This, said to us by the man who says of himself, “Call me Ishmael:”
It [the spermiceti] had cooled and crystallized to such a degree, that when, with several others, I sat down before a large Constantine’s bath of it, I found it strangely concreted into lumps, here and there, rolling about in the liquid part. It was our business to squeeze these lumps back into fluid. A sweet and unctious duty! No wonder that in old times this sperm was such a favorite cosmetic. Such a clearer! such a sweetener! such a softener! such a delicious mollifier! After having my hands in it for only a few minutes, my fingers felt like eels, and began, as it were, to serpentine and spiralize.
As I sat there at my ease, cross-legged on deck; after the bitter exertion at the windlass; under a blue tranquil sky; the ship under indolent sail, and gliding so surely along; as I bathed my hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, woven almost within the house; as they richly broke to my fingers, and discharged all their opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine; as I snuffed up that uncontaminated aroma—literally and truly, like the smell of spring violets; I declare to you, that for the time I lived as in a musky meadow; I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, washed my hands and my heart of it; I almost began to credit the old Paracelsan superstition that sperm is of rare virtue in allaying the heat of anger; while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.
Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, —Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come, let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.
Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity, not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy, but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country, now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally. In thoughts of visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.
I was in the eleventh grade. We were in an English literature class, a small room with maybe eighteen students, a teacher who wore her husband’s dress shirts, reading, as I remember, a list of “great books.” Specifically we were reading Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s novel about Ahab’s insane pursuit of the White Whale. That day we were focussed on Chapter 94, A Squeeze of the Hand, about the whalers on board the Pequod. The crew had killed a whale, and its carcass had been drawn alongside the Pequod. Crew members had climbed down onto the whale floating in the sea next to them and had begun the process of cutting it up. Their immediate goal was to get the spermaceti out of the whale into barrels on deck.
What struck me most deeply was the effect of the spermaceti on Ishmael and the other crew members, the feel of the spermaceti on their fingers, and the feel of their fingers touching one another in the barrel of spermaceti and the feelings that this touching prompted in him in the very milk and sperm of kindness.
Sitting in that classroom, at 17 years old, driven nearly crazy by the conundrum of my sexuality, and feeling that I had to find something to do with my life, even while my mother was saying my father’s drinking had ruined her life and I was exactly like him, and that she thought I was headed toward a wasted, wounded life, I was struck by Melville’s ability to move me, move my feelings, even move my dick to arousal at the thought of holding other men’s hands in the tun of spermaceti, and to do this one hundred years after he was dead! I had always been told that I wrote well. I had written some short stories. I always did well in literature classes. I could write. I thought, I can do what Melville did.
I thought of the enormous power of a writer, his or her ability to affect the emotions and the minds of readers far removed from them in time and geography. I thought of the tools writers had at their disposal—repetition of words and concepts, metaphor and simile, grammar and punctuation, meter and rhythm. I thought of the immensely long rich history of the literature of my language, all the world’s languages coming together and feeding into our own—Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, German, French, Moorish, African, Russian, East Indian, Spanish, Portuguese, among a host of others—so as to make such a sentence possible All the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red, with its polysyllabic Latinate words playing off against the single syllables of the Anglo-Saxon making the green one red. At a time when, as a gay kid, I felt alone and abused and powerless, this immense literature was powerful and was there for me to use. At that time, I was dazzled by American literature, by the great founding documents, by We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and have certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, by the New England transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Self Reliance, Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter, Herman Melville and the book that was right in front of me, and by Mark Twain and Tom Sawyer, Henry James and his long list of masterpieces—Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, The Golden Bowl—and in the generation before me, F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, Ernest Hemingway and For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises, and A Farewell to Arms, and, for a Southerner, William Faulkner. Any of us, bookish kids in the South in the late fifties, who were discovering literature just at the moment that Faulkner was publishing his Snopes Trilogy, thought the most compelling possible endeavor to which to devote one’s life was writing a book like The Sound and the Fury, and all of us bookish kids in the South in the late fifties reverberated to Shreve’s question at the end of Absalom! Absalom!
“Now I want you to tell me just one thing more. Why do you hate the South?”
“I don’t hate it,” Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; “I don’t hate it,” he said. I don’t hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it! as we struggled—and failed—to deal with the world we were inheriting. Absalom, Absalom! p. 303.
Melville called forth in me the emotions that Ishmael felt on board the Pequod squeezing sperm, and it may have been spermaceti that led me to civil rights. He also gave me an exhaustively researched technical treatise on the whaling industry, a sociological treatise on class issues in New England, another about multicultural society in New England in the early nineteenth century, an exciting story filled with suspense which is straight out of King Kong, a lesson in geography, all of which is essential to the central story of Ahab, Queequeg, Ishmael, and the White Whale. If it had been technically possible to have tracked the course of the Pequod across the southern Atlantic and Pacific, this story would certainly be huge enough to have been seen from space. Writing a big, long, deeply moving, deeply moral, encyclopedic novel seemed to me to be the very goal I was looking for, but I never considered that it was possible to write about anything truly important that happens on Earth without addressing the deep crimes that men have done to each other. Wars. Slavery. Assassination. Torture. Poverty. Discrimination. Carelessness, Multitudinous forms of oppression. Control of our own bodies. Willful prevention of knowledge. Disenfranchisement. The brutal treatment to which gay men and women have been subjected at the hands of the Christian Church. There is nobody else, no power in the universe, able to make us kill each other but ourselves. And like astronauts getting to the moon then turning around and looking back at ourselves on earth, it was impossible to see ourselves without seeing where we are in the universe. It would be a willful act of negation to try to write of me—focussing on what I did and how I felt—without taking in what was done to me, and, of course, what I did to them. What is my condition?
So I was drawn to a certain kind of life different from all my tribe, even before I had gotten out of high school, and to a certain kind of novel, beginning with a certain kind of physical intimacy, like Ishmael’s fingers in the tun of sperm or Queequeg’s leg thrown over Ishmael’s thigh, so entirely sociable and free and easy were we (Chapter 11, Nightgown). My life was set in high school.
This is the third in a series of blog posts about reading and writing and about my books and, of course, about the LGBTQ community, who are riding on planet Earth along with everyone else as it falls through space.
Herman Melville. Moby Dick. Penguin Books, 1992.
William Faulkner. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage International, 1986.