Friday, April 09, 2010

Reflections on Moby-Dick

Book IV of the "Melville, Pennsylvania" Project

“The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run.”
– Ahab, Moby-Dick, Chapter XXXVII

“White whale/Holy grail”
– Mastodon, “Blood and Thunder”

To begin: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, in my opinion, has the greatest, most heart-stopping conclusion of any novel in American literature. It is not even a contest.

If you start Moby-Dick, and you have any interest in literature at all, but fail to finish it, you are doing yourself a tremendous disservice. It doesn’t hurt Melville for you not to finish it, since he lies in that “common pool”, to use the novel’s language, where we all are headed. But it does hurt you, in the sense that you willfully leave untapped an entirely unique and profound resource concerning mankind’s eternal struggle with the reality of evil in this world.

People who enjoy literature eventually come to realize the simple truth that the best books are the same ones that demand more from you as a reader. “You get out of it what you put into it” is an unsufferable cliché, yet it’s never more correct than it is here. But even if you cast completely to one side all of the thematic and literary considerations, and the broad legacy of the novel throughout the decades since it appeared, and consider it purely from the standpoint of an entertainment, this book is still far superior to almost any other American novel I can think of. The last 50 pages of the book make everything else, from those techno-thrillers written by Tom Clancy and his literary progeny (that I loved as a very young man) to Stephen King’s latest horror novel to any Harry Potter novel, look like those fat board books that you hand to babies to chew on.

But is Moby-Dick worth the 750-odd page slog to get to the final chase? Is the rest of the book worth the time? What makes the novel on the whole so great? I will try to provide my own answers to these questions.

One of the reasons that the conclusion to the novel works as well as it does is because of that lengthy time you’ve spent with the characters and with the natural world. To address the latter first, Moby-Dick is nothing if not an immersive experience. Melville does not just do a credible job of describing the white whale itself and the sea in which he resides. Famously, in a manner than is practically Darwinian, he examines the entire whale species, smallest to largest. The well-known chapter titled “Cetology” scientifically catalogues every species of whale known to mankind (at least in Melville’s day), although Melville approaches his subject with awe: “To grope down into the bottom of the sea after them; to have one’s hands among the unspeakable foundations, ribs, and very pelvis of the world; this is a fearful thing.”

Melville clearly has a separate, greater fascination for the mighty Sperm whale, for he “lives not complete in any literature. Far above all other hunted whales, his is an unwritten life.” Later in the novel he examines every facet of the inside of Sperm whales as well, from their bones to their teeth to the blubber and innards. When the crew of the Pequod actually hunts and kills a Sperm whale, well before the final encounter with Moby Dick, there are vivid descriptions of the immense work associated with vivisecting the carcass, how it is done, how its oil is drained and stored, how its flesh is hacked from the bones and segmented into steaks, and what becomes of the remainder of the whale’s corpse (food for sharks). The reader can all but smell the slaughter and feel on the soles of their feet the slick planks of the ship’s deck as it runs free with oil, blood, and general “gore”, as Melville calls it.

Melville’s attention to natural details, whether it be animals, the sea itself, lush plants on South Pacific isles, or weather, was always specific, and expressed in rich colors and shapes, from his vibrant first novel (Typee) on. Moby-Dick sometimes recalls the early chapters of that earlier, philosophically-inclined novel Mardi, when the escaped narrator and his companion Jarl drift in small boat for weeks searching for a hospitable coastline, and spend much time dwelling on the varieties of fish they observe and accounting for their collective behaviors. It is abundantly clear in all of Melville’s novels up to and including Moby-Dick that one of the great gifts he was graced with from early on was an extraordinary capacity for observation and mental recollection of what he saw in his career as a sailor.

Beyond the great witness to nature that Moby-Dick represents, which alone makes it well worth the investment, there are the full-blooded and believable characters. Of these, none is greater than Melville’s most famous, most culturally enduring creation, which is not the white whale himself (who actually had at least one real-life antecedent), but Captain Ahab. As Elizabeth Hardwick eloquently argues in her lucid and brief biographical study Herman Melville, there is “nothing to stand with him in our literature before or after”.

What compels a writer to create such a persona? Did Melville base this captain on a real person, perhaps someone he had known or served under? Or did his conception come from a completely alternative process, wherein Melville conceived of the white whale first, realized its significance as a symbol of evil, and needed to construct out of whatever materials he could gather a representative figure, a stand-in for all of us, who could only get more and more crazed as he pursued something that could never be captured, let alone conquered? I don’t know the answers to these questions now. I may never find them, although later I hope to cast at least some light on these mysteries through further reading.

However Melville generated this monumental, maniacal character, once he had done so, Ahab clearly became a channel through which this uniquely brilliant writer and thinker could convey his ideas about revenge, destiny, the fate of man, and the very meaning of our lives. Ahab’s presence in the novel is obscure for more than half of its length. He’s someone people know of by reputation, or allude to only in hushed tones. He doesn’t even show his face on the deck of the Pequod until well after the vessel embarks on its voyage, and when he finally does emerge, one of the first things he does is pass around a pewter chalice and force the crew to join him in a blood oath to pursue and destroy the leviathan, the white whale that is responsible for chewing off his leg:

“Now, three to three, ye stand. Commend the murderous chalices! Bestow them, ye who are now made parties to this insoluble league. Drink, ye harpooners! Drink and swear, ye men that hunt the deathful whaleboat’s bow – Death to Moby Dick!”

Then, of course, as the novel progresses and the ship begins to draw close to the leviathan’s home waters, Ahab makes careful preparations for the final battle. He orders the ship’s blacksmith to create a custom-made, ultra-deadly harpoon. He has the carpenter build him a new leg for the upcoming fight. He bribes the crew with gold, to be awarded to the man whose eyes first alight on Moby Dick (it turns out to be himself). Yet all the while, the closer the inevitable clash draws near, the more Ahab himself seems to writhe in the grip of internal turmoil:

“Rat-tat! So man’s seconds tick! Oh! How immaterial are all materials! What things real are there, but imponderable thoughts….But no. So far gone am I in the dark side of earth, that its other side, the theoretic bright one, seems but uncertain twilight to me.”

More than once, however, Ahab’s loyal but tortured first mate, the Quaker Starbuck, who has long hence perceived the captain’s madness, makes impassioned please to Ahab for his own soul’s sake to give up, turn away, resist the terminal pull of vengeance. But his appeals are in vain, for as Melville writes, “the eternal sap runs up in Ahab’s bones again”. The last time Starbuck tries in desperation to stop him, on the second of three days of the final hunt, Ahab lays out for the first mate the inevitability of his own end: “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 forever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders.”

This astounding passage opens the entire novel towards the deepest of inquiries: Are we fated to do everything that we do? Are we merely God’s playthings? Can we change anything – and if not, is there any reason to struggle, to dream, to resist, to love, to exist? In this great and thrilling hunt, Herman Melville has created both a staggeringly profound, ageless drama and a fiercely entertaining adventure. It’s an incredible achievement; a literary performance of bottomless bravery and strength.

One has to admire – in spite of the tremendous struggle and the black sins he commits along the way, dispensing with an entire crew of men to service his own twisted end – the awesome courage with which Ahab meets his adversary at very close range at the end of the novel:

“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee …. Let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!”

I urge all readers, everywhere, to face down this mighty and worthy novel if they so dare. To conclude, I offer the passage below, lest anyone wonder if Ahab’s adversary, the white whale itself, does not “bring it” to the final throwdown, to use current parlance.

“All their enchanted eyes intent upon the whale, which from side to side strangely vibrating his predestinating head, sent a broad band of overspreading semi-circular foam before him as he rushed. Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect, and in spite of all that mortal man could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship’s starboard bow, till men and timbers reeled. Through the breach, they heard the waters pour, as mountain torrents down a flume.”


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Trailshome said...

What a wonderful description of a mighty topic. I've read this novel at least 10 times-the first few times skimmingly-then slower and slower as the years passed and I reread the book.
At all the stages of my life there have been parts of the book that enthralled me, from the basic adventure yarn, to the "mystic of the sea" aspect, to the biology packed detail of the great fishes part, to the psychology of a driven mad person. All those levels, just waiting for each reader to discover and savor when meeting this great book each time. This is the best description of it I've ever read, and now I'll probably have to pick it up again to see what I've missed. Thank you, for re-introducing me to an old friend.

Trailshome said...
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Trailshome said...
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Mutt Ploughman said...

Trailshome, thanks for your comments on my "Reflections" post for Moby-Dick. This was only the second time I have read the novel, so you probably have a better understanding of it than I do. But having said that, it really struck me how powerful and courageous this book truly was reading it the second time around. It has also been very interesting to read in the larger project that I am in the midst of: to read all of Melville's books and Melville criticism throughout the year 2010. I hope to write a book about the experience. Having worked through Typee, Mardi, Redburn, White-Jacket, and most of Pierre now, Moby-Dick is clearly the crowning achievement, and I hope I can interest more Americans in this superior novel and legitimate national treasure.