Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Glimpses of the whale, or synecdoche

The dude's name is Ishmael, my daughter says after reading the opening paragraphs of Moby Dick. Indeed. That would be the take-away: identity as anchor and what it feels like to lift anchor, to want to lift anchor and sail off.

Ishmael, feeling his 'hypos' get the better of him--as we told E., look to the Greek roots, hypotonic is low tone, hypertonic is high tone--accounts it high time to get to sea as soon as he can. Those hypos can drag you right down, down to the bottom of the ocean floor, and the solution is to be afloat the problems of this world.

Honestly, I don't quite remember all the particulars of Ahab's obsession with the whale (which is why I'm reading the book again, so, dear reader, don't surprise me)--something about revenge, something about metaphysics. But it did make me wonder if I were finally getting obsessed about finding a diagnosis for Robert. Because, gosh, well, I wasn't for years and years. Diagnosis was something to be feared then. Absence of such kept us all afloat.

The whale, of course, is too big to be seen all at once--the back, the tail, the tips of the flukes, the blow-hole, the crest of the head--each of these parts surfaces and slip-slides away back into the sea before the mind gets a fix on the glimpse. The whale itself may be simply a hypothesis. A synecdoche of illness. Symptoms and lab results are just synecdoche, right? A glimpse of the whale.

While the whale looms under the vasty deep, far below the surface of consciousness, it recedes its dangers from each present moment. The sea is calm, shimmering slightly in subtle winds that cross above it.

We, too, are now at sea, an expression I often use. Out of sight of land, the cusp of the watery world pouring itself out of sight over the edge of the horizon. To be at sea is to be alone, not comfortably isolated in a niche, but alone as a small speck on the consciousness of an even larger, anonymous present moment. It's quiet out here and, once you're used to it, sometimes the sameness of the waves as they drift away is even comforting.

But whaling, like sailing generally, is a matter of long periods of languid boredom punctuated by episodes of intense fear. The harpooneer must approach the whale dangerously close. The harpoon sticks in a piece of the flesh and the whale drags with it the boat for miles--first the line whips out of its coil like a lash, and then the small craft is launched like a speed boat. If the whale sounds, the crew goes straight down with it.

Sighting the whole whale is a sign of doom. The whole, unimaginable, rushing out of the water toward you in a split second. The whole suddenly in place of its parts--(in)visible in its own way, the way what you can only imagine can never really be seen. The brain shuts down when it contemplates eternity.

Dreadful, awful, terrible--these blunted words are used as polite social descriptions for what is most feared or indescribable, these words like salad forks and butter knives at the place settings of ordinary lives as the tales are told over dinner to an audience periodically patting its mouth with a napkin.

Awe, dread, terror--when what they mean or mark or indicate is a human truth so few of us actually confront that to see it is to live inside the echo. To know the thing and not its representation. To know the thing just beyond the edge of imagining that cannot make itself known or visible by its small signs.

You think you know because you have seen it depicted. But do you know it if you can walk away? Does Ishmael really know this dread and terror after all, if he was not swallowed by it? He was able to separate from it and walk away--"and I only am escaped alone to tell thee."

I was the only witness to Robert's breakdown that day in July 1998. No matter how many times I write out the story of what happened, no matter how many times I give the case history, it is all just glimpses and fragments. And the doctors just politely nod.


Elizabeth said...

I always get a jolt of expectation when I see your blog title at the top of my blogroll, meaning that there's a new post. And I'm never, ever disappointed. I find it extraordinary that you've not only "happened" upon Moby Dick again, when your interest in finding a diagnosis for Robert is rekindled but that you've explained the magic of literature and synchronicity.

I felt almost seasick on that ocean you described. Each of our tiny, tiny boats floating on that huge expanse. My heart catches in my throat.

Dale said...


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Anonymous said...

休息是為了走更長遠的路,爬個文章休息一下!! ........................................