Why we can’t foresee our future

An update from my reading of Moby Dick since I know YOU MUST BE CURIOUS. Every chapter is a vignette, about 6 pages or 3,000 words long, calculated as 13 words per line times 38 lines per page, meant to be read aloud to others in the candlelit bedtime of the 1850s which is how most books were consumed back then. Not to say Americans were stupid; in the mid-1800s, 90% of the U.S. population could read, but printed paper was scarce, TV didn’t exist, so other than sex, books were the main entertainment. People back then went to bed early, soon after sunset, because our circadian clocks are closely aligned with changes in daylight, so the oral reading and thus chapter length had to be brief; but because adults only need 8 hours of sleep an Earth cycle, they would later wake up for two or three hours in the middle of the night given the long dark periods of the Northern Hemisphere, and this was when most babies were created, because candles were expensive and who wants to read Moby Dick that late? There is a word for this mid-night wakefulness but I cannot find it. Anyway, 1800s’ short book chapters with cliffhangers tied to circadian rhythms meant to bring each reader back the next night are the root of modern Hollywood film cuts and those taunting Netflix it-will-soon-be-explained-maybe-in-the-next-episode sci-fi series. Fascinating. I digress.

So, the whale.

In Chapter Thirty-Five, “The Mast-Head,” Melville explains how the entire fortune of the whaling ships—spending three years sailing around Africa’s great horn with serious investments at stake!—resided on the youngest, greenest crew members climbing 100 feet in the air to hang on and look for whales out there. Imagine, the lunacy! Everything hinging upon a pimply teen up high, squinting in the sun, dreaming away.

It’s as if we put an entire agency’s new business process in the hands of the youngest intern instructing her, be watchful, please, we all count on you!

To be fair, there were three main masts, the lofty spires that held the biggest sails, and aware that young employees might slack off, whaling captains kept all three mast-heads manned at the same time. Three sets of eyes, looking yonder. Melville recounts even this was a mistake. These young men had likely gone to sea for a reason—

“Beware of enlisting in your vigilant fisheries any lad with lean brow and hollow eye, given to unseasonable meditativeness!”

Warning of this organizational insanity, Melville puts us in the mind of a seafaring lad, newly sprung from home farming in New England, screw his parents who made him stack field stones into long cow walls, unused to the sea and now hanging on for dear life way up high with two feet balanced on horizontal sticks, not the fancy crow’s-nest of the cold-buttressed Greenland ships, Nantucket whalers couldn’t afford that, he just had to grip stronger—

“At last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly discovered, uprising find of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only the people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came …

“But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover.

“And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever”—

Such a passage, hoisting us with responsibility to peer over the horizon, always seeking new fortune, always in danger of falling in love with our dreams.

What I took from this is don’t worry about storms. Even the clearest days and bluest skies can be dangerous.

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