Thursday, January 19, 2012

What I've Been Reading #2

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, Ch. 114 - "The Gilder":

Oh, grassy glades! oh, ever vernal endless landscapes in the soul; in ye,—though long parched by the dead drought of the earthy life,—in ye, men yet may roll, like young horses in new morning clover; and for some few fleeting moments, feel the cool dew of the life immortal on them. Would to God these blessed calms would last. But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause:—through infancy's unconscious spell, boyhood's thoughtless faith, adolescence' doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood's pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling's father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.

I neglected to mention in my last Moby-Dick post that it was actually not my first Melville. In high school, I had read White Jacket and Billy Budd. For whatever reason, my AP English teacher in 12th grade thought I might enjoy Melville, and so she suggested I pick two of his works to analyze for an assignment. Naturally, I picked Billy Budd because it was the shortest. Then I picked White Jacket somewhat at random, but probably likewise because the copy at the library looked slimmer than the other titles next to it. Moby-Dick surely would have had the most published criticism available to consult (White Jacket basically had none), but maybe I thought it would be too predictable a choice.

In hindsight, it was a lucky thing that I ended up picking the two works that I did. Despite Melville's having written them practically at opposite ends of his career, White Jacket and Billy Budd were very nearly the same story, making for an easy 10-page paper. I got an A on that paper, and it was probably the best work I did that entire year. Although that class was more than 10 years ago, still I thought I had a fair idea what to expect going into Moby-Dick. But Moby-Dick, surface-level similarities aside, proved to be very much not the perfected White Jacket nor proto-Billy Budd that I had anticipated. Even at my most glib, I would never be able to summarize it in some 10-page paper.

I said before that I was not enjoying reading through Moby-Dick, and I do not take that back. I felt that it was a self-indulgent work, produced by an egomaniac, to be consumed by other egomaniacs. Perhaps all high art is, but I digress. As I read Moby-Dick, and endured its interminable series of interludes, I would think back to how comparatively elegant White Jacket was, and how pure Billy Budd, and I would wonder where had gone that Herman Melville who actually had a point to make.

And yet, now that I've finished Moby-Dick, somehow it is those other works that now seem fake and shallow to me by comparison.

It's hard for me to quantify, but White Jacket and Billy Budd, at least to my high school self, were like most good books, in that, when I finished them, it was like attaining the night's repose following the day's labor both exhausting yet gratifying. On the other hand, when I came to the end of Moby-Dick, it felt like dying. More than that, when I came to the end, I caught myself looking back over the whole of it, and it seemed to me I had been dying the whole time, only I had not realized it until it was all done. Frankly, I don't know how else to put it. When people speak of that phenomenon of your life flashing before you as you die, I imagine now that it would all play out rather like Moby-Dick.


Czardoz said...

I read Billy Budd well after my third reading of Moby-Dick, expecting an emotional keel-hauling and an orgy of language. I didn't like it. It seemed like a miserable story of misery for its own sake. I haven't read White-Jacket, but I've read Bartleby, the Scrivener, and it's the same nihilistic view of life, taken to the extreme.

I think Billy Budd and Bartleby are Melville bemoaning the hopelessness he saw in life. Moby-Dick, though it contains misery and hopelessness, is merely a reflection of these and myriad other experiences and emotions that buffet a person's life. It is not a dirge devoted to the worst possible outcome of humanity. Which is part of why I find Moby-Dick much more palatable as a work of art, the economy of those other books notwithstanding.

Henry said...

From my high school reading, it seemed to me that Melville's view basically boiled down to "the world will take a decent man and break him utterly." The moral of White-Jacket then was "if you want to survive, be less than decent, and only partially broken." By the time he wrote Billy Budd, it was apparent that he didn't think survival under those terms was meaningful or worthwhile.

I expected Moby-Dick to proceed along similar lines, but I was surprised by how comparatively unassuming it was as argument, while still being ambitious/pretentious in content and composition. As an example, I found it more ambiguous, compared to Billy Budd, whether Ahab's life was to be pitied, revered, or neither, or both. For me, I suppose that made Moby-Dick more realistic, those other works more pat by comparison.

Henry said...

Actually, now that I think about it, being less decent still didn't help you to survive in White-Jacket; it just hardened you inside, so that you would be less disappointed when they took everything from you. Yes, pretty miserable.