from breathable air, to stuff my chin into my chest (or, let’s face it, into more of my chins), to hide among myself every time I go outside—I can’t abide this wilting imprisonment, this self-consumption, for much longer.

Spring can’t come fast enough for a restless landsman like me. Without any sea to lust after, I stay clinched to desks—often in the bookstacks, on the third floor, facing east, with PS2384 and its call number fellows behind my left shoulder and safely within reach. “Landsman” is used 18 times in M-D if you count plurals; “clinch” a half-dozen if you count past tense. As for “sea,” an impressive 149 uses—and that’s as a word, not as a prefix or a syllable or anything else that would do it injustice.

I’m not doing all this counting by hand. My Norton Critical Edition of M-D is showing plenty of signs of my, shall we say, affection by now—dog-eared pages, unintelligible marginalia, stickiness inexplicable in non-revisionist hindsight. Until recently it had napkins from two separate Southwest flights marking its pages. As the physical embodiment of the greatest piece of art I’ve ever committed myself to, I’ll always treasure it. But lately, now that I’m reading it in its entirety for the third time, I find that I get a lot of joy out of working with an online version of the text—a leviathanic 1.4-megabyte HTML file that is powerless to halt my efforts to dominate it through a series of increasingly sophisticated Ctrl+F commands. In the immediate absence of a sea to set off my reveries, or of any plant life for that matter, I suppose I’ve found a way to surf the most vastly oceanic, yet coherent, body that I can find.

Call me Kelly Slater. Melville prefaces M-D with a section of “Extracts”—a collection of “random allusions” to whales, from a variety of texts, that presents what amounts to a sinusoidal history of humans’ interwoven tendencies to both fear and glorify the monumental in different moments. They’re compiled by a “mere painstaking burrower and grub-worm of a poor devil of a Sub-Sub”—that is, by a librarian’s lowly second-order underling. I like to imagine that my textual exploits are done in this tradition, though I’d like to think I’m more burrower than devil. People tell me I’m a real grub-worm on Friday nights.

Though my life as a Play-skool scholar is made far easier than the life of the Sub-Sub by things like Ctrl+F, Lens search, JSTOR, and (mostly just) Wikipedia, I guess I just mean that I see myself as motivated in a similar way to him. I think we—by whom I mean me and this imaginary intern—aspire to the same goal of populating the uniquely spatial trappings of our purpose-driven lives with pieces, with “extracts,” of the luminous. We do so to obtain light or warmth or both—whatever the particular absences we feel require in a given instant. And I think that that aim is both healthy and, in every sense, humble—after all, lord knows most people don’t care about any of it, but that didn’t stop him and it won’t stop me.

“What do they here?” The strangely formulated final question posed in the long passage above is pretty overtly ontological. The preceding describes more or less my answer to it, taking “here” to refer to the implosive existential state into which this hopeless tundra of ours has lowered me. I’ve turned our denuding circumstances into an opportunity to engage in and with what I think is the one pursuit that will give me peace when it’s all I have. But here, what do you?

Ajay Batra is a third-year in the College majoring in English.