…Go visit the Prairies in June, when for scores on scores of miles you wade knee-deep among Tiger-lilies—what is the one charm wanting?—Water—there is not a drop of water there! Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it? Why did the poor poet of Tennessee, upon suddenly receiving two handfuls of silver, deliberate whether to buy him a coat, which he sadly needed, or invest his money in a pedestrian trip to Rockaway Beach? Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all (Melville ).
What is this mysterious attraction we have to the sea? Melville calls it “the ungraspable phantom of life…the key to it all.” Since the dawning of human consciousness, the importance of water has been paramount. Civilizations were usually created near great bodies of water. Was it simply convenience, economics, or was the lure of the sea, lakes, and rivers something deeper, more primal?
It is not surprising that the human body and the physical earth are both about 75% water, thus asserting once again the validity of the Hermetic principle, As above, So below. It seems to apply universally, especially in the relationship between the earth and mankind.
The beginning of humanity lies in the seas and oceans. The image of the deep ocean is seared like a brand in our consciousness. It symbolizes the most primordial aspects of human being. It is no surprise that Melville would turn to this image to symbolize Ishmael’s quest for self-realization. Heraclitus tells us, “Water comes into existence out of earth, and soul out of water.” Soul, earth, and water are very closely intermingled. The ocean has been considered for millennia to be a symbol of the unfathomable and limitless, but also of potentiality, for all creation proceeds from it, the fons et origo. Jung considered the ocean to be a prime symbol for the collective unconscious. This tells me that soul is this ocean, although no one symbol can encompass it’s depth. Marcel Proust profoundly comments, “It is said that the saline fluid in our blood is merely the survival of the primordial sea element in us” (qtd. in Gebser 218).
Of the four classic elements of antiquity, water is perhaps the most transitional. It is an intermediary between life and death because it brings forth life in abundance, but it is also a destroyer par excellence. Just think of the disastrous Japanese tsunami in 2011, or Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I am also reminded of the Greek conception of death as having to pay Charon to cross the river Styx, prior to entering Hades. Soul is connected, yes, deeply connected to death and the Underworld.
The myth of Narcissus is mentioned by Melville in the above passage. What he says is quite interesting and mysterious: “because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned.” We know Narcissus fell in love with his own image in the water. He was not conscious of the fact that the image was his own. Eventually realizing his love would never be reciprocated, he killed himself. Because the soul has always been connected with water, and thus the deepest mysteries of human life, Narcissus died never realizing this beauty to be his own. There are enigmatic and deadly things in the soul/water/ocean. But it is also the font of all life and being. This is why the ocean is such a profound symbol. This “ungraspable phantom of life” is our soul, that which “we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans.” If Narcissus could have somehow become conscious of his own image, he would have experienced what Gebser calls the integral; what Jung calls individuation; and what Nietzsche calls the Ubermensch.
Gebser, Jean. The Ever-Present Origin. Trans. by Noel Barstad and Algis Mickunas. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. Project Gutenberg: 2008 <https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2701/2701-h/2701-h.htm>.
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