the odour of the lamp
Through the rambling body of any grand or would-be-grand endeavour, poetry, life, and all their bewildered exchanges, it is always in a back-alley, a digression, an out of the way place that unity, kosmos insinuates itself.
Moby Dick, a book not inaptly compared for fantastic uncontainability to a labyrinth through a thundercloud, harbors any number of such out of the way places that promise a truer scope of its impossible whole than passages that seem more indispensible. I think it’s just that way; and that’s one reason why the poetry of life or even the poetry of poetry gives the slip.
From the third in a series of digressive chapters dealing with representations of the whale in art:
Now one of the peculiar characteristics of the savage in his domestic hours, is his wonderful patience of industry. An ancient Hawaiian war-club or spear-paddle, in its full multiplicity and elaboration of carving, is as great a trophy of human perserverence as a Latin lexicon. For, with but a broken sea-shell or a shark’s tooth, that miraculous intricacy of wooden net-work has been achieved; and it has cost steady years of steady application. As with the Hawaiian savage, so with the white sailor-savage. With the same marvellous patience, and with the same single shark’s tooth, of his one poor jack-knife, he will carve you a bit of bone sculpture, not quite as workmanlike, but as close packed in its maziness of design as the Greek savage, Achilles’s shield; and full of barbaric spirit and suggestiveness, as the prints of that fine old Dutch savage, Albert Durer.
And this from a footnote to one of Ishmael’s “fanciful” rambles:
I remember the first albatross I ever saw. It was during a prolonged gale, in waters hard upon the Antarctic seas. From my forenoon watch below I asceneded to the overclouded deck; and there, dashed upon the main hatches, I saw a regal feathery thing of unspotted whiteness, and with a hooked Roman bill sublime. At intervals it arched forth its vast archangel wings, as if to embrace some holy ark. Windrous flutterings and throbbings shook it. Though bodily unharmed, it uttered cries, as some king’s ghost in supernatural distress. Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets which took hold of God. As Abraham before the angels, I bowed myself; the white thing was so white, its wings so wide, and in those for ever exiled waters, I had lost the miserable warping memories of traditions and towns.