Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Battle to the Death

This excerpt from the draft of Forever Voyaging, my book on Herman Melville, takes on the three-day epic battle that concludes the classic novel Moby-Dick. There's a lot of work yet to do on it, but here's an example of what I'm trying to do. I hope it is enjoyed.....

IT IS A DISSERVICE to those among us who many not have read Moby-Dick to lay out everything that occurs in those three days of combat. Although I do find it hard to imagine that someone would read the current book, the one you hold, without having experienced the wonder of the novel in question. However, I must allow for the possibility that this unorthodox reader exists, and thus proceed without revealing too much. After all, Melville has already told the story better than I can.

Nonetheless, in each of the three days that conclude Moby-Dick, something astonishing happens that must be experienced to be fully understood. And Melville, to his eternal credit, draws the reader into those experiences as skillfully as anyone ever has.

The first day begins the hunt without a trace of caution or hesitation. As soon as Moby Dick is seen spouting above the surface, an epic contest ensues.

Suddenly as he peered down and down into its depths, he profoundly saw a white living spot no bigger than a white weasel, with wonderful celerity uprising, and magnifying as it rose, till it turned, and then were plainly revealed two long crooked rows of white, glistening teeth, floating up from the undiscoverable bottom. It was Moby Dick’s open mouth and scrolled jaw … the glittering mouth yawned beneath the boat like an open-doored marble tomb.

With this amazing but terrifying image, Melville quickly establishes the tone for the entire hunt. It is unquestionably a fight to the death – someone will not survive the contest. Right from Day One, Ahab leads from the front, we notice, since he is himself standing in the small boat that Moby Dick is coming up under as depicted above. As soon as the White Whale was sighted, Ahab ordered the boats dropped, and assumed his place in the lead vessel, taking the fight straight to his enemy.

The second time I read Moby-Dick, I tried to picture myself in what amounts to little more than a rowboat alongside Captain Ahab, peering over the side, and seeing that huge white leviathan’s open jaws ascending straight out of the dark waters to drag me to my fate. I don’t know what I would have done, but it almost certainly would not have been what Ahab does in the novel by way of response. From this first direct encounter until the end of the third day, Ahab provides indisputable evidence of both his outright insanity and his extraordinary courage.

When Moby Dick finally emerges from below with his jaws gaping, he immediately brings them down across the middle of the skiff and cleaves the entire thing into two separate parts in one massive bite. But even while he is doing so, Ahab physically apprehends the whale’s lower jaw with his bare hands and attempts in vain to prevent the whale from cutting the vessel in two. Needless to say his efforts to protect the boat fail, and in the process Ahab loses the wooden leg that replaced the original limb he had lost to Moby Dick in the first place.

Ahab has proven his mettle right away, and the crew witnesses his fearlessness. But they also take note of his obsession, which, it is becoming increasingly clear, will certainly lead to their own violent deaths. Once again Starbuck – who may have thought of himself as the voice of the other men, or the voice of basic reason, or both – attempts to get Ahab to recognize the grave danger he is carelessly courting in his quest to defeat Moby Dick by identifying the cloven boat as an “omen.” Ahab dismisses this notion right away with disdain, and even a kind of machismo:

Omen? Omen? … if the gods think to speak outright to man, they will honorably speak outright; not shake their heads, and give an old wives’ darkling hint …. Ahab stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth; nor gods nor men his neighbors.

Starbuck must certainly understand with these words that his own battle, to expose to Ahab the fatal folly of his obsession, has been lost. Ahab forges on without any thought of reversal. Before the next morning dawns he has ordered the ship’s carpenter to fashion for him another wooden leg from the very planks of the boat Moby Dick has destroyed.

Moby Dick vanishes as the sun sets on the first day, but Ahab is sure the whale will not go far, and so the crew follows after him with the remaining boats. Sure enough, on the morning of the second day, he is seen breaking the surface in the near distance. Ahab immediately renews the fight, declaring, “Breach your last to the sun, Moby Dick. Thy hour and thy harpoon are at hand!” One has their doubts that Ahab has gotten a whole lot of sleep in the intervening night, but he seems to be drawing his maniacal strength from some nether, unfathomable source.

Then, on the second day but before they actually fall into combat again, Melville depicts a phenomenon that sailed right past me the first time I read the novel – or at least I had little memory of it. But the second time it struck me with full force how unbelievable this action alone must have been to observe. What happens is that Moby Dick, presumably in a show of force, draws near the Pequod and its boats while beneath the surface, and then he “breaches.”

Breaching, as described in the novel, is when the whale leaps “salmon-like to heaven” out of the water. Melville’s choice of language here is helpful, because most of us have probably seen still or moving images (if not in person) of that particular fish jumping up out of a river as the rapids rush downhill over rocks. The whole fish comes up out of the foam, and for a moment we are graced by the beauty and wonder of its muscular, shimmering form thrashing through the air in a manner that almost has the feel of a performance rather than of a raw display of nature. Then, in the next instant, the fish has dived back into the rapids and is gone on the rest of its journey.

The same leap is executed by Moby Dick on day two of this great hunt, right next to the Pequod and all of its men. What is so amazing and terrifying about this war-dance? The reader need only remember this: a male sperm whale averages about sixty feet in length and weighs between forty and sixty tons. Again, when you place yourself inside one of these small boats chasing after the whale, or standing on the deck of the Pequod, the full impact of this demonstration begins to dawn on you.

This is one of those cases where a classic work of literature, or work of art in general, pays a significant return to the reader (or consumer) who is willing to make an investment of imagination in the work. When people say that a great novel gives back to the reader what they put into it, the comment refers to moments like this one. You have to apply yourself in order to visualize the sheer astonishment of a massive white sperm whale, with its brow wrinkled and its form pincushioned with steel harpoons trailing blood-slickened hemp threads, leaping with unbridled force out of the great blue sea. But after you have done so, the image is seared into your mind forevermore.

If there was any need of a kind of turning point in my second reading of Moby-Dick’s final drama, this moment, and the onscreen visual it generated in my mind’s eye, was that occasion for me. Although I was all in with Moby-Dick before, for numerous reasons that I have been seeking to put into words in the last two chapters, from this point on I was utterly swept away by the sheer momentum of the duel being played out between Captain Ahab and the white whale. Before the second day has seen the red curtain descend upon it, Moby Dick has launched another offensive, again dashing its “broad forehead” against Ahab’s small boat, sending it “turning over and over” through the open air.

In a contest with these stakes, the crazed and God-bothered Captain Ahab (“Is it I, God, or who that lifts this arm?” he asks of no one in Chapter 132, “The Symphony”) understands clearly the critical nature of the third day. Indeed, on the evening of the second day of the hunt, Ahab prophesies with terrifying assuredness, “Two days he has floated – tomorrow will be the third. Aye, men, he’ll rise once more, – but only to spout his last.”

Here the reader may well congratulate himself or herself – after all this build-up, here they finally are, about to pay witness to this final end. And I can only say further that this last day of battle seems to play out exactly in the way that it must. Indeed, Melville crafts this ultimate clash in such a way that the reader coming into it for the first time – finally arriving at the actual moment on day three that decides once and for all who wins this duel, man or whale – understands and fully accepts, as soon as that moment is reached, that it was, is, and even always shall be, the only possible way for such a contest to conclude.

One gets the feeling from these chapters that Melville was a conduit for some greater, far more comprehensive human story, being inscribed through his calloused hands. This intangible sense one encounters while reading the novel is what really elevates Moby-Dick. To agree that this occurs in the novel, or to even stipulate its possibility, is to grasp that an artist in the correct moment can harness powers far beyond normal human capability. In my understanding, this is achieved only through the Grace of God. But I also believe a writer cannot arrive at a moment like this by accident, or with any ease whatsoever. He must labor towards it his entire life, from infancy. Thus, he who accomplishes such a thing earns it.

Again: here does Moby Dick himself, expressed in the stunning power of a gift with language manfully harnessed and directed, thrust himself into battle one last time, against Ahab, the Pequod, and its entire crew:

Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect, and 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.

Here, finally – following that crushing blow against himself, his men, and his ship – does Ahab rise up in his small boat with harpoon poised, stare straight into the very eye of his enemy, and give Moby Dick everything he can muster:

“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; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and curses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!”

I plan to return to these stirring final words of Melville’s legendary creation once more before this book is complete. But for now I hope I have made myself plain about the power of Moby-Dick – simply by providing samples of Melville’s astonishing words. This epic stand-off is a battle like no other inside a uniquely American masterpiece that can never be replicated or imitated.

Moby-Dick leaves a reader to breathlessly inquire of him or herself: when the real contest arrives for me, when my life reaches its most critical crucible, will I have the courage to stand up and greet it the way Captain Ahab does, come what might? Will I have the strength to “give up the spear?”

(c) 2011 by Jude Joseph Lovell

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