Fifteen years ago I walked into a classroom as a teacher and took attendance for the first time. I was working as a substitute in Philadelphia. In the morning of that first day a class of freshmen befuddled me and tossed my library book out the window when I wasn’t looking. I didn’t notice until after class when I had a break and wanted to read.
The book wasn’t where I’d left it. When I stuck my head out the open window I saw that Moby Dick was lying splayed on the sidewalk three stories down.
I tramped down the stairs and got the book, dusted if off and eventually read it to the end. That was my first time reading Moby Dick and it’s only now, so many years later, that the novel and that first day of teaching strike me as having an odd kinship.
Teaching was not my calling and is not my calling today, although it is my profession.
My rationale for becoming an English teacher was based on the questionable logic that if I taught literature I would maintain a strong relationship to the written word, which would help me as a writer. Maybe I was half right, but things have been far more complicated than what my simple rationale accounted for.
I’ve quit teaching on more than one occasion to pursue other things. I developed a fear of spending my whole life inside the four walls of the classroom, first as a student then as a teacher. I worried that staying meant choosing the easy path, choosing the known over the unknown. So I left.
But I keep coming back. Not because I am called to the duties of teaching English. Not because I miss it when I’m gone.
There is an unknown here too, hidden inside the familiar.
My reasons for teaching seem to be increasingly practical, yet there is a doubt I can’t deny at this point as to whether or not I will ever truly figure out why I keep putting myself in front of class after class after class…
After reading Moby Dick for the first time, I was disappointed. Melville’s reputed classic seemed bloated and almost intentionally freighted with tangents and false directions. Its many voices and tones felt like the result of an essential mistake.1
Writing to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville says something about Goethe that applies nicely to my first impressions of Moby Dick: “As with all great genius, there is an immense deal of flummery in Goethe, and in proportion to my own contact with him, a monstrous deal of it in me.” The flummery, on first reading, came through loud and clear but the genius not so much. I felt that I was done with the book when I put it down.
Then a few years later I read it again. Again, I didn’t “like” the novel. This time, Melville’s underlying question began to haunt me though. I was astonished by the idea that a book could be at once so polyvocal and manifold in its styles and at the same time relentlessly focused on a question about how the natural order manifests itself as a sort of metaphysics made physical.
On a third reading, the question began to burn through brightly from beginning to end – what happens when a man brings war to his god?
And that is the question that a reader walks away with as the Pequod sinks to the bottom of the sea. Is this the work of a divine hand? Has this all been a testament to the incorrigible and insurmountable “way that things are”? If you challenge the natural order are you doomed, utterly, to stand witness to the awful power of your enemy?
If there is an elegance to this question, it is a brutal elegance. If there is a simplicity to Moby Dick, it is a wayward simplicity that rounds the corner of the concept to peek its head into the narrowing straits of an anti-philosophy. If there is a redemption in the novel, it has to belong to Ahab – not our bemused survivor Ishmael – and so it is a redemption of man’s will to conquer all powers greater than himself, to shape the world into his own image or, failing that, to establish equal terms between man and his creator.
In a novel so copious, so self-compounding and exponential in its design, the surprise we find in the end is not that we have witnessed a mythic struggle between man and his god, but that we are only partially persuaded that this is what we actually saw. Something doesn’t add up.
Ishmael attempts to tell us everything but we end the story with the sense that only now, clinging to a board awash on the sea, are we beginning to understand what we have not been told over the course of these six hundred pages.
Some kind of inception has taken place. We’ve been tattooed in a script that is forever inscrutable, no matter how many languages we might learn.
The question that burns so brightly through the novel, in the end, seems to point back at itself and laugh.
These days as students trickle into the classroom before class, I find myself standing at the podium writing little notes. They’re notes to myself that muse on different things but inevitably circle back to the question of why I am here, standing at the podium, preparing to lead a group of students through a series of mental exercises that we call English instruction.2 (Are my reasons the same now as they were that first day fifteen years ago when Moby Dick went sailing out the window in Philadelphia?)
I’m here to teach, sure, to do the work of teaching. I’m here to stir something in the minds of my students, but there is some lesson buried in the experience that I am trying to learn for myself.
Of course, all teachers learn in the classroom. We learn to be better teachers. We gain a broader view of the world thanks to our students. But that kind of learning is not what keeps getting me to that podium in front of a class full of students. It’s something else. And I don’t know what it is.
As I write this thinking about the question, I begin to feel like the answer might be important. The one thing that seems clear though is that I don’t know which rocks I am supposed to be turning over.
Is there some subtle or secret lesson that sits inside the experience of teaching like a seedling scratching inside the shell, waiting, unlearned and unarticulated, waiting to amplify itself in the daylight?
Is it the same kind of gravidity that drives me back to Moby Dick, the same kind of unlooked-for inversion of principles where things are not what they seem and the bright question that first stands out eventually gives way to a mirror-image of itself, a question pregnant with its own ghost?
These questions spin out as the clock runs down before I say, “Good morning, everyone. Welcome back to English 101,” which is what I really say with the kind of ritualistic repetition that quickly becomes light comedy and also a motif for the student experience. I am stamping them in a script they grow familiar with yet, mostly likely, also cannot decipher. Because I don’t even know exactly what it means – this choice of repetition, this semi-ironic formality, this salutary cast that reaches out of self-reflection to abruptly take the strangeness of the ideas I’ve just been poking at and turn that strangeness into the most familiar of things – a catchphrase.
“Good morning, everyone. Welcome back to English 101.”
It’s not going out on a limb to say that there is dark matter in these thoughts. Melville’s Moby Dick offers us Ahab, who unambiguously tries to overturn a perceived order where god dominates man and nature is a field defined by this god’s will and power. The novel builds around this effort. And the stakes could not be higher.
Yet for all its focus on Ahab and his project, there is a counterpart. There is a more obscure theme submerged beneath the bright questions surrounding the captain with a wooden leg and a hatred for his god. In a word, there is Pip.
Pip is a ship-keeper of slight build who does not leave the whaling ship when the boats are lowered to give chase when whales are spotted. He is “bright” and “brilliant” and “black,” we are told, but when one day Pip falls into the open ocean he experiences the “awful lonesomeness” and “intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity.”
The sea had jeeringly kept his infinite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his horded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense…
The end result for Pip, as he “comes at last to that celestial thought” is to become “indifferent as his God.” No sentiment could be more perfectly obverse to Ahab and his passions. No epiphany could more effectively betray the current of the novel as it lunges toward a final conflict between a man and his god. So Pip, the ship-keeper, stands at the heart of the dark matter of this novel.
Late in the novel Ahab tells Pip, “I suck wondrous philosophies from thee! Some unknown conduits from the unknown worlds must empty into thee!” Pip, in his own words, says that he went missing in the sea and never came back out. His will is utterly lost, swallowed up by “a heartless immensity.”
Pip doesn’t share his philosophies. He is unmanned. He watches the surface of the sea for a sign of the life that he lost there – and sometimes he sees it. Ahab says that Pip is being emptied into by the unknown and, yes, it is some kind of emptiness, some kind of gaping negation that makes Pip such a favorite to the gnarled captain. It is the wisdom that will not speak, that cannot be spoken, the wisdom of the void.
We might wonder if we too should recognize that all the “telling” of Moby Dick points back to that which is untold. For all the unveiling exposition and all the philosophical discourse, the novel finally sets this little man Pip before us as a figure of insight joined to silence.3
What was it that the miser-merman told him?
The distance between the student’s desk and the teacher’s stanchion is only a few feet. But how far is the distance between those states of being? Is this distance the thing I’m probing with these pre-class notes to myself?
Am I writing notes to my future teaching-self or trying to contact some other me from the past? In asking these questions, am I more Pip or Ahab? Am I more the fool for asking or for not knowing the answer?
How can you take hold of the dark matter and look at it in the light, make the silence speak? In the dance of seen and unseen, how can you reach across the barrier, mid-step, and touch your finger to the secret?
“So, floating on the margin of the ensuing scene, and in full sight of it, when the half-spent suction of the ship reached me, I was then, but slowly, drawn toward the closing vortex. When I reached it, it had subsided to a creamy pool. Round and round, then, and ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another Ixion did I revolve. Till, that vital centre, the black bubble upward burst…”
1 At the time, around 2002, I remember thinking that the criticisms heaped onto basketball’s Kobe Bryant applied here too: showboat, arrogance, futile displays of self-destructive talent highlighted by fleeting moments of true grandeur.
2 “…but if all of it is a pulse of music fluttering for a moment and flickering into and out of existence is there any need to square the banality of composition instruction with anything? Is there any sense in asking after spiritual import – not because life is short, but because the frantic activities from birth to death might all be seen as the same, the same smoke rising to heaven, the same resonance issuing from a bell?”
3 Pip is a concise embodiment of Foucault’s notion of the voicelessness of insanity – if we define insanity as that which exists outside of our “normal” mental sphere (i.e., the coherent language of thought), there is no chance for insanity to explain itself. There is no voice with which insanity might speak to sanity, no language in this case for Pip to use as a means of deciphering his divine revelations for us.