“It is not down in any map; true places never are.”
Before starting any project, I like to self-saturate with novels about a subject. It is one of the greatest pleasures of learning something entirely new, and it is a way to get a sense of the texture and richness of a place or a subject in ways that scholarly writing very rarely can convey. The pleasure of being a total novice on the scholarship of shipping and ports is that one gets to read maritime novels, novels about pirates and ports, and one gets to read Melville…
I am a bit obsessed with Melville. I came to his Moby Dick quite late, having tried it and failed when I was younger. I console myself by telling myself that one has to be older to understand the extraordinary humour of the book, its vastness, its generosity, its messy, sprawling grandeur. I think the book’s great admirer, CLR James, correctly sees Moby Dick as the visionary parable about capitalism, and as a reading of the rebellious and wise seamen aboard the ship. Others see it as a more existential novel. It is those two things and so much more. I love the comical sketch of the “insulated Quakerish Nantucketers”, Bildad and Peleg. I love how Moby Dick upsets the certainties of racialisation (just look at the loving portrait of Queequeg; the generosity and courage of such characters as Fedallah and Tashtego and Dragoo). In fact, CLR James also loved the way Melville pictured the seamen. He used this authorisation by Melville to write his own Marxist reading of the book:
If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave round them tragic graces; if even the most mournful, perchance the most abased, among them all, shall at times lift himself to the exalted mounts; if I shall touch that workman’s arm with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rainbow over his disastrous set of sun; then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou Just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God!
I love the book’s language, prophetic in one place, melancholy in the other, droll still elsewhere. I love the sense of space and of claustrophobia, of camaraderie and of fear in it. I love the gorgeous way it begins. No, not “Call me Ishmael”; but that beautiful sense of greyness which follows just after, and its oceanic resolution:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.
So here is taking to the ship.