The Mother of All Whales

Since this is my first blog, I would like to make this a space where we can talk about animals.  This imagines first of all that I am going to have readers who will want to talk to each other.  And that I will even have readers besides the friends I have platooned into this project.  Bonnie, David, Judith, Sheila, Patrick, Kari, Emily, Andrew, Joyce, and Molly. Yes Molly, you too.  I know you will read me, but the others will need to materialize.

Last Saturday night, March 8, I saw The Whale, and he was immense, beyond understanding, most gigantic and malignant. I saw this whale both glorious and terrifying, in Moby-Dick, the opera, at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.  On its last night, the opera provided me with an unexpected beginning for my blog celebrating  animals, great and small.


Rockwell Kent’s Moby Dick

You see, I read Moby Dick over and over as an undergraduate, five times, and one more time in graduate school at Brown. Only then did I tire of reading the book, becoming in fact so tired that in 1968 I ran away from the great American novel to find myself in Berkeley working in the British 18th century. Reading and writing about even bigger novels than Melville’s, novels obsessed with women raped and ravaged and imprisoned in and out of marriages.  But that’s another story.

The opera Moby-Dick thrilled me, down to my bones, getting into my sinews, almost stopping my heart.  But even more, the memory of its story drove me back to the novel. Not back to the “real” novel; that is at home in Boston in my bookcase.  I fled instead to the Internet looking up quotes and fragments from Melville’s text.  Here is one I found: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea.”

My memoir, THE ANIMALS, does not descend to the flea, but it does rejoice in the newt, the turtle, and the guinea pig.  We cannot all be giants grappling with Leviathan.  What I care about is how we love and battle, cherish and sometimes fail our children, our partners, and yes our animals.  It is that particular struggle that became even more telling while I was watching the opera last Saturday night.  Watching the doomed sailors wait for the whale, I was struck by the way that love shaped the action of the opera.

The grandiosity of Ahab’s loving hatred of the whale, the largest mammal on earth, was countered by the men’s sense of love, a domestic passion, for each other.  This love was tenderly expressed in song, in dance, and in lazy hours on the ropes, as the men watched for the whale that would undo them all. Just in the way that loving animals can enlarge us and undo us.  That, you must know, is the point of my own wee book.  Wee is a small word, a tender word that speaks lovingly of the failed grandiosity in us all.  And love does endure.  Deep down Melville probably knew that.