I’m loving this slow, leisurely read of Moby-Dick – a lot!
I’m not sure I would be enjoying it as half as much as I am, if I was reading it one chapter after another. It would be too rich a diet for me.
My last couple of books have been like souffles that fell flat right at the last minute, or failed to properly rise. Whereas Moby-Dick is like a rich double choc fudge cake that is best savoured in small doses.
Reading a book with very little plot, makes it easy to pick and put down as well. There are no cliff hangers, each chapter almost reads as its own little vignette.
It has surprised me, this love for such a well-known difficult classic. I was expecting to struggle; instead I’ve turned into a Melville fanatic!
My other surprise comes from preconceived impressions. I thought Moby-Dick was all about a whale and Captain Ahab and obsession. Instead I have found that Ishmael is our charming protagonist and narrator. He is telling us the story of Ahab and Moby as he observed it and he enjoys describing (in great detail) his role in the affair. He is trying to understand what happened by examining every single element that led to the tragic events on board the Pequod.
I’m enjoying reading everyone’s updates and seeing the different themes and threads that interest others. This is obviously a book that can be read and appreciated via multiple lenses.
- His first book, Typee (1846), is an autobiographical account of his adventures, and it was taken as such by contemporary readers. Melville’s unsympathetic view of the activity of Christian missionaries in Polynesia guaranteed hostile reviews from papers and journals associated with churches. Such critics would note all future examples of religious skepticism in Melville’s writing. But the book was an international success. Largely owing to the unconventional sexual escapades described by a willing Melville.
Wood also had views on Melville’s struggle with religion:
- Melville did not need to be braced against the pieties of his age, and they demanded little from him. He needed to be braced against the flickering horror of his refusal to believe, and then braced against the sour clarity of his refusal entirely to unbelieve.
- In his relation to belief, Melville was like the last guest who cannot leave the party; he was always returning to see if he had left his hat and gloves. And yet he did not want to be at the party, either. It is just that he had nowhere else to be and would rather be with people than be alone. He was tormented by God’s “inscrutable” silence.
Moby-Dick came about thanks to ‘Melville majestically discover(ing) three things: metaphor, metaphysics and Shakespeare’ between 1847 and 1850.
- While he is busy seeing a world stripped of God’s presence, he is busy theologizing literature. God has disappeared only to speak as literature. If the Messiah comes again, it will be as Shakespeare. But the Messiah has come again, and he is called Melville. It is Melville who, in Moby-Dick, will follow “Shakespeare and other masters of the great Art of Telling the Truth.”
Melville obviously had a fairly healthy opinion of his own abilities!
- Soaked in theology, Melville was alert to the Puritan habit of seeing the world allegorically, that is, metaphorically. The world was a place of signs and wonders which could always yield up its meaning like secret ink. Melville did a certain amount of this sign-gazing himself.
- The whale is “inscrutable.” It is so full of meanings that it threatens to have no meaning at all, which is the fear that Ishmael confesses to in the celebrated chapter called “The Whiteness of The Whale.” Critics who persist in seeing in Melville an American Gnostic do so because the whale is a demiurge, a bad god. But what, Melville asks, if the whale means nothing? What if, at the very heart of the sarcophagus, there is absolutely nothing?
- Theologically, Melville lived his life in an eternal If, which his love of metaphor only encouraged.
Melville was obviously a complex man struggling with existential angst.
But enough of the man, time to get back to this week’s chapters.
Chapter 12: Biographical
- Queequeg’s history starts off on a fictional island – Kokovoko.
- I’m assuming that Melville’s information about his life on a Pacific island came from his own time on Huku Hiva, the largest of the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia in 1842.
- As we also know, Melville was capable of exaggerating, for the sake of a good yarn.
- I suspect Queequeg may have inherited this trait!
- ‘the practices of whalemen soon convinced him that even Christians could be both miserable and wicked.‘
Chapter 13: Wheelbarrow
- Actually two wheelbarrows – the one that carried their gear to the Nantucket schooner plus the very first wheelbarrow that Queequeg ever saw.
- Which leads to two ‘humorous’ stories about cultural confusion – Queequeg carrying his wheelbarrow and a ship’s Captain invited to a traditional wedding feast on Kokovoko who misunderstood the consecration ceremony.
- These two stories highlight how cultural mishaps are generally only amusing to one side.
- ‘And just when you think that Ishmael/Melville is finding a better frame of mind, we have this
- Such is the endlessness, yea, the intolerableness of all earthly effort.‘
- Ishmael & Queequeg’s public walk to the wharf revealed ‘jeering glances‘, ‘mimicking‘ and verbal taunts.
- We finish with a scene of spontaneous, natural bravery designed to make us question who is the real savage and who is meant to be civilised and humane.
- Queequeg as hero – ‘It’s a mutual, joint-stock world in all meridians. We cannibals must help these Christians.‘
Chapter 14: Nantucket
- Finally, we’re on a boat, but we’re still not heading out to sea. Across the straits to Nantucket we go.
- Which means it’s time for Melville to give us the history of this ‘mere hillock, and elbow of sand‘!
- quohogs – clams.
- Reference to Psalm 107 – those who work in ships ‘see the works of the lord.’
- Melville romanticising Nantuckateers and sailors.
Chapter 15: Chowder
- The Spouter-Inn landlord recommended they stay at the Try Pots run by his cousin, Horea Hussey, ‘famous for his chowders‘.
- Foreshadowing – ‘I could not help staring at this gallows with a vague misgiving….It’s ominous, thinks I. A Coffin my Innkeeper upon landing in my first whaling port; tombstones staring at me in the whalemen’s chapel; and here a gallows!‘
- Clam or cod chowder on the menu – with recipe of course.
Chapter 16: The Ship
- ‘In bed we concocted our plans for the morrow‘ – a very intimate scene.
- They decide that Ishmael should find a ship for the both of them, on his own.
- Queequeg claims his idol told him so.
- I wonder if he was worried about being discriminated against?
- The Pequod – ‘the name of a celebrated tribe of Massachusetts Indians, now extinct‘
- So the ship Ishmael & Queequeg are about to set sail on was named after a tribe that was unable to survive, that was decimated by colonisation.
- Captain Peleg – a Biblical name meaning channel, canal or a division.
- Captain Bildad – a Biblical name meaning the Lord loved – one of Job’s friends – a consoler/accuser.
- They are the ying & yang of leadership, or perhaps the Bert & Ernie of the sailing world!
- Both are Quakers (who believe they have a direct line of communication with God).
- Peleg greets Ishmael in the manner that Jonah was greeted by the captain of his ship, according to Father Mapple’ sermon.
- Ishamel puts it down to Peleg being an ‘insulated Quakerish Nantucketer…full of his insular prejudices, and rather distrustful of all aliens.’
- Ishmael, the grand adventurer – ‘I want to see what whaling is. I want to see the world.’
- Captain Ahab mentioned – ‘thou wilt find he has only one leg.’
- ‘a queer man…but a good one…a grand, ungodly, god-like man…doesn’t speak much; but, when he does speak, then you may well listen.’
- Apparently, though, ‘it’s better to sail with a moody good captain than a laughing bad one‘.