On Crow’s Nests

Very often do the captains of such ships take those absent-minded young philosophers to task, upbraiding them with not feeling sufficient ‘interest’ in the voyage… but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Crammer’s sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over. There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!

Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 172-73 (towards the end of chapter 35). This is one of Ishmael’s narrative asides in the context of a discussion of long hours on lookout atop the Pequod’s crow’s nest. I read through this book this year after hearing a discussion of its contemporary relevance on In Our Time, bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09gzjm5. I was amazed to read Melville shift from a detailed discussion of nineteenth century whaling to his philosophical reflections on pantheist mysticism and Cartesian certainty. This passage often comes to mind while walking the hills of Newcastle.