Sunday, February 26, 2017

Keep True

My intern, a graduating FIT Senior, has a very busy Wednesday, a day on which she has three classes. This past Thursday, when I asked how her previous day went, she replied that it was good and that they'd had a speaker, who was very inspiring. I asked who the speaker was—and wasn't surprised to learn that it was the incomparable Debbie Millman, who talked about overcoming rejection.

Everyone has been rejected. But few people overcome rejection and dejection as brilliantly and with such intelligent focus as Debbie. In addition to persevering, Debbie is a gifted storytelling, weaving anecdotes about herself while guiding others to overcome.

• • •

Bear with me here. The waters get a bit deep and roiled. My comparisons will be a bit  grandiose. And I'm not necessarily comparing Millman to Melville—although I could argue that, like Melville, Millman incorporates all aspects of her voracious reading into a body of work. Where am I going with this?

Well, I just finished both Moby-Dick, the novel, and Nathaniel Philbrick's Why Read Moby-Dick? Philbrick succinctly discusses many of the themes of the novel and how they apply so universally to the pre-Civil War United States or to the Vietnam Era or, most obviously to us, our time of Trump. Writing Moby-Dick was not easy. After meeting Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose work pulses with the power of darkness, Melville scrapped a lot of his whaling yarn and reworked it into the novel everyone so admires. It went well, but it didn't. That is, Melville completed his astounding trove of a book and it was published, but to bad reviews. The book didn't sell well. Melville and his famous eventually moved from the Berkshires to New York, where Melville worked as a customs inspector for almost twenty years. Neither he nor his family knew that decades would pass before his magnum opus would surface as a daunting but beloved classic.

Here's where Millman and Melville dovetail: in their pursuit of what makes them themselves. I can't put it better than Philbrick:
After Melville's death, his family found a possible clue as to how he managed to survive the forty-year backwash left by the creation of Moby-Dick and, indeed, how he came to write that novel in the first place. Atop a table piled high with papers was a portable writing desk. Taped inside the desk, which had no bottom [a metaphor waiting to be cracked open?], was a piece of paper with a motto printed on it: "Keep true to the dreams of thy youth."
Philbrick explains that the phrase comes from the German poet and dramatist Friedrich Schiller. He also comments that despite Melville's melancholy disposition, woes, disappointments, shortcomings and rejections, his late-in-life letters indicate that he eventually returned to the "view espoused by Ishmael in Moby-Dick."  Philbrick writes, "this redemptive mixture of skepticism and hope, this genial stoicism in the face of a short, ridiculous, and irrational life, is why I read Moby-Dick."

It's why—among other reasons—I'll re-read Moby-Dick and Why Read Moby-Dick—and why I'll continue to read articles and listen to podcasts by (or about) Debbie Millman. It's also why I'll dive into what takes time to burn off blubber (I know; lame) and return to/tend to those dreams.

"Keep true to the dreams of thy youth."

Moby-Dick has inspired a LOT of gorgeously illustrated and produced editions. The images above are by Rockwell Kent, who created these illustrations in 1930. The image is a spread from Rockwell Kent, An Anthology of His Work, Edited with an Introduction by Fridolf Johnson, published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1982. Design direction and graphics by R. Scudellari; design and coordination by Naomi Osnos. (Cool trivia for me: Rockwell Kent was born in Tarrytown, NY)

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