Monday, January 26, 2009

Moby Dick

Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" is widely regarded as one of the classic novels of our age. There are a number of books on my "Must read before I die" list, and "Moby Dick" was among them. About two years ago, I managed to cross it off the list. I found it to be one of the most tedious books I've ever labored through.

Don't get me wrong. "Moby Dick" does have its moments. I do find its main premise, "Whaling captain allows his obsession with vengeance to cloud his judgment with disastrous consequences", to be thought-provoking. The problem is that the book could have been trimmed down to about a third of its length without losing any of the essential story or premise.

Aside from being a writer, Melville was also a whaler and his love of the sea and of whaling is evident in the lavish detail with which he describes every aspect thereof. This might be appealing to the reader who shares Melville's love of whaling. To a certain extent, it's even interesting to those of us who have no special interest in whaling. For my part, by the time I got to Melville's detailed description of the whale-line that's attached to the harpoon, to which he devotes an entire chapter, I found myself mentally repeating the words of King Arthur from Monty Python's "Holy Grail".

Melville: "With reference to the whaling scene shortly to be described, as well as for the better understanding of all similar scenes elsewhere presented, I have here to speak of the magical, sometimes horrible whale-line."

Me: "Yes."

Melville: "The line originally used in the fishery was of the best hemp, slightly vapoured with tar, not impregnated with it, as in the case of ordinary ropes; for while tar, as ordinarily used, makes the hemp more pliable to the rope-maker, and also renders the rope itself more convenient to the sailor for common ship use; yet, not only would the ordinary quantity too much stiffen the whale-line for the close coiling to which it must be subjected; but as most seamen are beginning to learn, tar in general by no means adds to the rope's durability or strength, however much it may give it compactness and gloss."

Me: "Yes I, see."

Melville: "Of late years the Manilla rope has in the American fishery almost entirely superseded hemp as a material for whale-lines; for, though not so durable as hemp, it is stronger, and far more soft and elastic; and I will add (since there is an aesthetics in all things), is much more handsome and becoming to the boat, than hemp. Hemp is a dusky, dark fellow, a sort of Indian; but Manilla is as a golden-haired Circassian to behold."

Me: "Be quiet!"

Melville: "The whale-line is only two-thirds of an inch in thickness. At first sight, you would not think it so strong as it really is. By experiment its one and fifty yarns will each suspend a weight of one hundred and twenty pounds; so that the whole rope will bear a strain nearly equal to three tons. In length, the common sperm whale-line measures something over two hundred fathoms. Towards the stern of the boat it is spirally coiled away in the tub, not like the worm-pipe of a still though, but so as to form one round, cheese-shaped mass of densely bedded "sheaves," or layers of concentric spiralizations, without any hollow but the "heart," or minute vertical tube formed at the axis of the cheese. As the least tangle or kink in the coiling would, in running out, infallibly take somebody's arm, leg, or entire body off, the utmost precaution is used in stowing the line in its tub. Some harpooneers will consume almost an entire morning in this business, carrying the line high aloft and then reeving it downwards through a block towards the tub, so as in the act of coiling to free it from all possible wrinkles and twists."

Me: "I order you to be quiet!"

For all of his experience with whales, Melville seems somewhat misinformed about their nature. He devotes an entire chapter to the argument as to whether a whale is a mammal or a fish, as this question had apparently not yet been resolved when "Moby Dick" was written, back in 1851, at the end of which he reaches the erroneous conclusion that a whale is, in fact, a fish. So then, not only is "Moby Dick" unnecessarily long and tedious, it's also factually wrong in places.

Melville also takes great pains in familiarizing the reader with the many different types of whales there are to be found in the oceans of the world. I can't help wondering whether he might not sound a little like the character of Private Benjamin "Bubba" Blue from "Forrest Gump" if he were to recite them aloud; "The Sperm Whale, the Right Whale, the Fin Back Whale, the Hump-backed whale, the Razor Back Whale, the Sulphur Bottom Whale, the Narwhale..."

Melville's writing style is very uneven. While most of the book takes the form of a narrative, certain chapters read more like a play, such as Chapter 40, entitled "Midnight, Forecastle", which begins:



Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish ladies!
Farewell and adieu to you, ladies of Spain!
Our captain's commanded.—
1ST NANTUCKET SAILOR. Oh, boys, don't be sentimental; it's bad for the digestion! Take a tonic, follow me!


Our captain stood upon the deck, A spy-glass in his hand,
A viewing of those gallant whales That blew at every strand.
Oh, your tubs in your boats, my boys, And by your braces stand,
And we'll have one of those fine whales, Hand, boys, over hand!
So, be cheery, my lads! may your hearts never fail!
While the bold harpooner is striking the whale!

MATE'S VOICE FROM THE QUARTER-DECK. Eight bells there, forward!

2ND NANTUCKET SAILOR. Avast the chorus! Eight bells there! d'ye hear, bell-boy? Strike the bell eight, thou Pip! thou blackling! and let me call the watch. I've the sort of mouth for that—the hogshead mouth. So, so,


Star-bo-l-e-e-n-s, a-h-o-y! Eight bells there below! Tumble up!

DUTCH SAILOR. Grand snoozing to-night, maty; fat night for that. I mark this in our old Mogul's wine; it's quite as deadening to some as filliping to others. We sing; they sleep—aye, lie down there, like ground-tier butts. At 'em again! There, take this copper-pump, and hail 'em through it. Tell 'em to avast dreaming of their lasses. Tell 'em it's the resurrection; they must kiss their last, and come to judgment. That's the way—THAT'S it; thy throat ain't spoiled with eating Amsterdam butter.

FRENCH SAILOR. Hist, boys! let's have a jig or two before we ride to anchor in Blanket Bay. What say ye? There comes the other watch. Stand by all legs! Pip! little Pip! hurrah with your tambourine!

On first reading this chapter, I had to check the cover to ensure that I hadn't accidentally picked up the wrong book! It's as though Melville couldn't decide what kind of work he wanted to create. The world should breathe a sigh of relief that, in the end, he eventually went mostly with the narrative because, as a play, "Moby Dick" would make the Greek epics of yore seem like a Vaudeville sketch.

And take this excerpt from Chapter 42: "The Whiteness of The Whale"; an entire chapter devoted to pondering the color white:

"Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal preeminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title "Lord of the White Elephants" above all their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Caesarian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial colour the same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; and though, besides, all this, whiteness has been even made significant of gladness, for among the Romans a white stone marked a joyful day; and though in other mortal sympathies and symbolizings, this same hue is made the emblem of many touching, noble things—the innocence of brides, the benignity of age; though among the Red Men of America the giving of the white belt of wampum was the deepest pledge of honour; though in many climes, whiteness typifies the majesty of Justice in the ermine of the Judge, and contributes to the daily state of kings and queens drawn by milk-white steeds; though even in the higher mysteries of the most august religions it has been made the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power; by the Persian fire worshippers, the white forked flame being held the holiest on the altar; and in the Greek mythologies, Great Jove himself being made incarnate in a snow-white bull; and though to the noble Iroquois, the midwinter sacrifice of the sacred White Dog was by far the holiest festival of their theology, that spotless, faithful creature being held the purest envoy they could send to the Great Spirit with the annual tidings of their own fidelity; and though directly from the Latin word for white, all Christian priests derive the name of one part of their sacred vesture, the alb or tunic, worn beneath the cassock; and though among the holy pomps of the Romish faith, white is specially employed in the celebration of the Passion of our Lord; though in the Vision of St. John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great-white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honourable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood."

Had I submitted this as an twelfth-grade writing assignment, my English teacher would have circled that entire paragraph with a big red marker and scrawled the words "run-on sentence!" across it, yet that same twelfth-grade English teacher saw no conflict in presenting this to his students as an example of a classic work of literary genius.

"Moby Dick" is not the most tedious book I've ever labored through. That dubious honor belongs to "The Stone Angel", by Margaret Laurence; a novel about the reminiscences of an old woman who had lived a very ordinary and, in fact, somewhat lacklustre, life. Reading that particular book was a little like visiting a senile old auntie who tended to prattle on and on about the same things at every visit. However, "Moby Dick" certainly ranks high on my tedium scale. Ever the glutton for punishment, I've now taken it upon myself to tackle "War And Peace" by Leo Tolstoy. Wish me luck.

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