The Meteor, The Whale, Hubris, and Awe


     This morning I thought back on this.

     Oddly, perhaps, the yellow-white hot streaking ball — is there some comic-cosmic rule about which God’s seen fit to keep me in the dark: do meteors have to, absolutely have to plummet into frozen Siberian lakes? Why not, say, Bloomington, Minnesota’s Mall of America (at 3:00 a.m., of course)…? Oddly, too, the 22,000 pound post-Communist Meteor — news of political change travels snail-like over the tundra, and what’s twenty-four years in Meteor-Time?

     The thing put me singularly in mind of my Fall Term, 1969 Penn freshman English professor, 19th-Century American Gothic and Poe scholar, and then-president of the Poe Society, rail-thin, six-foot-six, Benjamin Franklin Fisher, IV and his off-hand first-day-of-class remark that the fifty or so of us would be, to his delight, whittled to perhaps twenty, better yet, to fifteen, by his first assignment. “You shall read-and-know” Moby Dick, all 599 pages, “and in addition, ladies and gentlemen, you shall come prepared a week hence to thrall me, I say again, to thrall me. You, whomever I choose (and I will choose numbers of you from whoever’s left)…you will discuss, based on a paper you shall type, your thorough understanding of Ahab’s sin, his True Evil.”

     And yes, the Siberian hot rock put me in mind of Professor Fisher’s challenge (to which perhaps eight others and I rose, to his glee  —  he actually danced a brief jig when he saw how few we now were).

     I am not an astronomer; I graduated only because in those years Penn’s science requirement could be satisfied by psych courses. I am not a scientist but my literature studies taught me awe for nature and the Platonic Who who just well may lurk above and behind the natural world — I realize that may sound over-quaint, but they did, those lit courses, confirm that for me.

     And what I know is that Ahab’s Evil is our collective Original Sin — we believe we are the Who who lurks above and behind the natural world and we dance and jig throughout our lives, making of ourselves an infant’s hubristic celebration of our intelligence, our wisdom, our dignity, our power and our quite pathetically weak bid for Control, as Ahab did, never grasping, despite the continuous, deadening thud of his long-since whale-chewed wooden leg, what ought to have reminded him but of course did not, of The Whale’s, of Nature’s, and of the Who’s who may lurk above and behind, ultimate Control, and how we really ought recognize and perhaps say aloud what Ahab would not, say it aloud at least every so often — as, for instance, when, from above and behind, eleven-ton chunks of galactic rock visit us: killing the White Whale, particularly for something as small and venal as revenge, ought to be beneath us, and that the only proper human posture is awe.

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