Saturday, November 9, 2019

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I could tell that Moby Dick has settled into the mulch of my brain over the past few years when I was in a terrible mood at work recently and actually had the thought that I needed “a strong decoction of Seneca and the Stoics to enable me to grin and bear it.” I was amused, but after time I was pretty happy about that. I want Ishmael’s voice and the mood of this novel in my head like I want the dialog from Deadwood or a Coen Brothers movie there, or the poetry of  Auden, Yeats, Jeffers or Porter.  Whatever else Moby Dick may be, it’s a five or six hundred page poem to madness, obsession, the implacability of death, the ocean and the whale. I heard a preacher say once that looking at vast things “gets the smallness out of you,” and Moby Dick serves a similar purpose; it very much gets me outside of my head.

The Seneca bit was a surprise to me, but there are lines and images from the book that I think about regularly. In reference to a rival whaling ship captain who went in chase of un-catchable Fin-Back whales thinking they were the more valuable Sperm Whales the narrator says, “O, many are the Fin-Backs, and many are the Dereks, my friend.” This I apply liberally to many discussions both in person and online when I or someone I’m talking to has lost the plot. There’s an image of Captain Ahab toward the end holding a flaming harpoon as he tries to calm his men that haunts me. I think of Stubbs saying, "I wonder, Flask, whether the world is anchored anywhere; if she is, she swings with an uncommon long cable, though." I think about the image of the clam looking up through the water and not comprehending the world above the water. I think of tiny Ahab threatening Moby Dick even as he’s being destroyed. I think of how perfectly the first chapter captures the mood of restlessness that possesses me at times. I think about the line, "There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own” which is as good a one line summation of existentialism I’ve heard outside of the TV show Angel* despite having been written nearly a century before Existentialism proper came along. He undercuts that a bit in the next few lines in which the joke is portrayed as a nudging joke among friends. The overall arc of the novel restores it to the level of existential quandary. I could go on. Like Middlemarch, which I read for the first time this year, every page is quotable.

Moby Dick has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as science fiction and fantasy. It evokes a sense of wonder, one of the many stated goals of SFF. It plunges you into an unknown world and builds that world out for you. This is especially true for a modern reader, but Melville seems skeptical that even his contemporaries would get it. That world is used to reflect upon and make observations about the world in which the reader lives. There is a prophecy that came true after a fashion. There’s a monstrous creature that is imbued with mythical significance. There is also a lot of exposition, often in chapters that could fairly be called what genre readers refer to as info-dump. The extended chapter on Cetology, the study of whales, is famously tedious as is the chapter on the color white. I was reminded, this time through, of Neal Stephenson going on for pages in Cryptonomicon about how computer monitors work. I usually skip the Cetology and white chapters on my annual reread of Moby Dick, but this year I pushed through then, and was glad I did. Even those chapters have several lines that made them worth reading. In the case of Moby Dick, as in the case of a lot of (though certainly not all) SFF, the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses for me. I will not begrudge the person who bails on the novel during the Cetology chapter; I will say that once I pushed through it and reread the whole a couple of times it became one of my favorite novels despite those sections.

Moby Dick is a book that it is very easy to project onto; the reader will likely find what they want in it. What is Moby Dick? A story about the implacability of death? Of obsessive madness? An attempt towards a liberal (by the standards of its time) theology? A secretly atheist parable? A disguised gay romance? A hifalutin version of a Boy’s Own adventure tale? A precursor to existentialism?  A story of a far more diverse cast than the time usually produced with relatively positive portrayals of people from a variety of ethnicities (excluding Fedallah, and to some extent Pip)? An extended prose poem to some or all of these? I’ve long held that authorial intent matters more than the current discourse, at least on the internet, allows for. This book confounds that to some extent. I don’t know a lot about the circumstances that Melville wrote in, so I’m left to textual clues and to my own experience of the book. This is further complicated by a scene that reads almost as a series of monologues in a play as several characters in turn muse on the symbolism of the doubloon that Ahab has nailed to the mast and promised to the person who first sights Moby Dick. Melville seems to quite literally be goading the reader into multiple readings, or at least illustrating the way that different people will respond to it differently. I think that all of those readings, and many I haven’t thought of can plausibly be read into the story.

It’s clear that Melville conceived this as a shot at greatness; he says at one point, "To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it." To my mind he has achieved that. He obviously went to great pains to render the events of the book believable to those who have not been on a whaling voyage in the first half of the 19th century. Beyond that I won’t make claims about his intentions. I will fall back on my experience of the book, which is one that I want to repeat annually, and occasionally lives in my mind between readings. As one of my annual rereads, it is clearly a favorite. With this reread, and one of Peace by Gene Wolfe and a first time read of Middlemarch this year, Pale Fire is not as secure in the spot of my favorite novel as it has been for the past several years. I’m ok with that.


* The line from Angel is “If nothing we do matters, then the only thing that matters is what we do.”

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