Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Here then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job’s whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals…

Moby Dick is the book that this blog followed into a black hole. I started it months ago, and finished it weeks ago, but hadn’t the time or energy to write about it. Other things intervened, I suppose, like the advent of the school year—I’m not sure what made me think I could start and finish it in the last two weeks of summer—but I’ll admit that to review such a monster was a daunting prospect.

Weeks later, then, the strongest impression I retain is the Moby Dick’s sheer immensity. Not its length—though it is long—but its size, its capaciousness. The narrative which everyone knows, the story of Ahab chasing the white whale around the world for his revenge, comprises perhaps less than half the novel, nearly crowded out by the narrator Ishmael’s encyclopedic treatises on whales and whale hunting. There are chapters on eating whales, painting whales, whale anatomy (in fact, the sperm whale’s head gets six pages of its own), the historicity of the story of Jonah, and many chapters painstakingly detailing why whalers deserve your reverence. The best of these, I think, are the chapters where Ishmael expounds on the meaning of whiteness:

Is it by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour, and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink?... And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

The effect of Ishmael/Melville’s towering erudition and knowledge, then, is more than merely to impress. Like the whiteness of the whale, which is made of all colors and therefore seems like none, the great conglomeration of information that is Moby Dick teeters toward meaninglessness. The whale is loaded with so much symbolism that it ceases to symbolize anything.

Moby Dick is an “inscrutable malice” and an “intangible malignity,” not because he is so mysterious but because he is so well-known. In its capaciousness the whale manages to be both the “colourless, all-colour of atheism” and a stand-in for God. In his way Ahab comes to represent man’s vengeance for the fall, to lash out against his maker:

All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

Ahab is the other lingering impression: Monomaniacal, blood-lusting, and unwavering. He’s named for a Biblical king, and it’s only through him that the novel’s overblown, King-James-cribbed language works, with its “thees” and “thous” and ponderous, circuitous sentences. The back of my copy calls Moby Dick a “hymn to democracy” because it is the “image of a co-operative community at work,” but one might say the same thing of the Peoples Temple. One of my favorite episodes is when the Pequod meets a ship that has been effectively commandeered by a sailor with pretensions as a prophet, but he pales in comparison to Ahab’s religious intensity:

“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with theee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!”

As great as that is, I found that I didn’t love Moby Dick as much as I hoped it would. I expected it to be life-changing, but the long discursive chapters, serviceable to the themes as they were, never faded away to make room for the heightened intensity to the plot. It overwhelmed me and awed me, but did not—completely—endear itself to me. Mostly, I found myself impatient to get back to Ahab. Is that a criticism of Moby Dick, or a praise of it?


Brent Waggoner said...

Moby-Dick is a great novel, but I'm not so sure it's built for love. I think it's more cerebral than emotional, but that just makes the sections like the climax and the Rachael more impactful.

Christopher said...

I liked it more than the Led Zeppelin song.

I2Q said...
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I2Q said...
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