Wonderful and Unmentionable Things

Wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable; deep memories yield no epitaphs….—Herman Melville

As I continue my reading of Moby-Dick this phrase makes me pause. Melville was of course presuming upon a readership that understood the habit of reticence. A century and half later we find ourselves in a highly publicized society with a ubiquity of personal details and opinions shouted forth from bumper stickers, television shows, online social media, etc. It’s not just topics like sex that are thus revealed, though that is one of the more blatant areas of excess.

Melville reminds us that not all experiences need to be translated into a topic of common conversation. When I look at heroes, athletes and even pop stars of a few decades ago it is amazing how essentially bashful they were compared to today’s prancing idiots, who draw attention not to their often dubious achievements but to their narcissistic lives. By contrast, consider what Ishmael says during a meal at the Spouter Inn about an older generation of men:

I was preparing to hear some good stories about whaling; to my no small surprise, nearly every man maintained a profound silence. And not only that, but they looked embarrassed. Yes, here were a set of sea-dogs, many of whom without the slightest bashfulness had boarded great whales on the high seas—entire strangers to them—and duelled them dead without winking; and yet, here they sat at a social breakfast table—all of the same calling, all of kindred tastes—looking round as sheepishly at each other as though they had never been out of sight of some sheepfold among the Green Mountains. A curious sight; these bashful bears, these timid warrior whalemen!

One of the marvels of deeply personal feelings is that they are often unique and incommunicable. That they cannot always be fully described is perhaps as good a reason as any other for not trying. Only occasionally can they be shared with others. On a related point, Melville touches on something when speaking of Captain Ahab’s whaling vessel, the Pequod

The helmsman who steered by that tiller in a tempest, felt like the Tartar, when he holds back his fiery steed by clutching its jaw. A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.

What is deeply sad or joyful or beautiful is touched by a nobility that should never be treated in a silly or gossipy fashion. And what is melancholy is not meant for exhibitionistic displays. Indeed I think it is our reserve about unmentionable things which protects their dignity and our own.

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