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“. . . consider them both, the sea and the land, and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?  For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life.  God keep thee!  Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return.”  [Chapter LVIII “Brit”]

In the above noted chapter, I couldn’t help but think of the tortured genius of Vincent Van Gogh as Melville captured my attention with his description of the yellow brit and azure sky:

“these monsters swam, making a strange, grassy, cutting sound; and leaving behind them endless swaths of blue upon the yellow sea. . . . Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure.”

As I read, baited and hooked, I warmly remembered a past trip to Egypt when I and my wife (much younger and adventurous then) sailed on the Nile to the island of Elephantine, surrounded by massive rocks that resemble elephants in the blue river water.

“Seen from the mast-heads, especially when they paused and were stationary for a while, their vast black forms looked more like lifeless black masses of rock than anything else.  And as in the great hunting countries of India, the stranger at a distance will sometimes pass on the plains recumbent elephants without knowing them to be such, taking them for bare, blackened elevations of the soil; even so, often, with him, who for the first time beholds this species of the leviathans of the sea.”

Ishmael inquires of us:  “. . . consider them both, the sea and the land, and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?”  He answers: “as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life.  God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return.”

I believe that Ishmael (Melville) proposes that the souls of men, like an “appalling ocean . . . encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life,” surround man’s yearning for a “verdant land . . . full of peace and joy.”  He warns:  “Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return.”

Perhaps if Van Gogh had not pushed off from that isle of yearning, he would not have lived such a tortured life.  If I had not experienced the mystical, Egyptian isle of Elephantine, surrounded by elephant-like mounds of rock, I would not have been as engaged, now, to Melville’s answer to his own question as well as to his dire warning.  Mystical azure water and skies surround the yellow land of brit, as Ishmael philosophizes, and the souls of the seamen surround their eternal, and necessary, yearning for an aesthetic of purpose.

photo: https://en.wikipedia.or /…/Wheat_Fields_%28Van_Gogh_series%…

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