“We see ourselves in all rivers and oceans.” Herman Melville
Some rain this morning and heavy, perfumed fog wrapping the trees in the morning, clearing off by ten. A morning for laundry and writing.
Tonight we sign books in the Pacific Grove Museum, in Celebration of Ed Ricketts’ and Jack Calvin’s scientific contribution to ecology. Then we drink boilermakers with scientists and writers and listen to music along the foggy, eucalyptus-scented streets of Pacific Grove. Tomorrow we drive to San Francisco for the Marine Mammal Conference where Jan is to give a paper called “Where the Boys Are” about male sperm whales stripping black cod from fishing lines in the North Pacific and if they truly are “lone bachelors”, as reported in the literature, or “affiliate with each other for ‘reasons of their own.’” These are my words, not hers, so I don’t know why I put them in quotes. But that really is the gist. What is not just gist but actual is that she wants to play the Connie Francis song at the beginning of her talk, for the gathering of international experts, which is another reason she is such a badass in the scientific community.
I applied for and got a press pass for the Marine Mammal Conference. This is a big deal for me. I told them it was because I am a writer and I have based characters in my novels on a marine biologist who studies whales. The nice woman who gives out the passes wrote back and said, “Yes Mr. Straley, I am quite familiar with your wife and her work,” essentially saying, “you have no imagination, or scientific brain, you should come to the conference.” So, I’m going, I’m telling her, as eye candy, and she groans.
But bad luck for her - I recently read Elizabeth Hardwick’s excellent short biography of Herman Melville. People have asked me who my favorite author is and the truth is I am serially monogamous with authors and today I have fallen back in love with Melville. I have read Moby Dick three times: once in school, which was terrible (as are most school assignments), once when I had first moved to Sitka, was depressed and saw my first whale from shore (much better - I had also just read the Bible cover to cover, word for word so there were some allusions that I was hip to), and the third time when Finn was about nine years old and we read the whole frigging thing aloud, which was fantastic. Snuggled in bed, Jan loved the whaling data, Finn loved the adventure, and I loved the poetry. It really was a great family read aloud believe it or not. The chapters are short and we had a great edition with illustrations by Rockwell Kent. I won’t say that there weren’t some nights that I was the only one left awake. I was. But some nights it was Finn and me and some nights it was Jan and me. It was easy to read aloud.
So what do Rickets/ Calvin and Melville have to do with one another, you might ask? Probably nothing. But here is my argument, here is what I want to write about in the next week while at the conference:
What I love, love, love about the best of Melville (there is a lot of not so good, but the best is sublime) is that somewhere in his travels at sea, and his meditations upon them, he had a transformative experience. Something blew his mind out there - he touched the third rail of the Universe, but unlike any of the other writers of his time, (except maybe Whitman, who gets pretty Eastern). Melville refuses to name it. He refuses to call it God, or even call it “Good”. He leaves it to dark, mysterious metaphor.
I know. I can hear the grad students and the English professors getting ready to send me their theses. I know. The labels we give the Mysterious Matter. So, stick with me while I travel with my bad-ass wife to San Francisco to meditate on the great whales and brother Herman Melville. Let’s see what we know, and what we think we know, about the most mysterious metaphor carriers of the deep.
To start us off consider this passage as Ishmael finds himself down by the harbor contemplating seeing his first whale as he looks out over the mild harbor:
"The great flood gates of the wonder-world swing open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated in my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and midmost of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.” — Moby Dick