Did Herman Melville Do DMT? [Trenchant Edges]
Yeah, it's more Moby Dick. Some fool quoted Melville yesterday and realized that you'd been spared the two best scenes in the book.
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, the newsletter where I nag you all into reading Moby Dick and you listen because that’s how people work.
Or, maybe it’s just me wanting a light day? Who can say. A better writer would have made a Moby Dick Reference here. Unless this is a Bartleby the Scrivener reference and you just don’t know.
(it’s not, I’ve never read Bartleby the Scrivener)
Wait, did you say DMT?
My only piece of evidence for this is a passage in Moby Dick where the black cabinboy Pip, forced by circumstances and the crew to man a whale-boat despite his young age and physical frailty, is knocked out of the boat, nearly drowns, and rescued by the Pequod after an hour or so.
Here’s what it looked like:
“But it so happened, that those boats, without seeing Pip, suddenly spying whales close to them on one side, turned, and gave chase; and Stubb’s boat was now so far away, and he and all his crew so intent upon his fish, that Pip’s ringed horizon began to expand around him miserably. By the merest chance the ship itself at last rescued him; but from that hour the little negro went about the deck an idiot; such, at least, they said he was. The sea had leeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.”
There’s, uh, a lot to unpack here.
First, though, let’s talk about Pip as a character. Like most of the sailors he shows up sporadically and often seems forgotten. But he plays arguably 2 or 3 of the most important roles in the narrative.
First is political. This book was, after all, written in 1851. Melville describes him in mostly positive terms if a bit shy and somewhat intimidated by his circumstances. And for reasons we’ll see, Ahab views and treats him as a surrogate for his own son and even an ontological peer. Which is pretty radical for a monomaniacal tyrant captain in a story written at the peak of American chattel slavery.
Next, is that Pip is a surrogate not only of the son Ahab left ashore to become an orphan but of all of the emotional bonds that Crazy Ahab abandoned for his hunt to kill or fuck god. Ahab immediately recognizes that Pip has been burned by the same cosmic flames that scar his face:
“And who art thou, boy? I see not my reflection in the vacant pupils of thy eyes. Oh God! that man should be a thing for immortal souls to sieve through! Who art thou, boy?”
“Bell-boy, sir; ship’s-crier; ding, dong, ding! Pip! Pip! One hundred pounds of clay reward for Pip; five feet high- looks cowardly- quickest known by that! Ding, dong, ding! Who’s seen Pip the coward?”
“There can be no hearts above the snow-line. Oh, ye frozen heavens! look down here. Ye did beget this luckless child, and have abandoned him, ye creative libertines. Here, boy; Ahab’s cabin shall be Pip’s home henceforth, while Ahab lives. Thou touchest my inmost centre, boy; thou art tied to me by cords woven by my heart-strings. Come, let’s down.”
Pip is the only person Ahab treats as having the power to change his monomania. Even Starbuck, a man Ahab has spent years upon years with and whom he certainly knows and trusts better than his own wife, is casually brushed aside even in Ahab’s moment of deepest regret.
Pip isn’t easily pushed aside though. It costs Ahab something he thought he’d already lost.
Lad, lad, I tell thee thou must not follow Ahab now. The hour is coming when Ahab would not scare thee from him, yet would not have thee by him. There is that in thee, poor lad, which I feel too curing to my malady. Like cures like; and for this hunt, my malady becomes my most desired health. Do thou abide below here, where they shall serve thee, as if thou wert the captain. Aye, lad, thou shalt sit here in my own screwed chair; another screw to it, thou must be.”
Ahab not only leaves the ship in his care but tries to protect him from the dangers of hunting Moby Dick, and Pip argues with him despite several stern rebukes after. Pip is one of maybe 3 or 4 characters in the story to even try arguing with Ahab and he doesn’t fare better than the others.
But in the end, Crazy Ahab prevails:
“Weep so, and I will murder thee! have a care, for Ahab too is mad. Listen, and thou wilt often hear my ivory foot upon the deck, and still know that I am there. And now I quit thee. Thy hand!- Met! True art thou, lad, as the circumference to its centre. So: God for ever bless thee; and if it come to that,- God for ever save thee, let what will befall.”
Pip, uh, doesn’t take this well and dissociates pretty hard. He was already unprepared for his experience as a castaway and this is way too much even.
“Here he this instant stood, I stand in his air,- but I’m alone. Now were even poor Pip here I could endure it, but he’s missing. Pip! Pip! Ding, dong, ding! Who’s seen Pip? He must be up here; let’s try the door. What? neither lock, nor bolt, nor bar; and yet there’s no opening it. It must be the spell; he told me to stay here: Aye, and told me this screwed chair was mine. Here, then, I’ll seat me, against the transom, in the ship’s full middle, all her keel and her three masts before me.
This brings us to the big context: Pip’s divine flash.
The rest of the crew treats Pip as though he was mentally handicapped after his castaway visions, but Ahab immediately recognizes the markings of being touched by the same cosmic forces which impel him.
We’re shown Pip’s reaction to the divine in the short term is just as extreme as Ahab’s decision to attack Moby Dick and the madness that overtook him. It breaks his sense of self and he’s unable to reintegrate. Trying to explain what he experienced merely made him sound insane.
Ahab was far more prepared for this moment in his own life, being older and having more education. And one presumes the mysterious rites of fire he implies participation in gave him a much better context to integrate than being the lowest status person on a whaling ship. Even being lashed in his hammock was better than having to still do whatever anyone says.
Pip’s soul was drowned and his eyes were open to reality’s higher dimensional ordering.
Let’s go back to that quote and unpack it a bit.
The sea had leeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs.
So, instead of dying Pip’s soul entered a powerful altered state that 100% sounds like a DMT trip. There are a few phrases that seem particularly telling there:
where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes;
Among the joyous, heartless, ever juvenile eternities
God-omnipresent, coral insects
Fuck, I’m just repeating the paragraph. I guess that’s the point.
Whether or not Melville experienced a DMT flash breakthrough himself, he seems to have pinpointed many of its key features:
Overwhelming, otherworldly beauty
The sense of going to another place
The sense of being outside of time and regular space
Other intelligent, vast creatures are already there.
He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.
And so Pip is cursed two-fold: First, with Heaven’s Sense on earth, and second by being too like Ahab for his own good. A more caring divinity would have given him a ride away from the Pequod.
Pip was shown the God’s eye view of the world and its inhumanity harmed him. Perhaps, in another story, he’d have eventually contended with it. Perhaps he’d have won and we’d get to see an adult Pip as a kind of developed scholar Magus.
But that isn’t his story. He’s a side character in Moby Dick.
And what the Author willed certainly befell and Pip died with all of the rest of his shipmates but the one who escaped alone to tell the story.
So, how did this happen?
My suspicion is that Melville’s interest in exploring the world drove him into more unusual territory than he usually is given credit for. I mean, the guy basically recreated an American strain of Gnosticism from first principles.
Unlike Pip, he seems to have been smart enough to keep quiet about any visions he saw and I haven’t plumbed his biography enough to really be sure he didn’t stumble into his own rite of fire at some point.
Drug purists will say that you need DMT to get this kind of experience and even if Melville found some way to induce it endogenously (that is, without taking a drug), it’s still the drug just being produced naturally. Which DMT is by a surprising variety of things including humans.
You can take a look at a quick biography of the man and see there’s plenty of time to stumble into some occult group in the 1840s.
Otherwise, perhaps he was simply able to find an edge and push himself off.
The bread crumbs in Moby Dick are far too specific and substantial not to be based on someone’s lived experience.
And with how utterly personal The Whale is in other ways it’s hard for me to think Melville would have put so much of them in if that person wasn’t himself.
One thing any newish mystic finds is that while they are alone now and that groups are often useless or worse, many others have walked the path before and some of them have written about it in useful ways.
It’s more than a small miracle that we even know Moby Dick exists at all as it was poorly reviewed in its day and basically forgotten. It took decades for it to be reevaluated and recognized for its, frankly, obvious greatness.
Anyway, that’s enough fun for one week.
We’ll be back with a weekly wrap up tomorrow and back to usual on Monday.
See you then.