This Time It’s Different

I’m still slogging my way through Moby Dick. I’m currently on ch. 105, so I only have 30 chapters left to read. It may be the most overwrought book I have ever read, and I am flabbergasted that high school kids could work their way through this thing, or that teachers would want them to. The science is out of date, and most of the book purports to be a scientific study of whales. It no doubt says more about me than it does by the book, but I am mystified by the thought that this is an American classic.

Anyway, in ch. 105 Melville wonders, in passing, whether we might overhunt the whale. His answer is naively amusing.

But you must look at this matter in every light. Though so short a period ago – not a good lifetime – the census of the buffalo in Illinois exceeded the census of men now in London, and though at the present day not one horn or hoof of them remains in all that region; and though the cause of this wondrous extermination was the spear of man; yet the far different nature of the whale-hunt peremptorily forbids so inglorious an end to the Leviathan. Forty men in one ship hunting the Sperm Whales for forty-eight months think they have done extremely well, and thank God, if at last they carry home the oil of forty fish. Whereas, in the days of the old Canadian and Indian hunters and trappers of the West, when the far west (in whose sunset suns still rise) was a wilderness and a virgin, the same number of moccasined men, for the same number of months, mounted on horse instead of sailing in ships, would have slain not forty, but forty thousand and more buffaloes; a fact that, if need were, could be statistically stated.

So there you have it. This time it’s different. We could never hunt the sperm whale to near extinction.


On Seeing the World and Holiness

Another great insight from Moby Dick (this one from ch. 16, “The Ship”):

Captain Peleg asks Ishmael why he wants to go sailing. Ishmael’s answer is that he wants to see the world. Cap’n Peleg tells him to “take a peep over the weather bow.” What did Ishmael see over the weather bow?

“Not much,” I replied – “nothing but water; considerable horizon though, and there’s a squall coming up, I think.”

“Well, what dost thou think then of seeing the world? Do ye wish to go round Cape Horn to see any more of it, eh? Can’t ye see the world where you stand?”

I suppose the same could be said for holiness. During Lent don’t we all want to be holy? But what’s to see in being holy? The mystery – and the glory – of holiness (I suspect anyway) is not in the seeing, but in the doing, not in the end product, but the process. Could it be that holiness is “nothing but water and considerable horizon”? Could it be that the proper goal is not to be holy, but rather to be becoming holy? (If you will excuse a rather odd – and very improper – double verb construction.)

I ought not want to be holy, rather, I ought to desire the the doing, the thinking, and the being (which might ultimately lead to holiness) as things desirable in themselves, not as means to an end.

Or I might be completely off base on this thought. My source is Herman Melville, after all (who definitely ought not be confused with St Herman of Alaska!).


I’m reading Moby Dick right now. Herman Melville is not the place I would normally go to receive spiritual advice, but the following, from ch. 9, “The Sermon,” is pretty good:

And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.