Hands and Hearts

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is the only book in which the author writes what cannot be written. The book is highly experiential, arguably to the point of superfluity. Among my students, the whaling chapters are those which push them to give up the fight. For myself, my first copy of Moby Dick was burnt upon Ishmael’s description of the Italian paintings of Christ wherein the narrator claims that they are most accurate because they capture the “hermaphroditical” character of the Son. Melville even went so far as to write to Nathaniel Hawthorne that he had composed “a wicked book and (felt) spotless as a lamb” having written it. My argument is that Melville writes in such a way in order to accomplish what no author had yet, or has since, been able to accomplish: he not only makes his reader think about God, but he affords his reader the opportunity to experience God. Thereby, Melville is able to moderate the American soul in hopes that it may make use of the vast freedom that so quickly can dissolve into wayward discontent. His book becomes a symphonic experience through which you, reader, like Ishmael are plunged into the deep waters of baptism and forced to fight your way back to faith, experiencing a metaphorical resurrection. As we read the American epic we find that we are all Ishmaels searching to find something all the while knowing not what.

 

Everyone is familiar with the false opening lines “Call me Ishmael” (I say false because there are two important “chapters” preceding the “loomings” chapter). However, few understand the significance of “Call me Ishmael” just as they do not attempt to make sense of the title “loomings” which is of layered importance. The Biblical Ishmael is said to be a man “with his hand against all men”. How American is he? I see in him every political campaign to which I’ve ever contributed, and I see in him the faces of all of the students I’ve ever taught. As Americans our independent and enterprising natures are manifested in this fellow who will befriend us along this journey. He is an orphan and a wanderer, a son begat with no true mother, and one searching for some ounce of feeling all the while wandering off the path that he most needs to tread. Just as Tocqueville describes Americans full of restlessness and characterized by individualism, Melville creates an American working through his restlessness and grappling with his individualism.

 

The title “Loomings” is doubly important: first, it recalls the feeling that “looms” over Ishmael, and second it refers to the first step in the process of God’s weaving of Ishmael’s fate upon his loom. The feeling of having his hand against all other men makes Ishmael feel as if he must either walk into the street and “deliberately knock their hats off”, or commit suicide. Luckily for us, he chooses water as his “substitute for pistol and ball”. What we will learn alongside him throughout this journey is that love of his fellow man must displace this looming feeling of grief and loneliness. Only through knowing and appreciating others will Ishmael come by a feeling of self-love and appreciation. This communion with his fellow man will be a thread in the tapestry woven upon God’s loom throughout the tortured journey of the Pequod. Ishmael will find later that God is that weaver who “weaves and is deafened by his weaving”. Initially angered with God for his deafness, Ishmael reasons towards that thought which Ahab never does: that perhaps the reason that man can’t hear God isn’t because God is not speaking, but rather the word of God is drowned out as we place our word at the center of the universe, contemptuously displacing His plans for us with our own wandering desires.

 

Surprisingly early in the novel Captain Ahab symbolically nails his doubloon to the mainmast of the ship as a bribe for his crew to follow Moby Dick. Ahab proceeds to explain that his path is “laid upon Iron rails” as he rhetorically overpowers Starbuck in front of the crew. Ishmael remarks “my shouts went up with theirs because of the dread in my soul”. How often are we all damned to chasing cursed Job’s whale to the ends of the earth for no reason but our own looming loneliness? Melville really calls into question, in this instance, the extent to which man really desires to exercise rational judgment. At least for Ishmael, the easiest way out of loneliness is to succumb peer pressure; nevertheless, his coping mechanism proves a hollow one. It is not until about 200 pages later, when we have almost forgotten about the soft despotism that plagues the crew, that the spell over Ishmael is broken and his loneliness truly subsides.

 

Only in the “Squeeze of the Hand” chapter when Ishmael is kneading spermacetti with his fellow voyagers can he remark “I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it… while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.” The result: Ishmael “lowers, nay shifts, all expectations of attainable felicity” from philosophy to the home, the bed, the wife, and the hearth. He even remarks that on that day he saw “angels all with their hands in a jar of spermaceti”. Rather than trying to focus on his tortured fate and all that lacks sense, Ishmael begins to find pleasure in those small graces that we so often overlook. Only through this lens can Ishmael finally begin to make sense of his relationship with God. He must first see light in order to see darkness. For Ishmael, friendship makes good all the vices of his fellow man and cloaks all of the darkness of the world: it is akin to the forgiveness that God has given man when he sends his son to die on the cross rendering our sins moot in the respect to salvation. All that is necessary to gain this blessing is for Ishmael to turn his hands away from his fellow man, and use those hands to work with his fellow man instead of against him.

 

Thus goes the baptism of Ishmael’s hand in a jar of spermaceti. Melville wishes to make stark the distinction between baptism of the body and baptism of the soul; however, he understands that the physical baptism is necessary to make possible the spiritual baptism. The purification of the soul is harder than the baptism of the body because it is an active pursuit rather than a passive one. And, as no man is worthy of the mantle of the Son of God, each man’s discipleship will be riddled with tests and failures. Ishmael’s is no different. However, by the end of the book Ishmael is no longer Ishmael: he is no longer the biblical orphan with his hand against all other men, but rather he is claimed by the wayward ship “the Rachel” who weeps for her lost children. However, he cannot be claimed by the Rachel until he has been plunged into the deep in pursuit of Moby Dick, losing all of his comrades, and only surviving by attaching himself to Queequeg’s coffin. He thereby becomes a “loose-fish”, and he thereby suffers the same fate as Ahab. However, Ishmael turns the fate of Ahab inside out: where Ahab was claimed by the darkness as he was loosened, Ishmael is claimed by God. The epilogue (which was not included in the first edition of the novel due to a huge twist of fate, but that is a story for another time) begins with the first instance in which Ishmael accurately quotes the bible: “And I alone   am escaped to tell thee”. Melville thereby draws a parallel between the old, wayward Ishmael, and the new Ishmael. He thus renders his great novel digestible from another perspective for the reader’s second read: the perspective of Job. In short, through realizing who Ishmael is by the end of the novel, we are able to better understand his perspective throughout the journey by placing it in view of all of his suffering. 

America, and especially American kids, is experiencing an identity crisis. Moby Dick may be the book that my students most hate, but it is the book they most need. Today we are too quick to teach our children to be “nice”, but we do so at the expense of affording our kids the opportunity to explore the complexities of their souls. I hope that my students begin to hate Moby Dick the work, just as Ahab hates Moby Dick the whale. I hope that they burn their first copy just as I did- because this will mean that the book has touched them. This will mean that the book has pushed them intellectually and made them uncomfortable. After all, Ishmael must be made uncomfortable in order to come about change, in order to grow, and finally in order to come about a resurrection and a renewal of his faith. The way in which I gauge my success or failure while teaching Moby Dick is to evaluate how my students are working through their hate: whether or not they are taking it seriously. Soon they will no longer be children, and soon they will have to grapple with their souls as they roam free. The better part of “being nice” is not a continuous set of accommodating gestures, but rather it is the ability to rule the hatred in their souls that Ahab feels combined with the longing that Ishmael feels to contemplate the blackness in the world which seems to overrun all light. In short, what Moby Dick attempts to do is make sense of the erotic hatred within us all to which Ahab falls, and to reign in the false path that reason may take if we become an Ishmael rationalizing the darkness and its seeming consumption of the light. If our kids can do this, then they can learn how to rule themselves in a much more substantial way than they can by being nice at all costs. If we can teach them this, then we will not have to teach them to “be nice”, for they will be happy and they will be just.

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Why Term Limits Won’t Save You

As of late, I have observed the clamoring for congressional term limits. I understand this expression of the American mind to be a very bad thing in itself, and very bad in its consequences.

Thucydides understood the three impulses leading us to clamor as action, money, and power.

We are angered that no action is taken when there are so many problems in need of resolution. We become further angered that our representatives are amassing wealth and refusing to produce value for our society. All of this leads us to feel powerless and unimportant in a regime supposedly fashioned to suit the needs of We the People.

What I hate most about this election cycle is that it has highlighted the vices of our country. Meaningless soundbites have divided an otherwise prosperous and peace loving people, coercing them into the belief that government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” was not a promise reserved for the posterity of Washington, but only for those few favored by chance. I hate it because it makes for bad citizens- citizens who would rather resort to mob rule than moderate themselves by deliberation and choice. I hate it because it inclines good citizens to resort to unsound arguments and untruths- a clear submission to the lie of tyrants that might makes right. I hate it because it undermines the patriotism that our country so needs if we are to sustain our favored freedom at home rather than the shackles and shame of the backward nations across the globe. I hate the apathy assumed by my fellow citizens who I know are inclined to good, but consider their very voice powerless under what they believe to be the weight of a government instituted to protect the lives and livelihoods of a fortunate few. But most of all, I hate it because it causes me to tremble in fear that this last best hope for freedom may perish from this Earth, and our posterity will rebuke myself and my generation for its abatement.

The crux of freedom, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, is that it suggests the “idea of the indefinite perfectibility of man”. We, being free people, assume that the principle of freedom promises the prospect of limitless progress. We Americans are never satiated, and are held in the constant fancy that we may always, in some way, improve our lot. There always has been, and is, contrary to popular belief, an expanse of opportunity open to each individual in this country. We are free to move from sea to shining sea, and are at liberty to reorder our lives at the drop of a hat if we so wish. Recent studies show that Americans on average change careers seven times within one lifetime. We Americans love change, and when our opportunity for change is limited we lament. The same is true with our public policy. We wish to change it, and change those who have the ability to change it, because we are constantly reinventing new beliefs regarding justice.

Tocqueville generally saw this as a blessing among Americans, but it was nonetheless a problematic blessing, as all earthly blessings are. Because of our tendency for constant change, when we create things our intention is never that they may last long. Because we have freedom to think, we constantly envision the opportunity to create something better, and we constantly desire to improve upon what we have previously created. James Madison saw this as a political vice in need of restraint. In Federalist 62, he claims,“It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.” This is where we now find ourselves. The recent Patient Protection and Affordable Healthcare Act marked legislation applicable to every citizen of the United States and ran 20,000 pages long and growing. Within the time it would take one to read the act, you could read the United States Constitution 4,000 times. Because of our love of constant improvement, and our be the change belief system, we have laws on the books that we cannot possibly take the time to read, nevertheless understand and habituate ourselves to faithfully observe. In Lincoln’s Lyceum Address he urges “a reverence for the constitution and the laws”. How can we possibly revere a law that would take a lifetime to read?

The belief in the “indefinite perfectibility of man” goes further, applying to our elected officials as well. Because we are a people who believe in progress and goodness, and a people who see injustice each and every day, we want to create parchment barriers to bar injustice. We are a sympathetic people who believe ourselves robbed of the opportunity to exercise our help to a people who most need it. We have been promised equality, but we constantly see those around us lacking the means to raise themselves up by their bootstraps.

I, like Tocqueville and Madison, believe this sentiment to be an honorable one, but a problematic one. At one point in our nation’s history we attempted to pass legislation to perfect the art of growing raisins. Believe it or not, this attempt at perfection still plagues us today. The same legislation just reached the Supreme Court in 2015 in the case Horne vs. United States Department of Agriculture. Often times it is more difficult to repeal bad laws than to pass good ones. The more bills that are voted upon in congress, the more the opportunity to perfect existing laws or repeal problematic laws diminishes. Agricultural marketing orders were once introduced as depression era regulations meant to stabilize crop prices. They now endanger the livelihoods of small farmers across the country, and the raisin marketing orders are particularly egregious. Under the USDA the Raisin Administrative Committee decides what the proper yield of raisins should be in any year and meet to decide an equitable price for the raisins that small farmers grow. Each year, they force every raisin farmer to surrender a percentage of their crop to a reserve pool that cannot be sold in the U.S. As the profit margins of raisin farmers have diminished over the years due to low tariffs on foreign raisins rendering them cheaper than those grown in California, the annual return of the farmers has dwindled. In 2003 farmers received zero dollars in return for the 47% of their product that they were forced to surrender to the federal government. Imagine yourself living on 53% of your family’s annual income in order to fulfill an almost hundred year old marketing order that promised the perfection of the industry in which you  find yourself. Similar regulations exist for nectarines and mandarins under the USDA. Did you know that your fruit is color tested, and even “squish” tested? The lesson being: the more distance between the people and their laws, the more ridiculous they become. The higher the laws aim, the more laws are passed. The more laws that are passed, the smaller your opportunity becomes as a citizen to repeal laws that harm you.

The bottom line is that perfection through government may not be possible, and our lawmakers and enforcers may not be angels. We have seen this in the news as of late. But the regime in which we live was fashioned in order that men may better order their lives to become prosperous without the interference of a wicked few attempting to eat the bread that we earn from the sweat of our brows. Perfection is the aim of the individual, protection is the duty of government so that the individual may pursue that perfection. In regards to term limits for your elected officials my advice is what Lincoln learned through experience. If you wish to change public policy to establish justice, leave your law office and participate in politics. Write to your congressman. Read the laws that are being passed in Congress. Withhold your vote if your voice is not being heard. Create a coalition with those in your locality to participate in local and national elections. If your voice is not heard, ensure that your voice will be heard and that you may be better represented. And as Lincoln implores, “Stand with anybody that stands RIGHT. Stand with him while he is right and PART with him when he goes wrong”. It is no easy task, but it is your civic duty and it is in your interest.

Madison feared that the constant reintroduction of new legislation would undermine recognition of the law. Lincoln understood that the inability to recognize the law made it difficult to revere the law and the country to which you owe so much. Tocqueville urged that limiting the years a man may serve would get rid of bad men, but would bar good men from the opportunity to exercise their good judgment.

It has occurred to me that this may not be the most contentious of elections in the annals for our nation’s history. All popular elections are wrought with partisan objection and petty politics. Many elections have been comprised of scandal, as politics always has. The difference in this election being the lacking strength and organization of parties and their ability to restrain their candidates, and the opinion of the people that their votes don’t matter much. This causes them to believe the system broken, and the promise of freedom frittered away. We grope for some ground upon which we may feel that we are in some sense represented. We demand more legislation to mitigate the multitude of duplicity that is the product of our own demands. Public opinion, what Lincoln would refer to as that thing “Upon which our Union rests”, gropes for more action among representatives, more equality, more for the individual, for the group to which the majority belongs, more freedom to do as they please with things that they have not yet earned.

Wrong as we think this current trend in popular government is, we cannot forget the lives lain down for our freedoms. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored. Let us not be dissuaded by such attitudes as “don’t care” on a question about which all true men do care. Do not bow to such disrespect to your grandfathers who did choose to fight, begging and imploring all good citizens to unsay what great things they said and undo what they did. Let us have faith that we still have a stake in this government of ours, and let us understand that God commends our efforts on this small stage of life.