Tuesday, January 3, 2012

What I've Been Reading #1

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, Ch. 36 - "The Quarter-Deck":

"But what's this long face about, Mr. Starbuck; wilt thou not chase the white whale? art not game for Moby Dick?" 
"I am game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow; but I came here to hunt whales, not my commander's vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? it will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market." 
"Nantucket market! Hoot! But come closer, Starbuck; thou requirest a little lower layer. If money's to be the measurer, man, and the accountants have computed their great counting-house the globe, by girdling it with guineas, one to every three parts of an inch; then, let me tell thee, that my vengeance will fetch a great premium here!
"He smites his chest," whispered Stubb, "what's that for? methinks it rings most vast, but hollow." 
"Vengeance on a dumb brute!" cried Starbuck, "that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous." 
"Hark ye yet again,--the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event--in the living act, the undoubted deed--there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who's over me? Truth hath no confines."

I watched the 1956 film adaptation of Moby-Dick in high school, and, at the time, I was principally impressed with Gregory Peck's performance as an uncannily formidable Captain Ahab. Reading the original novel now, after having previously read two lesser Melville works, also in high school, this thing is a real slog. The monomaniacal Ahab remains a compelling character, but truly his appearances collectively comprise only a small fraction of the novel. Much of the book is just episodes about life and the people aboard the ship, but even that quickly gives way to lengthy encyclopedic non-narrative chapters about whales and whaling. Most chapters exist more to provide flavor than substance.

In a classroom setting, it's great to be able to dialogue with classmates and the instructor to interpret the text critically. But now that I am and have been many years alone and outside the academic circle, it seems silly to think that a mere novel could ever meaningfully affect how I live or understand the world, and reading critically seems almost a pointless endeavor. Thus, whatever does not grip me immediately feels consequently like a wretched waste of my time. That includes most of Moby-Dick, and, despite its prominence in the Western literary canon, I would never recommend it to anyone who is not presently a student studying English literature, or maybe whaling.

The above quoted dialogue does contain what was my favorite line from the movie, and now one of my favorite lines in all literature: "I'd strike the sun if it insulted me."

Now, what would really happen if he were to strike the sun? Well, he could no more do that than that the sun would be able to insult him in the first place. But, supposing such a thing could be arranged, it doesn't take a genius to figure that, when man and hot plasma collide, the sun is probably gonna win. But it is precisely such talk that makes Ahab so uniquely compelling a character. Because what he is suggesting is so clearly insane, and yet he speaks it, not only with such conviction that you believe he truly means it, but as though he wouldn't even have any choice in the matter; whether by destiny or his own nature, he cannot be less than he is.


Czardoz said...

I imagine it's like climbing Mt. Everest. It's not for everyone. Not everyone likes mountains, or climbing for that matter. And while some may think this is a grand, difficult thing to do, others may say that it's utter foolishness to pay a bunch of money to climb a frigid, dangerous landscape and bunk with Sherpas.

I will say that only my second two readings of the book were in a college classroom setting, and these were less enjoyable than just reading the book the first time on my own in high school. Those classes and students seem to have the least grasp on reality, and so the least interesting things to say about a great book.

I would recommend the book to anyone who wanted heavy reading that wasn't like anything else. I would not recommend it to anyone looking for straightforwardness or lightness.

If you're really only enjoying the Ahab segments, I don't think it would be blasphemous to just skim everything else and read the last several chapters - The Chase.

Regarding the movie, I only remember the soundtrack fondly, as it included Dvorak's New World Symphony.

Finally, the book you may find much more entertaining as a general read is In the Heart of the Sea, which is a history of the sinking of the whale ship Essex by a sperm whale.

Czardoz said...

Though people usually call Moby-Dick a "novel," this is a misleading term, because it is commonly understood to mean a book of moderate to great length that purports to tell a story. Moby-Dick is clearly about more than a story.

People ask things like, why is there all this stuff about different types of whales? As if there were something defective about the composition. But they ask this because they go into the book assuming it is the ordinary sort of novel, when Moby-Dick is really a book about many ideas, with the Ahab story interspersed throughout.

All these various components are both flavor and substance, but for someone looking for just a whale story, it can be disappointing, or even downright ridiculous to plow through the non-story material.

I imagine that if you just extracted the relevant chapters, you could create the "novel of Moby-Dick," and it could be understood pretty well even without the rest of the book. Readers seem to complain that the author didn't do this to begin with. But though it might have made it a better read for you, it would have made it a lesser book for a different kind of reader, and ultimately, this isn't even the point, because Moby-Dick is about more than readerly enjoyment; it's Melville's view on humanity, the world, nature, God; everything he had thought deeply about.

A reader may or may not like it, but to consider it or any other book a "mere novel" is to misunderstand what it is and to sell short the concept of reading challenging books in general. A great book doesn't exist to tell you how to live or how to understand the world; it is a testament to how one person lived and understood the world. It seems that the things that would really affect the way you live would include more than mere books, and in fact, would be the very stuff of creating new books.