The Nekyia: a depthless plunge into darkness, death, and possible rebirth. A philosophical idea named after the eleventh book of The Odyssey, when Odysseus “descends into the underworld to commune with the dead.” Carl Jung interpreted the Nekyia as a “night sea journey” that will ineffably end in shipwreck, loss, and, with luck, a survivor. This philosophical idea of the Nekyia is the gravitational core around which the events of Justin Hocking’s memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, revolve. This memoir is Hocking’s exploration of his personal night journey and how it connects with the story of Ishmael and Ahab in Moby-Dick, the life of Herman Melville, and the passion he develops for the sea and surfing.
Hocking’s primary focus is on the several years he lived in New York City, though he pulls in many memories and stories from his past and elaborates on his personal interests as much as he narrates his own story. Choosing to focus several chapters on the history of surfing, the life of Herman Melville, and notable Melville enthusiasts, he introduces uninitiated readers to his chosen lifestyle and passions with language that, as happened with me, can spark some interest in the topics.
Hocking confidently refuses to shirk from deep philosophical reflection and conversation, which might confuse some readers who are unfamiliar with philosophers. However, his thoughts are accessible and carry no sense of bias or judgment towards anyone but himself. Furthermore, his creative approaches to different chapters provide a way to get quick, deeper glimpses of his life and emotional state. He writes one chapter in the form of a rejection letter while discussing his struggles with working for a publishing company. After describing forms he had to fill out while working for a “treatment center” for delinquents, detailing emotional and social issues and how to best approach them, he occasionally uses that format to analyze himself. The way Hocking treats these snapshots of his past lures the reader into the work while reminding them that the first-person-I is a real man discussing himself.
Hocking shows a high level of artistry and skill in his writing. He weaves his personal story with discourse on Melville and his great white whale, a symptom of an affliction Hocking calls the White Death, “characterized by obsessive thoughts about Moby-Dick and Herman Melville… and constant talk of Moby-Dick – its brilliance and relevance to contemporary life – to anyone who’ll listen.” The way Hocking raises all three narratives by transforming them into a single, hefty rope is masterful. Any segment where the discussion begins drawing pieces together from each narrative, patching them together like a quilt, guarantees insight. Through these moments, the full extent of Melville on Hocking’s life becomes clear; he often discusses the characters and events of Moby-Dick as a general template for his own life.
As the narrative progresses, so does the slow realization that the memoir is quite possibly connected to the healing and rebirthing stage of Hocking’s Nekyia. This is the heart of his night sea journey. A fear of failure and helplessness, an inability to abandon whatever sense of emotional bond he can establish, react with a fierce drive for progression to trap him in the maw of a giant, stagnating corpse, fighting for release, revolution, and ultimately rebirth. Hocking’s style and tone make it easy to connect intimately with his emotions and the circumstances along his journey.
Hocking’s narrative ends with a poetic image from Moby-Dick: “So once again I’m struck by the image of Ishmael the orphan, floating on his coffin life buoy, having survived the darkest work imaginable – having been reborn from death to new life in the wake of catastrophe.” I was left feeling that The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld is Justin Hocking’s life buoy. This memoir is the final port on his night sea journey before finally achieving renewal. Poetic and written from the soul, Hocking’s work left me feeling closer than I ever have before to someone with whom, on the surface, I have so little in common.