THAT WHICH PROMPTS US TO GO (Ishmael and the sea) Bye John Watts



I love books that start directly with a proposition and a plan that hits straight at the heart and sets a course for what will come next. There is no ambiguity and no slowly nuanced introduction of background descriptions.

Whether they be fiction or non-fiction there is something noble and heroic about a boldly stated adventure on the very first page.  In such cases, the preexisting condition is usually outlined followed by the declaration for a cure.  And the tonic is clear and courageous:  “Out There.”  The LEAVING in order to ARRIVE at some other place; both geographically and spiritually.

An opening sentence and first page like the one in Melville’s Moby Dick feels immediately current and contemporary to any wanderer who becomes spellbound by the ocean.

“Call me Ishmael. 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. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, sometime or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

What lines could be more evocative in describing a misfit in need of a prescription?  But the brand of wander lust is not limited to salt water or the most far flung reaches of the globe.  A writer with a unique voice following their own muse can just as easily write of travel within one’s own county or town and still speak with the same scale of excitement and import.  This is one of the great miracles and talents of the human imagination; we constantly dream up new variations and conditions of voyaging that is new and compelling and needs to be read—just as cleverly as new Guinness Book of World Records are spawned.  The fact that Manifest Destiny and the country flags of great explorers have already been planted centuries ago on mountain tops and arctic poles, matters little.  In fact, delineations and degrees of civilization or wilderness matter little when it comes to artistic perception and conceptual originality.

And lastly, I include an excerpt from the first page of a more recent travel classic, “Blue Highways” by William Least-Heat Moon.

“BEWARE thoughts that come in the night. They aren’t turned properly; they come in askew, free of sense and restriction, deriving from the most remote of sources. Take the idea of February 17, a day of canceled expectations, the day I learned my job leaching English was finished because of declining enrollment at the college, the day 1 called my wife from whom I’d been separated for nine months to give her the news, the day she let slip about her “friend” — Rick or Dick or Chick. Something like that.”

That night, as I lay wondering whether I would get sleep or explosion, I got the idea instead. A man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go. He could quit trying to get out of the way of life. Chuck routine. Live the real jeopardy of circumstance. It was a question of dignity. The result: on March 19, the last night of winter, I again lay awake in the tangled bed, this time doubting the madness of just walking out on things, doubting the whole plan that would begin at daybreak—to set out on a long (equivalent to half the circumference of the earth), circular trip over the back roads of the United States. Following a circle would give a purpose— to come around again — where taking a straight line would not. And I was going to do it by living out of the back end of a truck. But how to begin a beginning?”

Who amongst us can’t relate to the tossing’s and turnings of a middle of the night plan of action?

Repeat readings never dull the chill and excitement of reading such opening pages.

This bears remembering for us every time there is some new marker on the calendar that challenges us to think up something akin to a New Year’s Resolution.  Often times we find that the ideas have been brewing inside us for many, many years.

Of course these characters have very divergent outcomes and hardships along their journey.  But it is we the reader that is ennobled and made the better for it. But it is those first pages that really grab our attention and take us—our brains, heart and soul—on these wild rides.  The bluntness of the first page remains permanently etched inside us forever—“Call me Ishmael.”  “Beware thoughts that come in the night.”  Once lines such as these are uttered, the GAME is afoot and there is no turning back!

And the fictional and non-fictional, the artistic and the artless, the universal and the specific, all coalesce to become timelessly representative of what is best and the most noble in all of us.


About John Watts

I like to write transcendental community based essays and stories along with photo journalism pieces.
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