… and our ship sinks slowly in the west ….”
I finished Moby Dick more than a week ago, on my last night on the road home from a holiday family visit in Oklahoma. The wide horizons of the Midwest were behind me — ahead, the road through northern Pennsylvania, which crosses the Appalachian mountains and the Poconos, finally flowing through the Delaware Water Gap and into New Jersey. It’s a lovely drive, the road climbing steeply here and there, spanning rivers far below it, curving around hills and farms, dipping into valleys.
I make this trip 2 or 3 times a year, and my hours on the road are usually spent noting the familiar sites I’ve passed dozens of times: massive farmhouses, broken down barns, antique malls and car dealerships, billboards with a religious bent (JESUS IS REAL), billboards for local attractions (WORLD’S LARGEST GOLF TEE). It’s easy to see that prosperity is always just down the road from dereliction — as well as the other way around.
And while I was rolling along, just a few hours from home, I couldn’t help thinking about Melville’s ending. Nathaniel Philbrick, in Why Read Moby Dick?*, explains that one of the novel’s purposes is to reveal America’s mad dash towards the Civil War. As I write today’s post, it looks as though America is once again in a mad dash towards a new phase of annihilation. Never a comforting thought, especially given Melville’s lessons: only one member of the Pequod‘s crew survived their monomaniacal leader’s urge for revenge. More than half a million died in the Civil War (see The New York Times, 2 April 2012) — not as dire as the Pequod‘s fate, but still the bloodiest war in US history.
We have our own modern monomania to deal with — myths about our origins that mislead us, beliefs about the righteousness of our cause to support us as we move towards greater folly, expectations of happy outcomes despite past lessons.
It’s been a strange decade, aptly capped by this reading of Melville’s masterpiece. Despite being written more than 150 years ago, its ending is post-modern — not an ending at all, but instead a sudden, quiet cessation. It’s what T. S. Eliot predicted: “Not with a bang, but a whimper.”
Deep into Pennsylvania, I was sinking lower, going down with the Pequod.
And then, I remembered a line from a Spike Jones song (watch the video below to hear the whole thing). It’s the title/intro of today’s post. And Spike Jones is the type of thing that keeps me sane. Sure, I’ll read Moby Dick again in a few years. But Spike Jones (and NBC’s The Good Place — available on Netflix) are currently on heavy rotation. So, no worries. I’ve cheered myself up. And I’m keeping away from newspaper headlines for a while. Ignorance is, in this instance, bliss.
*I briefly discuss Philbrick’s book here.