I have often said that if trapped on a desert island, I’d want Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki as the one book with me (rim shot). Being serious, I’ve later decided that since Catch-22 suits my mood any time I pick it up, that would be my real choice. Yet every time I read Herman Melville’s towering Moby Dick, I firmly believe that no other book should suffice.
It’s one of those books you always mean to read. “Oh yes, I’ve got Moby Dick on my list and Gravity’s Rainbow and Ulysses and Remembrance of Things Past,” you tell yourself, getting around to reading them always a project you keep putting off. I put off reading Moby Dick until a good friend praised it to the heavens. His enthusiasm sparked me to pick up this old classic and give it a whirl. It was one of the most thrilling books I’d ever read before — and I never would have guessed it previously.
I loved Moby Dick so much that for the first year of my daughter’s life every day I read her a little of the novel until I’d read the whole thing through a second time. It always put her to sleep, but you never know. She certainly loves books at any rate.
The effect of reading Moby Dick is akin to devouring an obscure, somewhat bizarre, absolutely beautiful religious work. It is often described as the epitome of the romantics and the transcendentalists, and the reputation is well earned. Nearly everyone knows the first line of the novel, “Call me Ishmael,” and he alerts us rather quickly to the novel’s overarching symbolic nature.
Prior to even leaving the shore as Ishmael tramps about New Bedford, Massachusetts, he notes the inauspicious symbology of Peter Coffin’s establishment yet fails to note at The Trap earlier up the road, a black church, the homily is of the blackness of darkness. Later in the church of Father Mapple, Melville will have the priest deliver us the sermon from the book of Jonah no less, padding out the story with anecdotal filigree. Ominous opening elements, indeed.
Such charged portents fill out the book, and indeed Melville is masterful in making something as simple as wind in a sail alive with meaning on several levels. His prose is at times as simplistic as an old sea dog might wish, yet there slyly eases up through the passages a dark and forbidding poetry.
Further, it can hardly seem propitious, sailors being such superstitious types, that when Ishmael has his interview with the partial owners of the Pequod they are a curious batch of scattered and crack-brained types. Captain Ahab Ishmael doesn’t even get to meet as he hides in his cabin and is described as “a queer man.” The businessmen he does speak with, co-owners with Ahab, Captains Peleg and Bildad are an amusing pairing of opposites, the one a devout Quaker and student of the Bible, the other a pragmatic old tar.
Which are the two dominating impulses among Ishmael, Ahab, and sailors in general. The book vacillates betwixt symbolic religiosity and almost supernatural meaning and agents, and the day-to-day business of running a whaling vessel. Melville, believing no true and honest account of life on a whaling ship had yet been written (or at least published) dedicates great long passages to how blubber is cut and boiled down into oil, how spermacetti is harvested, the appropriate difficulties in obtaining ambergris, and how a ship is put to spic-and-span rights after the bloody business of taking a whale.
The peculiarities of whaling life and culture are fascinating, and Melville takes pains to deliver them in encyclopedic detail. A most interesting one is the pulpit of Father Mapple:
Like most old fashioned pulpits, it was a very lofty one, and since a regular stairs to such a height would, by its long angle with the floor, seriously contract the already small area of the chapel, the architect, it seemed, had acted upon the hint of Father Mapple, and finished the pulpit without a stairs, substituting a perpendicular side ladder, like those used in mounting a ship from a boat at sea....and upon climbing it: Father Mapple after gaining the height, slowly turn round, and stooping over the pulpit, deliberately drag up the ladder step by step, till the whole was deposited within, leaving him impregnable in his little Quebec.
Melville then regularly educates the reader in the aspects of whaling and whales in general, and he does so periodically throughout the course of the novel, never piling on too much at once, but spreading it thinner here, thicker there. The effect is a heady book, both entertaining in the best sense of the word, and also learned. The high pulse thrills of the men in their little boats as they try to beach themselves against the whales so as to best plunge in the harpoons gives way to the quieter disquisition on the various types and categories of whales.
What else is nicely done? It’s hard just to pick one element of the novel. How about how long is put off the appearance of Ahab, wrapping clouds of mystery and menace around the man, his madness alluded to, his idee fixee never fully present but ghosting through the narrative. Upon his first striding of the stage, it is a silent peg-legged strutting of the deck, his aspect fearsome, his white whale bone prosthetic ominous. After having once made his appearance, Ahab disappears shortly. Afterwards, he is described as being more upon the deck than in his cabin.
Consider too if you will this perfect example, now that Ahab has made his appearance, of how Melville takes a simple thing and charges it with powerful symbolism:
And had you watched Ahab’s face that night, you would have thought that in him also two different things were warring. While his one live leg made lively echoes along the deck, every stroke of his dead limb sounded like a coffin-tap. On life and death this old man walked.
For entertainment purposes there’s little you can complain of in the monologues engaged in by Second Mate Stubb in his boat as he urges on his rowers:
Merrily, merrily, hearts-alive. Pudding for supper, you know; — merry’s the word. Pull, babes — pull, sucklings — pull, all. But what the devil are you hurrying about? Softly, softly, and steadily, my men. Only pull, and keep pulling; nothing more. Crack all your backbones, and bite your knives in two — that’s all. Take it easy — why don’t ye take it easy, I say, and burst all your livers and lungs!”
He also goes to great lengths to demonstrate the deep and loving union that develops between Ishmael and the harpooneer Queequeg. Chapters ten and eleven are some of the more beautiful pieces of writing for the years in which Melville was living, the development of Ishmael’s friendship with Queequeg a thing to behold. Certainly there is still the reversion to referring to he and his countrymen as savages and ignorant, but in things like the two of them abed talking through the night and the acceptance of smoking in bed by Ishmael, you get the deepest sense of recognition. So much apart at the beginning, the two are bound by bonds of love by this point.
Of course, one must consider all such racial nonsense in the context of the times even if there were plenty of enlightened abolitionists and egalitarians about. While just as much a stereotype as the “ignorant subhuman,” Melville at least is more of the “noble savage” mind in his regard for the harpooners whose racial characteristics he is never at a loss to mention. To be fair, he also includes among his savages the Greek warrior Achilles and the Dutch painter Albrecht Durer, but if one were to choose between being portrayed as “ignorant subhuman” or “noble savage,” I know which I’d quicker choose.
There are moments, however, when it occurred to me that perhaps Melville’s book, as erudite as it is on ship construction, whale anatomy, and other such obscure items, might not translate perfectly to an audiobook. “[I]t behooves me to approve myself omnisciently exhaustive in the enterprise; not overlooking the minutest seminal germs of his blood, and spinning him out to the uttermost coil of his bowels” might be a poetic phrasing and the sentiment of an intellectual, but audio-wise it bogs things down a bit. And I say this, again, as a person who has actually read the entirety of the book out loud.
While listening over four days, it was on day three that the narration sagged most, as it were kind of an ocean voyage in microcosm. First novelty and excitement, then learning, then the slow drudge of work and non-events filling the time, and on day four the book was again a lively and potent-filled drama, thrilling and bleak. Here Melville ekes out beautifully stark images such as the hawk who snatches Ahab’s hat while he’s up in the mast-head then “flew on and on with it; far in advance of the prow: and at last disappeared; while from the point of that disappearance, a minute black spot was dimly discerned, falling from that vast height into the sea.”
I have tried to explain this to those who’ve never read Moby Dick, how the scenes of actual hunting of whales, most specifically the three days chasing the white whale that make up the climax of the novel, are thrilling, more action packed and pulse-quickening than a stack of Grishams or whatever pocket paperback writer you may imagine. Most people simply look at me like I’m nuts, but it is still the truth. Moby Dick, a hundred and fifty six years after its publication, may still be the best American novel, bar none.