A royal fish

September 30, 2008

Moby-Dick, or The Whale (1851)
Herman Melville (Everyman’s Library, 1991)
622 p. First reading.

What a glorious book! Big, audacious, potent — it’s terrific. I confess that I approached it with some wariness, having heard that it was difficult and dull, if “important”. Whoever it was told me that was way off course.

Melville has illuminated his stage — the deck of the Pequod — with that light that heretofore fell only on Job and Achilles, causing these sailors to stand forth with a terrible grandeur, despite their lowly origins:

If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave around them tragic graces; if even the most mournful, perchance the most abased, among them all, shall at times lift himself to the exalted mounts; if I shall touch that workman’s arm with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rainbow over his disastrous set of sun; then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! (Ch.26)

In this glow, the ill-starred voyage takes on mythical qualities.  From its ominous beginnings to the devastating conclusion, the story is one of perfect simplicity, the sort of tale that seems to have been there, waiting for someone to tell it.  In Melville’s hands it becomes “a cool, collected dive at death and destruction” — and the devil take the hindmost.

The narrator is Ishmael.  About him we know little, except that he has a gift for language, a vivid imagination, and a penchant for wild-eyed philosophy.  At the helm of the Pequod, of course, and at the heart of the story, is Ahab, the one-legged captain consumed by a lust for vengeance, “a mighty pageant creature, formed for noble tragedies”.  His hatred for the white whale so dominates his mind and spirit that Moby Dick has become for him a sign — and a remarkably apt one — of all the vexing, devouring, destroying powers of this world:

Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil;- Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it. (Ch.41)

Honestly, this is hardly a novel in the usual sense. I’d sooner call it a prose poem, so vivid is the language and the imagery (further examples below), and so pervasive are the symbolic resonances. It is not allegory — which Melville protests is “hideous and intolerable” — but a kind of breaking open of the world, and a plumbing of the depths that open up — dark depths in this case, like the sea itself. The book is charged with a reckless passion; it feels as though it has been written at white heat, and it practically sparks when you open it.

Of course it isn’t perfect.  It was dismissed in its own day for its numerous interpolations of lessons in cetology, whale anatomy, the history of whales in the visual arts, whaling techniques, habits of whales, whale fossils, and so on.  It is a genre-crossing book, as though Melville couldn’t discipline his muse, but he admitted as much: “This whole book is but a draught — nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!”  It doesn’t matter.  These diversions are hardly dry reading — they are told with the same verve as the rest of it — and there’s nothing wrong with learning about the practicalities of slaughtering Leviathan.

[Poetry in prose]
Next morning the not-yet-subsided sea rolled in long slow billows of mighty bulk, and striving in the Pequod’s gurgling track, pushed her on like giants’ palms outspread. The strong unstaggering breeze abounded so, that sky and air seemed vast outbellying sails; the whole world boomed before the wind. Muffled in the full morning light, the invisible sun was only known by the spread intensity of his place; where his bayonet rays moved on in stacks. Emblazonings, as of crowned Babylonian kings and queens, reigned over everything. The sea was as a crucible of molten gold, that bubblingly leaps with light and heat. (Ch.124)

[Sailor’s delight]
At such times, under an abated sun; afloat all day upon smooth, slow heaving swells; seated in his boat, light as a birch canoe; and so sociably mixing with the soft waves themselves, that like hearth-stone cats they purr against the gunwale; these are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang.

These are the times, when in his whale-boat the rover softly feels a certain filial, confident, land-like feeling towards the sea; that he regards it as so much flowery earth; and the distant ship revealing only the tops of her masts, seems struggling forward, not through high rolling waves, but through the tall grass of a rolling prairie: as when the western emigrants’ horses only show their erected ears, while their hidden bodies widely wade through the amazing verdure.

The long-drawn virgin vales; the mild blue hill-sides; as over these there steals the hush, the hum; you almost swear that play-wearied children lie sleeping in these solitudes, in some glad May-time, when the flowers of the woods are plucked. And all this mixes with your most mystic mood; so that fact and fancy, half-way meeting, interpenetrate, and form one seamless whole. (Ch.114)

[Moby Dick, philosopher]
He is both ponderous and profound. 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.

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 vapor, engendered by his incommunicable contemplations, and that vapor — as you will sometimes see it — glorified by a rainbow, as if Heaven itself had put its seal upon his thoughts. (Ch.85)

10 Responses to “A royal fish”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    I think, and perhaps this is a Canadian thing, that Melville and his American contemporaries get short shrift. While England had Thackery and Dickens and Tennyson, America was keeping pace with Hawthorne and Melville and Longfellow, and we do well not to neglect them.

  2. cburrell Says:

    I’m certainly guilty of short-shrifting the Americans. Before coming to Melville, the only nineteenth-century American author I had read in any serious way was Poe. I like Poe, but he’s not as good as Melville. I’m certainly now interested in taking a closer look at Hawthorne. Shall I start with The Scarlet Letter?

    Maybe I’ll just watch the Demi Moore film adaptation instead?

  3. Janet Says:

    How did you get to be a scientist, Craig?


  4. Oh man, I need to read this again. I read it either in high school or very early in college and didn’t really get it.

    I read The House of the Seven Gables not all that long ago (in my terms–meaning within the last 15 years) and didn’t have a strong reaction. Haven’t read Scarlet Letter since high school but I thought it was dull at the time.

    Here’s what Ross Douthat, review said about the Scarlet Letter movie, in passing while reviewing the recent Brideshead Revisited:

    “Not since Roland Joffe transformed The Scarlet Letter into a bodice-ripping vehicle for Demi Moore’s thespian ambitions (and surgically augmented breasts) has an adaptation of a classic novel labored so strenuously to miss the point of its source material.”

  5. Janet Says:

    I read about the first 30-50 pages and then life intruded in some way and I had to put it down and it disappeared into the stacks of books that I am in the middle of. But I’ve always wanted to pick it up again, because I can remember being intrigued.


  6. cburrell Says:

    Janet and Mac: I won’t launch into more spluttering superlatives. Suffice it to say that I haven’t enjoyed a novel so much in a long while. I cannot but recommend it.

    As for your question, Janet: one thing led to another. I had (and have) a love of physics, and a modest aptitude for mathematics, and not much aptitude for anything else. So it seemed a natural choice.

  7. Janet Says:

    Well, you obviously have an aptitude for writing.


  8. […] Far and away my favourite fiction of the year was Moby-Dick.  The power of Melville’s vision, the ecstatic prose, and the beautiful simplicity of the story were for me a dynamite combination.  Despite its many digressions and apparent superfluities, I found it engrossing from front to back.  (Book Note) […]

  9. […] Herman Melville — Moby-Dick (1851): A glorious and heroic eruption of a book.  Reading it was probably the greatest purely literary pleasure I had this decade. (Book Note) […]

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