Posts Tagged ‘Moby Dick’

Morning Coffee in the Wet Wasteland

October 19, 2018


Waking to yet another cold, wet, dark Texas rainy morning, my first thoughts were recollections of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man being read to me via audiobooks as I drove on yet another long business road trip yesterday. I’ve posted these words before, but they are always worth repeating:

Towards dawn he awoke. O what sweet music! His soul was all dewy wet. Over his limbs in sleep pale cool waves of light had passed. He lay still, as if his soul lay amid cool waters, conscious of faint sweet music. His mind was waking slowly to a tremulous morning knowledge, a morning inspiration. A spirit filled him, pure as the purest water, sweet as dew, moving as music. But how faintly it was inbreathed, how passionlessly, as if the seraphim themselves were breathing upon him! His soul was waking slowly, fearing to awake wholly. It was that windless hour of dawn when madness wakes and strange plants open to the light and the moth flies forth silently.

The serenity I felt as I drove for hours yesterday, listening to this book of abundance cannot be overstated. The theme that resounded the most with me yesterday was that notion of living a life alone. This morning, I opened the volume to a couple of texts that jarred me yesterday while driving:

He was alone. He was unheeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and wilful and wildhearted, alone amidst of a waste of wild air . . . 

–You’re a terrible man, Stevie, said Davin, taking the short pipe from his mouth. Always alone.

Long ago, in the sermon by Paul Tillich, “Loneliness and Solitude”, I found an ace I could play repeatedly throughout my life: loneliness is the injury suffered from being alone, whereas solitude is the healing balm. And since the day I read that sermon, I have unfailingly acknowledged that I, though living and traveling alone, am very seldom lonely, instead feeling solitude. I relish the space, the internal quiet, and even the frequent feeling of disconnectedness.

It does not alarm me, the feeling of being tossed headlong into the midst of an enormous, chaotic, swirling planet that seems to follow no logical plan. Reading existential writers perhaps helped me with this sentiment. But the way I see it, I am surrounded by currents of activity that sometimes include me in the “plan”, but most of the time seem oblivious that I am here. And I don’t find this threatening. Rather, I feel a dizzying freedom to follow my bliss, live the dream.

In chapter one of Melville’s Moby Dick, Ishmael muses that Providence has cast his life as a minor role between two major plays:

“Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States”  “WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL.”  “BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN.”

As the world population, fixated on the news, chattered away about a presidential election or a bloody conflict, an obscure young fellow named Ishmael boarded a whaling ship and sailed out to sea. His odyssey, important to him, would go unnoticed by the world at large. And alone in that odyssey, he spun his story.

I have always had a fascination with a biblical passage that I’m sure most readers would pass over without a second thought. It is from The Prophet Jeremiah 1:1-5:

The words of Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, of the priests that were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the LORD came in the days of Josiah, the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign.  It came also in the days of Josiah, king of Judah, unto the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, the son of Josiah, king of Judah, unto the carrying away of Jerusalem captive in the fifth month.  Then the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Before I formed thee in the womb, I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.

In my studies, I have read commentators writing page after page of text concerning those final words of the LORD knowing Jeremiah before he was conceived. But what has always held my attention is the larger context: Jeremiah arrived on this planet in the matrix of enormous national and political events that would hold the attention of the population of his day. As the nation of Judah swirled in the maelstrom of the news of its day, a Word came to a solitary man in a small town obscured in the shadows of the metropolis of Jerusalem. The Word of the LORD came (“happened” is a better rendering of the Hebrew text). Something HAPPENED while the world at large chased the swirling winds of the national news.

Whether it is Ishmael tossed on the unruly waves of a boundless ocean odyssey or Jeremiah receiving enlightenment in a small town, my heart quickens when I think of solitary people engaged in large ideas even as their surrounding climate is oblivious to what is going on inside them. Yesterday as I drove, I savored the text of Joyce’s Portrait, thinking of this young self-exiled writer recalling his youth in Ireland and laying out those powerful lines of text.

When Ralph Waldo Emerson suffered the loss of his wife at a tender age, and then resigned the ministry, no one accompanied him to the docks when he sailed out of Boston harbor for a two-year European odyssey, seeking some kind of purpose to his existence. A solitary man, he finally found his voice and launched New England Transcendentalism. In later years, as he penned “Self-Reliance”, he gave us this challenge:

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.  Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.  Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age . . .

In those words, all of us can find hope. We have been placed on this planet and given a number of years to find our way, to seek something that matters, to pursue our bliss and offer no apology for it. And the great majority of us are destined to obscurity. The world at large is not going to read about us, talk about us, and the footprint we leave behind may not affect a large multitude, But still, we have been given this gift, this opportunity, to explore life and decide what we wish to do. As for myself, I am still enjoying this gift of adventure, and if anything I write and send up as a smoke signal offers good to others, then I am all the more happy.

Thanks for reading.

I make art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone (though being alone is O.K.)


Strike Through that Mask!

July 21, 2014
Progress on a Large Watercolor of Fort Worth's Jazz Scat Lounge

Progress on a Large Watercolor of Fort Worth’s Scat Jazz Lounge

All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks.  But in each event–in the living act, the undoubted deed–there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.  If man will strike, strike through the mask!

Moby Dick, Captain Ahab’s speech

Nothing auspicious loomed on my radar this morning when I sat down to breakfast around 6:40.  It was Monday, the beginning of another week of summer school was waiting, fifty minutes around the corner.  I had Moby Dick lying open beside my plate and was reading while slowly chewing bites of breakfast.  I had to stop and close the book when I read this passage, ideas swarmed so thickly I could scarcely begin to process them.  I wished for an hour at my writing desk, but had to dash to school to be on time for a 7:30 class.

For nearly thirty years, I have patiently pointed out to anyone who would listen, in the lecture rooms or in the lounges, the scaffolding of Platonist thought in literature.  Plato’s split-world view was divided between Ideas and Appearances, the former permanent and spiritual, the latter ephemeral and physical.  And the transcendent ideas provide the scaffolding for the physical appearances.  In this dramatic confrontation in Moby Dick, Captain Ahab publicly confronts a reluctant Starbuck who protests that selfishly seeking revenge on a white whale is impractical business.  Ahab twice retorts that Starbuck inhabits a “little lower layer”–the realm of money, measurement, accounting and computing.  This layer is only a portion of the pasteboard mask that hides the real intelligence lurking behind it.  I heard Ahab shouting at me when he cried out: “If man will strike, strike through the mask!”  

All dissatisfaction that arises from life today springs from our efforts to “strike through that mask.”  What is the mask, the wall, the barrier, standing between us and what we seek?  I shudder every semester when my philosophy class reads and discusses Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.”  The one prisoner breaks his chains, and rises to the world of truth.  The class discussion can turn lively when students begin to discuss the chains that bind us, the masks that fool us.  The human predicament is the quest for something more, only to find out that that “something more” was a mask, and not what we really thought we were seeking.  There is so much to ponder here.  What is the nature of the mask through which we are challenged to strike?

Tonight I am posting a watercolor that I began a month or two ago and revived this afternoon.  Large works do tend to intimidate me, but it doesn’t take long to feel that I have gotten up to my elbows comfortably, wading around inside this composition.  All of my work this afternoon has been on the sign, and it’s not going fast, but I’m enjoying the process so far.  As I work, I listen gladly to PBS documentaries of various poets (the Voices and Visions series), and feel such a connection with Wallace Stevens, working in an insurance firm, but working on poems in his mind his entire life, while most of his surrounding colleagues remained unaware of the reality that was driving him.  He was constantly striking through the mask.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

A Day with the Romantic Poets

July 15, 2014
Pausing for Awhile with the McNeely House

Pausing for Awhile with the McNeely House

“When you become creative in any field,” [Paul Tillich] stated, “your creativity is released in all other fields at the same time.” . . . [Tillich] believed that if you know one thing completely, it serves as a center—like a magnet around which iron filings coalesce—for all your other knowledge.  Then what you learn about anything else will fall into pattern.

Rollo May, Paulus: Reminiscences of a Friendship

A morning spent with the British Romantic poets in a senior English summer school class fed my spirit with exquisite feelings.  We talked for a short while about Wordsworth’s sentiments when he stood in the presence of the wrecked Medieval Tintern Abbey.  Though my words probably failed me, I tried to address the dual sense of loss and presence we experience when we stand pensively in the midst of an abandoned ruin.  My own thoughts of course returned to this structure I’ve posted above–the remnants of the house where my mother lived throughout her childhood and where I visited during summers on my grandparents’ farm.  I find it difficult to describe romantic stirrings, but as the students worked on their assignments, I moved on in silence to some of the featured works of Keats: “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode on Melancholy,” and “On First Looking into Chaptman’s Homer.”  From that point I turned to a chapter on Shelley in Paul Johnson’s monograph Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky.  By the time I got home for lunch, I was ready for another romp in Mehville’s Moby Dick and now have passed one hundred pages in this remarkable story.  After reading awhile, I picked up the brush and worked a little more on Grandmother’s decaying house.  Then I decided to lay it aside for awhile, and began a still life, focusing on a volume I traded for back in the mid 1970’s that was published in 1756.  I have fancied for a number of years what it would be like to do a close, detailed watercolor rendering of an old leather volume.  I’m still tinting in the darkened background, and have already applied four washes of color.  It looks like I’ll be requiring two or three more washes before I can finally get down to the subject.  It’s been a good day for reading, painting and thinking.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.


Enjoying the Gentle Rain of a Darkening Evening

July 14, 2014
Still Working on the Latest Edition of Grandma McNeely's House

Still Working on the Latest Edition of Grandma McNeely’s House

Why is it that there is something melancholy in antiquity? . . . The heavens stood over the heads of our ancestors as near as to us.  Any living word in their books abolishes the difference of time.  It need only be considered from the present standpoint.

Henry David Thoreau, Journal, December 14, 1841.

I got a quick jump on this new sketch of my grandmother’s old house over the weekend before returning to school for the new summer semester today.  In short, it was an excellent first day, and I’m looking forward to returning in the morning for round two.  The afternoon has been exquisite with darkening skies followed by loud thunderclaps and hard, drenching rain.  It is still dark outside, and I found that dividing my time between chipping away at this watercolor and reading further into Moby Dick to be very soothing indeed.  I’m glad that I spent a good part of my vacation making my dwelling more liveable and therefore more pleasant.  It’s been a very comfortable afternoon and evening indoors.  

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

Coming Back Home

July 12, 2014
My Restored Study

My Restored Study

Wherever I sat, there I might live, and the landscape radiated from me accordingly. . . . The morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted, but few are the ears that hear it.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Last night I finally finished the clearing out and refurbishing of the study that I abandoned about three years ago.  It took a long time to get rid of all the debris that had been stacked and piled into this second bedroom-turned-warehouse.  This Saturday morning, rising at 6:00, I gladly took possession of this space once again, and sat in the stillness reading, while the sounds of Handel’s “Messiah” wafted down the hallway from my distant bedroom.  The dawn was breaking, the light peeking through the windows was beautiful, and I was once again in my element.  In this chamber for over a decade, I saw many beautiful ideas and art forms come to life, and cranked out many pages of manuscript.  It is time for these things to happen once again in this environment.

At the time of this writing, I have finished yet another huge installment to my fall semester Logic course, have written extensively in my journal, read another portion of Moby Dick (finally finishing that New Bedford chapel sermon), did some translating from the Hebrew Bible and Septuagint (Psalm 1) and now turn my attention to clearning out the third bedroom that has accumulated debris over the past couple of years.  By the time I return to school Monday, I intend to be living in every room of this house, instead of just the front end.  It’s a good feeling.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

Sometimes the Days are Filled with Gods

July 10, 2014
Collage built around Melville Woodcut Print

Collage built around Melville Woodcut Print

If ever I lay me on a bed of sloth in peace,

That instant let for me existence cease!

If ever with lying flattery you can rule me

So that contented with myself I stay,

If with enjoyment you can fool me,

Be that for me the final day!

Goethe, Faust

Being unsure of the source of energy, I am nevertheless abundantly appreciative for this opportunity to complete a long and fruitful day tidying rooms in my house and laboring long hours over logic lesson plans for the online course this fall.  I have nearly half of my fall semester laid out, and still have three good working days ahead of me before having to return to the second semester of summer school.  This feels good, real good.  I found myself looking over a text from Goethe that I read over ten years ago that somehow has stayed with me.

The quiet lull of the evening has yielded delicious moments in the comfy chair, reading further into Moby Dick and feeling stirred by some of his religious themes.  The chapel sermon in New Bedford compelled me to lay aside the volume and do some reading from the New Testament, both from its Greek and Latin Vulgate texts.  But before I get to that, please allow me to try and express why this day of unbridled energy feels so darned good right now, even at this late hour.  A passage from Moby Dick describing the aged chaplain, Father Mapple, went straight to my core:

At the time I now write of, Father Mapple was in the hardy winter of a healthy old age; that sort of old age which seems merging into a second flowering youth, for among all the fissures of his wrinkles, there shone certain mild gleams of a newly developing bloom–the spring verdure peeping forth even beneath February’s snow.

I don’t wish to dwell on this, but I’ll at least publish this sentiment–turning sixty earlier this year bothered me.  I didn’t feel such regrets at forty or fifty, but for some reason sixty hurt.  And since that day I have been more faithful to sleep, diet, and exercise issues, but just could not seem to find any energy.  The ebbtide of life has bothered me, to put it very succinctly.  But these past three days have been different, with some measure of “newly developing bloom” and I am ebulliently grateful for that difference.  I feel more energy, more purpose, and more fulfilment in what I do, and am profoundly happy to feel that way, hoping the feeling continues.  For now, I will accept that Gift.  My soul feels the exultant cry from Melville’s text: 

Beat on, beat on, thou noble ship, and bear a hardy helm; for lo! the sun is breaking through; the clouds are rolling off–serenest azure is at hand.

For years I have been fascinated with the Prologue to The Gospel of St. John in the New Testament.  The opening verse, “In the beginning was the word” has always made me linger, taking seriously the sentiment expressed by Goethe in Faust:

‘Tis written: In the beginning was the Thought!

Consider well that line, the first you see,

That your pen may not write too hastily!

Is it then Thought that works, creative, hour by hour?

Thus should it stand: In the beginning was the Power!

Yet even while I write this word, I falter,

For something warns me, this too I shall alter.

The Spirit’s helping me!  I see now what I need

And write assured: In the beginning was the Deed!

Years ago, I was taught that the ancient Hebrews did not separate “word” from “act”, particularly in the writings of their Torah.  With that in mind, I enjoy Goethe’s meditation, connecting those two words intimately, and I have tried to apply that idea to my own personal day-to-day life of late–the word is power, because it is also act.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.




Call Me Ishmael

July 9, 2014
Pencil Portrait of Herman Melville

Pencil Portrait of Herman Melville

But these are all landsmen; of weeks pent up in lath and plaster–tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks.  How then is this?  Are the green fields gone?  What do they here?

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

I sailed out of summer school this morning at 8:37, free until the new term begins in 4 1/2 days.  I was one of those “clinched to desks” in recent weeks, at least during the first part of each working day.  I knew from my waking moment that today would be special.  As breakfast was cooking, I reached for my copy of Moby Dick which I began reading numerous times over the past twenty years, convinced that this summer would be different.  We’ll see.  The opening pages are captivating to me–I love Melville’s way of turning sentences.  Even before sitting down to eat, I “saw” that vast ocean as a metaphor of my unbridled freedom until Monday, and began making plans of injecting Quality into this break.

As I sit over my morning coffee (I brewed it, but didn’t have time to drink it during final exams, grading, etc.) and resume my reading of Melville, I’ll reflect with a spirit of gratitude on the gift that this day has already brought.  Maybe I’ll even make some new artwork this afternoon (the Melville drawing is from 1990)–we’ll see!

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.