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.