Friday, April 12, 2013

Moby Dick

Moby-DickMoby-Dick by Herman Melville
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wanna know a secret? Lean over here and I’ll tell you: This is the first time I’ve read Moby Dick. No lie. 43 years old, never read it. That assignment in high school? Skipped it. Faked the report. Thank you, Cliff Notes. By that, I mean the guy named Cliff in my English class. He owed me a favor. A whale of a favor . . . And college? Bachelor’s degree in Humanities – I had to have read Moby Dick, right? Wrong. Just snippets. Excerpts. Then, feeling the guilt of being an educated American who had not read the book, I sat down to finally read it. This was, oh, about twenty years ago or so, I don’t rightly remember.

I started. But I didn’t finish. Why not? Because the book had a reputation, a monstrous reputation. It was big, boring, and scary, at least that’s what I was told. While I was reading comic books, fantasies, and role-playing game rulebooks in any spare time I had, my friends were reading Moby Dick. Or they had read it already and they were brooding on it. For years. I saw what that book had done to them. It didn't look very pretty from the outside.

But I have an addictive personality. Sometimes, I just can’t stop myself from reading. My curiosity – well, it gets me into a lot of trouble. And so it was that I was led, nay, possessed by some evil entity beyond myself (or maybe it was just embarrassment) to finally crack the spine and eat the marrow of, er, I mean, to read, yes, read what is considered by many to be Melville’s masterpiece.

Even then, I kept it a secret. I’m a multiple-book-at-a-time-reader (why does admitting that make me feel dirty?), so I’ve conveniently used the cloak of a few other books (even one, ironically, that involved whales) to disguise the fact that I’ve been covertly reading Moby Dick alongside these others. I know. I’m a creep, a literary lurker. Some kind of intellectual pervert. I can hardly help myself.

So it’s confession time. Time to repent and face up to reality. And the reality is: I really liked Moby Dick. It’s not nearly the daunting Leviathan that some led me to believe it was. Nor was it as boring as my little dalliances within its excerpts had initially indicated. No, actually, it was good. Really good.

And the book is not as "heavy" as you might think, at least not all the time. Melville’s sense of humor comes through, from time to time, in the book, and is rather endearing. Here, for example, he describes a painting of a whale and a narwhale appearing in the 1807 version of “Goldsmith’s Animated Nature”:

I do not wish to seem inelegant, but this unsightly whale
looks much like an amputated sow; and, as for the narwhale,
one glimpse at it is enough to amaze one, that in this nineteenth
century such a hippogriff could be palmed for genuine upon
any intelligent public of schoolboys.

There’s a sort of learned snarkiness in the narrator’s voice, though it’s not sharply critical. The kind of thing you’d appreciate around a table drinking tea with close friends, rather than the public humor of a stand-up comedian. This sense of talking with a (very erudite) friend makes the book “warm” in just the right spots, such as the point where Ishmael is getting to know Queequeg a little better than he'd like to. In time the narrator’s accepting attitude help us to accept not only Queequeg, but Ishmael himself, as well. We learn to trust him as our narrator.

Granted, there are moments, like the exhaustive (and exhausting) taxonomy of whales that tried the nerves (the optic nerves, in particular), and, yes, the language is archaic and even a bit esoteric at times. The alliteration can get a little tedious, too, even for a Dr. Seuss fanatic like me, as in this sentence:

It was while gliding through these latter waters that one
serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like
scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings,
made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude; on such a
silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white
bubbles at the bow.

But Melville – first off, the guy has chops. He can write a great sentence.

Secondly, he weaves dimestore philosophy throughout almost seamlessly, and I love works with a bit of the philosophical in them. Even in the descriptions of decapitated whale’s heads, the narrator waxes philosophical:

Can you catch the expression of the Sperm Whale's there?
It is the same he died with, only some of the longer wrinkles
in the forehead seem now faded away. I think his broad brow
to be full of a prairie-like placidity, born of a speculative
indifference as to death. But mark the other head's expression.
See that amazing lower lip, pressed by accident against the vessel's side, so as firmly to embrace the jaw. Does not this whole head seem
to speak of an enormous practical resolution in facing death?
This Right Whale I take to have been a Stoic; the Sperm Whale,
a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his latter years.

Another example comes to mind, as the narrator holds a rope tied around his friend, Queequeg, who is rather busy working on a whale carcass in the water, all the time trying to avoid being bitten by the school of sharks that is feeding on the body atop which the poor laborer is walking. I love the implications of this "monkey rope", how we are, as humans in society, tied together and dependent on one another. There’s a simultaneous fear and warmth in the trust implied thereby. That tightrope between fear and warmth seems to be a comfortable spot for Melville. Not an easy trick!

And third, his characters are incredibly detailed, alive, even. Take, for instance, this masterful description of the genesis of Ahab’s hatred toward Moby Dick:

It is not probable that this monomania in him took its instant
rise at the precise time of his bodily dismemberment.
Then, in darting at the monster, knife in hand, he had but
given loose to a sudden, passionate, corporal animosity;
and when he received the stroke that tore him, he probably
but felt the agonizing bodily laceration, but nothing more.
Yet, when by this collision forced to turn towards home, and for
long months of days and weeks, Ahab and anguish lay stretched
together in one hammock, rounding in mid winter that dreary,
howling Patagonian Cape; then it was, that his torn body and gashed
soul bled into one another; and so interfusing, made him mad.
That it was only then, on the homeward voyage, after the encounter,
that the final monomania seized him, seems all but certain
from the fact that, at intervals during the passage, he was
a raving lunatic; and, though unlimbed of a leg, yet such vital
strength yet lurked in his Egyptian chest, and was moreover
intensified by his delirium, that his mates were forced to lace
him fast, even there, as he sailed, raving in his hammock.
In a strait-jacket, he swung to the mad rockings of the gales.
And, when running into more sufferable latitudes, the ship,
with mild stun'sails spread, floated across the tranquil tropics,
and, to all appearances, the old man's delirium seemed left behind
him with the Cape Horn swells, and he came forth from his dark
den into the blessed light and air; even then, when he bore
that firm, collected front, however pale, and issued his calm
orders once again; and his mates thanked God the direful madness
was now gone; even then, Ahab, in his hidden self, raved on.

I find the crazed prophet Gabriel of the ship Jeroboam to be fascinating, as well. In fact, all the certifiably crazy people in the story (Gabriel, Ahab and, later, Pip) are fascinating in their ability to lift the reader beyond the mundane with their mad, eloquent ravings. I’d love to write Gabriel's full story, or a similar one. Maybe someday . . . is there such a thing as “Moby Dick fanfic?"

Now, Melville’s seemingly erratic jump from 3rd to 1st person, back and forth, as well as his diversions into stage directions and drama would be considered the greatest taboo by many of the big-name book publishers today. Inconsistent narration? Crazy! Metafiction? No one will want to read that!

But they did. And they do. The popularity of Moby Dick attests to that. But if Melville were to submit his manuscript today, few agents would take it. “Too experimental,” they’d say, “try the small presses”. And some obscure small press, run from a kitchen table in a suburb on a shoestring budget, would eventually take it and publish it right into nothingness. Eventually, as word spread among a cult of readers, one of the larger presses might note that the book was getting some notoriety and ask for sales trends. “This is a whale of a tale,” they’d say as their pupils assumed the shape of dollar signs, “how did we ever miss it?”

If it was a whale, it would have bitten their corporate leg off.

Maybe that's what makes this book so good. It's a tough read. It requires some stamina. You'll probably need to grab a dictionary from time to time. Some parts will read incredibly slow and you'll need to re-read them. Others will be over before you know it and you'll need to re-read them. This is not a book for the casual reader any more than the Pequod's quest was a casual fishing trip off the coast. This book is deep water. But like any challenge that requires great effort, the results are worth it. Some might consider this read a quest in and of itself, even memorializing their participation in the quest. I don't blame them. Moby Dick is a sort of readers' rite of passage. Now I can say, with some sense of pride, that I am one of the initiated, forever baptized in the depths along with Ahab, Queequeg, Starbuck, Stubbs, and all the rest. I know these people, or I knew them. I have smelled the blood of whales, the salt of the sea, tasted the iron of the harpoon, stood atop the mast and taken in the rolling immensity of the sea, seen the white whale rushing up from the watery dark toward my boat. I have served my time on the Pequod. And I say, welcome aboard!

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