Slice of Life

Moby DickReading Moby Dick

By Sarah Kaufmann ‘06

Two Teachers + 1 Whale = A Singular Sarah Lawrence Experience

I have always been a reader. Every summer the porch hammock was surrounded by pastel stacks of The Baby-Sitter’s Club, The Saddle Club, Sleepover Friends. The combination of my mother’s lilacs and the afternoon sun invited me into another world, one filled with boyfriends and sleepovers. For a long time I insisted on staying the little girl in the hammock. I hated high school English because I didn’t want to spend time deconstructing metaphors and literary theory. Reading got inside of me. The moment the books became the subject of a paper or test, they lost their magic. What used to excite and engage me now became another part of the sterile classroom environment. I felt suffocated. Then I got to Sarah Lawrence—and everything changed.

Sophomore year in the basement of Gilbert, as I stared at a man whose nervous, small, wiry frame reminded me of my grandfather, I took in a breath of fresh air. I couldn’t tell you specifically what Danny Kaiser said to me in that interview, or any of the specific things he said over the course of the year. I quickly discovered that learning from Danny is like running through a swarm of bees: hectic, confusing, painful and thrilling. The class was so physically engaged with the material that we thought it was logical for him to pound furiously on his chest, his head, or the table in front of him.

Danny’s entire body radiated with excitement when we began Moby Dick. It was common campus knowledge that no one understood the “whiteness of the whale” as he did. His crumbling yellow notes shook as he banged his index finger on the table. We furiously wrote every new point he brought up, quoting phrases about the overwhelming dualities of the fallen world. Danny, constantly afraid that we wouldn’t have time to fit everything in, rolled Melville, Ishmael, Ahab and the whale into a giant ball and hurled it at us. Like Melville’s prose, our class seemed to spin out of control. We were connecting Shakespeare, the Bible, Milton, Homer, negative human possibilities, the erotic relationships of whales and the technicalities of whaling itself. Overwhelmed and excited, there were times when I could feel the weight of a harpoon in my hands as I stood on the bow-sprit. I was invited to search for universal truth and meaning on the Pequod, and at the end of it all I felt as torn apart as the ship itself.

Thankfully, one of the first things that I learned about books was that they could be read, and then read again. I sensed that the Pequod would welcome me aboard again, only this time I would be accompanied by a new set of shipmates.

It did—and I was—in my junior year, when I took Ilja Wachs’s course in the 19th-century novel. Ilja’s large, soft frame filled the doorway as he walked in on the first day of class. Where Danny had been edgy, Ilja was calm. He defused any nervousness or anxiety with the sublime confidence that we would each stumble upon greatness. Ilja would patiently rest his large hands on the table as we tossed around different ideas and, after a while, would throw out another perspective—one that was so close to our own discussion that he seemed to have pulled it right off of the tips of our tongues. After spending a semester in various sitting rooms across the English countryside and a little time on a raft, I found myself once again on the docks of Nantucket.

Armed with my battered copy of Moby Dick, complete with my and Danny’s underlining, I came to class exhilarated. The cosmic images and the gory technicalities of whaling were no longer distracting. I had completed my maiden journey and fell into the rhythms of the boat as easily as Queequeg. Ilja unfurled the sails slowly, delving into the quirks of characters and interactions. We found beauty, peace and turmoil, each element rising from Melville’s rich text. Ilja addressed the very world that Danny had spoken of, and that world rushed around us with the intensity of the Pacific Ocean. The entire room was swept away; it seemed that with each trip the novel revealed another level, one that was more satisfying and complex than the first.

I was rediscovering my own enchantment with this complex adventure, and Ilja was illuminating the very themes that Danny had, even quoting the same passages. At times I could hear their two voices in my head, one fervently laughing about the erotic desire of whales, and the other gently describing the beauty of the rolling sea. We were all shipmates, digging our hands into the vat of sperm oil and feeling the work mold between our fingers. During class I sat back and realized that these two, seemingly opposite, pillars of my education were supporting the same structure.

I watched Ilja’s hands animate like Danny’s, and as this quiet man—shockingly—pounded on the table with his index finger, I smiled.

Sarah Kaufmann was raised in western Massachusetts. In her three years at Sarah Lawrence she has studied fiction writing, literature and music, and has competed on the equestrian team.

Two Teachers, Seven Decades

Daniel Kaiser
Kaiser, who has taught at Sarah Lawrence for 38 years, specializes in 19th- and 20th-century American and European literature, with an emphasis on relationships between politics and literature.

Ilja Wachs
Wachs, a former dean of the College, has taught19th-century English,European and American fiction—with an emphasis on psychological and sociological relationships—at Sarah Lawrence since 1964.