Breathless

We are infatuated with the idea of The Future™. Breathlessly running through what appears to be a menu of options as if to be a Modern Human is to be able to sit in judgement, weighing our choices with delicate discernment, whether to accept a heaping helping of Techno Fantasy or dawdle over a tasting menu of potential Apocalypse.

Even le nome du jour for the present; The Anthropocene, insists that what will be no more than a sliver of an irradiated film of organic carbon taking up no more of the geological record than the thickness of a fingernail, at most an Anthropopause, must in our infinite self-regard inflate into an entire geological Epoc. Echoes of Homo Sapiens sapiens….

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Queequeg’s Coffin

Atlantic Right

I was fifteen when I first read Moby Dick in a 48 hour long marathon sick in bed with a bad cold in a hotel in the Northeast of Portugal, reading, sleeping, then reading some more. It deeply affected my world view. I’m still finding out what it means….

Queequeg’s Coffin is a thought experiment. It is an intriguing image around which we might connect a conceptual stance with a pragmatic call to action. It does not presuppose what that action might be. Queequeg’s Coffin is a container transcending the motivation behind its origins.

Queequeg was Ishmael‘s bunk-mate aboard Moby Dick. As the juggernaut of Ahab‘s obsession takes Pequod’s crew further and further into imbalance and dis-ease, Queequeg becomes convinced he is dying. He commissions the ship’s carpenter to build him a coffin. Chips protests at this waste of his specialized talents; but relents and builds the harpooner a wonder of a casket, watertight, and ship-shape in every regard. Preparing himself to meet his maker Queequeg carves its top and sides with signs and portents beyond the crew’s understanding.

Ahab drives the Pequod to its destruction. Ishmael is the only survivor. He finds himself floating  upon the vastness of an inhospitable sea. Queequeg’s Coffin rockets to the surface. Its inherent buoyancy could not be thwarted. It breaks free of the vortex threatening to suck Ishmael down with the ship.

Ishmael hangs on and then climbs atop Queequeg’s Coffin. This odd thing, begrudgingly crafted to carry a savage to another world, saves our hero, our witness, and carries him to safety.

I find this story eerily prescient. It has so many points of contact with our present condition.

We have at hand, unwittingly so, bits and pieces that might come in handy when our Pequod founders. Queequeg’s Coffin shows us that we cannot predict what will be useful when circumstances pass their tipping point. What had been an odd frivolity upon the sturdy deck of a powerful vessel may very well become the serendipitous bit of flotsam that saves us when our vessel plunges for the bottom, threatening to take us down with it.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Queequeg’s Coffin is that it demands humility. It dramatizes the impossibility of knowing. Keeps us from over-committing in advance. Reminds us to be on the look-out. So that when the time comes we may discover a confluence  —  another of Melville’s constructions  —  of Necessity, Fate and Free-will. It is this confluence that puts Queequeg’s Coffin within our reach.

If we remain alert. Absorb our act of witness and maintain our buoyancy of spirit we may be able to take advantage of what falls to hand. Queequeg’s Coffin may see us through.

Originally posted on Open Salon in January, 2010

Desperado Philosophy: An Order So Unwieldy


More than enough time for another cocktail.

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