Friday, January 12, 2007

Moby Dick: Portrait of the Blogger as a Young Reader and Other Thoughts

...the chapters on whaling in Moby Dick can be omitted by all but the most punishment-loving readers...

William Goldman, The Princess Bride
I made my first stab at Herman Melville's Moby Dick at the age of sixteen (and, just to get this out of the way as quickly as possible, yes, it was because of all the pimping the book was getting on The X-Files). I made it about halfway and stalled, defeated by the novel's frequent forays into whaling lore--the hierarchy of whaling ships and the roles of each of their crewmembers, whaling techniques and the process of converting a killed whale into salable products, the history of whaling and its customs, and, worst and most stultifying of all, whale biology. But I was annoyed by my inability to deal with a novel so central to the Western canon, and my much-abused copy survived several cullings of my library. One of these days, I would promise myself each time I divided my books into 'save' and 'give away' piles, I'm going to go back to that one.

Ten years later, that promise has finally been fulfilled. Beyond the pleasure inherent in completing a long-deferred project, I can't say that I'm overjoyed to have finally made a proper acquaintance with Melville's novel. It's not so much a good novel as an interesting--perhaps interestingly flawed--one, and one of the most interesting things about the experience of returning to it at twenty-six is the light that this second reading sheds on my capabilities as a sixteen year old reader--or rather, on the lack of same. I was taken aback by Melville's lightning-quick shifts of tone and style--the novel transitions from high adventure to academic treatise to stage drama in a matter of pages, and then back again--and although at the time I thought I was doing pretty well with the book, it's obvious now that the vast majority of Moby Dick went clean over my head, and that entire segments of it were scanned but never processed. Which is not to say that ten years later, Moby Dick went down as smooth as silk. It's still a much denser read than I'm comfortable with, and the infamous whaling chapters are still a trial (I confess: I did skim a few of them, mostly the ones concerned with cetacean physiology--honestly, how much am I going to learn about the subject from a man who insists, a full century after scientists had concluded otherwise, that whales are fish?). Where the experience gained in the intervening decade came in handy, however, was in separating the novel from the cultural artifact that has accumulated around it.

Everyone knows that Moby Dick is a novel about Captain Ahab's all-consuming obsession with taking vengeance on the eponymous white whale, a goal to which he sacrifices his ship, his crew, and his own life. Ten years ago, my expectations of what I would find in Melville's novel were so overpowering that I failed to notice what, in my contemporary reading, simply leaped off the page: that in the bulk of the novel Melville actually wrote, Ahab is barely even a minor character. He shows up about a hundred pages in, after some perfunctory foreshadowing and dark murmurs, and quickly establishes his disfunction. The famous gold doubloon is nailed to mast of the Pequod. At which point Ahab disappears below decks for some 400 pages, emerging periodically to remind us of his existence and reiterate his conviction to hunt down Moby Dick regardless of the consequences. So much else is happening in the novel, however, and so desultory are these visits into Ahab's psyche, that it is easy to forget that the Pequod isn't on a perfectly ordinary whaling expedition. It isn't until a hundred pages from Moby Dick's end that Ahab becomes a force to be reckoned with, and that the novel becomes the tragedy of revenge and obsession now irrevocably associated with its title.

In writing that tragedy, Melville was obviously hoping to recall Shakespeare, right down to his stylistic choices--the characters don't speak, they soliloquize, often with whispered asides to the audience, pun-based jokes and much clever wordplay and obsessive concentration on minutiae ("art thou not an arrant, all-grasping, intermeddling, monopolizing, heathenish old scamp, to be one day making legs, and the next day coffins to clap them in, and yet again life-buoys out of those same coffins?" Ahab asks of the Pequod's carpenter at one point); there are even stage directions, and dark portents pointing the way to Ahab's demise (although here Melville over-eggs the pudding: there's a prophecy made when Ahab was a child, and one made by his magician-harpooner, and a mysterious gale that tries to drive the Pequod away from Moby Dick's known location, and an electrical storm that reverses the polarity of the ship's magnets so that it sails the wrong way, and a bird that flies away with Ahab's captain's hat, and three encounters with ships whose captains urge Ahab to turn away from his quest, and probably more that I'm forgetting). The problem is that, fine writer though he was, Melville was no Shakespeare (and even Shakespeare only gets away with some of his greater excesses because he was writing four hundred years ago). Melville comes off as an overeager fan trying to emulate a favorite author, and his homage is artless and overwrought where Shakespeare delicately probed the very heart of what makes us human.
'I turn my body from the sun. What ho, Tashtego! let me hear thy hammer. Oh! ye three unsurrendered spires of mine; thou uncracked keel; and only god-bullied hull; thou firm deck, and haughty helm, and Pole-oriented prow,--death-glorious ship! must ye then perish, and without me? Am I cut off from the last fond pride of meanest shipwrecked captains? Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins an all 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 it turns out, Captain Ahab's quest for vengeance is only one of three novels that make up Moby Dick. The second is a fairly straightforward portrait of life aboard a whaling vessel, which switches between the points of view of the ship's various officers and crewmembers--the three mates, pious Starbuck, jovial Stubb and practical Flask; the three harpooners, Queequeg, Tashtego and Dagoo; the carpenter, blacksmith, cook, and cabin boys--and between moments of high adventure, back-breaking labor, and occasional jolliness. The third is the infamous 'let's learn about whaling!' treatise (Melville was apparently a great believer in the power of literature to educate its readers). Narrated by Ishmael--ostensibly the narrator of the entire novel, but his voice tends to fade into the background when the two narrative strands come to prominence--this novel, if such a word is even applicable, has a fairly fixed structure. Ishmael seizes on some obscure aspect of whaling life--how to retrieve spermaceti from a Sperm Whale's skull, the proper construction of a harpoon, various sea-life on which whales feed--goes on about it for several pages, and then creates an analogy between his topic and some aspect of the human condition, or some philosophical or moral approach. Here he is wrapping up the subject of whale respiration:
For how nobly it raises our conceit of the mighty, misty monster, to behold him solemnly sailing through a calm tropical sea; his vast, mild head overhung by a canopy of vapor, engendered by his incommunicable contemplations, and that vapor--as you will sometimes see it--glorified by a rainbow, as if Heaven itself had put its seal upon his thoughts. For, d'ye see, rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate vapor. And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray. And for this I thank God; for all have doubts; many deny; but doubts or denials, few along with them, have intuitions. Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.
As you might imagine, this approach grows tedious very fast, but with all due respect to Mr. Goldman and the fantastic novel from which I quote at the beginning of this essay, I'd be sorry to drop the whaling chapters from Moby Dick. It is in this novel-within-a-novel, I believe, that Melville comes closest to drawing a believable portrait of an actual human being, and that man is Ishmael--a fatuous, self-important autodidact whose not-inconsiderable intellect is boxed in by the infantile conviction that all meaningful philosophy can be arrived at by extending metaphors from his chosen area of interest to the rest of existence. Reading the whaling chapters in Moby Dick, one can almost imagine Ishmael as a dinner companion--wonderfully knowledgeable, of course, and capable of spinning a good yarn, but so very full of himself, so certain that his deep understanding of one single aspect of human endeavor has endowed him with the key to understanding all of creation, that he very quickly becomes ridiculous. The real obsession in Moby Dick--the truly interesting obsession, certainly--isn't Ahab's with the white whale, but Ishmael's with whales of all shapes and sizes.

But is the obsession Ishmael's, or is it Melville's? Or, to put it another way, am I giving Melville too much credit by assuming that he intended for us to find Ishmael laughable, or for that matter to perceive a personality in him at all? Perhaps Ishmael was intended as nothing more than a conduit through which Melville could express his own philosophy, his own fascination with whales and whaling (the author went to sea several times before the novel's composition, once on a whaling ship). Perhaps it was Melville who thought whaling was simply the most fascinating topic imaginable, and couldn't stop himself from going on about it at any given opportunity. We often say that writers should write the novel they want to read, but there's a danger, when espousing this approach, of creating a novel that only the author will want to read, because other readers, who don't share the author's interests, have no way of gaining entry to the narrative. When I wrote about John Crowley's latest novel a few months ago, I wondered whether the author hadn't allowed his fascination with the life of Lord Byron, whose voice he attempts to replicate by putting an entire novel's-worth of words in his mouth, to overwhelm his original characters, and in the last week I've been involved in a discussion of Peter Watts's Blindsight in which the main topic has been Watts's choice to delve deeply--often to the detriment of his plot and characters--into descriptions of science both real and imaginary.

Whaling is interesting. The life and literature of Lord Byron are interesting. The science of sensory perception and manipulation is interesting. They are not, however, in themselves, capable of shedding light on an invented character, or of advancing a plot, and are therefore not the stuff that novels can be made out of. Melville tries to get around this bind through crude parables. Crowley (who arguably had the easiest task of the three, as the subject of his obsession is a person whose life story lends itself quite easily to a romantic interpretation) ends up reducing his novel to not much more than a heavily fictionalized biography. Watts coasts on the strength of his ideas. None of the three have written a truly satisfying work of fiction.

In order for a character's--or an author's--fascination with a topic to fuel a work of fiction, it has to do more than engage the readers intellectually. A connection needs to be drawn between the character's obsession and their humanity. The readers need to see how a fascination with whaling, or the life of Lord Byron, allows the characters to express themselves. M. John Harrison accomplishes this in the semi-autobiographical Climbers by establishing early on that his characters' sense of self-worth is inextricably tied to their ability to conquer difficult climbs. The protagonist of Walter Tevis's The Queen's Gambitis only fully functional when seated in front of a chess board, and in her everyday life she is lonely, unhappy, and prone to substance abuse. Once the ties between the characters' distinctive interests and their garden-variety humanity are established, we can inhabit their obsessions. Harrison goes on for pages on end about various climbs, often using a great deal of technical language. Tevis describes chess moves. But climbing and chess aren't an end in themselves for either of these authors, merely a means to get closer to the characters and thus engage the readers emotionally as well as intellectually.

I think that in the character of Ishmael, Melville came close to creating this kind of work. I also think he wasn't particularly interested in doing so, which might explain why, after laying the groundwork and establishing Ishmael's personality, he goes on in precisely the same format--expound upon aspect of whaling, attempt to convert practical observations into philosophical terms--for hundreds of pages, without attempting to change or further explore the character. Nevertheless, it is this aspect of Moby Dick that I most enjoyed--it's fun to imagine that there's a Nabokovian attempt at unreliable narration lurking somewhere, very deep beneath the novel's surface. And ultimately, I'm glad to have finally read the novel in its entirety--as I said at the beginning of this piece, it's too important to our culture to be completely ignored. Who knows, maybe I'll go back to it again in ten year's time, and find out once more just how limited my abilities as a reader were when I was twenty-six.


the.exile said...

I've tried reading Moby Dick a couple of times myself, but Melville keeps beating me.

Interestingly, one of the members of American Metal band Mastodon had the same problem, until he started reading it while touring the album Remission.

When he finally finished it, he felt such a sense of achievement that he (and his cohorts) were inspired to write the album Leviathan (that and Melville describes the whale as 'The Mastodon of the Sea").

I can imagine that one day someone will write a novel about my obsession with music...

A.R.Yngve said...

Good point about characters and their obsessions... I suppose that if Ishmael had been obsessed not with whales but stamp-collecting and its deeper significance, the book would have seriously suffered. ;-)

And now a shameful confession: When I read the quote "from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee," I immediately thought of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN.
(Ricardo Montalban lifted those lines probably not from the novel, but from the John Huston film. Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal! ;-))

Abigail Nussbaum said...

When I read the quote "from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee," I immediately thought of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN.

Oh, I assure you, you are not alone in this.

Iain Clark said...

Trek II was co-written by Nick Meyer who often peppers the script with literary references (he did it in Trek VI too) so the quote almost certainly references the novel rather than the John Huston film.

The Wrath of Khan also has the "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" / "It is a far, far better thing..." motif running through it (from "A Tale of Two Cities" which Spock gives Kirk for his birthday).

Khan also has another Moby Dick paraphrase: "He tasks me, he tasks me and I shall have him. I'll chase him round the moons of Nibia and round the antares maelstrom and through Perdition's flames before I give him up." (or something like that).

Several books are seen on the shelf in Khan's crashed ship near the start including Paradise Lost, which is referenced in the original Space Seed episode.

...I may have watched this film too often.

Iain Clark said...

Having suitably diverted the debate to Trek trivia, I suppose should comment on Moby Dick as well!

We studied it on my degree, and my main memory of the book (aside from those interminable passages about whaling) is the concept that the White Whale represents God, who has already scarred Ahab once and whom Ahab is blaspheming against, Lucifer-like, by yearning to prove that he's in command of his own destiny.

It was a long time ago that I read the book and sadly the details escape me, but my clearest memory is of his fiery rant while staring at the dubloon, and the sun, which in turn have also come to represent the mask of God. Checking my copy I can't find that specific passage but there are plenty of similar ones, such as: "I now know that thy right worship is defiance" in the middle of a long rant in Chapter 119. Of course, Ahab seldom stops talking about God in various guises.

I rather enjoyed this aspect of the novel as it turns the Ahab story, on one level, into a much more fantastical struggle between God and man. I'll be honest, at the time I read the novel I found this a great deal more compelling than a story about a whaling ship!

Abigail Nussbaum said...

the White Whale represents God, who has already scarred Ahab once and whom Ahab is blaspheming against, Lucifer-like, by yearning to prove that he's in command of his own destiny

That sounds about right. It certainly felt to me as if Ahab was offended at having been rendered vulnerable, and towards the end of the novel he pretty much rebels against the very notion that there exists something more powerful than him in the universe.

Which is certainly more interesting than taking vengeance on a dumb animal (and possibly I should have mentioned this in my post), but by the time the novel reaches its climax, Ahab has gone so far over the edge that he's no longer a tragic figure - just a dangerously crazy old man. Melville references the stories of Job and Jonah - both tales about men who rebel against or question God's authority in their lives - but he can't conjure up a fraction of the Biblical author's subtlety and compassion.

jpb said...

The real obsession in Moby Dick [is] Ishmael's with whales of all shapes and sizes.

Or, alternately, on "whiteness." One of the most interesting chapters in MD, for me, is Chap. 42, "The Whiteness of the Whale"—I'm eager to hear your impressions of that bit.

Thomas Waldbo said...


Just to say that I understand it if you grew sick of reading MD. It IS extremely long and most definitely not written to be entertaining.

However, I don't think you are being quite fair to old Herman, especially with regard to the "Shakespearean" parts of the novel.

You write that it is overwrought, without subtlety etc. All quite true - but I would contend that it is supposed to be overwrought and without subtlety. That what Melville is doing is not so much an imitation of Shakespeare as it is a writing through Shakespeare.

That is to say - the point of the overly-Shakespearean elements is to point out certain features of what is after all the most famed Western author of all time: more precisely the demagoguery of Shakespearean dramatic language.

Ahabs high-strung speech in The Candles should illustrate this nicely: In a thunderstorm at sea Ahab - holding the ship's lightning rods, with St. Elm's fire flashing from the masts and the tip of his harpoon - decisively convinces the crew to join him on his deathbound way by a mixture of Shakespeare and (threat of) violence. The parallels to Macbeth are clear here.

Ahab is a monomaniac and a demagogue. And he uses the language of demagoguery, which is dramatic language - the most perfected form of which is Shakespeare.

Quite different the subtle (but also often inconsequential) prose of Ishmael - but then Ishmael is no demagogue. In fact, as the novel progresses Ishmael, as well as his narrative voice, dissolves in the polyphony of the rest of the crew. He gives himself up to the community aboard the Pequod.

Anyhow, that's my two cents' worth. Hope you will give Melville a second chance later - he really does deserve it!

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