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Monday, April 13, 2015

Born Too Late to Read Moby-Dick

You may recall that I posted last December that I was finally reading Herman Melville’s great novel Moby-Dick: or The Whale. I said I had waited all my life to read this book, that it was a great book, and that I was enjoying it hugely. That’s all true.

There are all these funny, beautiful, thought-provoking, amazing things in the novel, such as this description of Ishmael’s first sight of an albatross:

“. . . during a prolonged gale, in waters hard upon the Antarctic seas . . . there, dashed upon the main hatches, I saw a regal, feathery thing of unspotted whiteness, and with a hooked, Roman bill sublime. At intervals, it arched forth its vast archangel wings, as if to embrace some holy ark. . . . Though bodily unharmed, it uttered cries, as some king’s ghost in supernatural distress. Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets which took hold of God.” [Chapter 42]

The introduction of Captain Ahab is wonderfully portentous:

“He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole high, broad form seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s cast Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded.”

. . . .

“And not only that, but moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe.” [Chapter 28]

Later on is a comparison of Ahab to a grizzly bear: “And as when Spring and Summer had departed, that wild Logan of the woods, burying himself in the hollow of a tree, lived out the winter there, sucking his own paws; so, in his inclement, howling old age, Ahab’s soul, shut up in the caved trunk of his body, there fed upon the sullen paws of its gloom!” [Chapter 34]

The further I read, the greater the doom connected with any description of Captain Ahab: “While his one live leg made lively echoes along the deck, every stroke of his dead limb sounded like a coffin-tap.” [Chapter 51]

Being long addicted to the black humor of Alfred Hitchcock, I could not resist smiling and copying these types of passages:

“It may seem strange that of all men sailors should be tinkering at their last wills and testaments, but there are no people in the world more fond of that diversion. This was the fourth time in my nautical life that I had done the same thing. After the ceremony was concluded upon the present occasion, I felt all the easier; a stone was rolled away from my heart. Besides, all the days I should now live would be as good as the days that Lazarus lived after his resurrection; a supplementary clean gain of so many months or weeks as the case might be. I survived myself; my death and burial were locked up in my chest. I looked round me tranquilly and contentedly, like a quiet ghost with a clean conscience sitting inside the bars of a snug family vault.” [Chapter 49]

“All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.” [Chapter 60]

But I kept finding things that struck through my Songs of the Humpback Whale-informed soul, things I had to consciously suppress thinking too much about:

“So utterly lost was he to all sense of reverence for the many marvels of their majestic bulk and mystic ways; and so dead to anything like an apprehension of any possible danger from encountering them; that in his poor opinion, the wondrous whale was but a species of magnified mouse, or at least water rat . . . .” [Chapter 27]

Chapter 32, Cetology, contains distinctly uncomfortable reminders:

“The grounds upon which Linnaeus would fain have banished the whales from the waters, he states as follows: ‘On account of their warm bilocular heart, their lungs, their movable eyelids, their hollow ears, penem intrantem feminam mammis lactantem,’ and finally, ‘ex lege naturae jure meritoque.’ I submitted all this to my friends Simeon Macey and Charley Coffin, of Nantucket, both messmates of mine in a certain voyage, and they united in the opinion that the reasons set forth were altogether insufficient. Charley profanely hinted they were humbug.”

And then they arrived in the Indian Ocean where they began to kill whales. The narrative is exciting, but my sympathy lay with the whale. I tried in vain to stamp down my feelings about whales as intelligent, compassionate, family-oriented creatures. Back in Melville’s day, whales were still seen as monsters; not only that, they were incredibly useful, down to the last drop of oil and inch of material in their makeup. The industry was not only lucrative to the American economy, it provided many useful and life-easing articles for people living basically hard lives. One of my own family had been a whaler and was killed in the Pacific Ocean on a whaling voyage in the mid-1850s. I tried to see things from his point of view; from the point of view of the family he had left behind. In vain. I am a product of my times. Not even the appeal to the romantic literature of which I had become something of a connoisseur could sway me:

“For nowadays, the whale-fishery furnishes an asylum for many romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men, disgusted with the carking cares of earth, and seeking sentiment in tar and blubber. Childe Harold not unfrequently perches himself upon the mast-head of some luckless disappointed whale-ship, and in moody phrase ejaculates:—
“Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll! Ten thousand blubber-hunters sweep over thee in vain.” [Chapter 35]

But scenes like these were too much in the end to take:

“And now abating in his flurry, the whale once more rolled out into view; surging from side to side; spasmodically dilating and contracting his spout-hole, with sharp, cracking, agonized respirations. At last, gush after gush of clotted red gore, as if it had been the purple lees of red wine, shot into the frighted air; and falling back again, ran dripping down his motionless flanks into the sea. His heart had burst!” [Chapter 61]

So although I am only a little more than halfway through, and although I would like to see Ahab “get his,” and although I almost never leave a book unfinished even if I don’t like it particularly, I can’t finish reading Moby-Dick. It’s too hard! I should have been born before environmentalism could have made its way into my bones.

“God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!” [Chapter 32]

Read another way, many of these quotes suggest that Melville himself was consciously undercutting the romance of the  “craft.” Was he secretly planning to use this novel to found a very early Save the Whales campaign? Maybe I will have to finish just to see if a new theory of the novel is in the offing.

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