So, I got this tattoo on Friday night.
If you’ve been following this blog for any amount of time, this should surprise you. It sure surprised me. Until about three weeks ago, I was one of those people who figured he was well past the point of ever considering a tattoo. Not that I had anything against people who’d chosen body art. Just wasn’t for me. Didn’t see the point to it.
And then, about three weeks ago, I came across a design. It’s a beautiful and simple design, telling a tale in a few brief lines. For a week, I couldn’t get the image out of my head. Two weeks ago, I took the design to a local tattoo artist. “Sure, we can do that,” he told me. I made an appointment for Friday, February 13th.
The design was a scene from my favorite book. Moby-Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville.
* * *
For as long as I can remember, Moby-Dick has been a part of my life. My introduction to it came by way of a Favorite Classics version, “adapted for young readers” by Felix Sutton, and illustrated (gorgeously) by H.B. Vestal. The text reduced the novel to the muscles and sinews of the adventure story at its heart, but it was the illustrations that really drew me in. Fantastic scenes of battles with whales, ships at sea, exotic characters. It’s dangerous, really, to give a child a picture book, far more dangerous than giving him a video game. You never know where that book will take him, or what tunes it may strum in her heart.
* * *
There was a summer when I was 12, and I and my family were in New England, visiting first my mother’s family in New Britain, Connecticut, and then my father’s side in Quincy, Massachusetts. I never lived in New England, not geographically, but the place was in my mother’s bones and in her soul, and she carried it with her wherever we lived, right down to the copy of Yankee magazine to be found in every home we had, no matter where. I was the youngest of four, and though I don’t remember the circumstances of the outing, I found myself spending a day in Mystic Seaport with my mother. It was rare to have a day with either parent all to myself, and I was old enough to know that such moments were to be treasured. Mystic Seaport is a village on the ocean preserved as a mid 19th-century whaling port, a small town to explore, with lots of hands-on crafts and demonstrations for kids in soap-making, scrimshaw, and other arts. I remember feeling honored, that out of us four kids it was me that my mother had chosen to share her heritage with. I was on my best behavior, but soon that didn’t matter; I fell in love with the place. Here I could walk on the whaling ships, and put my hands to the rigging that H.B. Vestal had so meticulously illustrated in my book. It was one of those magical times in a childhood where the love of a parent and the love of a book come together in one place in one afternoon, and are welded into your life.
Driving back to my aunt’s house at the end of the day, I told my mother that I wanted to read Moby-Dick.
“You’ve read that book a thousand times,” she laughed.
“No. Not the kid’s book. The book for adults. The real book,” I told her.
That afternoon must have made an impression on her as well, because instead of checking out a copy at the library – a necessity when raising four kids on a pastor’s salary – she bought me my own paperback copy. I was twelve years old, and I was going to read Herman Melville’s masterpiece for the first time.
* * *
I was twelve, but I wasn’t an idiot. I knew I was biting off more than I could chew. I understood that the massive novel Melville had written was an anchor in American Literature, and that writers and scholars were still arguing and admiring its depths of symbolism and allegory. This was the Mount Everest of AmLit, and I knew that a kid didn’t stand a chance of taking the behemoth down. I wasn’t a prodigy. I was just stubborn.
I don’t remember how long it took me. It might have been a few weeks, or it might have been the better part of a year, but I muscled through the thing. It turns out that Moby-Dick really is a great adventure story, but it’s a lot of other things too. Melville heaps on chapter after chapter of 19th century biology, cetology, and ecology, as well as step-by step instructions for hunting, harpooning, and carving up whales, as well as how to try out the oil from the whale’s blubber for use in the finest candles and lamps. Life aboard a ship is intricately described, as is the economics, legalities, and etiquette of the international whaling industry. Before Ishmael, the book’s garrulous narrator, even sets foot on the Pequod, we’re treated to extended travel essays on the towns of New Bedford and Nantucket. Ishmael will not be rushed in telling the tale of the White Whale.
But I did it. I didn’t cheat. I neither skipped nor skimmed, and when I reached the climactic battle on the sea in the final pages of the book, when Captain Ahab finally battles the monster who took his leg, and will now take from him his life, his ship, and all but one of his crew before giving himself to the sea, I felt I’d earned it. I hadn’t understood all of the story that Mr. Sutton had discarded from the version he gave the children of America in the Favorite Classics Library version, but I felt like I’d been privileged to take a look at the issues and language great authors had in store for me. If I worked for it. If I read hard enough and long enough and well enough. I felt like I’d been baptized into a new life as a reader.
* * *
I went on to read Moby-Dick two more times in my life; once in my twenties, and once in my thirties, and each time I found new surprises and new challenges in the book I thought I knew so well. Along the way I also grew as a film buff, but always avoided movie versions of the book, even the one starring the great Gregory Peck as Ahab. I can’t really explain why; maybe I just didn’t want to risk being disappointed by what Hollywood did with my treasured story.
I had to wait two weeks before the tattoo guy could fit me in, so it seemed fitting to pull the book down off the shelf one more time. By this time I’d acquired a lovely leatherbound edition, with an introduction by Clifton Fadiman and haunting charcoal illustrations by Boardman Robinson. Most of my reading these days is done on a Kindle, so the treat of a gilded hardcover felt especially luxurious. I surprised myself by finishing the book in just five evenings, especially enjoying this time the poetry of Melville’s prose. And as great books and films have new things to tell us as we grow wiser and ready to hear them, this is what I took from the novel on this reading in the sixth decade of my life:
Moby-Dick is freaking hilarious.
Oh, sure, it’s a dark story. The White Whale (I think) is Ahab’s externalization of all he loathes and fears in his own humanity, and it is himself he battles with, not God or nature. The Pequod‘s captain is surely one of the darkest and most obsessed figures in all of literature, knowingly destroying his own humanity in order to destroy the object of his obsession.
But the novel is also rich with satire, and where before I had only seen criticism of religion and Western civilization, in this reading Ishmael seemed to be a much lighter fellow. It didn’t seem to me as if civilization was something to be decried, but a grand joke that we all would be better served to be in on.
Take the harpooners. The three harpooners of the Pequod are all men outside of civilized society. They are the muscle, the guns of the crew, so it makes sense that whaling ships seek only brawn, not polish for the men who wield the harpoons. And indeed, the Pequod‘s three harpooners are Daggoo, an African, Tashtego, an American indian, and Queequeg, a South Seas islander. All three men are looked upon as savages by those around them, but all of them, in particular Queequeg, who is to become Ishmael’s guide and best friend, are consistently depicted as the most honorable and genteel men in the book. It is they who step up when a “Christian” act is required.
I’d always thought Melville was chiding us for not seeing their humanity. Instead he’s laughing at us, and with us. Take Ishmael’s observation of Queequeg, early in the novel:
Savage though he was, and hideously marred about the face – at least to my taste – his countenance yet had a something in it which was by no means disagreeable. You cannot hide the soul. Through all his unearthly tattooings, I thought I saw the traces of a simple honest heart; and in his large, deep eyes, fiery black and bold, there seemed tokens of a spirit that would dare a thousand devils. And besides all this, there was a certain lofty bearing about the Pagan, which even his uncouthness could not altogether maim. He looked like a man who had never cringed and never had had a creditor. Whether it was, too, that his head being shaved, his forehead drawn out in freer and brighter relief, and looked more expansive than it otherwise would, this I will not venture to decide; but certain it was his head was phrenologically an excellent one. It may seem ridiculous, but it reminded me of General Washington’s head, as seen in the popular busts of him. It had the same long regularly graded retreating slope from above the brows, which were likewise very projecting, like two long promontories thickly wooded on top. Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.
When I read that last line, I belly-laughed. My Bride looked over at me. “Are you still reading Moby-Dick?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “It’s awesome.”
* * *
I let The Knucklehead know about the tattooing as soon as I made the appointment, and while he was surprised, he was also supportive. Friday morning I texted him, “Wish me luck!” and he texted back, “Proud of ya, dad. Good luck today!” I wrote him back, “You don’t have to be ‘proud’ of me. I’m getting a tattoo, not donating a kidney.” But it felt good to have his blessing.
* * *
My tattoo artist is Jef, and I’d met him three years earlier, when he did a design for My Bride. So, apparently, Jef is now our family tattoo artist. His parlor is in a small college town in central Pennsylvania, and as I walked inside on a Friday evening, I felt more than a little conspicuous as the only non-twentysomething client on the premises. But Jef looks to be closer to my age than the college kids, and has a couple kids of his own.
Jef’s a good guy. He must have seen I was nervous, but he didn’t let on, and let me jabber away as he got to work. Once I realized that the pain of it was something I could handle (if I didn’t know I was being tattooed, I would have felt something extremely irritating was going on on my upper arm, as opposed to painful) I calmed down and asked him questions about his art. He’s a quiet guy with long graying hair and a beard, and what I first mistook for gravity turned out to be professional attention to his work. As I asked him about getting started in the business, his eyes lit up, and I could hear the 20-year-old kid in his voice excited to find an outlet for his artistry. Some of us sedate or even kill off the younger versions of ourselves, but I got the feeling that Jef is a man that keeps his around for the occasional counsel, and there’s a wisdom to that I admire. Jef talked about learning the trade, and about working quite a while as a tattoo artist before he worked up the nerve to tell his parents what he did for a living. He’d wandered around, but found his way back to home ground again. He seems happy to be back, doing work he loves.
As he was finishing up, the parlor had cleared out of other customers, and I saw that we had an audience of one of the other tattoo artists. He was as intent on Jef’s work as Jef was, nodding along somberly as he watched. “Is that design from a book?” he asked me.
“It is,” I told him. “It’s from Moby-Dick, my favorite book.”
The kid nodded gravely; he’d figured that was the case.
“That’s awesome,” he proclaimed. Reverently.
I took a long look at my fresh tattoo in the mirror, something three weeks earlier I’d have never considered.
He’s right. It is awesome.