Friday, August 24, 2007

Moby-Dick, More than a Good Read

Saying of the week: "First man learned to measure time and built clocks. Then man learned to measure space and built maps with longitude and latitude lines. His dream of eternity slowly turned to focus on time and space and the riches and adventure of the new world around him. Rather than focusing on eternity, he spent his time traipsing back and forth in time." --Lewis Mumford.

In my readings this week, I came across an essay written by Lewis Mumford in 1944. The topic was Moby-Dick, and although I have read the novel and thought I understood its meaning, I found the essay fascinating. I extracted what I deemed to be the most interesting points (at least to me) and wanted to share these ideas, so this week's posting is snippets from that essay. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Moby-Dick, admirable as it is as a narrative of maritime adventure, is far more than that: it is, fundamentally, a parable on the mystery of evil and the accidental malice of the universe. On one reading, the white whale stands for the brute energies of existence, blind, fatal, overpowering, while Ahab is the spirit of man, small and feeble, but purposeful, that pits its puniness against this might, and its purpose against the blank senselessness of power.
The whole tale of the West, in mind and action, in the moral wrestlings of the Jews, in the philosophy and art of the Greeks, in the organization and technique of the Romans, in the precise skills and unceasing spiritual quests of the modern man, is a tale of this effort to combat the whale -- to ward off his blows, to counteract his aimless thrusts, to create a purpose that will offset the empty malice of Moby-Dick. Without such a purpose, without the belief in such a purpose, life is neither bearable nor significant: unless one is fortified by these central human energies and aims, one tends to become absorbed in Moby-Dick himself, and becoming a part of his being, can only maim, slay, butcher, like the shark or the white whale, or Alexander, or Napoleon. (or George Bush?)
Ahab has more humanity than the gods he defies: indeed, he has more power, because he is conscious of the power he wields, and applies it deliberately, whereas Moby-Dick’s power only seems deliberate because it cuts across the directed aims of Ahab himself. And in one sense, Ahab achieves victory: he vanquishes in himself that which would retreat from Moby-Dick and acquiesce in his insensate energies and his brutal sway. His end is tragic: evil engulfs him. But in battling against evil, with power instead of love, Ahab himself becomes the image of the thing he hates: he has lost his humanity in the very act of vindicating it. By physical defiance, by physical combat, Ahab cannot rout and capture Moby-Dick: the odds are against him. And if his defiance is noble, his final aim is confessedly mad. Cultivation, order, art -- these are proper means by which man displaces accident and subdues the vacant external powers in the universe: the way of growth is not to become more powerful but to become more human.
Here is a hard lesson to learn: it is easier to wage war than to conquer in oneself the tendency to be partial, vindictive, and unjust: it is easier to demolish one’s enemy than to pit oneself against him in a spiritual combat which will disclose one’s weaknesses and provincialities. And that shapeless evil Ahab seeks to strike is the sum of one’s enemies. He does not bow down to it and accept it: therein lie his heroism and virtue: but he fights it with its own weapons and therein lies his madness. All the thing that Ahab despises when he is about to attack the whale, the love and loyalty of Pip, the memory of his wife and child, the sextant of science, the inner sense of calm, which makes all external struggle futile, are the very things that would redeem him and make him victorious.
In the very creation of Mody-Dick, Melville conquered the white whale that threatened him: instead of horror there was significance, instead of aimless energy there was purpose, and instead of random power there was meaningful life. The universe is inscrutable, unfathomable, overwhelming -- like the white whale and his element (the sea). Art in the broad sense of all humanizing effort is man’s answer to this condition: for it is the means by which he circumvents or postpones his doom, transcends his creaturely limitations, and bravely meets his tragic destiny.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Gift of Time

Friday, August 17, 2007

While nearing the finish line of my twenty-year career in Information Technology -- during that marvelous time between announcing my leaving the company and saying my good-byes -- I began to worry that forty-five years old was too young to sit at home watching soaps. Indeed, my coworkers chorused that a stress junky like myself would come crawling back within six months begging for a fix. I assured them that I would find plenty to keep me busy, but underneath that cheerful facade, I felt they were right. That gut feeling grew into a nagging ball of fear as my retirement date crept near.

Eight years later, I know that there was nothing to fear. I've been wrong about numerous things in my life, but I've never missed the mark so much as that time. What I didn't realize then is that you never stop working, never stop doing things. The difference is, back then I worked to pay the mortgage, now I work to enrich myself and those around me. It's amazing what happens when you have all your time to command as you wish. The possibilities become infinite. The principle joys in life -- for me it's my partner Herman, writing, tennis, and traveling -- bubble to the top of the to-do list, and those things comfortably fill the hours, minutes, and seconds of each day. That's the wonderful aspect of retirement; you devote all your time to what you love. The flip side is that you spend no time doing what you hate -- sitting bumper to bumper, nagging bosses, back-biting coworkers, project deadlines, system crashes, business lunches, dressing in suits and ties, paying astronomical dry-cleaning bills…I could fill ten pages. Suffice to say, I miss nothing in the corporate world.

Over the years I have fallen into a comfortable routine. I spend May-November at home in San Rafael, California, working on my novels and short stories. During December-April, my lover and I travel (mostly to Asia, but in eight years we've visited over forty countries on five continents.) While at home I'm generally up with the dawn and clock four to five hours of writing before the mind grows weary. I try to write 1,200 words per day, but too often I'm lucky to make 800, and some days it's as little as 200. I take a long mid-day break for lunch, tennis, yard work, and quiet time with Herman. Then late in the afternoon, I crawl back to my computer for another few hours of editing. I also write while traveling, but I'm not nearly so prolific because I spend only a few hours per day at it.

By far the most glorious boon of having heaps of time is being able to dally in my fantasy world: writing stories. It is the only territory where I have complete control over people, places, circumstances, and emotions. And I love being in control. Completing two novels, Island Song and Honor Bound, has been my greatest personal accomplishment, and by far the most difficult. The process is turning me, ever so slowly, into a perfectionist; something I never thought possible. So far, only a handful of friends have read these two stories, although hopefully that will soon change -- Island Song will be published by Zumaya Publications in February of 2008 and I am searching for a publisher for Honor Bound. But of the close friends who have read my manuscripts, almost all have enjoyed my stories to some degree. That generally brings on a mild sensation of euphoria when people connect with my work, and I can't help being amused that I greedily seek their approval. It's childish, I'll grant you, but it validates my hard work and inspires me to improve.

And now I've found a new way to fill the oodles of minutes in the day, by joining the countless others on the net who share their experiences on personal blogs, educating and entertaining us. In future posts I hope to share the thoughts, frustrations, and triumphs of a gay writer struggling for perfection. I hope the few minutes you have spent here has brought you a small degree of bemusement, and has not been a waste of your precious time.

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