Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Puddles of What I'm Enjoying: Moby Dick

In a new sporadic series, Matt Domino, shares a brief look at a bit of pop culture, entertainment, or literature he is enjoying.


Last weekend, I went to Martha’s Vineyard for the first time. For someone who grew up on Long Island, spent the majority of his life (thirty-three years to be exact) living in the Northeast, and who enjoys nothing more than to spend time sitting on the shore, looking out at the ocean and drinking beer or a hastily mixed drink, this is both surprising and unsurprising.

It is surprising because surely someone in my social circle must have had access to or offered some kind of chance trip to Martha’s Vineyard; surely some whim or lack of good sense would have led me to rent a house I couldn’t afford there for a weekend or a week one summer; and surely some bit of imagination would have driven me to figure out if there was a way to camp on the beaches there for an economy vacation.

It also makes sense that I would have never been to Martha’s Vineyard. This is because that when you grow up in an area that has its own beaches, you become territorial, possessive, and proud of the beaches you know best. No matter how exotic, remote, or glamorous a beach I am shown, some part of me will always think that a little stretch of rocky shore near where I grew up, a beach called Crane Neck Beach, is the best beach in the world. And in close second will be the stretch of beach between Amagansett and Montauk called Napeague. If you asked me what my third favorite beach is, I’d most likely say, “Fire Island.” With so many favored beaches, so familiar and so close, why the hell would I ever need to go to Martha’s Vineyard.

But I went last weekend. I took the high-powered SeaStreak ferry from East 35th Street in Manhattan at 4:00 PM all the way to Vineyard Haven in Martha’s Vineyard. I could talk more specifically about the 5-hour ride—of which I spent the majority sitting on the top deck drinking gin with seltzer and lime while watching the North Shore of Long Island pass and disappear—but that would be a digression and I’ve already digressed enough.

The weather in Martha’s Vineyard was strange for August. The clouds hung heavy in the sky and the water was a gray-green. It seemed at all times like there was a threat of rain while also simultaneously like the sun was going to break through the clouds and turn the sand and the air unbearably hot and humid. The air and the water were close enough in temperature that it made swimming easy. But there wasn’t nearly enough sun to encourage you to sprawl out on the sand all day. So most of my time was spent lounging in the house I was staying at: snacking, playing games, drinking (though lightly because I was a first-time guest), and reading.

The house I was staying at had two copies of Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I picked up the newer one. I’d read Moby Dick two times before I recently embarked on a third go-round. Once, when I was a child and was given an illustrated version that was most certainly way above my head. And a second time when I was teaching at a private school in New Hampshire during the summer after I graduated college and I had nothing to do in my ample free time than to read books from the school library.

Being in Martha’s Vineyard gave me the incredibly strong urge to read Melville’s masterpiece again. In my mind, I felt that only the mood and atmosphere of Ishmael’s voyage on Ahab’s Pequod would satisfy me while I was staying up against the water of the Northern Atlantic. I wanted to be immersed in the whaling industry of the 19th century. I wanted to feel the extreme conditions of being on a large wooden whale ship in the middle of the two hundred years ago sea. As soon as I began reading the legendary first pages, I knew that my instincts had been right.

Books are incredibly strange. At certain times in your life, you aren’t ready for a book, whether because of the style, the difficulty, or your specific taste in topics at that time. But right now, Moby Dick seems to be the perfect book for me. I love the strangeness of the punctuation; I love how funny Ishmael can be; I can see the traces of Shakespeare everywhere (the idiomatic turns of phrases, the soliloquies, the quips within the dialogue) much clearer than I probably could have at any other time in my life.

I’m still making my way through it, but one brief section that has implanted itself in my brain is from Chapter 11, which is called “Nightgown.” In this chapter, Ishmael and Queequeg are in their shared room at the Spouter-Inn and starting to become friends. They are sitting in bed together talking. Ishmael describes how “very nice and snug” they are, because ”it was so chilly out of doors.” He then goes on to ruminate on the nature of what it means to be warm and how one can feel truly warm in bed only when it is very cold everywhere else:

The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if, like Queequeg and me in the bed, the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.

To me, this short, odd, simple excerpt is beautiful. The main reason is because it strikes me as incredibly true and exactly the way I feel about sleeping, especially during the winter.

Last summer, there was a Letter of Recommendation in the New York Times about taking cold showers. In it, the author described how he took cold showers in order to explore his feelings of “Liking” and “Disliking.” The author wanted to overcome each of those extreme urges to explore what exactly an unagreeable sensation will feel like. In this way, we get over our primal urge for comfort or eschewing discomfort and open ourselves up to experiences simply as they are.

That is all admirable, but there’s nothing I like more than to know that when I am tucked in bed during the winter and the rest of my apartment and the rest of the world is cold, that I am in a pocket of warmth amidst all that.

When my girlfriend and I first started dating, I was in the early stages of moving out of my apartment. By early stages, I mean that my lease was up in about four months and I hadn’t started looking for apartments at all, nor was I absolutely sure I was moving. It was just the start of winter and the radiators in my apartment didn’t work. I’m lazy by nature and didn’t seek to have them fixed. Instead, I would take joy in the warmth of being in my bed under the covers with her, while the rest of the apartment, the wooden floorboards, the worn white tile of the bathroom, were cold to the touch. My girlfriend on the other hand, wanted heat in the apartment. I moved out and my new apartment is heated just fine during the winter. She still makes fun of me and the way I didn’t seek out to have the heat fixed.

But some part of me misses that experience. That’s because part of me will always agree with Ishmael.

In any case, Moby Dick is an awe-inspiring book that grips your imagination and makes you feel as though creating anything new or interesting through language is impossible. You should read it. There’s also documentaries and podcasts about it if you like that kind of thing.

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