Books and Code · A Miscellany

Chapter 1—My substitute for pistol and ball


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.