viernes, 21 de mayo de 2010

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (Penguin, 2003)
by Herman Melville
USA, 1851

For every loser who's ever complained that Moby-Dick is boring or "too long," let me make it clear that I wish Melville had added another 625 pages to his much-beloved and maybe equally-derided classic.  Deal with it.  Whether you consider Moby-Dick a grandiose adventure yarn, an epic tale of obsession and revenge, a political or spiritual allegory, or even what some have anointed as "the American bible," count me in among the legions of fans who can attest that's it all of that and more.  So what makes the tale of the death ship the Pequod so fascinating?  For me, it all begins and ends with Melville's prose.  While it's hard to explain how he manages to pull this off in a whaling chronicle that must have passed for state of the art realism in the year of its publication, suffice it to say that it's easy to see why the King James Bible and Shakespeare are the usual frames of reference when talking about the elevated intensity of Melville's language.  Truly remarkable stuff.  On a related note, I should add that I probably marked more passages per square page to return to here than in almost any other book I've read in recent memory.  Wonderful images and similes in abundance!  And despite the way in which Ahab's monomaniacal quest for the white whale has taken on somewhat caricaturish proportions in popular culture, rest assured that Melville's language arts are put into the service of some truly powerful storytelling.  While there are humorous moments aplenty to be sure, I think what I'll most remember from the two and a half weeks I spent sailing with the Pequod's crew is the rare pleasure of getting to see Melville as heavyweight prize fighter taking on death and mortality, civilization vs. nature, and the meaning of it all for 15 rounds of unflinching, toe to toe action.  Maybe not the best book to recommend to some of your lightweight, meme-obsessed blogger friends but an enormously satisfying read nonetheless.  (

Herman Melville, 1861

Melville 101
Not having read any Melville since my undergrad days and possibly even since my high school days, this month's long-delayed Moby-Dick encounter has made me positively giddy at the thought of acquainting myself with his other writing, his critical reception, etc.  Already have his Complete Shorter Fiction (Everyman's Library, 1997) and a recent biography, Andrew Delbanco's Melville: His World and Works (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), out on loan from the library.  In the meantime, here are three style samples from the beginning, the middle, and near the end of Moby-Dick to give you an idea of the kind of things that make me want to undertake a reread of it down the road.

Call me Ishmael.  Some years ago--never mind how long precisely--having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.  It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.  Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.  This is my substitute for pistol and ball.  With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.  There is nothing surprising in this.  If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or another, cherish very nearly the same feelings toward the ocean with me.

Again: as the profound calm which only apparently precedes and prophesies of the storm, is perhaps more awful than the storm itself; for, indeed, the calm is but the wrapper and envelope of the storm; and contains it in itself, as the seemingly harmless rifle holds, the fatal power, and the ball, and the explosion; so the graceful repose of the line, as it silently serpentines about the oarsmen before being brought into actual play--this is a thing which carries more of true terror than any other aspect of this dangerous affair.  But why say more?  All men live enveloped in whale-lines.  All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.  And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.

"Starbuck, of late I've felt strongly 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 thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled.  Fool!  I am the Fates' lieutenant; I act under orders.  Look thou, underling!  that thou obeyst mine.  --Stand round me, men.  Ye see an old man cut down to the stump; leaning on a shivered lance; propped up on a lonely foot.  'Tis Ahab--his body's part; but Ahab's soul's a centipede, that moves upon a hundred legs.  I feel strained, half stranded, as ropes that tow dismasted frigates in a gale; and I may look so.  But ere I break, ye'll hear me crack; and till ye hear that, know that Ahab's hawser tows his purpose yet.  Believe ye, men, in the things called omens?  Then laugh aloud, and cry encore!  For ere they drown, drowning things will twice rise to the surface; then rise again, to sink for evermore.  So with Moby Dick--two days he's floated--to-morrow will be the third.  Aye, men, he'll rise once more,--but only to spout his last!  D'ye feel brave, men, brave?"

The famous first paragraph (3), a snippet of Ishmael's philosophy (306), and a rousing speech from Captain Ahab that gives me the chills whenever I think of the line, "but Ahab's soul's a centipede" (611).  Note that while Ishmael's a wonderful narrator, simultaneously down to earth and of an engagingly philosophical bent, he's a little more slippery than he appears to be at first.  At the very least, it takes him a while to admit that the same sea that he professes to love will soon turn into a watery graveyard for man and beasts alike.  As for the captain's speech, I think it was Andrew Delbanco who pointed out that Ahab gets the same treatment from Melville that Satan got from Milton in Paradise Lost: some of the best lines, the most memorable close-ups, an at times sympathethic portrayal despite his manifest flaws.  These types of complexities, in combination with the Calvinistic touches suggesting we're all doomed from the start, leave me with a parting question for anybody who's bothered to read this far down in the post: Hast ye seen the white whale?

15 comentarios:

  1. I go back and forth on whether or not I want to read Moby Dick. It's not so much the length that makes me hesitate, but the fact that past attempts were not exactly successful. But - I'm not the same reader I was even a month ago, let alone years ago. Your post makes me strongly lean towards yes.

  2. Melville was a very versatile writer-his marvelous short story, Barlelby the Scrivner is very different in style from Moby Dick-Moby Dick is really not that long anyway-the prose is just completely majestic-

  3. It's a great one, alright! Luscious excerpts you chose, too. I'm probably due for a re-read before TOO very long, but haven't felt called to it quite the meantime am heartily enjoying the Melville love you & Claire have been adding to the interwebs!

    On a related Melville note, his late novel Confidence Man is extremely odd, in a way that was thought-provoking to me even if it doesn't come close to sustaining the same kind of stylistic brilliance as Moby Dick. What an interesting writer!

  4. Nicole and I have both, sort of coincidentally, been working our way up to Moby-Dick (which I read many, many years ago).

    None of the first five Melville books come anywhere near Moby-Dick. But they make for a great journey, watching Melville, step by step, become the writer of Moby-Dick and "Bartleby" and so on.

    Anyway, I assume we'll both read it soon, with "soon" remaining undefined. Nicole has written about all of this more than I have.

  5. I do love the beginning, and since reading it I have often thought, when plotting to acquire a humvee with a 50-caliber gun mounted on the top for the purpose of taking out people who are driving under the speed limit in the left lane, that perhaps what I really need is to "get to sea as soon as I can."

    But oh Richard, Richard: "lightweight, meme-obsessed blogger" - tsk, tsk. I think now I truly have seen the great white whale!

  6. Yippie! What a wonderful review, Richard. Since reading this monster over the winter I am searching for used copies of Melville's work, now I'm adding Delbanco's biography to the list.

  7. "For me, it all begins and ends with Melville's prose."

    Moby Dick is one of my five favorite books for this very reason. I get lost in the language. Once tried to tell someone that Moby Dick was like fantastic sex from which you did not want to emerge and felt a little surprised and disoriented when it was over. As you might expect, my friend took my drink away and laughingly told me to shut up.

    Would love to re-read some sort works too. Love Billy Budd especially.

  8. *Ana: I myself started Moby-Dick at least twice before, enjoying what I read both times, before finally finishing it this time around. Timing is everything, I agree! Great point, too, about how the types of readers we are is something that evolves over time.

    *Mel U: I think my previous Melville reading was limited to "Bartleby," Billy Budd and maybe Benito Cereno, so I look forward to experiencing/reexperiencing that versatility you mention. In the meantime, I agree that Moby-Dick's prose is "completely majestic"!

    *Emily: Have to admit that I enjoyed looking back over all those "luscious" passages to select a few to highlight in the post! Kept thinking about that enigmatic 2666 quote, "the sea is the danger," throughout the reading of Moby-Dick, too. Will have to revisit your Confidence Man post to see how soon I want to get around to that one.

    *Amateur Reader: I've actually been stealthily making my way through your and Nicole's Melville posts of late, and I'm afraid that I may have to steal your idea and read all of Melville at some point also. Anyway, thanks for the info on the first five novels and the heads up about looking at such a project as a journey!

    *Jill: Ha ha, rather violent imagination you got there, sport! I don't think I've ever been tsked tsked on my blog before, so by way of explanation I should note that I just couldn't resist launching one of Ahab's harpoons at my target after reading all that bitching and moaning about how dull Moby-Dick was during that readalong earlier in the year. I don't want to be mean, but those people should stick to reviewing ARC romance novels if you ask me! :)

    *Gavin: Thanks as always for the kind words--loved this book so much that it was hard to put together a post that did any kind of justice to how I felt about it. Also glad to hear that I'm not the only new Moby-Dick reader who is searching out more Melville stuff these days!

    *Frances: Wow, now that's a steamy anecdote worthy of your blogging nickname, Book Temptress. Too funny! Seriously, though, I knew you liked Moby-Dick but had no idea it was that big a favorite of yours. Can totally understand wanting to get lost in that language, though. I just wish I hadn't waited so long to dive in, though.

  9. Haha, FRANCES! I'm shocked! ;-) You are hilarious, lady.

  10. Emily, I agree! I saw the steam coming off of this blog all the way in the desert! Frances, you could flesh out that comment (so to speak) into a book - maybe add a vampire - and it would be a best seller!

  11. Like Nymeth I have to say that I go back and forth on whether I want to read Moby Dick or not. I just can't quite decide. Its never a book I have felt that I should read like I know that it has been for some (not you!).

    I loved the opening line of this post.

  12. Amen, brother. :) GREATNESS all the way!

    I just convinced my sister to read this. She started digging in a few days ago and totally loving it. She's also gushing nonstop.

  13. *Emily and Jill: My glasses are still fogged up from Frances' comment! Of course, it was something like 90 degrees and muggy here today, too...

    *Simon: I think Moby-Dick inspires that kind of back and forth indecision somehow (+ snarky first sentences from people who post about it in the month of May). All I can say is that I'm not sure why I waited so long to read it but that I'm glad that I finally did!

    *Claire: Ha ha, good for you and your sister! By the way, have you read Richard Henry Dana, Jr.'s nonfiction Two Years Before the Mast? It's said to have been an inspiration for Melville on the road to Moby-Dick, and everybody I know who's read it says it's great stuff. My dad sent me a copy last year I think, so I hope to get around to that before too long.

  14. Además caben remarcar dos aspectos brillantes: la forma en que Ishmael, como narrador, es consciente de que su "público" es de tierra firme (de ahí que sea tan didáctico en su manera de explicarnos todo lo relativo al mar a quienes nunca fuimos marinos); y también la forma en que Melville incorpora en la narración toda clase de material no narrativo —el tratado de cetaceología, el ensayo sobre los significados del color blanco—, material que suele eliminarse de las adaptaciones para niños, pero cuya inclusión en el original resulta un procedimiento sumamente contemporáneo.

    Y fijate qué actual puede ser el texto de Melville:

    Saludos, hace mucho que no pasaba por aquí (¡Mucho Borges, por lo que veo!).

  15. ¡Hola, Richard!! Veo que la novela no te pareció tan larga como a mí (upss). Y es que algunos capítulos me abrumaban por lo descriptivos, pero muy pronto aparecian otros muy coloridos y colmados de poesía.
    Leerla en su idioma original debe ser maravilloso.
    ¡Un abrazo!!