Pasteboard Masks

Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.
In honor of the 158th birthday of Moby-Dick – Man vs. Nature  (part I)

(First, let me explain what I mean by ‘nature.’)

It’s too difficult to nail down a satisfactory and sustainable definition of nature encompassing all that it can refer to.  Fortunately the concept of ‘nature’ as we use it is not so much defined what it is as by what it is not.  Nature is what man did not create: it is the amorphous and ambiguously delineated ‘other’ in the universe, the aspects of creation (so to speak) whose origins and influences occur without our permission and often even without our knowledge – Nature encompasses all that we feel we have no say in, for instance the sweet painful precariousness of our physical substance or the malignant ambivalence of the world to the urgency of our physical & metaphysical yearnings.

Man’s intermittent antipathy towards nature is unsurprising – but what can he do when the futility of action against nature is implied in the relationship?

He fights nature not with action, but with his faculties of interpretation and imagination.

For instance, the impulse towards transcendence – if my body is going to decay, then I shall place the highest value not in my decaying body but in the soul or some other concept that transcends my corporeal being.  Or I might imbue some physical, and therefore destructible, aspect of nature with such symbolism that it becomes Nature, and to attempt to destroy it as if the destruction of the symbol were a victory against Nature itself.

An example: Melville’s Ahab combines action and (mis)interpretation to restore his sense of potency with respect to nature.  He has been “dismasted” in a previous attempt to hunt and kill a particularly fierce Sperm Whale, and conceptually transforms The Whale into something more than the very-fierce-whale that it is: for Ahab, it becomes the “monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them until they are left living with half a heart and half a lung.”  The whale comes to represent for him not only the powers of physical nature that affect him, but also the more abstract experience of nature’s indifference to the metaphysical problems that plague humanity.  And by plastering these concepts onto the physical entity of the whale, Ahab effectively transforms the ineffable and unconquerable into a destructible object, which in turn imbues with meaning his absurd quest to wreak vengeance on a dumb brute.

(Note that Melville himself is quick to condemn Ahab’s interpretational war on nature: he warns against the dangers of viewing The Whale as “a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.”)

To be continued…

Cross-posted at Embryos and Idiots


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