Same Words

Depth of experience fashions a groove in your brain that plays again through analogy. A ‘like’ experience serves as a reminder that literally brings the experience to mind. Our minds, being imperfect analogue devices, recreate the experience as best as possible with the result being more like the ghost at the other end of Edison’s machine, a simulacrum rather than a recreation. It’s easy to become lost in it, grasping for the original, yet it can be more instructive to keep both in view at once.

Yesterday I spent an hour of my day talking about Ishmael with my lit students. When I was sixteen, I tried reading Moby Dick for the first time. I didn’t succeed. I tried again a year later, and failed again. I began to think that I would resort to pistol and ball before finishing this terrifying leviathan of a book, but then, five years later, a summer came that allowed for long hours spent reading. I plunged into Melville’s strange world and was never the same. The book, more than any other in my life, transformed me.


Now, when I try to communicate its power to my students, I feel at a loss.


But I cannot recreate myself from years ago. I see different words on the page now. That famous first line now shimmers like the flash of a fish coursing through deep waters. Ishmael asks us to call him by a name we can’t trust is his own. Already, we wobble without our sealegs, the flux of language and the interpretive act a jostling business that almost makes us sick if we think too much about it. Nothing is fixed and all is ambiguous. The only thing to worship is mystery, yet we should fear it as well. “He will infallibly lead you to water,” but water reflects and drowns.

Much has changed since I first scrutinized these words, reading them aloud for their cadence and their story.

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