The cruise ship and the open ocean

For those of you who have followed Bert’s course, you will know that he makes some hay of the relation between Bulkington and Pip in Moby Dick, and ties them to Nietzsche’s talk of the open ocean in The Gay Science.  Some version of this connection reappears in the book.  But Jordan points out that we missed an important opportunity to tie these to a closing passage in DFW’s cruise ship essay (“A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again”).  Quoting from Jordan now:

When you talk about the open ocean in Nietszche and Melville it seems a real missed opportunity not to bring in the end of Wallace’s cruise ship essay, which speaks exactly to this image:

I find myself, in my plush seat, going farther and father away, sort of creatively visualizing an epiphanic Frank Conroy-type moment of my own, trying to see the hypnotist and subjects and audience and ship itself with the eyes of someone not aboard, imagining the m.v. Nadir right at this moment, all lit up and steaming north, in the dark, at night, with a strong west wind pulling the moon backward through a skein of clouds — the Nadir a constellation, complexly aglow, angelically white, festive, imperial.  Yes, this:  it would look like a floating palace to any poor soul out here on the ocean at night, alone in a dinghy, or not even in a dinghy but simply and terribly floating, treading water, out of sight of land.

Jordon comments further:

The sequence in the middle is great, isn’t it?

a constellation, complexly aglow, angelically white, festive, imperial

In a sense it captures all the warring ideas in your chapter — the ship (in other words, ordinary, unexamined human life) starts out as a simple figure of the natural world. Then it’s something that shines, as in your book. Then it’s angelic, a gift of the deity, as it might have been for late Luther or contemporary Gilbert. Then it’s festive, a rite, which people engage in sincerely and draw meaning from whether or not the deity really listens, or exists. Then finally it’s that which enslaves us, from which we can only be free as Nietzchean buoys, bobbing and freezing. “Yes, this” — he settles on “imperial,” which I think supports your thesis. But even here he is ambivalent — the closing picture is hardly a triumphant one. There is no joy in it, only the thin pleasure of existing, even in fantasy, outside the imperial reach.

Jordan is certainly right that this was a missed opportunity.  The Pip figure at the end, “terribly floating, treading water, out of sight of land,” is rich with resonances.  And the “imperial” cruise ship recalls the “imperial beak” of the sky hawk that Tashtego nails to the mast of the sinking Pequod.  Not to mention Jordan’s fascinating sequence of interpretations.  I’m sure there’s a lot more in there as well.

I wish we had the page proofs back.

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About Sean D. Kelly

Sean Dorrance Kelly is the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also Faculty Dean at Dunster House, one of the twelve undergraduate Houses at Harvard. He served for six years as chair of Harvard's Department of Philosophy. Kelly earned an Sc.B. in Mathematics and Computer Science and an M.S. in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Brown University in 1989. After three years as a Ph.D. student in Logic and Methodology of Science, he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1998. Before arriving at Harvard in 2006, Kelly taught at Stanford and Princeton, and he was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Sean Kelly's work focuses on various aspects of the philosophical, phenomenological, and cognitive neuroscientific nature of human experience. He is a world authority on 20th century European Philosophy, specializing in the work of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He has also done influential work in philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception. Kelly has published articles in numerous journals and anthologies and he has received fellowships or awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, the NSF and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, among others. Fun fact: He appeared on The Colbert Show in 2011 to talk about All Things Shining. Sean Kelly lives at Dunster House with his wife, the Harvard Philosopher Cheryl Kelly Chen, and their two boys, Benjamin and Nathaniel.
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