Moby A-Dick-ted August 26, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Literary Essays (Roger), Moby A-Dick-ted?.
Tags: 19th century novel, american literature, american novel, book review, captain ahab, classic novel, great american novel, Herman Melville, leviathan, Literary criticism, literature, Moby Dick review, nantucket, roger hollander, sea novel, Starbucks, whales, whaling, whaling novel, white whale
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(A blasphemous review)
“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.” Isaiah
There comes a time in one’s life when one must face up to the shameful fact. Although I consider myself a literate person, I nevertheless have never attempted, much less finished, a reading of Moby Dick. Now, having crossed the threshold of my sixth decade, how can I continue to look in the mirror and abide the visage of such an imposter, the reflection of virgin landlubber eyes that have yet to navigate the oceanic pages of what is by near unanimous consent … The Great American Novel?
So, when, whilst perusing the bins at my local [Reseda, California] library’s annual used book sale, a Signet Classic paperback version of Herman Melville’s 19th century masterpiece leaped up and harpooned my conscience, there was naught left for me but to dig fathoms deep into my pocket and deposit my ten cents, one thin dime; and I couldn’t help thinking about how many times I had been told that “a ship cannot turn on a dime;” I said to myself, “could than ship not have been the Pequod herself?”
I confess that I have anticipated visits to the dentist for a root canal with less trepidation than I approached the opening pages of Moby Dick. But, with the determination and patience of a Nantucket whalesman, that valiant sojourner, who, when he signed on, bargained for nothing less than a three year voyage around the globe without once touching land, I took the plunge.
And I must tell you, dear reader, it has been a thousand times worse than I thought it would be.
I sailed past the first section, whose title is “ETYMOLOGY (Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School),” and which contains spelling of the word “whale” in thirteen different languages, including “Fegee” and “Erromangoan.” Then I tacked into a trade wind consisting of eleven pages of “Extracts (Supplied by a Sub-Sub-Librarian),” which contained illuminating quotations, such as:
“This whale’s liver was two cart-loads” – Stowe’s Annals
“What spermaceti is, men might justly doubt, since the learned Hosmannus in his work of thirty years, saith plainly, Nescio quid si”’ – Sir T. Browne, of Sperma Ceti and the Sperma Ceti Whale. Vide His V.E.
“The aorta of a whale is larger in the bore than the main pipe of the water-works at London Bridge, and the water roaring in its passage through that pipe is inferior in impetus and velocity to the blood gushing from the whale’s heart.” – Paley’s Theology
Well, I thought, having made it out past the breakers, perhaps I am at least gaining my sea legs, and I hoped and prayed that the beginning of the actual story might make for smoother sailing.
Call me a big sissy, Ishmael, but you had me treading water for untold hours waiting for something to happen. One hundred and eleven pages before you even set foot on the big ship. Oh yes, intrepid Narrator, you can spin a tale when you want to, I will give you that. Reading your account of your of meeting up with, sharing a bed and getting physically intimate [it’s not what you might think, reader, this was the 19th century, after all] with Noble Savage Cannibal Harpooner, Queequeg; I thought to myself, “well, this might not be so bad after all.” That was before you decided to interrupt yourself and pepper throughout the next four hundred odd pages, everything anyone could ever want to know about whales and 19th century whaling but was smart enough not to ask. “Am I reading a novel,” I asked myself, “or an outdated manual on the whaling industry?”
We’re talking entire chapters on the paraphernalia used in hunting the Leviathan. An example from Chapter 60, “The Line:”
“The line originally used in the fishery was of the best hemp, slightly vapored with tar, not impregnated with it [thank God!] as in the case of ordinary ropes; for while tar, as ordinarily used, makes the hemp more pliable to the rope-maker, and also renders the rope itself more convenient to the sailor for common ship use; yet, not only would the ordinary quantity too much stiffen the whale-line for the close coiling to which it must be subjected; but as most seamen are beginning to learn, tar in general by no means adds to the rope’s durability or strength, however much it may give it compactness and gloss.”
You will notice that this vital information is put forward in a single sentence, containing no less than twelve clauses, six commas and three semi-colons. And it is one of the shorter ones.
Other chapters on whaling technique tell us all about “The Dart,” “The Crotch [not what you think],” “Cutting In [has nothing to do with dancing],” “The Blanket,” “The Monkey-Rope,” and if I were to go on you might think my own literary style was turning Melvillean.
And have you ever wondered about the anatomy of the Sperm Whale? If so, you are in for some delightful chapter-long descriptions of its “Head” (with a corresponding chapter on the head of the Right Whale, to give you a point of comparison), “The Battering Ram,” “The Nut (brain),” “The Prairie (brow),” “The Fountain (the spout),” “The Tail,” etcetera, etcetera. Entire chapters. Our narrator, as erudite on cetology as he is on the Old Testament, Shakespeare and Greek Mythology, shares with us some interesting 19th century science. The whale is a fish, not a mammal. It makes no sound. Porpoises are a species of whale. St. George’s dragon was really a whale. I’m not making this up.
Now I know that everyone has her or his own tastes when it comes to character versus plot. I am a plot man myself, but I also thoroughly enjoy good characterization. Nevertheless, I believe that any novel worth its salt water should not be too overly balanced towards one or the other. Captain Ahab, our valiant protagonist (if you don’t count the whale), finally shows up on page 128, nearly a quarter of the way through the novel. In Moby Dick, we navigate choppy waters with absolutely no advancement of the plot (in my Signet Classic paperback edition, from page 111, when Ishmael and Queequeg board the Pequod, to page 510, when they finally spot the White Monster, and the denouement at long last begins). By this time I am beginning to root for the whale.
And what does the ship’s mess offer up during this interminable voyage as an antidote to literary scurvy? There are occasional skirmishes with various “rascally Asiatics” (so now we know Elmer Fudd was derivative). Indeed, there are some gems of prose as the secondary characters take shape – Ahab’s Parsee stowaway, First Mate Starbuck and the second and third mates, the three pagan harpooners – but all this lost in a sea of some of the boringest chapters on whaling, mentioned above, that you will ever want to cast off upon. This seasick wayfarer longed in vain for some plot. Four hundred pages. That’s a ship load of filler. Was it Melville’s intention to give his readers the dubious pleasure of experiencing the ennui of three years at sea?
Now I think that many of us have had the following experience. We have netted all we can from the encyclopedia for that high school science project assignment, and we cast sad eyes upon our three or four anemic typewritten pages – wide margined, double spaced. So what do we do? We go whaling for maps, charts, photos, drawings, news clippings, anything we can find, however tangential to our subject, to give our project bulk, to turn those three or four pathetic pages of research into an impressive half inch of whale blubber. I am not suggesting this was Melville’s motivation; and I am not comparing a typical high school student’s limited imagination with Melville’s incomparable literary genius. I am just empathizing with how I think my science teacher might have had to deconstruct the mounds of data thrown at him, how he might have needed to separate mountains of chaff to get at those few grains of wheat (if you will pardon just this once a non seaworthy metaphor).
Let’s talk about what meager plot there is. Big White Whale (whole chapter on significance of whale whiteness) chews off captain’s leg (you’ll have to wait for the “prequel” to read about the actual chewing); captain not too happy about that, is obsessed with getting even; wanders endlessly in search of said leg-chewing fish (we moderns know it’s really a mammal); finally meets up with him (her?). I will not spoil it for the reader by revealing the ending. Let’s just say that it leaves one with a sinking feeling.
O.K., it’s not much of a plot, but as well written and erudite as it is when it wants to be, I am sure it would have made an extraordinary short story or novella. However, it’s the drawn out wandering endlessly that had this reader longing for that soothing sound of the dentist’s drill. Melville uses these four hundred in-between pages to give the Narrator his big chance to show off knowledge, some of it actually scientifically accurate, of whales and whaling; and to try to convince us of the nobility of massacring, for profit, one of nature’s most noble wild creatures – I was particularly enchanted, for example (page 372) when they harpooned a mother whale while in the process of giving birth, and the harpoon line got tangled with the umbilical.
From one perspective, Melville could have ended it all right after page 167, where he has the Pequod’s First Mate, Starbuck (immortalized all over again in the 20th century in his reincarnation as the world’s largest retail coffee monopoly), question Captain Ahab’s obsession:
“Vengeance on a dumb brute!” cried Starbuck, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”
If I were Herman Melville, I would have had Ahab say to his first mate at that very moment, “Lord praise thee, Starbuck, if thou doest not cast a hitherto unthought-of perspective on a matter that long hast troubled this seafaring vagrant. Coming to put mind and greater sensibilities upon the question, thou mightest have thee in thy craw the tapered end of a dart, to wit, a point.” He would then have ordered the Pequod to turn around (on a dime!), and, after making a couple of stops in Brazil and Columbia where they would fill the Pequod’s hold with those aromatic caffeine saturated beans, head back to home port for a grand opening of the first Starbuck’s. In Nantucket, of course. I know, I know, it might not be easy to picture those hard nosed sea salts sipping their lattes and munching on a cranberry oatmeal muffin, but by God, reader, this is literature, use your imagination.
O.K. So what about it? Are we talking the Great American Novel or not? Maybe in its time. It certainly is a grand and epic work, and a fine example of the naturalism that began to emerge in the 19th century American novel. But does it stand up today? Setting aside the fact that there is no accepted criteria for measuring the greatness of a novel, and certainly not for singling out one novel as the greatest of all time; I have to say that, regardless of what genius it does contain – and some of the prose is stunningly brilliant – because so much of the novel is irrelevant to anyone other than an archeologist of 19th century whaling, its value to the contemporary reader is likely to be little more than it was to me, to wit, the satisfaction of having finally read it.
Of course we can have some fun with the question of whether the novel is just a picturesque story, or a metaphor carrying deeper meanings. Was the whale, for example, as it was for Starbuck, just a big dumb animal? Or does it represent through its grace and whiteness the purity of nature, while at the same time through its destructive powers, the amoral and potentially deadly forces of nature? Is the novel a metaphor for America? Its indomitable spirit of adventure in the face of overwhelming adversity? The passion and hubris of Manifest Destiny?
Now, if you want to give Melville credit for being really prescient, you could take up the question of whale oil. The entire purpose of whaling at that time was to cut up the whale’s blubber and render it into what in its day was the highest quality of lamp oil available. It was used throughout the globe to lighten the night-time darkness (‘Twas Thomas Edison who put an end to all that, and there is not a whale alive today who doesn’t thank him for it). Was Melville perhaps foreshadowing the invention of the internal combustion engine and industrial capitalism’s dependence on Middle East oil reserves? Was Ahab Rockefeller? Starbuck the Sherman Anti-Trust Act? Queequeg (noble savage, yet savage harpooner) Israel?
Or should we cast about for a more modern metaphor for America? Is not W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe (the movie Field of Dreams), for example, a better candidate for The Great American Novel? What could be a more apt metaphor for America than a bunch of grown adults chasing a small spherical projectile with a tapered wooden club and earning in the tens of millions of dollars? And Shoeless Joe doesn’t bore us to death with four hundred pages explaining everything from how the Louisville Slugger is manufactured to the geometry of the pitcher’s mound to what Umpires do in their spare time (come to think of it, what those spoiled millionaire gold-chains-around-the-neck-steroid-saturated athletes do with their spare time might indeed make for interesting reading, but I digress).
I have my own metaphorical interpretation of Moby Dick. Starbuck is Colin Powell. The honest and loyal soldier. The follower of his Commander-in-Chief’s orders, even if he thinks they are apt to lead to disaster. I cannot bring myself to say that Ahab is George W. Bush, since the former was a literate genius, a master of iridescent and philosophic prose; the latter one step, if that, above Moby Dick himself in intelligence. But I will take literary license and let Ahab represent all the perverse and satanic intelligence of Dubya’s nominal subalterns (the Cheneys, Wolfowitzs, Rumsfelds, Rices, etc.).
Starbuck is characterized over and again by Melville as honest and clear headed. Ahab single minded, dogmatic and tyrannical. Time and time again Starbuck beseeches Ahab to call off his mad project that was bound to end in the destruction of them all. At one point even (Chapter 123, “The Musket”) he has Starbuck consider a pre-emptive strike against Ahab. Upon encountering Ahab asleep in his cabin and noticing his loaded muskets in their rack, Starbuck for an instant considers the unthinkable:
“Starbuck was an honest, upright man; but out of Starbuck’s heart, at that instant when he saw the muskets, there strangely evolved an evil thought …” To wit, “Aye and he would fain kill all his crew … But shall this crazed old man be tamely suffered to drag a whole ship’s company down with him? – Yes, it would make him the willful murderer of thirty men and more, if this ship comes to any deadly harm; and come to deadly harm my soul swears this ship will, if Ahab has his way. If, then, he were this instant, put aside …” (pages 482,483)
Yes, Starbuck, muskets loaded and ready to go, Ahab peacefully asleep in his hammock, does actually consider for a brief moment preventive warfare against Saddam, excuse me, Ahab. O.K., I am taking even more literary license, I realize. I now have Starbuck considering the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war (if you ever have trouble staying up at night, read the “2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America” issued by George W. Bush, and I guarantee you will not sleep for weeks). For a moment, Starbuck is Bush, Ahab is Saddam Hussein, the muskets are the unparalleled military might of the United States of America. But Starbuck is “an honest, upright man.” He soon reverts to his true self – the United Nations, the world community – and rejects the idea. I admit that I’m playing fast and loose with my metaphors. Saddam never did have weapons of mass destruction. Ahab did. Bush does.
Ahab unfortunately chooses to stay the course. Like Bush and company, he will brook no self criticism, nor admit to any mistakes. It is full sail ahead into the madness of mass destruction. And like Bush, Ahab, speaking to Starbuck, justifies his madness in the name of God: “But in this matter of the whale … Ahab [speaking of himself] is forever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled … I am the Fates’ lieutenant.” (my emphasis)
Reader. Read Moby Dick for yourself. I dare you. Slog through the muck, mire and glory of 19th century whaling for five hundred and thirty six pages, and reward yourself with your own metaphorical interpretation. As for me, I shall move on. I have learned my lesson. I am thinking of the next classic I need to approach. It should be something more of a page turner. Something perhaps a little more accessible to the Stephen King narcotized modern reader. Yes, I have always thought I really should one day read James Joyce. Now where did I put that paperback of “Ulysses” I’ve been meaning to start for some time?