“Stick to the Boat:” Moby Dick on Man’s Deepest Fear

3 Comments | June 6, 2022

Dr. Kent Lasnoski is an Associate Professor of Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Lander, WY with his wife and nine children, where they enjoy outdoor adventures.

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Dr. Kent Lasnoski is an Associate Professor of Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Lander, WY with his wife and nine children, where they enjoy outdoor adventures.

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Meet Pip, a slight, nervous fellow, yet “at bottom very bright, with that pleasant, genial, jolly brightness peculiar to his tribe; a tribe which ever enjoy all holidays and festivities with finer, freer relish than any other.” With music and dance and joviality, Pip added light to this crew’s heavily burdened mission of death. Despite his being a minor character from Melville’s Moby Dick, Pip’s role on the Pequod’s tragic stage dramatizes a fear closer to the soul than that of death…the fear of being utterly, entirely, and forever alone, a castaway. On account of a crew member’s injury, the lowly Pip finds himself lowering down into a whale-chasing boat, with its plenitude of perils: from the sharks that accompany them in gore’s anticipation; to the ropes encircling the crew; to the razor-sharp harpoons and lances dancing about; to the whales themselves, crashing the hull to pieces or capsizing the party entirely. The first whale his party harpoons makes a run, rapping on the boat right under poor Pip’s seat. Pip involuntarily jumps from the boat, paddle in hand, and entwines himself with the rope, which happens to be attached to both the whale and the boat, mercilessly dragging him along. The chief mate, Stubb, with no little hesitation, finally cuts the rope (“Damn him, cut!”)—releasing the whale to save Pip. After an informal cursing by the crew, and a formal cursing by the chief mate, we hear some sage advice: “Stick to the boat, Pip, or by the Lord, I won’t pick you up if you jump; mind that.” Doubtless, you’ve guessed what happens next: “But we are all in the hands of the Gods; and Pip jumped again.” The difference—this time he avoided the rope. When the whale ran, taking the boat with him, “Pip was left behind on the sea, like a hurried traveller’s trunk. Alas! Stubb was but too true to his word…Out from the centre of the sea, poor Pip turned his crisp, curling, black head to the sun, another lonely castaway, though the loftiest and the brightest.” Such a fate not uncommonly occurs “almost invariably in the fishery, a coward, so called, is marked with the same ruthless detestation peculiar to military navies and armies.” Though his being left behind would have been no surprise, poor Pip was “by merest chance” seen and rescued at the Pequod’s hands. “But from that hour [Pip] went about the deck an idiot; such, at least they said he was.” Pip, in fact, no longer inhabits his own personality but spoke always as if Pip the coward had died, and he was but someone else entirely. How does such psychological destruction happen? What befalls a man bobbing in the sea, entirely alone? How does something as soft as the sea crush a soul? Melville’s focus falls not on the prospect of drowning but the specter of the isolated self. I cannot say it better than he: “the awful lonesomeness is intolerable. The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! Who can tell it? Mark, how when sailors in a dead calm bathe in the open sea—Mark, how closely they hug their ship and only coast along her sides.” The sea, endless, bottomless, boundless threatens to overwhelm surely the bounded, finite body of man, but even more his boundless immortal soul. Again, I will let Melville speak: “The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.” The Wisdom Pip discovers gains only the name of foolishness among his shipmates. His encounter with the God creating out of the depths annihilated him. Descending toward the nothingness from which God created, he found nothing over-against which to prop up himself, to define himself. In the face of God he became as nought, knew he was as nought. In proclaiming his own death to his shipmates, the death of Pip the coward lies a truth spoken in only slight hyperbole. Perhaps Pip calls himself nought because he has realized that in his smallness, even the awful waters that enshrouded him are themselves encircled by the awesome God who brought them into being, whose Spirit hovered over them in the beginning and sustains them now. What is man’s fear of loneliness? Why does man fly to society? Why does he tremble at being without any other? As Pip’s insane wisdom shows, man flies to society as a means to run from himself, from being forced to confront himself, small coward that he is. The joys of society, with its others to define oneself against and with, and its façade of control in the face of the unfeelingly powerful cosmos, draw us in. The fear of being alone is not that I am absent, no, for in society I become absent. The fear in being alone is not absence but presence—that I am never more present to myself. Despite being surrounded by nothing but open space and no one chasing me, there is nowhere to run. With Pip, either I survive the confrontation with self and own my smallness, or my personality is obliterated in the sweep of the waves of self-presence, a self-presence that leads to an encounter with the one, ironically, most “other”: God himself. Either way, I return from the experience of self a man insane. Glory to God for such wise fools as we might become, each of us a Pip.

Dr. Kent Lasnoski is an Associate Professor of Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Lander, WY with his wife and nine children, where they enjoy outdoor adventures.

3 Comments

  1. Chris ziglinski on 06/08/2022 at 7:04 PM

    Great commentary
    Check out glenelg country school videos on youtube for the the one Walter Mattson high school class on Moby-Dick. This guy is amazing! Nobody online has anything close to his insight. Start wchap 10-13 long sidebar….
    Respectfully, Chris Z.

  2. Dan Skopp on 06/09/2022 at 3:01 PM

    Great reading, Kent. It was good seeing you and the family, this month. Hope to see you all again, soon!

  3. M. Crotteau on 06/22/2022 at 10:06 PM

    “Man flies to society as a means to run from himself, from being forced to confront himself.” A fascinating in insight Dr. L. Perhaps this is why we fear silence as well, and having nothing to do.

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