Life on a pillar: environmental thought and the odor of sanctity

by Liam Heneghan

The saint on the pillar stands,/The pillar is alone,/He has stood so long/That he himself is stone. Louis MacNeice, Stylite, 1940 [i]

In Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Melville’s anachronistically recognized ecological masterpiece, a calculation is presented that on a three or four year voyage a seaman manning one of the mast-heads of a whaleship would spend several entire months aloft his pillar above the ship. A whaleship like the Pequod, Ishmael informs, was not provided with a crow’s-nest as was the case with the Greenland ships – the mast-man on the southern whaler was exposed to the elements and to the mesmerizing crawl of the oceans far below him. Our narrator cautions the ship-owners of Nantucket to be especially wary of taking on philosophical lads given to “unseasonable meditativeness”. Whaling could be an asylum for romantic souls, youngsters that are “disgusted with the carking cares of earth”. The cost could be high. Such a youth can lose his identity in his ocean reverie and “[take] the 520px-Simeon_Stylite_Louvre mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that, deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading man and nature…” In such a meditation one misplaced step and “your identity comes back in horror” and perhaps “with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever.” Ishmael concludes the observation thus: “Heed it well, ye Pantheists.” By which I take it that he is talking to dreamy youth and latterly to us environmentalists.

In chronological sequence Melville mirthfully compares the solitary, watchful, deprived life on the mast to that of other motionless dwellers, starting with Egyptians who climbed the pyramids to gaze at the stars and concluding with stone or metal men atop columns, figures unresponsive to the beseeching yells of those below them, that is, statues of Washington, Napoleon and Nelson. Included in this evolutionary sequence – for the land-locked lofty paved the way according to Melville to maritime mast-men – is Saint Stylites of whom he says “in him we have a remarkable instance of a dauntless stander-of-mast-heads…[he] literally died at his post.”

A helpful footnote in my copy of Moby-Dick declares Melville’s entertaining claim about pyramids as astronomical pillars implausible, and of course, statues, though they may remain impressively motionless for quite some time, have the benefit of being lifeless[ii]. In Melville’s roster, Saint Stylites stands out, so to speak, having spent almost forty years on his pillar.

About him I have a few things I’d like to say.

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