Or perhaps I should say, heart first.
Contained in the pages of Moby-Dick is nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts & ideals…whenever a new crisis grips this country, Moby-Dick becomes newly important.
Will this particular thought resonate even more as I read along?
To be in the presence of a great leader is to know a blighted soul who has managed to make the darkness work for him….Melville shows us how susceptible we ordinary people are to the seductive power of a great & demented man.
The Pequod…is the mythical incarnation of America: a country blessed by God & by free enterprise that nonetheless embraces the barbarity it supposedly supplanted.
…but wait there’s more!
Moby-Dick is a true epic, embodying almost every powerful American archetype as it interweaves creation myths, revenge narratives, folktales & the conflicting impulses to create & to destroy.
The rest of this post, however, will have some spoilerish moments and quotes.
Continue at your own peril!
Moby-Dick may be a well known (American classic), but…it is the most reluctantly read. It is too long and maddeningly digressive…but the novel, like all great works of art, grows on you.
Moby-Dick is a long book & time is short…The important thing is to spend some time with the novel, to listen as you read, to feel the prose adapt to the various voices…
This point about listening interested me a lot, as I plan to listen to the Moby Dick Big Read at the same time as I read the book. It’s beginning to sound like a very good way to tackle this tricky book.
Later on, Philbrick also suggests reading aloud certain sections to enjoy the poetry and rhythm of Melville’s language.
I reread the words aloud, feeling the rhythms, the shrewdly hidden rhymes and the miraculous way he manages consonants and vowels.
Under the steadying influence of Hawthorne, Melville pauses in the middle of a quite ordinary, picaresque novel about whaling & completely rethought the story in terms of power of darkness he recognised in Hawthorne’s short stories.Ahab was something he clearly got from Hawthorne: a way to put artistic distance between himself & the very thing he most identified with, this provided a way to write about the darkest & most frightening aspects of human experience.
Apparently there are a few famous homo-erotic passages in Moby-Dick that have caused people to wonder about the exact nature of the friendship between Melville and Hawthorne and the unhappiness endemic in Melville’s marriage.
|Melville & Hawthorne by Edward Sorel|
Reading Moby-Dick, we are in the presence of a writer who spent several impressionable years on a whaleship, internalised everything he saw, and seven or so years later, after internalising Shakespeare, Hawthorne, the Bible and much more, found the voice and the method that enabled him to broadcast his youthful experiences into the future.
The crew of a typical whale ship was made up of men from all over the world….This demographic diversity was not typical of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century….Melville was one of the few authors of his time to have firsthand experience…& his portrayal of working people is never stereotypical or condescending.
It is only amid the terrifying vastness of the sea that man can confront the ultimate truths of his existence.
The compartmentalisation of spiritual & worldly concerns is a temptation in every era. In Melville’s day, it was most apparent with the issue of slavery.
Simply feeling good about life doesn’t mean life is good.
As Starbuck discovers, simply being a good guy with a positive worldview is not enough to stop a force of nature like Ahab, who feeds on the fears & hatreds in us all.
The curse of being human is to realise that it all ends & can do so at any moment.
This is Melville’s ultimate view of humanity….The job of government, of civilisation, is to keep the shark at bay. All of us are, to a certain degree, capable of wrongdoing. Without some form of government, evil will prevail.
There is a pathos, even a tenderness, that enters Moby-Dick in its final chapters, and it was Melville’s memory of the real men behind the Essex, Nantucketers who never completely escaped the shadow of the disaster, that brought a much-needed injection of humanity to his attempts to bring his dangerously digressive, sometimes bombastic novel to a close.
Philbrick is also keen for us to read Melville’s letters (to Hawthorne in particular) to gain a true and proper understanding of Melville’s processes and thinking at the time.
I would go so far as to insist that reading Moby-Dick is not enough. You must read the letters to appreciate the personal and artistic forces that made the book possible.
I’m not sure I will tackle the letters as well – spending seven months with this book is enough I feel! Although if you know of any online articles or websites where I could sample a few of them, please let me know.
Philbrick finishes his book of encouragment with some final words on how to get through certain infamous sections…
The beginning of the book is a magnificent mess…a listing of obscure quotations & translations…seemingly endless compilations of whale-related passages…Melville is challenging the reader with both his scholarship & wit.
Challenge accepted Herman!
Each non sequitur of a chapter requiring its own course correction as the narrative follows the erratic whims of Melville’s imagination toward the Pacific.
In the end, even the fiercest of tyrants is done in, not by his own sad, used-up self, but by his enablers, the so-called professionals, who keep whispering in his ear.
It’s curious how apt and up-to-date Philbrick’s 2011 analysis and assessment feels at times. But he leaves us with some hope as well,
Life isn’t about achieving your dreams; it’s about finding a way to continue in spite of them.
Finally, yes finally! We come to end of this post and Philbrick’s musings about the great white whale and the man who created him. Philbrick, at the end, is pretty clear about why he has chosen to read and read Moby-Dick multiple times.
This redemptive mixture of skepticism and hope, this genial stoicism in the face of a short, ridiculous, and irrational life, is why I read Moby-Dick.
I wonder what I will say next February?
Will I also come to love this behemoth of a book?
7/20 Books of