Trauma in the Sea of Japan 

Before I first officially enrolled in college those several years ago, I thought I would read Herman Melville's Moby Dick. I was in my early twenties then and, recalling now, I'm not fully sure why I wanted to read it. Perhaps, I thought that reading such a dense book would be a mental challenge that would somehow prove my worthiness to attend college. College had been a much-hoped for but still unattainable goal at that point in my life, and I had some insecurities about my ability to "cut it." Work was remorselessly grinding the human spirit out of my body with its incessant demands for more circuit boards and its general lack of concern about any personal need I had was demoralizing. Even though I had some measure of responsibility, the bottom line seemed to be that I was a meat-robot needed to press buttons, feed machines raw materials, and enforce humiliating human resource policies that I hated. The act of reading Moby Dick at the point was more important than the book itself. The act of reading Moby Dick hinted at the promise of a better life that would allow me a measure of control and therefore dignity.

So, after my evening shifts at the factory, right before falling asleep in the sleeping bag on my bedding pallet (I had no bed at the time), I would read a one or two chapters in the early morning dark of 3 or 4 a.m. I admit that, initially, I skipped over some of the middle chapters that I found especially boring. I didn't understand Melville's metaphysical point of describing the nature of whales or the natural world. Yet, the description of the harpooneers and the process of nineteenth century whaling was very interesting, and the end of the book was exciting. And, going with the popular interpretation, which I must have absorbed from the mythology and popular culture of the book, I saw Captain Ahab as a man whose faulty pride and inability to give up his own anger towards the whale was the reason for his self-destruction. And that was that. Moby Dick was an adventure novel with a cautionary tale against "monomaniacal" obsessions and prides.

In college, I was reintroduced to Moby Dick in a couple of my literature classes. BY the end of my senior year at my undergraduate college, I wrote a paper about the book that won me second place and one hundred dollars in an essay contest. Not only had I gained a new understanding of the book, I was developing a new language for talking about it in terms of literary high criticism. Moby Dick was Dark Romanticism, with a captial 'R.' For me, Moby Dick had developed from a mere adventure novel into a metaphysical exploration of the nature of good and evil. The instructors and professors would frequently try to convince us students that book was arguing that the natural world was a morally dangerous place that inevitably lured people to evil, but on that point, I was unconvinced. Instead, I saw the book as an exploration of character that was less about proving a point about world's evil and more about one man's (Ishmael's) search for the enduring truths about God and his world through the agency of other people, the sea, and his own heroic-or-not actions.

And then, I went to Graduate school where Moby Dick was again discussed. I was finding that certain middle-aged men, the professors, really enjoyed the book for its masculine adventurousness and were using the book as a mirror of their own thinly disguised and unconscious attempts to self-aggrandize themselves as heroes. Like the man called Ishmael, they were on a heroic quest to definitively explain the world and the way it worked, only instead of through whaling, they were going to do it through high literature. I suppose this is why I enjoyed my classes with the professors (who were mostly women by the way) who were intent on exploring or moderating a good conversation rather than making pronouncements. I am not sure that I gained any deeper understanding of the book itself, as by this point, it had become familiar. Grad. School, it seemed to me, was about taking a few minor threads from certain books in the literary canon and trying to spin entire blankets out of them. Still, even with my frustration with this improbable process, I enjoyed the seminars ont he book. I had my favorite chapters, my favorite characters and scenes, and had gleaned a variety interesting facts about the book, its author, and the period in which it was created. Part of the appeal could also have been Melville himself. As I saw it, he was an earnest, if somewhat tragic figure forced to earn a living as a customs officer at the end of his life. Hawthorne too mainstream and a little phony, Poe was an adept drunk and liar, and Thoreau was a weirdo camping out in his own backyard trying to talk to trees.

And, now, with my academic literary life over, I find myself thinking about Moby Dick again. Thankfully, these thoughts are no longer encumbered by the high literary theories or concepts of Deconstruction, Dialectical Marxism, Perfomativity, Phenomenology, Signs, Signifiers, or Signifieds. Instead, I think of Captain Ahab. Rather than a villian who destroys himself and others over his foolish pride, I see him as a much more tragic figure. He was whaling in the sea of Japan, essentially doing his job in order to earn a living. There, he has an accident and a whale, the white whale, rips his leg from his body. I imagine the trauma and pain of such a physical assualt on the body and try to think about what that might be like to experience that. To feel your leg being pulled from your body, to feel the fear and panic of the event as it happens, to feel the fear of instant death or the worry of a lingering one, to be utterly afraid of leaving the world and your family before you're ready to linger for weeks just moments away from dying, to be fitted with a wooden leg replacement is nearly unimaginable.

And, often, it seems to me, for every physical trauma there is a deeper mental anguish that is at least twice as worse. The body always heals much more quickly than the mind. So, in light of this, what else was Ahab to do? He was a wounded man desperately searching for a way to absolve his trauma. He, of course, thought that he should hunt the whale and kill it. But, emotional traumas aren't as easily resolved and are never, ever purged. The challenge is not striking back at the embodiments of our pain but figuring out how to coexist and cope with the tragedy if it. And yet, how was Ahab to know this? He did the best he could. In a sense, Ahab's real death did not occur when he was dragged below by the whale, but when he suffered an emotional trauma that completely devastated him. The time between is Ahab as a ghost, a shade that represents what he used to be to others and only emptiness to himself. He is the present absence that captains the ship unswervingly to the death that began in the sea of Japan.

And, I suppose, for me, that is Melville's message: figuring out how to live with the pain that tries to destroy us, figuring out how to bear and endure the traumas that we encounter in life without sinking under to our own self-destruction. This where the application art to our own lives come in, which is for me, the message of literature: how do we learn about ourselves in a way that betters us individually and our condition as a society. So, speaking personally for just one example, I have a genetic tendency to depression that I have to figure out how to coexist and cope with. Before, I suppose I've always sort of thought about my depression as something to cure and be completely rid of. Instead, I figured I've learned that I need to manage it properly, so I am master of it rather than it being master of me.

07 March 2008
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