Friday, September 26, 2014

Some Thoughts on Moby-Dick

I spent the last couple months reading Moby-Dick, finishing it last week. A massive and often tedious epic, it's not a very easy read but the short chapters make it manageable and the language is deliciously rich and grandiose. The meditations of Melville (through the book's narrator Ishmael) often reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson; so immensely poetic and majestic, and yet the prose is also extremely precise in its realism.

With plenty of other writings on my plate at the moment, I'm hesitant to really dig into an in-depth analysis or reflection of this undisputed champion of the American literary canon so I'll instead just share a few thoughts and favorite passages from it.

It was actually Terence McKenna, the erudite and eloquent ethnobotanist/psychedelic scholar, who initially piqued my interest in Moby-Dick when I heard him heap lavish praise upon it in one of his many audio lectures.
"This is the greatest work of prose ever written by an American without contest, I think. I mean, I like to think that when human history is written, Americans will be remembered for two things: they went to the moon and they're the people who produced Moby-Dick. This is our Odyssey. This is our Odyssey and our Iliad."

In that same riff McKenna suggests that if aliens came to our planet and wanted to know what America was all about we could just give them Moby-Dick to read. It's all there, he says. Oddly, an op-ed piece in the New York Times Sunday Review written many years after McKenna's lecture uses this exact idea. (I wonder: did the writer, Margaret Atwood, abscond with McKenna's metaphor without crediting him? Or is this a commonly accepted perspective on Moby-Dick?)

Anyway. Navigating through the book's frequent interruptions of the narrative to describe, in excruciating detail, each and every component of the whaling industry, the resolute reader is rewarded with hoards of lexical gems. Melville is an absolute master of words and often had me in awe. His language is so grandiose and extravagant that I burst into amazed laughter a couple times. I'm now compelled to explore the rest of his works some time in the distant future.

There are so many memorable lines in this book. I found myself often reciting sentences aloud (much to the eye-rolling boredom of my loving girlfriend, who'd presented me with the text for my birthday) because they were so good. Like when Captain Ahab, getting toward the end of his journey and the height of his madness, has not "reaped his beard; which darkly grew all gnarled, as unearthed roots of trees blown over, which still grow idly on at naked base, though perished in the upper verdure."

Despite the title, this didn't seem to be a book about a whale named Moby Dick. Whales are certainly a main part of the book, but the notorious gnarly white whale Moby Dick himself is merely a rumor for about 95% of the nearly 600-page book.

To me, this felt like a book about the sea. Most of my favorite lines from the book are Ishmael's astonishingly poetic ruminations on the vast oceans of the world.
Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began. 

Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return! 

At one point a shipmate falls overboard during an intense pursuit of a whale. The boat zips away from him so rapidly that he's a mile away from it in just a few minutes, left to float there in the middle of the sea alone, as "the ringed horizon began to expand around him miserably."
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; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.
"He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom"---he saw the very heart and source of creation ("treadle of the loom" is like the pedal on a sewing machine). And it blew his mind. Reading that paragraph blew my mind.

In this 135-chapter tome one of my favorites is chapter 35 "The Mast-Head" which details the nature and history of a ship's mast-head and the look-outs who must stand upon them. Ishmael, admittedly "a dreamy meditative man," takes delight in getting to sit high up there alone for hours observing the sea.
There you stand, a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts, while beneath you and between your legs, as it were, swim the hugest monsters of the sea, even as ships once sailed between the boots of the famous Colossus at old Rhodes. There you stand, lost in the infinite series of the sea, with nothing ruffled but the waves. The tranced ship indolently rolls; the drowsy trade winds blow; everything resolves you into languor.
Later he confesses "that I kept but sorry guard. With the problem of the universe revolving in me, how could I—being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude—how could I but lightly hold my obligations to observe all whale-ships' standing orders..."

Such "absent-minded young philosophers" are often reprimanded by a ship's captain for not focusing on the task at hand, but how can one help it when:
lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Crammer's sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over. 
Another favorite of mine is chapter 85 "The Fountain" in which Ishmael contemplates the spray produced by a sperm whale's spout and whether it is actually water or misty vapor. The chapter begins with Melville pulling back the curtain, noting the exact minute and date on which he's writing, and then after considering the argument for water-vs-vapor, he hypothesizes "that the spout is nothing but mist." His reasoning for this? The sperm whale is a ponderous and profound being.
And I am convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings, such as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the act of thinking deep thoughts. While composing a little treatise on Eternity, I had the curiosity to place a mirror before me; and ere long saw reflected there, a curious involved worming and undulation in the atmosphere over my head. The invariable moisture of my hair, while plunged in deep thought, after six cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August noon; this seems an additional argument for the above supposition.
From this presumption he then considers the fact that rainbows are always formed through water vapor.
And how nobly it raises our conceit of the mighty, misty monster, to behold him solemnly sailing through a calm tropical sea; his vast, mild head overhung by a canopy of vapour, engendered by his incommunicable contemplations, and that vapour—as you will sometimes see it—glorified by a rainbow, as if Heaven itself had put its seal upon his thoughts. For, d'ye see, rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate vapour. And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray. And for this I thank God; for all have doubts; many deny; but doubts or denials, few along with them, have intuitions. Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.

While there are plenty of deep philosophical ruminations such as these, this is still a book about killing and capturing whales. And our thoughtful, sensitive narrator often portrays the murderous act with chilling, heartbreaking detail such as in chapter 61 "Stubb Kills a Whale":
The red tide now poured from all sides of the monster like brooks down a hill. His tormented body rolled not in brine but in blood, which bubbled and seethed for furlongs behind in their wake. The slanting sun playing upon this crimson pond in the sea, sent back its reflection into every face, so that they all glowed to each other like red men. And all the while, jet after jet of white smoke was agonizingly shot from the spiracle of the whale, and vehement puff after puff from the mouth of the excited headsman; as at every dart, hauling in upon his crooked lance (by the line attached to it), Stubb straightened it again and again, by a few rapid blows against the gunwale, then again and again sent it into the whale. 
"Pull up—pull up!" he now cried to the bowsman, as the waning whale relaxed in his wrath. "Pull up!—close to!" and the boat ranged along the fish's flank. When reaching far over the bow, Stubb slowly churned his long sharp lance into the fish, and kept it there, carefully churning and churning, as if cautiously seeking to feel after some gold watch that the whale might have swallowed, and which he was fearful of breaking ere he could hook it out. But that gold watch he sought was the innermost life of the fish. And now it is struck; for, starting from his trance into that unspeakable thing called his "flurry," the monster horribly wallowed in his blood, overwrapped himself in impenetrable, mad, boiling spray, so that the imperilled craft, instantly dropping astern, had much ado blindly to struggle out from that phrensied twilight into the clear air of the day. 
And now abating in his flurry, the whale once more rolled out into view; surging from side to side; spasmodically dilating and contracting his spout-hole, with sharp, cracking, agonized respirations. At last, gush after gush of clotted red gore, as if it had been the purple lees of red wine, shot into the frighted air; and falling back again, ran dripping down his motionless flanks into the sea. His heart had burst!
I won't continue to bore you with chunky paragraph quotes, but if you're interested enough to have read this far I will say once again that this is an extremely rewarding and enjoyable book. Mostly. The experience of reading about the journey of the Pequod (the whaling ship, named after a Native American tribe) actually felt like a maritime expedition. It's very long, sometimes boring, often magnificent and extraordinary. And you'll learn a whole helluva lot about whales. 

This is not a book of whale slaughter, this is a book of whale worship. Our narrator says it best in a memorable passage:
One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor's quill! Give me Vesuvius' crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. 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.

Note: After finishing Moby-Dick, I picked up a tiny recently-published volume called Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick. It served as a great afterward, a very smoothly written, passionate and engaging exploration of the book, its place in history, and the life of Melville during and after its composition. Highly recommended.


  1. A book I've started multiple times but have so far been destined never to get through. I've even seen an excellent play and an opera based on it, both of which were terrific, but that's not the text. The play in particular was very text based and even had random pages left on the seats for the audience, which was nice. I started reading it right after that play and the words for alive for me then, but unfortunately, I had to make a big move the next day and this broke my momentum.

  2. Sounds like it was a cool play.

    As someone who enjoys words, I must urge you to try picking it up again at some point in your life. Everyone knows the general story by now but it's the language that makes this book so special. Melville was a word master. Plus, it's often funny.

  3. I have every intention of getting back to it at some point for exactly the reasons you cite.

  4. I just finished it last week, maybe my 6th time? (I am 64, and it reads differently with the various decades, as most great books do...) I simply love this book, and agree with everything. It is tedious and magnificent, mundane and epic-iconic......One must read this at least once, just as one must read, say, Hamlet, Macbeth, On The Road, and Ulysses.

  5. This just popped up again somehow, thanks to James's response, although why a comment from June 3 would have made its way into my email, I don't know. I thought I'd report that my reading group finally tackled it a year or so ago, and not only I, but everyone else loved it, much to my surprise. It is definitely worth at least one read and probably more.