As George Handley notes in his reflection on the story of Pip, the cabin boy in Moby Dick, Melville depicts Pip’s mental state, or “vision,” following his brief abandonment at sea, which his shipmates perceive as madness, as more truly an essential form of wisdom. But what, then, are we to make of those of us who, as it were, never have such an experience, and perhaps never speak, as Pip did, “God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom”?
As it happens, writer David Foster Wallace responds
to that question in a 1996 essay reflecting on his own experience on a Caribbean cruise, which in his treatment comes across not only as the starkest kind of contrast with Pip’s experience, but also as an occasion not for a deeper vision, or even of pleasure or enjoyment, but of despair.
Early in the essay, provocatively and sassily titled “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” Wallace notes that a few weeks before his own cruise a sixteen-year-old boy had committed suicide by jumping from the upper deck of a cruise ship. “The news version”, he writes,
…was that it had been an unhappy adolescent love thing, a shipboard romance gone bad, etc. I think part of it was something else, something there’s no way a real news story could cover.
There is something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive and complex in its causes and simple in its effect: on board the Nadir (his name for the ship)—especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased—I felt despair.
Reflecting on this account of the cruise experience, which, I’ve found, friends who have gone on cruises strenuously disavow, Wallace, who committed suicide himself in 2008, notes that he had always associated the ocean with dread and death, had, as a little kid “memorized shark-fatality data, and in school had actually written three different papers on ‘The Castaway’ chapter of Moby Dick”.
Bad. Pip’s experience. But not, in Wallace’s account, as bad as its opposite, the experience of a Luxury Cruise (the capitals are his).
For Wallace, the cruise is a downer. Big time. And the reason is precisely the luxury, cosseting and entertainment that characterize a cruise, reinforced by what I would call the ritual context in which passengers experience this, notably the obsessive cleaning of the ship and its cabins and appointments, epitomized by Wallace by toilets so “awesomely powerful…that your waste seems less removed than hurled from you in a way that lets you feel as though the waste is going to end up someplace so far away from you that it will have become an abstraction…a kind of existential-level sewage treatment”.
All this, Wallace writes, is “clearly meant to represent the Calvinist triumph of capital and industry over the primal decay-action of the sea”.
And that—the polar opposite of the experience of poor Pip, alone and unaccommodated out there in the ocean—Wallace suggests, can lead to despair.
If this seems preposterous, and certainly contrary to the experience of most who go on a cruise, it may be because a cruise, as Wallace describes it, is really the epitome of a way of life and a system of values that we in the modern West tend to take for granted.
That is, a way of life based not merely on the promise that we can “Do it all,” as the cruise brochure promises, that we can somehow be kept clean and free of any kind of distasteful thing or imperfection, or that a sufficient array of goods and services will satisfy all our wants, “but that such a promise is keepable at all”.
Wallace calls this “a big lie,” and adds in a footnote “It may well be the Big One, come to think of it”.
All this is uncannily consistent with the theory of values we are exploring here. Considered in terms of that set of ideas, Pip has had a profound encounter with mortality, that is to say with existential shame. And that looks to me like what Wallace describes as his own despairing sense on the ship at night of being “small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die”.
Like most of us in a shame-denying, ritual-deprived culture, Pip lacks means of dealing with this effectively. But despite this he achieves, as some do, what Melville, countering the judgement of Pip’s shipmates, characterizes as “heaven’s sense”, that is, a higher, deeper apprehension of experience.
“And therefore his shipmates called him mad.”
In contrast, the passengers on Wallace’s Nadir (his wise-guy nom de plume for the Zenith, the ship on which he took the cruise) are engaged in what looks from our perspective like a strenuous, well-equipped and well-supplied high-church ritual of shame denial.
The endless cuisine, the service and “pampering”, the obsessive cleanliness, the “vacuum toilets”…
All this distracts from what we propose is at least a, if not the, pathway to the experience of value.
And that just might lead down the path to despair.