On Rereading Moby-Dick

© 2012 Keith McWalter

When we read anew a classic that we think we know, we bring to it all the personal and cultural baggage that a lifetime of reading (and for that matter, movie-viewing) can accumulate.  Like most Americans, my high-school education included a compulsory reading of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, or, The Whale (its full title).  I can’t remember my actually reading the book so many decades ago, but I’m sure it paled in my teenaged judgment by comparison to the movie version starring Gregory Peck, which I had by that time seen on TV. I’m fairly sure I dutifully slogged through all nine hundred or so pages, though it’s possible I fell prey to the temptation of a glance or two at the Cliff’s Notes version, a venality lost to current generations of students whose first resort in any difficulty is the Internet.

I confess that these days I read most books – especially longer ones — on an iPad, in order to render several of them portable at once, and readable after my wife turns out the bedside light.  It was at one of the e-reader bookstores that I saw that I could obtain a complete, unabridged digital copy of Moby-Dick for absolutely free.  Even at a page-count less than that of Melville’s leviathan, this is an infinite return on one’s investment, and it was for little more reason than this that I pushed the virtual button, and owned it after a few minutes of downloading.

The totality of my understanding of Moby-Dick, as derived from my high school English class during the Pre-Cambrian era, can be quickly summarized:  one of the canon of Great American Novels, it spends a long time and a lot of metaphor in working up to a climactic confrontation between the monomaniacal Captain Ahab and his mammalian arch-nemesis, the Great White Whale, which had bitten off Ahab’s leg in a previous encounter, leaving him peg-legged in ivory and more than a little nuts.  Getting to the climax, we are subjected to a lot of information about whales and whaling.  In the end, the whale, symbolizing implacable, amoral Nature (or some such), destroys Ahab’s ship and everybody drowns except Ishmael, the narrator, who “alone is left to tell thee.”   Run credits.

My experience of rereading Moby-Dick bore little relationship to this adumbration.   I was now reading not only as an adult, but as a reader for pleasure and, at least to some modest degree, as a writer.  This, along with the gulf of time since I had given the book any thought, changed everything in my perception of it.

It is a very strange book.  The actual experience of this reader, unburdened of academic obligation or prejudice, revealed a work at once less imposing than its reputation, and in some ways far greater.

Its strangeness lies in its often disjointed variations in voice, perspective, tone, and narrative technique which, while not unfamiliar to the modern reader, ultimately detract from the thrust of the central narrative.  Its greatness lies not in any thematic profundity, but in its capacity to repeatedly blindside the reader with granular word choices that suddenly crescendo, like a great wave, into astonishing passages of Shakespearean or Biblical power.

First, some facts:  it is indeed very long.  At the medium font size I selected on my iPad, it ran over a thousand pages.  Measured in terms of my regular bedtime reading, it is over a month long.  It consists of 135 chapters (plus an epilogue), some as short as few lines, some running to fifty or more pages.  Barely half of these chapters are devoted to what we would conventionally think of as narrative – the linear telling of a story, by whatever means – and the balance of the book consists of what can only be viewed as digressions or tangents of one sort or another.

It has a cast numbering some twenty distinct characters, several of whom (Starbuck, Stubb and Flask, Queequeg and of course Ahab) have multiple chapters devoted to their backgrounds or their internal musings, though many of these are without any discernible narrative point except as flat expositions of personality (Melville is not big on the notion of revealing character through action).

There is some serious question as to whether it is an actual novel.  Certainly there is a novel in there, among the scores of informational essays on whaling, the character portraits, the classical allusions, and the academic inquiries into such topics as the psychological significance of whiteness.  That novel would be a third the length, it would have a continuous narrative, a consistent point of view, a coherent tone, and a credible narrator rather than the unbelievably omniscient, peripatetic tour guide we have in Melville-as-Ishmael.  But that would not be the compendious mélange, the shambling, baggy monster that is Moby-Dick.

Only half of the book’s 135 chapters are devoted to what might arguably be considered narrative; a dozen or so are pure character studies; that leaves almost 50 chapters in the digressive/academic/instructional category, more than anything calling itself a novel should have to bear.

Even in those portions of the book allocated to advancing the story at hand, Melville deploys such a bewildering array of narrative techniques that the effect seems startlingly slapdash and self-indulgent: internal monologue, stage play format (complete with stage directions), Shakespearean soliloquy, and conventional first- and third-person narrative.   It’s as though – as may well have been the case – Melville was staving off boredom as he slogged along, changing up his delivery without any overall effect in mind, and lacked a good editor.

On the other hand, it’s a mostly pleasurable surprise to discover that, though my younger self certainly never perceived it, much of Moby-Dick is brimming with humor: the wicked satire of its descriptions of the Quakers of Nantucket in the early chapters; the droll send-ups of academic pedantry in the chapters devoted to cetology and to notable paintings of whales; and (however jarring to the modern reader) its baldly racist caricatures of blacks and South Sea islanders, recalling Mel Brooks in his Blazing Saddles mode.  One doesn’t think of Moby-Dick as a lighthearted novel, but it is in fact full of deliberate comedy, much of it effective.  Here is Ishmael lampooning his own pedantry in describing the size of a whale:

The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics.  But as I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing — at least, what untatooed parts might remain – I did not trouble myself with the odd inches….; [Ch. 102]

After I stopped chuckling, this sent me scurrying to find the temporal relationship of Moby-Dick to Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric,” to which this seemed a possibly satirical allusion.  Alas, Leaves of Grass followed the publication of Moby-Dick by several years.

The book is very much rooted in Melville’s time, sometimes oppressively so.  The language is often ponderously Victorian, and riddled with references to Greco-Roman classics that may have been intelligible to his contemporaries, but which glaze the eye of the modern reader:

For unless you own the whale, you are but a provincial and sentimentalist in Truth. But clear Truth is a thing for salamander giants only to encounter; how small the chances for the provincials then? What befell the weakling youth lifting the dread goddess’s veil at Lais? [Ch.76]

What, indeed?  I certainly have no idea.

You’re reading along about the immensity of whales and stumble upon this creaking and unintentionally comic analogy:

Of erections, how few are domed as St. Peter’s! Of creatures, how few vast as the whale! [Ch.68]

Uh, ok.  But really, TMI about St. Peter’s erection.

Most jarring to the contemporary reader are the numerous asides and jibes about blacks.  Here is Melville’s description of the shipkeeper boy, Pip:

Pip, though over tender-hearted, was at bottom very bright, with that pleasant, genial, jolly brightness peculiar to his tribe; a tribe, which ever enjoy all holidays and festivals with finer, freer relish than any other race. For blacks, the year’s calendar should show naught but three hundred and sixty-five Fourth of Julys and New Year’s Days. [Ch. 93]

This sort of thing reaches a nadir in Chapter 64, where Stubb, the loquacious everyman of the Pequod’s crew, unsatisfied with his whale steak dinner, calls the cook, Fleece, up on deck and commands him to rebuke the sharks that have been dogging the ship for scraps of a recent kill.

The old black, not in any very high glee at having been roused from his warm hammock at a most unseasonable hour, came shambling along from his galley, for, like many old blacks, there was something the matter with his knee-pans, which he did not keep well scoured like his other pans….old Fleece limped across the deck…and leaning far over the side in a mumbling voice began addressing the sharks….

<i>“Fellow critters: I’se ordered here to say dat you must stop dat dam noise dare. You hear? Stop dat dam smackin’ ob de lips! Massa Stubb say dat you can fill your dam bellies up to de hatchings, but by Gor! you must stop dat dam racket!”</i>

And so on, for most of a chapter, with Stubb cruelly hectoring old Fleece and Melville spinning out the minstrel-show dialect (which must have been expurgated from the edition we were given as teens).  This is followed, straight-faced, with one of Melville’s tangential chapters, helpfully entitled “The Whale as a Dish.” Moby-Dick was published a decade before the Civil War, and while Melville can’t be faulted for merely reflecting his times, nor can he be credited with seeing beyond them or thinking the least bit critically about them.

But the book has bigger problems than its pervasive reliance on racial stereotyping. It has no believable or consistent narrator.  Occasionally, and particularly in the early and late chapters, Ishmael is presented as an actual character embedded in the flow of events and relating them as memory.  More often, though, he is a renaissance raconteur, a thinly-veiled version of Melville himself, who can expound not only on whales and whaling, but on maritime law (“…some fifty years ago there was a curious case of whale-trover litigated in England….”[Ch.89]), philosophy (“This Right Whale I take to have been a stoic; the Sperm Whale, a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his latter years.” [Ch. 76]), psychology (“…is it that in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?” [Ch. 42]), and art history (“…go to the old Galleries, and look now at…Guido’s picture of Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the sea-monster or whale.  Where did Guido get the model of such a strange creature as that?  Nor does Hogarth, in painting the same scene…make out one whit better.” [Ch. 55]), among other subjects.

There’s nothing wrong with Melville’s preening display of his own erudition, except that it does no service to the story.  In today’s world he could have just started a blog; in his, he became a novelist.

The absence of a credible, naturalistic voice is a problem throughout the book.  While there are some isolated attempts at realistic speech, as in some of the whale-hunting scenes (“Start her, my men!…but keep cool, keep cool –cucumbers is the word…” [Ch. 61]), most dialogue is rendered in the declamatory mode of a Shakespearean play, in a vocabulary and cadence designed more for the stage (or, indeed, an opera, into which I gather the book has been recently made) than the pages of a supposedly naturalistic (never mind realistic) novel.  Here is Ahab on the deck of the Pequod, addressing the detached head of a recently-killed whale:

Speak, thou vast and venerable head…of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid the world’s foundations. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there, in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home…O head! Thou has seen enough to split planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!” [Ch. 70]

This frigate earth is ballasted with bones? This is poetry, certainly, and I went slack-jawed at the beauty of it, but it is palpably not a person talking over the side of a boat.  The pervasive disconnect between Melville’s language and its narrative context requires a suspension of disbelief more difficult than that required in swallowing any other aspect of the story.

This nonetheless brings us, however arduously, to the core greatness of this book: the sheer bandwidth of Melville’s command of language.  For as many times as you wince at the staightjacket stereotypes or the Victorian syntax or the scattershot narrative, there are an equal number of moments when you wonder how a human being was able to write like this:

Would to God these blessed calms would last. But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause: —through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then skepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling’s father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it. [Ch. 114]

What?!  “In what rapt ether sails the world of which the weariest will never weary?”  What!?  You’re not supposed to be able to write like that, I’m sorry.  There’s too much going on.  It’s a Rubic’s Cube of a sentence inside an M.C. Escher paragraph.  I give up.

But there’s much more.  Just after Melville’s tin-eared racial labeling of him comes this description of poor Pip’s madness:

The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense…. [Ch. 93]

What?!  “He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it…So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense”?  “Ever-juvenile eternities”?  What?!

Melville is also capable of stunning one-liners of unimpeachable modernity, as in this opener to the trio of chapters describing the climactic, fatal hunt of the great white whale:

It was a clear steel-blue day.  [Ch. 132]

No antique filigree, no fussy Victorian punctuation;  just seven words and you’re there. And there’s something fearfully modern in Ahab’s riposte to Starbuck’s entreaties to give up the chase:

<i>“But in this matter of the whale, be the front of thy face to me as the palm of this hand – a lipless, unfeatured blank. Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am Fate’s lieutenant; I act under orders.”  [Ch. 134]

Next time I want to blow somebody off with a Schwarzeneggerian phrase, I hope I remember “be the front of thy face…as the palm of this hand!” Indeed, much of Moby-Dick left me doubtless that it would make a great movie (are you listening, Ridley Scott)?  As far as I know, that movie – which would honor the central narrative and combine modern CGI effects with good old-fashioned RSC-style acting – has not yet been made, but could be a real blockbuster.  (I see Russell Crowe as Ahab and Jake Gyllenhaal as Starbuck – you take it from there.)  Who can forget Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, cribbing from Ahab’s final curses:

Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee….THUS, I give up the spear!” [Ch. 135]

If visuals are needed to inspire the movie storyboarders, how’s this:

<i>…as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniacal commander’s soul. [Ch. 96]

This lush passage lies within a few sentences of where Melville describes the stink of the ship’s blubber-rendering furnace with ruthless brevity:

It smells like the left wing of judgment; it is an argument for the pit.  [Ibid.]

One feels sorry for whales throughout much of the book, and even Melville is not immune to this instinct.  At one point, he delicately weighs the concerns of mid-19th century tree-huggers who wondered:

<i>…whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.  [Ch. 105]

But then he rouses himself from such prissy concerns with this muscular dismissal:

He swam the seas before the continents broke water; he once swam over the site of the Tuileries, and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin. In Noah’s flood he despised Noah’s Ark; and if ever the world is to be again flooded, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies.  [Ibid.]

The time-spanning geographical specificity of that passage made my hair stand up.  And the world “flooded like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats”?  What?!

There can indeed be a chilly condescension to Melville’s view of the common man, as in this random, nearly perfect passage:

Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, a grandeur, and a woe. But from the same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates…. [Ch. 107]

Yet he can evoke a love of individual men that gives credence to his presumed homosexuality, as in this humid sentence from a chapter entitled “A Squeeze of the Hand,” devoted entirely to the sensual experience of kneading the lumps out of sperm oil:

Come, let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness. [Ch. 94]

Alrighty then.

Moby-Dick is a hot mess of a book that might not find a publisher today even if stripped of its philosophizing, converted to the prose of a Junger or a Krakauer, and pitched as an outdoor survival piece.  All the more lucky that we have it, even as a bizarre artifact of another time and of a kind of verbal craft now lost to us.  Its meanderings and digressions entertain even as they fail as narrative, and Melville in full operatic throat leaves you agape.  Though Shakespearean in much of its drama and nearly all of its dialogue, its language is more powerful than Shakespeare’s because it is three hundred years closer to the modern ear.  One hears its Victorian cadences echoed in Abe Lincoln’s finest speeches, and after an hour of reading it your own thoughts shape themselves into its stately rhythms.

In the end, it is a Great Book not in the adolescent brain or even in the adult heart, but in the ageless ear.  Its language is what wins, again, our lasting awe.


One thought on “On Rereading Moby-Dick

  1. Wow! That’s some heavy-duty reading. It makes all the agonizing I do over editing my novel seem foolish. Maybe I should leave in all the musing and turn it into a classic. And now, a confession… never read it. Went to a slightly rural high school. We read a lot of modern American writers and “global” fiction. It was the early 70s. Missed the classics, which was a pain when I went to college. I SHOULD read Moby Dick… but it still seems daunting. Maybe I’ll wait for the (next) movie…?

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