The Monkey Rope

If you haven’t gotten around to reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick you should. I just finished reading it and, next to the Bible, no other book comes close to Moby Dick’s sprawling, hallucinatory weirdness. It reads like a long prose poem, a philosophical horror novel, a meditation on our relationship with the natural world and, well, who knows what else.

I’m haunted by one chapter in particular, “The Money Rope.” In this chapter Melville describes the narrator, Ishmael, tied by a line to Queequeg, who is assigned to the dangerous task of cutting up a whale over the side of the ship. Melville, as he does often in this book, moves from the gruesome particulars of whaling to a metaphor about the human condition.

So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death. Therefore, I saw that here was a sort of interregnum in Providence; for its even-handed equity never could have sanctioned so gross an injustice. And yet still further pondering–while I jerked him now and then from between the whale and the ship, which would threaten to jam him–still further pondering, I say, I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only, in most cases he, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals. If your banker breaks, you nap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die. True, you may say that, by exceeding caution, you may possibly escape these and the multitudinous other evil chances of life. But handle Queequeg’s monkey-rope heedfully as I would, sometimes he jerked it so, that I came very near sliding overboard. Nor could I possibly forget that, do what I would I only had the management of it.

In our highly individualized, deracinated age we all can benefit from a reminder of the inescapable ties that bind us.

You can read Moby Dick online via Project Gutenberg and you can also listen to a free version read by an eclectic bunch of actors and artists and accompanied by a work of art for each chapter.

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