The only philosophy for me. I stumbled across Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick in the library the other day and immediately snagged a copy. I’ve been toying with rereading my way through Melville lately and am thinking I don’t have any other choice, now that I’ve walked my ass firmly into middle age. Moby Dick‘s been my favorite book since I was in my early twenties, but I haven’t read it in almost ten years. And it’s time I did. Along with the rest.
One thing that Philbrick calls out is Melville’s description of a “desperado philosophy.” Which I remember loving, but have forgotten, in said middle age, to live. And it being the internet, I went online and found a great blog by the same name, with a wonderful summary. Here it is. Read it, love it, live it.
After a nasty brush with death while hunting large fellow mammals, still fairly early in the unfolding drama of the Pequod, Ishmael experiences a moment of profound philosophical immersion: There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.
Most acute at times of trial and tribulation, such a wayward mood gives birth to a free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy. In this dissonant coupling of the words genial and desperado by way of a comma, Melville captures an essential element, possibly the most essential element, of a distinctly American philosophy that brings complex undertones to the simple Pilgrim hymns of our Shining City On A Hill, undertones of the sort that might produce a death metal soundtrack for the rock & rolling Humvees of Operation Enduring Freedom.
In an act of sober pragmatism, Ishmael draws up his Last Will and Testament, inviting Queequeg to serve as his lawyer, executor and legatee. Task accomplished, he then looks around himself with deep contentment, like a quiet ghost with a clean conscience. His earthly affairs in order, he is now fully prepared for a cool, collected dive at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost.
Internally complex and contingent, desperado philosophy can resolve itself in a wide variety of ways, depending on the character of individuals and the circumstances that confront them. Ishmael, for one, comes to embody the brave existential stoicism of a skeptical believer, someone with doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly, as expressed in those many passages where Melville begins to sound like Kierkegaard. Yet inside a different bag of bones, driven by a different ethos and influenced by different historical conditions, desperado philosophy may well express itself as the most perverse sort of nihilism, a murderous cynicism that uses the senseless absurdity of the cosmos as a cover.