Melville Had It

Even whales can overdo it….Bartleby, Mersault and others…Bad sequels…The Modern Pandora….

Flipping through the world’s news stories over a cup of extremely strong coffee, I happened upon some video footage of a scientist, a cetology researcher perhaps, from the Faroe Islands who for either scientific reasons or just for the jackass fun of it cut open the belly of a sperm whale. Hilarity ensues.

I gave it a good four or five viewings, in real time and slow motion, and other than the keen anticipation and squeamish explosion, I began to suspect there was some deeper, more fundamental understanding of the human mind within this rather simple yet abrupt demonstration.

First off I threw away my coffee, since the mug was sitting to the right of my computer screen, precisely in the line of this bloody blast of entrails shooting from the left, to the right, and somehow contaminating my precious morning brew. Then I went and dug through my library to find my copy of “Moby Dick”. After an extended waste of time wading through my book room I gave up in defeat. I have no formal filing system, other than reckless flinging and stacking. It occurred to me, though, that I had given the book away which is basically what you do when you loan books out and so I would have to just coast through this blog entry with a patchy recollection of the mighty novel.

I have always enjoyed Herman Melville. “Bartleby The Scrivener” is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read, I guess because I can identify with him, much the way I remember identifying with Mersault from “The Stranger”, which along with Ivan Ilyich and Lord Henry from “Dorian Gray” are the folks you end up ‘hanging’ with when you utter the fool words, “I think I’d like to switch my major to philosophy.”

I pictured this scientist from the video, with his whale shears and his trendy red slicker, trying to make Bartleby cut this dead whale’s belly open and the hallowed anti-hero just standing there, issuing his famous line, “I’d prefer not to.”

“But it’s your job, man. You signed up for this. Cut this monster’s belly open.”

“I’d prefer not to.”

“But we’re paying you.”

“I’d prefer not to.”

“What would happen if everyone stopped cutting whales‘ bellies open?”

“I’d prefer not to.”

“Confound it all. Hand me those shears. I’ll do it.”

I hadn’t realized that the sperm whale’s primary diet consisted of American fast food. Either that or Fukushima sushi. I’ve actually seen worse at El Azteca, which is a popular Atlanta mexican restaurant for thrill seekers and man versus microbe types.

I defer to the scientist in the red slicker again, the Modern Pandora as I like to call him, who seems rather surprised and moves out of the line of fire damn fast. What did he expect? Jonah (for all my bible friends out there), thrown twenty feet through the air, gasping for breath, yelling about what took so long?  The shock-rock band Gwar, perhaps, emerging to the opening chords of their newest chart-topper. (If any members of Gwar happen to be reading this, I think we may have found the opening effect for the next world tour.)

Back to Herman Melville. He believed there was something mystic and profound in the whale species. Graceful, powerful, and with a preternatural level of intelligence, they are both beauty and peril, obstacle and ally. We rule the land. They rule the sea. We attack each other for bargain deals at the mall and yell at each other during sporting events, they disappear for extended periods of time for unknown reasons only to reappear seasonally, following intricate migratory patterns, which is probably just about the same thing.

This footage seems to be the big letdown sequel to the American classic. I want Ahab in mad pursuit of the unattainable. I want the crew to be swallowed into the vast unknown as is the fate of all mankind, sooner or later. I want the redemption of Ishmael, the silent wisdom of Queequeg, the wages of obsession as divine spark and ultimate betrayal.

I want all that, but after I watch this grotesque film clip one more time.

More Alembics to come.


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