Whenever I play Rock-Paper-Scissors I have an urge to change the rules of the game. If my hand could command Water rather than any of the other three, I’d never lose. Scissors rust as water easily slices through them, and paper dissolves, and as rocks erode they’re washed away as sand. I’m like everyone else: I don’t like to lose. But I’d rather put an end to an argument than lose my mind. I know a few losers who don’t share my view. They think they’re never wrong.
In my college days we sorted profs into two camps––Steel Woolies and Warm Woolies. Warm Woolies let us talk and helped us find our way. Steel Woolies rubbed us wrong and were never Wrong. Capital W––nothing in between––Period.
|Emilio DeGrazia has authored four books of fiction, including Seventeen Grams of Soul, winner of a Minnesota Book Award, and Enemy Country, winner of a Writer’s Choice Award.|
My Warm Woolie sister is a Steel Woolie Christian who predictably shoots out a Rock fist even though she’s smart enough to know I’ll predictably Paper her Rock. And when my mouth shoots out a quip that nips at the edges of her hard-core beliefs, she lets out a demonic little laugh as she smashes my Scissors to bits with her Rock.
It’s tempting to go head-to-head with true believers whose authority is based on complex and sometimes incomprehensible texts such as Bibles, Korans, and antique legal documents whose ambiguities and silences on matters of contemporary importance have calcified in some minds into simple Truth. The temptation to argue with them I try to resist by meditating on how Melville’s great whale sees the world. A whale is a huge creation with one eye on each side of a huge head. “In a word,” says Melville in his whale bible, “the position of the whale’s eyes corresponds to that of a man’s ears,” a physiology well designed for listening. Therefore, is it not probable, as Melville suggests, that the whale “can at the same moment of time attentively examine two distinct prospects, one on each side of him, and the other in an exactly opposite direction?”
Another temptation arises from this bi-polarity: The habit of calling everyone either a Rockhead or a Waterhead. Rockheads would be the Steel Woolies whose beliefs, once carved in stone, are recast in printed form as laws, sacred texts, and polemics. Rockheads, especially their talking head representatives, call people unlike themselves––especially other Rockheads who don’t hold the same beliefs––infidels, fanatics, terrorists, other names, and Dead Wrong. Waterheads are like Warm Woolied evolutionists, certain only that beliefs change and that survival depends on the ability to adapt. A few Waterheads, sometimes at a loss for words, turn the other cheek to avoid cracking heads.
Since even whale bibles are written in languages difficult to understand, and since I believe exegesis saves, I’ll try to make even better sense of Melville’s turgid prose. My view is that Melville’s whale is simultaneously a Rockhead and a Waterhead. If the whale were double-crossed into being human rather than animal its mind would be a symphony of opposing views. The performance in the whale’s head would be attended by realists and idealists, extremists and moderates, Creationists and Darwinists, capitalists and socialists, pro-lifers and pro-choicers, Republicans and Democrats, and, simultaneously, those trying to advance the claims of black and white, prose and poetry, reason and intuition, fact and myth, shore and sea, permanence and process. We’d all be members of congress in that head, listening to more than simple-minded tunes.
While whales loll in the seven seas I live on shore in a brick house full of clocks, none of which tells precisely the same time. I find it easy to panic when the shifty quicksands of time move along without either my approval or any particular approval of me. I too feel the need for at least a soft core of belief, something substantial enough to hitch my fading star. My Rockhead religious friends tell me I need to believe that the universe was created in six days, that Eve was made from Adam’s rib, that Jesus walked on water, and that inexhaustible martyrs in heaven get to enjoy 28 young virgins as thanks for their good work. Rockhead patriots tell me that the U.S. Constitution makes it as clear as window glass that U.S. citizens have a perfect right to carry AK-47s into grocery stores.
But I see through a glass darkly. Even though the Rockhead in me wants to draw lines in the sand, the Waterhead in me is dominant. Through my dark glass I see that throughout the ages Rock-of-Ages creeds, codes and beliefs have had many conversion experiences. I also see that the Rockhead truth Heraclitis established centuries ago still stands unmoved in the stream of history: We never step into the same stream twice.
I try to balance the solid and liquid in me into what I prefer to call common sense. Because I live downstream I have good reason to believe that all the lines drawn in upstream sand one day will, in some shape or formlessness, end up in my yard. I do my best to fight off my urge to change the rules of the Rock-Paper-Scissors game, mainly because I remember from my Sunday School days the old story about how God (unfairly, I firmly believe) used water to wipe out the whole world. Whenever that urge comes on to win at all costs I know it’s time to find a cozy ark-like bed and take a nap. Naps are a good enough way to tread water or muddle through the craziness of troubled times. Naps are renown for causing civility, and they’re famous for cleansing the brain of madness, cruelty, and noise. More than a few honored saints have described the floating sensation naps provide, the blessed calm that grounds their souls in deep water sounds resembling the songs of whales.