August 30, 2019

Moby Dick, or, The Whale

Reading Herman Melville’s most famous (and most hated by everyday readers) was a pivotal moment in my intellectual life. I read the book as a sophomore in high school. During midterms review week, I skipped classes and sat down in the library to read the first few chapters. When in the right mood, as I was in my early adolescence, those famous opening paragraphs grab the reader and whisk them along a fateful journey. It’s pure adventure and escapism with a heavy metaphysical twist.

I have re-read Moby-Dick multiple times. After reading for the first time in high school, I sought out the rest of Melville’s works to read in quick succession. The other books are much more enjoyable as stories: Redburn is a baroque Bildungsroman featuring a merchant sailor’s first trans Atlantic journey and a moralistic rescue from a London brothel / opium den; Typee is a picturesque tale of a whaler who abandons ship to live in a Marquesan paradise - complete with beautiful women and abundant bread-fruits - only to become paranoid that he’s destined for a canabalistic feast; Confidence Man recounts a Canterbury-style series of farces that resembles the best of Edgar Alan Poe and Mark Twain. The effort of finding and reading these books opened the world of books to me. I learned of American history and literature in a way that the high school curriculum neatly neglected.

Try reading the opening ten chapters, I-X, straight through. Chapter IX is one of the best samples of American revivalist sermons in existence. Chapters XXVI through XXXI are superb character studies. Chapter XXXII on “Cetology” follows these descriptions of the crew with a scientifically flawed but literarily fascinating description of whales, spectacularly framing the hidden main character against the Pequod’s crew; chapters XLI and XLII further develop Moby Dick himself as a whale onto his own monstrous being. Chapter LXIV “Stubb’s Supper” and the surrounding chapters depict the butchering of the whale, processing of fats into oil, and the consumption of whale meat in sumptious detail. I’m not particularly enthralled by the Pequod’s encounters with other ships that have met Moby Dick - but they’re required reading anyways: chapters LII, LIV, LXXI, LXXXI, XCI, C, CXV, CXXVIII, CXXXI. The final three chapters and epiloge, of course, end exactly as foreshadowed throughout but you cannot help but be taken away by the details of Moby Dick’s demolishment of the Pequod and its crew.

Listen to the final reparee between the Puritan Starbuck (first officer) and the zealot Ahab (captian):

[ Starbuck ] “Great God! but for one single instant show thyself,” cried Starbuck; “never, never wilt thou capture him, old man–In Jesus’ name no more of this, that’s worse than devil’s madness. Two days chased; twice stove to splinters; thy very leg once more snatched from under thee; thy evil shadow gone–all good angels mobbing thee with warnings:–what more wouldst thou have?–Shall we keep chasing this murderous fish till he swamps the last man? Shall we be towed by him to the infernal world? Oh, oh,–Impiety and blasphemy to hunt him more!”

[ Ahab ] “Starbuck, of late I’ve felt strangely moved to thee; ever since that hour we both saw–thou know’st what, in one another’s eyes. 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 the and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fate’s lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine.–

Ahab then turns to his crew, showcases his shattered false ivory leg, and tells them they are all doomed to die. HEAVY.

Ahab follows this speech the next day in a monologue that sounds like a gothic rebuke of Walt Whitman: “all the things that most exasperate and outrage mortal man, all these things are bodiless, but only bodiless as objects, not as agents”. Read the final chapter against Leaves of Grass and be amazed.

The long quotation above is the last between Starbuck and Ahab. The two sailors - in a space of a few pages that feels like a whole book on its own - never speak openly to each other again, until this:

[ Ahab ] “Some men die at ebb tide; some at low water; some at the full of the flood;–and I feel now like a billow that’s all one crested comb, Starbuck. I am old;–shake hands with me, man.”

Their hands met; their eyes fastened; Starbuck’s tears the glue.

“Oh, my captain, my captain!–noble heart–go not–go not!–see, it’s a brave man that weeps; how great the agony of the persuation then!”

“Lower away!"–cried Ahab, tossing the mate’s arm from him. “Stand by the crew!”

I could keep quoting these pages, but I’ll leave you with the phrase I comes to mind every time I look at the ocean: “the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

Content by © Jared Davis 2019-2020

Powered by Hugo & Kiss.