Books and Code · A Miscellany

Chapter 1—My substitute for pistol and ball

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Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.

I adore this passage of the first chapter wherein Ishmael explains to us why he decided to go to sea. It resonates with me on several levels. First, I’ve worked as a software engineer in the hydrographic survey industry for the past dozen years and, believe me, nothing refreshes the mind dizzy from staring at computer screens for months than a beautiful summer day on the water doing field tests. Second, I can relate to the frame of mind Ishmael describes; I get such moods myself. For me, one antidote is to lose myself in books—reading them, cataloging them, browsing a bookstore or library stacks. Third, I’ll soon be setting sail on my own adventure into a new industry which is at least partly motivated by a desire to regain the upper hand of my hypos. It took a friend to point out this obvious fact to me.

Still, Ishmael asserts that there is something special about water in this. I can’t say I disagree. After all, I spent a lot of money to buy a second house in another state three hours away in order to sit on the porch and look at a lake. “Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded forever.” But what do we contemplate according to Ishmael?—“the ungraspable phantom of life.” In other words, the basic argument underlying this soliloquy is that humans have an innate need to ponder the meaning of life by peering into the void. But like Narcissus, what we see reflected in that nameless expanse is ourselves. The “overwhelming idea of the great whale himself” is that void made manifest.

This passage also introduces many themes and motifs which will be explored throughout the novel—life as a play and man as actor, commerce and its effects on man and the environment, freewill and slavery. But the overwhelming concern is how one finds meaning in existence and the proper response to whatever one finds.

Surely all this is not without meaning.

We shall see, Ishmael.

Etymology and Extracts: An Overview

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“Call me Ishmael.” is one of the most iconic and well-known first sentences in English letters. And it is a lie.

Chapter 1 is a beautiful piece of writing and an evocative introduction to our narrator, but the true first line of Moby-Dick: Or, The Whale is:

The Pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now.

For the book begins not at Chapter 1, but with a short explication of the etymology of the word “whale” and a compilation of excerpts from other works that mention whales as prepared by a “pale usher” and “sub-sub-librarian.” Most readers, if they read them at all, don’t put much thought into the significance of these sections. The few that do might simply conclude that Melville is trying to situate his book within a grand or epic scope. While that may be true, I think there is more going on here.

The excerpts include bits and pieces from the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Latin classics, political treatises and legal texts, historical works, travelogues, folk songs and poetry. The only common thread at all is the mention of whales. Can it be that the point of all this is simply to observe that humans have noted the existence of whales throughout history?! Big deal!

Taking these sections seriously as part of the narrative means recognizing that they add an additional layer to the story. Each section has a short preamble explaining how its contents came to be. Are these in the voice of Ishmael, Melville, or someone else? However you answer, simply asking that question has the effect of imbuing the text with a “meta-ness” akin to that provided by J.R.R. Tolkien’s conceit of the Red Book of Westmarch for The Lord of the Rings. It tells the reader that in the universe of Moby-Dick, the narrative has had the effect on prior readers of pushing them to search their inherited stock of cultural wisdom for a coherent significance behind its symbols. But why? What is it about what we are about to read that evokes this feeling?

We are told that the Pale Usher “loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.” The poor Sub-Sub who compiled the extracts to be “entertaining” will nevertheless “forever go thankless” for his efforts. Like the dust that collects on the Usher’s old grammars, the extracts collect on the pages of this narrative to remind the reader not only of his mortality but of the futility of the effort to extract significance from the accumulated attempts to understand a thing. “Give it up, Sub-Subs!”

That is the mindset Melville wants the reader to have as he embarks.

A Year of Melville

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I’ve joked with a friend that if I were to ever seriously maintain a blog I would call it Loomings and fill it with rantings about one of my favorite books, Moby-Dick.

Well, today he pointed me to this interesting article with the following jibe:

If you are ever gonna start a Loomings blog, today is that day [ed. August 1st being Melville’s birthday]. In fact…if you want to do it right, you should start it as a daily blog and blog the next year until his 200th b-day.

I laughed, but goddamn him the idea has me intrigued! The sense of artificial urgency implied by those nice round numbers is keeping the wheels in my head turning. As it happens, I’ve recently made some life changes which will afford me some time to kill every day commuting by train anyway.

Now, if I were to do such a thing, what might the schedule look like? With 135 chapters (plus epilogue), one would have to average 2-3 chapters per week to cover the whole novel in a year. I would also like to take a closer look at the etymologies and extracts which I think few readers pay much attention to. There are 94 such items which implies a pace of 1-2 extracts per week. There is more than enough content here to fill a year of daily posts without even casting around for original ideas or timely news items…

Mythmoot V: The Composite Nature of Andreas video

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The nicely edited version of my Mythmoot talk is online.

Slides are here.

Mythgard Movie Club, Solo: A Star Wars Story

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My appearance as a panelist on the Mythgard Movie Club, episode 6 about Solo: A Star Wars Story.