Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Awe of the Deep

creative commons 2.0 license
edenpictures / flickr
Among the types of awe associated with the ocean is a kind of terror lurking within those unfathomable fathoms. This is evident in Melville's Moby Dick.

Poor Pip, a child on one of the whaling boats, is thrown into the ocean by accident and is only found sometime later once the sailors returned from chasing a whale. It wasn't the expectation of drowning that got to him, it was the terror of the deep. In Chapter 93, Melville gives us the perspective of the abandoned boy. The image of the calm, infinite sea is contrasted with Pip's sudden sense of isolation:
When the whale started to run Pip was left behind on the sea, like a hurried traveller's trunk. It was a beautiful, bounteous, blue day; the spangled sea calm and cool, and flatly stretching away, all round, to the horizon, like gold-beater's skin hammered out to the extremest. Bobbing up and down in that sea, Pip's ebon head showed like a head of cloves. In three minutes, a whole mile of shoreless ocean was between Pip and Stubb. Out from the centre of the sea, poor Pip turned his crisp, curling, black head to the sun, another lonely castaway.... The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it?
Once rescued, Pip was thereafter a mute idiot. Why? The narrator explains that Pip was terrorized by what appeared to him below the surface:
The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. 
Melville evokes a wonder-world of alien creatures and abstractions, and we see poor Pip the passive, astounded audience to a primal world for which he, and we, are not fit. "Gobsmacked" or perhaps "god smacked," Pip answered the inscrutable he viewed with a permanent silence.

Isolation can lead to terror, but so can sights for which our eyes or minds are unprepared, wondrous though they may be. (This seems to me to be relevant to the idea of the sublime and terror that my student, Erin McMullin, is exploring. I note she recently found a sea-related example of someone else overwhelmed upon being rescued, Captain Phillips in the recent movie of the same name...)