Haul in the chains! Let the carcase go astern!
The vast tackles
have now done their duty. The peeled white body of the beheaded whale
flashes like a marble sepulchre; though changed in hue, it has not
perceptibly lost anything in bulk. It is still colossal. Slowly it
floats more and more away, the water round it torn and splashed by the
insatiate sharks, and the air above vexed with rapacious flights of
screaming fowls, whose beaks are like so many insulting poniards in the
whale.The vast white headless phantom floats further and further from
the ship, and every rod that it so floats, what seem square roods of
sharks and cubic roods of fowls, augment the murderous din. For hours
and hours from the almost stationary ship that hideous sight is seen.
Beneath the unclouded and mild azure sky, upon the fair face of the
pleasant sea, waited by the joyous breezes, that great mass of death
floats on and on, till lost in infinite perspectives.
most doleful and most mocking funeral! The sea-vultures all in pious
mourning, the air-sharks all punctiliously in black or speckled. In life
but few of them would have helped the whale, I ween, if peradventure he
had needed it; but upon the banquet of his funeral they most piously do
pounce. Oh, horrible vulturism of earth! from which not the mightiest
whale is free.
Nor is this the end. Desecrated as the body is, a
vengeful ghost survives and hovers over it to scare. Espied by some
timid man-of-war or blundering discovery-vessel from afar, when the
distance obscuring the swarming fowls, nevertheless still shows the
white mass floating in the sun, and the white spray heaving high against
it; straightway the whale's unharming corpse, with trembling fingers is
set down in the log- shoals, rocks, and breakers hereabout: beware! And
for years afterwards, perhaps, ships shun the place; leaping over it as
silly sheep leap over a vacuum, because their leader originally leaped
there when a stick was held. There's your law of precedents; there's
your utility of traditions; there's the story of your obstinate survival
of old beliefs never bottomed on the earth, and now not even hovering
in the air! There's orthodoxy!
Thus, while in the life the great
whale's body may have been a real terror to his foes, in his death his
ghost becomes a powerless panic to a world.
Are you a believer in
ghosts, my friend? There are other ghosts than the Cock-Lane one, and
far deeper men than Doctor Johnson who believe in them.
The final question in this chapter sticks with me: "Are you a believer in ghosts, my friend?" Of course, Melville is talking about the corpse of the sperm whale, how it drifts away from the Pequod toward the horizon, vultured by seagulls and sharks. Its floating carcass will haunt the seas for quite some time.
I have to say that I do believe in spirits or ghosts or lost souls. Whatever term you want to use. Today, I went to see The Princess Bride with my kids at the movie theater. It's called Throwback Thursday. Sitting there, eating popcorn, I was sort of haunted by the memory of the first time I saw it.
September, 1987. Two years out of high school. I was still a teenager, majoring in computer science and math, taking English courses covertly. The Butler Theater in my home town. One of the places they premiered Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder back in 1959. I was so full of hopes and dreams. Thought I was going to conquer the world, like any stupid kid. I didn't worry about money or bills. I had a full-ride scholarship, so I wasn't stressing about paying tuition.
That ghost of myself was sitting next to me this afternoon, watching, eating popcorn. He was only two years older than my daughter is now. He wasn't a poet or a teacher then. He was just one of the guys from Dead Poets Society, sucking the marrow out of life.
I haven't really shaken this ghost off yet. When I got home this evening, I got on my laptop and submitted some poems for publication. Took me a couple hours. As I was combing through the files on my computer, I sort of felt like that kid again. A little hopeful. A little dreamy.
Then, I hit the submit button, and my poems shuttled away from me, like a freighter on Lake Superior. For the last couple hours, I've been second-guessing my choices. Wondering why I even submitted. Convincing myself that it was a useless endeavor. All that adult angst and doubt, banishing my youthful ghost self from the room.
I'm still haunted. That kid is still wondering when he's going to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. I don't have the heart to tell him that it's been canceled this year.
Saint Marty is thankful tonight for old movies that make him feel young.