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  • Reading PowerHooks, Walls, and Melville
  • John E. Keats (bio)

Perhaps at bottom Jimmy was too thoroughly good and kind to be made from any cause a man-hater. And doubtless it at last seemed irreligious to Jimmy even to shun mankind.

—Herman Melville, "Jimmy Rose" (1855)

If I said I was mesmerized watching a man realize his life was over, would I sound heartless? What if he were a coward? If he had a wife and a child, would his stock rise? What if he were a soldier for the right side? People value marriage, children, and good causes. I waste time running for health and vanity. When couples walk toward me holding hands, or pushing baby carriages, I'm compelled to veer into oncoming traffic. They command the sidewalk. People value soldiers for their patriotic sacrifice. Apologists for your country's wars can command conversation. If you run against the tide of their argument, you get pushed aside.

This dying man I watch has a wife named Mary, and a son, in Nantucket. He is a brave hunter, not a soldier. He is a cautious, moral man. The doom he feels coming belongs to dozens of men. He could have saved them all by murdering his superior. But he has a secret: the "more spiritual [End Page 106] terrors" of powerful men weaken him. Ocean storms and wild beasts do not. He tried to conquer his fear. He'd thought of Mary and his son, and the crew, and moaned for divinity: "Great God, where art thou? Shall I? shall I?" He didn't. God never shows, but pious plebeians don't take his absence as an insult. Leaders won't bother to wait. They might summon God in doubt. They might tell you He's responded. But they generate their own answers. Average people, what Nietzsche calls the "herd," need certainty, fast, from anyone. Those who supply the decisions become great to the masses. I'm still watching the dying subordinate's dilemma. I linger and ruminate because I can. The man is Starbuck, first mate to Captain Ahab on the ship the Pequod, in Herman Melville's 1851 fantasy, Moby-Dick. I'm no monster. I've only witnessed one real death. I was a boy. I couldn't have saved him.

Powerful writers provide authentic revelations of character that living people guard or find impossible to express. In the chapter called "The Chase—Third Day," Melville exposes Starbuck's inwardness as Ahab leaves the ship for his last crack at destroying the mysterious white whale: "Future things swim before me, as in empty outlines and skeletons; all the past is somehow grown dim. Mary, girl! thou fadest in pale glories behind me; boy! I seem to see but thy eyes grown wondrous blue. Strangest problems of life seem clearing; but clouds sweep between—Is my journey's end coming?" Jesus, what torment; the dying man's future is a watery dream bordered by bones. His lived life dissipates, as it always does when we're deprived of reminders of the living and the loved. If I'm so entranced, why do I think about running and war, or an earlier passage on the "vast skeleton" of an extinct beast found on a judge's plantation in Alabama, how "awe-stricken credulous slaves … took it for the bones of one of the fallen angels"? Melville's complexity and construction demand that I return to dimming scenes—in my life, in his text—and that I leave Starbuck alone.

I'm on my break in a bright lunchroom. River rats, as big as Chihuahuas, are outside. I've seen them. I hear them under the floors. They make me, like nothing else does, believe in evil. I'm reading Moby-Dick. A coworker stops in for a cup of free coffee, asks for the title. He has gray hair; [End Page 107] so do I. He once showed me song lyrics he'd written; I called them promising. I reveal the cover. He laughs, shocked that the story's new to me. I say I've read the book several times. Why, he snickers, would you ever...


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pp. 106-120
Launched on MUSE
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