Relating to Ishmael

September 27, 2018


A reflection from SSM Head of School, Matt Cavellier

This week, our Fesler-Lampert Performing Arts season opens with a one-man adaptation of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick titled Ishmael. The story of Moby Dick is ostensibly about Captain Ahab and his obsessive chase after the eponymous white whale. Even those with little knowledge of the book may be able to recite the first line: “Call me Ishmael.” Fun fact about that “first line”: it is not actually the first line of the novel. It is how chapter one begins, but it comes after two previous sections of text meant to induce the reader into believing the story they are about to read is factual—this was a common trope in literature at the time. But that is a digression perhaps best shared with English teachers and those interested in literary minutiae.

I must have passed the poster advertising Ishmael two dozen times in the last few days, and each time, I thought about chapter one, titled “Loomings.” In this chapter, Ishmael, as he implores us to call him, tells us that there are times when he gets “grim about the mouth” and “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in [his] soul,” he heads out to sea.

In other words, when things are not going well for Ishmael, he knows to return to a place that provides him stimulation, a place that provides him peace and happiness: the sea.

For all the rest that happens in the novel (Certainly I will provide you with no spoilers here!), it is this chapter, where Ishmael walks around Manhattan discussing his preparations and reasons for returning to sea, that always draws my attention. It is what I most associate with: like Ishmael, the place that provides me the most stimulation is also the place I find the most peace and happiness. And, these last several days, as I have walked past the posters and through the halls of Morgan, Dobbin, and Fayfield, I have thought about Ishmael’s walks around the city, his “circumambulations,” as he calls them. His descriptions of these walks make it clear that he is comfortable in his surroundings, that he knows them well, that they are home. Even so, Ishmael is restless.

Like Ishmael, I find comfort in these walks around our “town.”

I enjoy passing the students studying math in Kingham, relish in popping into the BioScience lab to watch the dissection of calf hearts, and find peace in sitting down to talk with seniors on the Red Carpet. But, unlike Ishmael, I have no restless desire to go to sea; there is plenty of stimulation, challenge, and pure enjoyment right here at Shattuck-St. Mary’s.

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