Author: Herman Melville
Type: Fiction, novel
Full title: Moby-Dick; or, The Whale
I read it: October 2011
Call me Levi. Some weeks ago–never mind how long precisely–having little or no disposable income, and a broken computer with no Internet to interest me, I thought I would wander about my shelves and find the dustiest one of those paper works. It is a way I have of keeping a quarter of the year anchored in memory; like Infinite Jest cements autumn of ’09, so has Moby-Dick been my watery escape of this season. I wanted something beastly to sink into, and for “a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” So: the whale.
Melville seems the perfect author for the subject at hand. It’s as if after compiling all lines great and small previously writ about the whale, he squirmed in frustration (and giddiness) that one tome had not heretofore been collected. He even admits that up until he took pen to page there was no single chronicler of the subject. So with curiosity, humility, credulity, and humor he set about his tale. At once both deliberate and frantic, the reader gets the sense he can’t wait to lay down the next whaler’s tale, the next scientific description, the next move of the Pequod’s drama. I found myself embracing each chapter as it came, whether having to do with the intriguing analysis of the beast’s body, the philosophy of Cetus among the stars, or the antics of Queequeg, Starbuck, Flask, Stubb, and the rest as they scurry and stamp about a ship destined for a biblical denouement.
The author’s excitement is manifest in his earnestness, as well as his contradictions. He writes that “in landlessness alone resides the highest truth” and indulges in many “leviathanic revelations.” However, he does not want Moby-Dick (the whale, at least, but perhaps also the whole work) to be a “hideous and intolerable allegory,” for the book is as naturalistic as any. Published eight years before the Origin, the science of the day is thrilling and maddening to the modern mind: it is evident to Ishmael that the whale has lungs, and warm blood, and fin bones that resemble human fingers, but after long deliberation, he firmly states that the whale is a fish, and one “continually athirst for human blood.” He is aching for a modern scientific language with which to describe nature’s ways.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s insight that Melville could neither “believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief” is illustrated in the philosophical wrestling. Melville notes the whale is “guided by some infallible instinct–say, rather, secret intelligence from the Deity,” as if he is searching for a place to lay his blasphemy. Melville was lost in a mythology of unearthly proportion, not knowing that he himself had more experience than any ancestor in studying these creatures. In his ignorance he plays apologist to the idea that Jonah’s story is historical, but in his wisdom he curses the hypocrisy of a civilized society that would brutalize sentient creatures, even going so far as to worry about extinction and promote vegetarianism. And sometimes he had to throw up his hands: when considering the whale’s brute being, he asks, “What has the whale to say?” As the audio of my oceangoing playlist might split wide his consciousness, with its foreign, mystical sounds, so too would the playback of a whale’s voice floor our poor Ishmael, hardly to recover. To think what a mind such as his would gain by all our modern research on these largest beasts. This is your Leviathan of myth, sir! You have looked into its living eye!
I shall give small space to concede that some may find flaw in the layout of the text. Though most sections are personal narrative, sometimes the reader is led to conclude the narration to be tantamount to an omniscient third eye (although even here, Melville accounts for Ishmael to be a man about the ship, constantly peeping in on others) so that a small leak of sloppiness–though nothing like a flood–laps the foot. Another peeve may be the drift from novel form to that of a play, in which headings precede the action and the pages are divided up into blocks of assigned dialogue. But these small distractions are, for this reader, part of the monumental fun of the book. Melville can hardly keep up with his quill, and the subject and style of subsequent chunks are for the guessing (as he states, “Out of the trunk, the branches grow; out of them, the twigs. So, in productive subjects, grow the chapters”). Also, the haze which creeps over the divide between author and hero must here be mentioned, and here just as easily shrugged aside. Melville/Ishmael “swam through libraries and sailed through oceans” to give us less a tale than a testament: something both broad and specific, personal and universal. We hold in our hearts the peaks and ravines of his spiritual travelogue, and in our mind’s eye a heap of scenes in which we can firmly place ourselves. The author’s science cutting keener than that of his forebears, his morals creeping ever closer to refinement, he tried all things and achieved what he could. I shall make it a task to find landlessness when I can.