A Note: On Apocalypse, Moby-Dick & Job

[Originally posted over at my joint, but given the meandering path it took into things religious I thought I’d cross-post it here.]

Dear _______,

Your note has made my day, and it’s only yet 9 a.m. It reminds me of a conversation I was having last night with a friend in which I tried to explain why I don’t regard myself as a pessimist, in the face of all contrary evidence and claims by others.  I am, I insisted, under the influence of maudlin-making ale, an idealist who feels there is no place for ideals in the world. Of course, I know this sounds pessimistic through and through, but in my reckoning it is what feeds the Romantic / apocalyptic experience you mention.

The failure of words (& other communicative / artistic media) is necessary to their creative function. My friend and I don’t wholly disagree on this, but he seems more inclined than I to speak of one’s engagement with art as ultimately, if not immediately, disentangled from the world. While I agree that art is not wholly determined by the limitations set in stone, some quite literally, I am allergic even to a conversational nod that it ever stands beyond the fray, disinterested, hands-clean or abstract. You and I agree, romanticism & apocalypticism are indelibly linked, and as such remain inevitably messy. This messiness needn’t necessarily be a flaw, any more than existence as a whole is a mistake. I don’t see a position from which we can make such an evaluation without, in the process, doing much real-world damage. Though this has not stopped us from doing either.

This is the recurrent theme of [work in progress] – highlighting the desire for a pure existence, and (to speak like a Buddhist for a second) the fundamental failure of that desire. We must, I think, come to acknowledge that we live under the imprimatur of a failed existence that doesn’t know its own failure. That acknowledgement or awareness offers no solutions, but maybe momentary insight (which, incidentally, I’ve learned this week is approximately three seconds, so at the very least longer than a sneeze) is creative in ways we cannot anticipate. What profound tragedy if we could adequately anticipate. To what end then would be aesthetic or religious experience, or even of loving another?

This relates, too, to you the notes you’ve sent me on Moby-Dick and Job.

 All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practicably assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

I adore the invocation of Adam in this well-known passage, because here the first sin is given its more proper name, the misplaced ending. We recall that Ishmael begins his narration self-identifying as a suicidal, as well — how fitting. Maybe all narration, when you know the ending at the beginning. Addressing your notes, this is what makes Job so troubling to me: we are more aware of its ending than the narrator, and as a result have come to misidentify God’s speech as the work’s climax. If this was ever the case, I don’t know how it can be anymore. I wonder if we might now read it not as a response to Job, but as a God’s own lament—of a Creator having been outdone by Creation. To the extent that Job is rewarded at the very end . . . I don’t know, this is just cheap and showy, isn’t it? Yes, give me the more thoroughly apocalyptic / romantic Moby-Dick instead, where the narration can do nothing but continue: Ishmael-the suicidal sailor survives to become Ishmael-the-suicidal narrator, and the reward is but that the telling lives on.