Here it is, the review that tests the mettle of any reader worth his salt. The one he will be remembered for. By which people will judge his competence on all other matters of arts and letters. It is a true test of his intellectual capacity and the measure of his artistic acumen, the latter bearing his knowledge of all literary traditions and devices, his appreciation of the catalysts and influences inherent to the work’s creation, and the extent of his submersion into the archetypes and origins of the greatest and most celebrated classical stories in addition to those left to sleep with time, as found forever homaged and referenced therein the work. Here, in my unreliably updated blog, you will find this review. My thoughts upon and memories of one of the few alleged Great American Novels, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.
You’ll find what follows a loosely patched-together account of the impression it left on me. At times it’s unbearably over-prepared and at other times a little off the cuff (hm, kinda like the book). Why? Because I have a fricking day job, that’s why, and other things I have to do, like mope, lay about, think deeply, procrastinate, rest, and worry. It all looks the same, yes, but my evenings are segmented into strict periods of mopery, worrywarting, procrastinization, resturature, and deepensingly thoughterality. If you want some much deeper insight into Moby-Dick (yeah, there’s a hyphen. Damn Romanticists…), I’d suggest searching out something a little more scholarly. Because like with all great novels, American or otherwise, scholars exist on the subject. Just like there are specialists who know more about flood insurance than their colleagues and there are specialists to snake cameras up patients’ rear ends, there are Melville specialists who do honor to the man’s memory by parsing his every word and evangelizing his genius to all those who listen (or just for the sake of posterity, so when aliens analyze our history they’ll find evidence of the massive cult following of Herman Melville). Do not come to me for the colonoscopy. If you’re looking for an anesthytized prognosis that will leave you slightly drowsy and dehydrated, you’d do better elsewhere.
I’m better suited at this point in time to share the basic joys and rewards to be gained by sticking with the ultimate pub story to the bitter end. It picks up the rhythym at times and it comes to a standstill more often, particularly in the midsection, where Melville’s whale dissection knocks the wind out of you.
From an easily elaborated reader-response perspective, wherein you, as a feeling and susceptible critic, decide the value of the work based on the emotions it inspires in you, you can place stock in Moby-Dick based on the effectiveness with which it transports you into its world. Most tongue-tied, forearm-pumping readers rely on the empty claim “It made me feel like I was there” as general acclaim and recognition of a story’s overriding merit. So, do you really want to know what it was like to be on a whaling vessel? Like, really? And not an abridged version of one, a ship that’s all ocean sprayed figurehead glistening in the sun and captain’s quarters swaying and creaking to the cunning processes of its salty, white bearded lodger. That’s the tack most dramas like to take, highlighting the drama, certainly, but none of the monotony of everyday life that most people hope to escape through stories. So in such a romp as any other sea tale, you do benefit from the reprieve of ordinary life. Melville, with acute vision that could spot a whale from ten miles out, has crafted no such adventure.
The story of Moby-Dick toes the line between legend and essay, so emotionally distant in some stretches, then so descriptively ferocious, that it resists classification alongside its novel peers. We’d be kidding ourselves to presume Melville could see so far beyond the horizon, predicting the acclaim with which his sea epic would sail into the annals of the very classics he invokes so incessantly in Ishmael’s sharp, senility-resisting telling. Although it’d be an insult to deny his genius, Melville was just as concerned with putting food on his table as he was with going down in history. As the biographers have it, he had an adventurous yarn in mind when he first began sketching out the tale. Thanks to an attack of ambition and the word of Nathaniel Hawthorne, his adventure expanded into its present form of American polemic and apologia for the whaling industry. Melville still saw in his story the resemblance of a conventional narrative, like a parent insists on seeing the wide-eyed innocence that’s truly far gone from his or her offspring. He was shocked and aggrieved by his tome’s dismal reception. What he had to recognize was that he wasn’t working on a novel. It was an essay on every thought that entered his head, explored by a man of able ability and thought. It’s not meant as an escape. It is, as anyone who’s ever attempted it, finished it, or studied it, difficult. If you bear this in mind, that you will derive virtually no immediate pleasure from it, and that you will only appreciate it after a period of resentment and exhaustion, then Moby-Dick, in its unabridged magnitude, is for you. It’s a veritable plunge into the whaling profession, beginning with the crackling fun of a cannonball into frigid water, followed by the sinking and the crushing power of deep sea pressure, the blackening of your world, thus the restart of your senses, then the frantic fear of drowning before the end. It begins at a gallop as Ishmael, proud sailor that he is, narrates his decision in his youth to pursue whaling for the sake of adventure and experience, having already a respectable seafaring history behind him. The narration is haughty in its aggrandizement of his chosen profession, yet tongue-in-cheek about the descriptions of the less enviable details of his servitude. But as the shipboard routines take hold and the men move as predictably as the stars in the sky and the ship as sluggishly as such, Ishmael immerses himself in his work until the mania of the white whale descends upon the vessel in the final stretch, a climax ushered in by a period of restlessness, superstition, and palpable dread.
We embark on much the same voyage as Ishmael in our reading, first brashly underestimating the effort, then becoming lulled into a routine, then throttled from our slumber by the mad hand of manifest destiny, our urge to control the world we inhabit. Melville leads us through the process without our ever knowing. His writing invites us into the cold and exclusive New Bedford whaling profession in a way our courage would be tried mightily to accomplish, it proceeds to satiate our curiosity on the open sea, then delves deeper into our spirits as we confront the ultimate nature of nature, its absolute volatility. At one point Melville mentions the Zoroastrian belief that there are no mighty powers in nature that are meant to be superior to, say, inferior forces. There just are forces, and whatever effect they have on one another has no bearing on the significance of either force. It makes disturbing arguments without drawing any conclusions. Ishmael comes off as agnostic. His personification of the whale shows how he struggles to define its place in the order of things, particularly in its clash with Ahab. Melville’s no-conclusions rule draws the novel out into its epic form, exploring life as life progresses. We groan at his obsessive attention to detail in whaling culture, but he is only leading us through Ishmael’s real life thoughts. Whaling is the life he knows, and it’s through that lens that he searches for meaning. If an accountant wrote a novel about the white unbalanceable ledger, it would surely include a lengthy dissertation on credits, debits, and endless red tape. Melville is unapologetic in his presentation of the whaling life, so much so that the story comes second to his journalism.
Possibly the one sustaining source of excitement when you’re plodding through the unbearable “whale encyclopedia,” as one friend called it, is the idea that you’re unravelling a myth in itself. Moby-Dick as a closed book on a shelf is as enigmatic to the common man as the titular whale is to its chasers. The scale and difficulty of the book have made it a formidable endeavor for many a reader, akin to the climbing of Mount Everest for an amateur climber. It’s not a shame to not have read it, but dang, wouldn’t it be cool if everyone could see what it was all about?
Okay, enough about Moby-Dick. Sure, I could polish this up WAY more, and write a book-long piece on it which will get placed next to the novel on bookshelves so that people get confused as to what’s the actual novel and what’s my study guide (thanks a lot, Stuart Gilbert). But it’s late, I just watched Live and Let Die and The Breakfast Club and I’m crushing over Jane Seymour and Ally Sheedy all at once, and I need to travel to the U.P. tomorrow. I’m not sure what I’ll write about next. I’ve been spending just as long on Edward Rutherfurd’s Princes of Ireland as I did on Melville. It’s good fun, but it’s starting to drive me insane. So insane I can’t even remember what else I’ve read or seen lately that’s worthy of an entry. But that will all change next week. For next week, if the gods align, and Planet deems it right, I will for the first time ever in my life watch what had better be the greatest movie of all time… Kill List.