Thursday, April 26, 2018

April 26: The Most Lively Terrors, Writing Superstitions, Fountain Pens and Moleskines

Nor did wild rumors of all sorts fail to exaggerate, and still the more horrify the true histories of these deadly encounters. For not only do fabulous rumors naturally grow out of the very body of all surprising terrible events,- as the smitten tree gives birth to its fungi; but, in maritime life, far more than in that of terra firma, wild rumors abound, wherever there is any adequate reality for them to cling to. And as the sea surpasses the land in this matter, so the whale fishery surpasses every other sort of maritime life, in the wonderfulness and fearfulness of the rumors which sometimes circulate there. For not only are whalemen as a body unexempt from that ignorance and superstitiousness hereditary to all sailors; but of all sailors, they are by all odds the most directly brought into contact with whatever is appallingly astonishing in the sea; face to face they not only eye its greatest marvels, but, hand to jaw, give battle to them. Alone, in such remotest waters, that though you sailed a thousand miles, and passed a thousand shores, you would not come to any chiselled hearth-stone, or aught hospitable beneath that part of the sun; in such latitudes and longitudes, pursuing too such a calling as he does, the whaleman is wrapped by influences all tending to make his fancy pregnant with many a mighty birth. No wonder, then, that ever gathering volume from the mere transit over the wildest watery spaces, the outblown rumors of the White Whale did in the end incorporate with themselves all manner of morbid hints, and half-formed foetal suggestions of supernatural agencies, which eventually invested Moby Dick with new terrors unborrowed from anything that visibly appears. So that in many cases such a panic did he finally strike, that few who by those rumors, at least, had heard of the White Whale, few of those hunters were willing to encounter the perils of his jaw.

But there were still other and more vital practical influences at work. Nor even at the present day has the original prestige of the Sperm Whale, as fearfully distinguished from all other species of the leviathan, died out of the minds of the whalemen as a body. There are those this day among them, who, though intelligent and courageous enough in offering battle to the Greenland or Right whale, would perhaps- either from professional inexperience, or incompetency, or timidity, decline a contest with the Sperm Whale; at any rate, there are plenty of whalemen, especially among those whaling nations not sailing under the American flag, who have never hostilely encountered the Sperm Whale, but whose sole knowledge of the leviathan is restricted to the ignoble monster primitively pursued in the North; seated on their hatches, these men will hearken with a childish fireside interest and awe, to the wild, strange tales of Southern whaling. Nor is the preeminent tremendousness of the great Sperm Whale anywhere more feelingly comprehended, than on board of those prows which stem him.

And as if the now tested reality of his might had in former legendary times thrown its shadow before it; we find some book naturalists- Olassen and Povelson- declaring the Sperm Whale not only to be a consternation to every other creature in the sea, but also to be so incredibly ferocious as continually to be athirst for human blood. Nor even down to so late a time as Cuvier's, were these or almost similar impressions effaced. For in his Natural History, the Baron himself affirms that at sight of the Sperm Whale, all fish (sharks included) are "struck with the most lively terrors," and "often in the precipitancy of their flight dash themselves against the rocks with such violence as to cause instantaneous death." And however the general experiences in the fishery may amend such reports as these; yet in their full terribleness, even to the bloodthirsty item of Povelson, the superstitious belief in them is, in some vicissitudes of their vocation, revived in the minds of the hunters.

So that overawed by the rumors and portents concerning him, not a few of the fishermen recalled, in reference to Moby Dick, the earlier days of the Sperm Whale fishery, when it was oftentimes hard to induce long practised Right whalemen to embark in the perils of this new and daring warfare; such men protesting that although other leviathans might be hopefully pursued, yet to chase and point lances at such an apparition as the Sperm Whale was not for mortal man. That to attempt it, would be inevitably to be torn into a quick eternity. On this head, there are some remarkable documents that may be consulted.

Nevertheless, some there were, who even in the face of these things were ready to give chase to Moby Dick; and a still greater number who, chancing only to hear of him distantly and vaguely, without the specific details of any certain calamity, and without superstitious accompaniments were sufficiently hardy not to flee from the battle if offered.

Continuing with the theme of gossip and rumors, Melville adds on a healthy dose of superstition, as well.  Fishermen, especially fishers of whales, seem to put a lot of store in these things.  Thus, the "Sperm Whale" becomes a ferocious monster, hungry for human blood.  Moby Dick is so terrifying that other sea creatures, including sharks, would rather commit salty seppuku than face his crooked jaw.

And that is the power of superstition.  It transforms a whale into a sea monster.  Godzilla with a blowhole.  Of course, as a Christian, I'm not supposed to put much store in superstition, because it calls into question your trust in God.  God doesn't care whether you break a mirror or walk under a ladder.  He doesn't punish you for going outside on Friday the 13th, and He certainly doesn't worry about spilling table salt.  Those things are holdovers from the older times, when people were drowned or burned at the stake for witchcraft.  Last time I looked at the newspaper, I didn't see any advertisements for a good, old-fashioned witch barbecue.

As I writer, however, I do have some superstitions that I hold firmly.  For example, I write with a fountain pen.  I have since before I published my first poem.  There's something about the weight and heft of a good Waterman in my hand that allows me to feel more inspired.  Fountain pens also flow more easily as I lay ink down on a page.  This superstition has gotten so ingrained in my mind that I have difficulty writing a poem with any other kind of utensil.

I also write in lined, Moleskine journals, with a hard cover in black.  I always have at least one or two of these on hand.  I have been writing in a Moleskine for so long that I have difficulty putting lines down in any other kind of journal.  In fact, even if I write something on other paper or inside a spiral notebook, I transfer it into my Moleskine as soon as I can.  With a fountain pen, of course.

First lines are very important to me--in poems, short stories, or essays.  If I don't have a good first line, I can't proceed with my writing.  It's that serious of a superstition.  What the first line does for me is provide a compass that points me where I want to go in whatever I'm writing.  Without that compass, I don't even want to set sail.  I have been known to work on a first line for days until it clicks, sort of like a lid on a paint can.

I usually write and rewrite poems and whatnot about ten or eleven times in my Moleskine before I type it up on my laptop.  And I read and reread these revisions countless times.  It has to sound good to my ear before I will make it more electronically permanent.  Typing up an essay or poem is sort of like stepping in wet cement.  It leaves something behind that can't be fixed or erased.

These are just a few of my writing superstitions.  I've developed them over the course of my writing life, and they work for me.  I don't think that they will work for everybody.  Superstitions are personal things.  They provide a brand of psychic security.  A warm blanket around my poetic shoulders.  I think every writer has her own set of superstitions, because writers, on the whole, are highly superstitious people.  At least, a lot of the ones I know are.

I'm not going to give up fountain pens because I'm Christian.  I refuse to discard my Moleskine as though it were some golden calf.  I won't go to hell or burst into flames because of these things.  They work for me.  When they stop working for me, I will change my superstitions.

Until that time, Saint Marty is an avowed Molskine/fountain pen snob.

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