Monday, August 21, 2006

August 21, 2006 - Becalmed

The other day, I heard a quotation from Herman Melville's Moby-Dick on a National Public Radio broadcast. It resonated with me, so when I got to an internet-connected computer today, I searched for it in an online version of that great novel.

I remember, from when I read Moby-Dick a few years back, how Melville intersperses philosophy with his narrative. This passage is an example of that. He's reflecting on the experience of sitting in a whale-boat, before the harpoon has been hurled, setting its barb in the whale's body. Once the harpoon-thrower does his work, the whale will instantly react, pulling the small boat and its occupants on a wild and deadly journey. The sailor is looking down at the coil of line in the bottom of the boat. In a matter of seconds, he knows it will unwind, becoming completely taut. But for now, there is a deceptive calm...

" the profound calm which only apparently precedes and prophesies of the storm, is perhaps more awful than the storm itself; for, indeed, the calm is but the wrapper and envelope of the storm; and contains it in itself, as the seemingly harmless rifle holds the fatal powder, and the ball, and the explosion; so the graceful repose of the line, as it silently serpentines about the oarsmen before being brought into actual play - this is a thing which carries more of true terror than any other aspect of this dangerous affair. But why say more? All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, everpresent perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side."

[Moby-Dick, chapter 60.]

Melville's right - we all live "enveloped in whale-lines." In this modern era, when our ever-expanding medical knowledge is beating back so many deadly diseases, some of us may be forgiven for imagining that death is not a possibility for us - or, at least, so distant a possibility that we bear it no mind. As a cancer survivor, I can no longer think that way. Things are relatively calm in my life, right now. The boat is bobbing on a peaceful sea. The harpoon-line is benignly coiled at my feet.

Yet, I'm aware that circumstances can change very quickly. A week from today, I'll go for my combined CT Scan and PET Scan. Things will probably turn out just fine. But, you never know...

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