Sunday, 17 April 2016

"There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness."

I'm thinking about this passage in chapter 96 "The Try-Works": 
"There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar." 
The 1st line was difficult when I came across the quote some months ago, before I read Moby Dick, but now makes sense. There is a wisdom in woe, or woe leads to wisdom, because there is much darkness and injustice in life: 
"... that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true—not true, or undeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon's, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe." 
One has to recognise the dark side of life. And yet woe carried to extreme (i.e. to see life as all evil and darkness) becomes madness, as we see in Ahab. Perhaps also in Pip? They don't survive their woe, and thus become mad. 
Ishmael says: 
"Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! [...] believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly..." 
"Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me." 
Ahab looks so long "in the face of the fire" that he sees nothing but evil, and all the evil of the world is to him embodied in Moby Dick. He gives himself up to passion, anger and his wish for revenge. 
How do you understand the Catskill eagle lines? I'm never good at ideas. Does it mean Ishmael is (kind of) praising Ahab, who is fully human, or superhuman, because his soul is so deep that in madness he experiences the heights and depths of emotion that the average person can't? Or is it the opposite, that Ishmael is talking about the people who can see the darkness of life, and perhaps experience great sadness and despair, yet who can nevertheless rise above it and soar, resisting the woe that is madness? 


Ishmael can resist the madness. 

At the beginning of the novel, he's depressed, suicidal: 
"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. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship."
Instead of knocking people's hats off, he takes to the ship. And lives. And dreams. And finds joy in life. 
Ishmael can be melancholy and dejected sometimes, but he always retains some humour: 
"I quickly followed suit, and descending into the bar-room accosted the grinning landlord very pleasantly. I cherished no malice towards him, though he had been skylarking with me not a little in the matter of my bedfellow.
However, a good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing; the more's the pity. So, if any one man, in his own proper person, afford stuff for a good joke to anybody, let him not be backward, but let him cheerfully allow himself to spend and be spent in that way. And the man that has anything bountifully laughable about him, be sure there is more in that man than you perhaps think for." (chapter 5)
He has some humour and acceptance even when speaking like a cynic, after he almost dies: 
"There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody's expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke." (chapter 49) 
And then: 
"... After the ceremony was concluded upon the present occasion, I felt all the easier; a stone was rolled away from my heart. Besides, all the days I should now live would be as good as the days that Lazarus lived after his resurrection; a supplementary clean gain of so many months or weeks as the case might be. I survived myself; my death and burial were locked up in my chest. I looked round me tranquilly and contentedly, like a quiet ghost with a clean conscience sitting inside the bars of a snug family vault." (ibid.)
And, in spite of everything, Ishmael has a calmness in his soul: 
"... And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy." (chapter 87)
He takes everything, and because he's sensitive, may sometimes get angry or dejected, but he can embrace, accept and absorb everything, and can find joy. 
Another character we should talk about is Queequeg- he's at peace with the world, he also resists the woe that is madness. 


Perhaps next time reading Moby Dick I should collect the great quotes and create something called "Wise, Witty, and Tender Sayings of Ishmael". Would definitely include this one from chapter 87: 

"[T]here is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men." 
And from chapter 68: 
"Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it."  


  1. That eagle will return on the next to last page.

  2. tx for the excerpts; i'd forgotten what a dynamite writer melville was; decades since i read it; i'll have to go back... in line with my theory that writers in large measuure write themselves, i wonder about if Melville was a bit bi-polar, in the bit about the catskill eagle. some manic depressive persons are extraordinarily skilled in the arts...

    1. Dynamite! I like that word.
      You should read it again.