Herman Melville, Moby Dick

May 3rd, 2012 § 1 comment

Call me Ishmael.  Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.  It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.  Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.  This is my substitute for pistol and ball.  With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.  There is nothing surprising in this.  If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Quote from this first paragraph, especially the opening “Call me Ishmael,” and more likely than not, people will recognize it, even if they do not immediately respond with “that’s from Moby Dick!”  Published in 1851, Herman Melville’s most famous work divides today’s readers as much as it did when it was published nearly 160 years ago.  Too frequently, there are criticisms of the book being “too slow,” or that it is “too much about whaling,” or that its plot does not manifest itself in a fluid fashion.   Sometimes, a book is read too early in one’s life; this was certainly the case for me.  When I was assigned to read the book for my English IV Honors class, I could not finish the book; the whaling aspects and the symbolism embedded in the text were tedious to read, largely because my mind was not receptive enough (or perhaps not ready enough, since I was, after all, only seventeen when I first attempted to read the book) to ponder what Melville had created here.  For the next six years or so, I thought of the book (well, the few times that it was mentioned to me) as being one of the most wretched excuses for a novel to ever be read, until I had a conversation with a graduate history professor of mine about novels and symbolism.  He held up Moby Dick as being one of the best examples of American literature and after I expressed my disdain for the book, he urged me to give it a second chance, to read it not as a late 20th century reader would read a late 20th century novel, but rather to read it as I might approach a Paradise Lost.  I did and my opinion of the novel did a 180 after completing the novel when I was twenty-three.  Now that I’m thirty-seven, I decided it was time to re-read it again, to see what else might be revealed, as after all, some things do improve with age and repeated trial.  This maxim certainly held true in regards to Moby Dick, as I savored this re-read, stretching it over weeks, reading only a few dozen chapters at a time and then pausing for several days before recommencing.

“Call me Ishmael.”  Ishmael, Hagar’s outcast son, spared only by the mercy of God.  From that first sentence, Melville begins to build a story full of biblical allusions, both in the character names (Ahab, Gabriel) and in the themes of human desire, self-illusion, revenge, and the holiness of the leviathan.  Around these elements he adds Romantic elements, particularly in the scenes focusing on whaling and why men sign themselves up to be workers on ships such as the Pequod.  There is something innately dangerous about setting to sea in a wooden whaling ship, driven only by the power of the wind and the efforts of her crew.  For Melville’s original readers, such ships were fading into the past, being replaced first by steam-driven ships and later by much larger, metal-hulled ships that greatly reduced the dangers of capsizing and drowning.  For us, we can scarce imagine the terrors and the awe-inspiring moments such as this one from Chapter 29:

Some days elapsed, and ice and icebergs all astern, the Pequod now went rolling through the bright Quito spring, which at sea, almost perpetually reigns on the threshold of the eternal August of the Tropic.  The warmly cool, clear, ringing perfumed, overflowing, redundant days, were as crystal goblets of Persian sherbet, heaped up – flaked up, with rose-water snow.  The starred and stately nights seemed haughty dames in jewelled velvets, nursing at home in lonely pride, the memory of their absent conquering Earls, the golden helmeted suns!  For sleeping man, ’twas hard to choose between such winsome days and such seducing nights.  But all the witcheries of that unwaning weather did not merely lend new spells and potencies to the outward world.  Inward they turned upon the soul, especially when the still mild hours of eve came on; then, memory shot her crystals as the clear ice most forms of noiseless twilights.  And all these subtle agencies, more and more they wrought on Ahab’s texture.

Here, as in several other passages scattered throughout Moby Dick, Melville’s prose is lush, perhaps too lush for modern sensibilities.  However, passages such as this seek to capture the bewitching wonders of sea, ice, and heavens in a fashion that impels engaged readers to stop, pause, and to reflect on natural beauties.  This is not to say that these natural wonders are safe or that our tendency to pause and behold them are always wise, but rather that such natural elements are just as vital to this roving, winding narrative as are the human characters that flit and flicker across this scenic backdrop to Melville’s morality tale.

Melville’s characters also play a huge role in this novel.  From the heathen harpooner Queequeg to the revenge-filled desire of Captain Ahab to Ishmael and other characters, both on the Pequod and her sister whaling ship, the Rachel, their motivations for fame, money, adventure, lust, and revenge war with the elements surrounding them.  Some of Melville’s detractors have noted that often these characters disappear for long stretches, that their intriguing tales lose their potency due to Melville’s tendency to mix in chapters on the sea and whaling with the “current events” aboard the Pequod.  To some extent, there is some truth to this, providing, of course, that Moby Dick ought to be read foremost as a story of the sailors’ battle against the famed white sperm whale and the sea.   However, I believe such a reading would miss the key element here, that of what Moby Dick itself represents.

Throughout the narrative, Melville scatters short chapters on the whale as represented in myths from across the globe, from the biblical Leviathan to it being the first of Vishnu’s incarnations to it being a terror that represents in concrete form the puny nature and limitations of human beings.  Moby Dick symbolizes not just our lusts and desires, but also the terrible majesty of the unknown and indomitable.  It truly is the leviathan that overwhelms us, revealing to us just how futile some of our aspirations are.  But it is much more than that.  It is awe-inspiring in a way that we today cannot feel as easily as perhaps some could perceive in previous centuries.  We are divorced from nature to an extent and nature’s power, encapsulated in the form of Moby Dick, does not excite fear or desire in us as it once did.  Instead of a dangerous foil, Moby Dick’s progeny are now viewed as helpless waifs, in danger of being wiped out by human avarice.  One cannot help but wonder what Melville would have made of this if he were alive today.

Perhaps it is this diminution of nature into something less wild, perhaps it is the loss of our awe and dread of nature and nature’s beasts, or perhaps it is a reduction in faith in our our dreams that has weakened the power of this narrative.  While certainly the writing conventions have changed and this has impacted our view of how novels should be constructed, I find myself wistfully thinking that something has been lost in the translation of time and place.  There is a powerful story that moves me, but will it continue to move others as the years pass and we move further and further away from natural wonder and fear?

§ One Response to Herman Melville, Moby Dick

  • Quote the actual beginning of the novel, though, and you’ll get nothing but blank, or worried, looks. “He loved to dust his old grammars” – what?

    The mythical elements you identify have grown in significance for me. I am tempted to make them keys to the novel, which is likely a mistake. But your approach is great, trying to see how they & the whale tell us something about human nature.

    As for the divergence from modern sensibilities – there are some exceptions.

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