Saturday, March 29, 2008

Starbuck, A Cup of Courage

Dear Herman Melville,

There are some human characteristics that seem to be falling away in this modern world . It's not so much that we don't need them any more, but that we have been insulated from the practice of the real stuff, the rehearsal of the scales and triads, so much that when time comes for the center stage performance we find ourselves shuffling through our sheets.

Musing over a cup of Starbucks, est. just 1971, I've been thinking about courage. And, as I think, it seems like it's about 50% opaque. It's fading and I'm not sure what to do about it.

Now, foolhardy, we've got that, with skateboarders jumping and sliding down railings, with universities investing, not so much in the education of philosophers, but in the pummeling of orange and white clad gents against blue and silver ones. Foolhardy we've got. But courageous? Sipping my cupajo, I'm not sure.

I like the description of the first mate in Moby Dick. Now that is about courage. "I will have no man in my boat who is not afraid of a whale," he says, with Ishmael noting that "The most reliable and useful courage arises from a fair estimate of the encountered peril." But we here in 2008 have so been insulated from certain kinds of perils, that we haven't played our scales in the practice of building our repetoire of courage. We haven't even sailed a skiff in anything but virtual waters, so how could we ever properly turn our faces into the typhoon if encountering a whale of a perilous moment. We wouldn't know what to fear and what to courageously stand against.

An "utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward," you say during your description of life with the first mate of the Pequod, who considered courage to be one of the great staple outfits, hauled on board with salt pork and tobacco for a long, hazardous voyage; a staple to be used with discretion so that the barrel containing it will not be found sparse when it is most needed. When I think of a coffee urn run dry, I find myself a bit nervous. Avast, what would I do on shipboard?

"The chief mate of the Pequod was Starbuck, a native of Nantucket, and a Quaker by descent. He was a long, earnest man, and though born on an icy coast, seemed well adapted to endure hot latitudes, his flesh being hard as twice-baked biscuit." The "welded iron of his soul" addressed the "wild, watery, loneliness" of his life with a conscientious courage, and one that we might well model ourselves after, (I with cup in hand rather than harpoon.)

To Starbuck, "courage was not a sentiment; but a thing simply useful to him, and always at hand upon all mortally practical occasions." But, it was a thing that he had refined through practice over the years. Perhaps, we moderns need to spend a little more time on whalers to get ourselves practiced up in courage.



Dan Trabue said...

Love Melville - his individual lines and excerpts perhaps more even than the whole of any of his stories. His is such poetic language.

brd said...

I enjoy the language too. Such a different style than writers of today. Luxurious prose, if sometimes a little congested with, well, words.

Dan Trabue said...

Some years ago--never mind how long precisely--having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.

Moby Dick's second sentence]

There are some strange summer mornings in the country, when he who is but a sojourner from the city shall early walk forth into the fields, and be wonder-smitten with the trance-like aspect of the green and golden world...

It is not down in any map; true places never are...

Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian...

Friendship at first sight, like love at first sight, is said to be the only truth...

Heaven have mercy on us all - Presbyterians and Pagans alike - for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.

~Herman Melville

brd said...

Amen! Especially that part about sleeping with drunken Christians.

I'm not sure about friendship "at first sight", but certainly friendship and love are the best truths in all of the world, watery or upon the golden shore.

Thanks for the GREAT quotes.

BB-Idaho said...

Since today IS April Fools Day, 'courage' immediately brings to mind Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz.."What makes a muskrat guard it's musk? Courage!!" *apologies*

brd said...

BB--What I love about your comment is that the "Cowardly Lion" did really generate the same kind of courage as Starbuck, a reluctant courage, and one that was plucky, not unnecessarily, but conservatively and with cognizance of the peril.

"What has he got, that I haven't got?"
"You can say that again."