Perspectives from the Himalaya

Laundry Laps and Literary Leviathans

There is something quite meditative and magnetising about hanging out fresh laundry on a windy day. Just watching lines of washed cotton hanging on stretched wire dry under the sun, releasing moisture into the atmosphere.

All was calm until the wild wind from the west arrived.

It came howling and punching like an anguished agonising force attempting to pull away the sheets. The cloth pegs kept their teeth clenched. But chaos and displacement set in. Blow after blow, the sheets flapped and billowed, slid and twisted. Then, seemingly low-spirited, the wind devilishly changed its rhythm. It fluttered around the damp corners giving a subdued impression that it had mellowed down. When all was back in order, the feisty wind revealed itself again! This time the evil gust huffed and puffed callously with blustery blows. And there they soared into the horizon, jerking and wrenching and heaving spasmodically from the tempest. Only time could tell if these little faithful pegs would hold their ground. They did.

The next day and the day after, zephyr paid a visit and came in gentle swirls. The sheets hung languidly in azure skies. All was still and calm. Twenty-one washing cycles whirled for three days; then the smoothing of wrinkles and creases, folding and tucking, squaring and double squaring. The final acts of laundry were stacked in mounts ready to fill the shelves again. And there, laundry laps were done. Clean white fabric filled with sunshine warmth tucked in their cradle, awaiting the next knock on the door.

Like swelling square sails on the Pequod that left Nantucket to whale in the vast open ocean, the fluttering sheets on the washing line bring to mind the hunt for Moby Dick. Herman Melville’s masterpiece has filled my reading sphere with awe for months. I am captivated; every chapter is an extraordinary journey. His sentences grow increasingly complex, stretching the boundaries of syntax and delving into more obscure references as the narrative progresses beyond Nantucket. His language drips with connotations, allegory, and symbolism. Some call it the giant Shakespearean prose poem.

E.M. Forster comments that “as long as we read Moby Dick as a yarn or an account of whaling interspersed with snatches of poetry, it is an easy book. But as soon as we catch the song in it, it grows difficult and immensely important… its prophetic song flows athwart the action and the surface morality like an undercurrent. It lies outside the words…we cannot catch the words of the song… Moby Dick is full of meanings: its meaning is a different problem. It is wrong to turn the Delight and the coffin into symbols, because even if the symbolism is right, it silences the book. Nothing can be stated about the books except that it is a contest. The rest is song.”

I spent myriad dawns reading and re-reading passages to unravel his texts because I truly wanted to understand all of it or at least, as much as possible through a first read. One can sense that we are in the presence of something monolithic. Melville’s reflections are wild, his references are intellectually challenging, he conjures a world with ungraspable layers of life and his immense wordplay and vocabulary give wit and humour. Moby Dick in some sense, is not a book, but rather an experience. It is a transfiguration and transmutation of ideas hung around the vast and unknowable shape of the whale, a unique meeting of human history and natural history. Above all, it is one of its kind that came into the world, singular.

To my mind, there is only one other author whose works bear comparison. Reading Moby Dick brings back memories of Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. These works struck an unexplainable deep chord. A kind that can only elevate these authors as literary leviathans. Coincidentally, Herman Melville and George Eliot were born in the same year – 1819. The parallels in their birth year and their enduring impact invite intriguing speculation about potential intersections in their literary journeys. I cannot help but wonder if these two leviathans knew of each other’s existence.

The wind had come to a lull. Darkness was shortly licked up by fierce flames from the pit. The burning wood illuminated every face huddled around the square of fire. Smoke curled around the spoken and the unspoken. Seated were the shapes of beings seeking to share their stories. As voices rose and fell, the gathering echoed with mirth and applause.

Stories shared help build up our lives; what we have been through and with whom we surround ourselves. The experiences gained may not always be positive building blocks but they shape us into who we are. We accumulate layers and as the years pass, we hope to better recognise the constructive ones to hold onto and to let go of harmful ones. Each experience, whether filled with ease or laden with adversity adds depth and richness to our build-up.

“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.” Moby-Dick

Ishmael, the narrator reflects on the complexities of human emotions and experiences. The “wisdom that is woe” suggests that sometimes suffering can lead to a deeper understanding or insight into life. However, there is also a “woe that is madness,” implying that excessive sorrow can lead to despair or insanity. The reference to the “Catskill eagle” serves as a metaphor for the human spirit’s ability to navigate through the darkest parts of life and rise above them. Even when the eagle dives deep into the “blackest gorges,” it has the potential to soar back up and find itself in sunny, open spaces. Like the mountain eagle, we can reach great heights despite experiencing moments of sorrow and there lies the potential for transcendence and growth.