Tuesday, 21 August 2012

On Not Liking Moby Dick

There are many ways of not liking a novel. The reader may like the characters but not the story they’re in, find the plot interesting but not its execution, or enjoy the wordplay without seeing anything else of worth in the novel. There are novels I enjoy even when I sense they’re not very well written, because the plot is gripping enough or the dialogue is witty, or because the author makes a subtle observation about an ignored aspect of life. Others I realize are extraordinary and yet I can’t make myself like them. Then there are long novels I breeze through, like Crime and Punishment and Sophie’s Choice, slowly relishing each page, while short novels like Witold Gombrowicz’ Cosmos leave me stumped. After finishing Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I figured that I no longer had excuses to leave Herman Melville’s Moby Dick unfinished. After a hiatus of two months, I mustered some courage to pick up the novel again, and it’s finally finished. But I’ll be damned if those last 200 pages weren’t harder than Tolstoy’s gigantic novel!

I didn’t like Moby Dick very much. It’s a rambling, sprawling, chaotic novel, although of novel per se there are only some 200 pages, interspersed with many chapters about whales that wouldn’t be out of place in encyclopedias. Sometimes the plot moves as much as ship with a torn sail on a windless day. Allegedly Moby Dick is about Captain Ahab and the white whale he wants to kill for having taken his leg. Ahab first shows up in page 61, and Moby Dick isn’t mentioned until page 134. Both disappear for long stretches, until their fates are resolved in the final fifty pages.

I think my mistake was to think that Moby Dick is about Captain Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of revenge over a dumb beast that had not fault in taking his leg. Ahab has as much right to feel indignant as the toreador left comatose by the bull he provokes in the arena. Of course attributing human characteristics, like evil intent, to creatures that act by instinct is one of the ironies that defines the insanity of Ahab’s search. However, Ahab is not a complex character, I fear he’s even a bit one-dimensional. This novel is about a far more interesting, and no less obsessive character, the narrator Ishmael, crew member of the Pequod. Whereas Ahab is concerned with one whale, Ishmael encompasses in his narrative the whole of the world of whales. Ahab wants to kill Moby Dick, so does Ishmael, being a whaler himself. We always kill the things we love, says Oscar Wilde. But Ishmael doesn’t just kill them. He celebrates them, he overanalyzes them. He doesn’t get them out of his mind. The chase for Moby Dick is just an excuse, in film terms it’s a McGuffin, the thing that gets the plot started, a skeleton on which Melville hangs the story of Ishmael and his love for all things whale. The novel is in fact a compendium of legal, historical, scientific, philosophical, economic and biological facts, anecdotes and ruminations on whales, alternatively fascinating, informative, boring, exaggerated, exasperating, and hilarious. Ishmael’s good-humored pride for the profession and awe for the whales pervades the whole book:

As Queequeg and I are now fairly embarked in this business of whaling; and as this business of whaling has somehow come to be regarded among landsmen as a rather unpoetical and disreputable pursuit; therefore, I am all anxiety to convince ye, ye landsmen, of the injustice hereby done to us hunters of whales.

He justifies this endeavor with the importance of whaling in his life. “I prospectively ascribe all the honour and the glory to whaling; for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” And indeed Ishmael, a sailor, shows a vast erudition about whales, oceans, seamen and travelers. I’m only sorry that Melville, being fluent in the Portuguese language and a reader of Luís de Camões, did not sneak in a reference to Father António Vieira’s sermon “The Sermon of Saint Anthony to the Fish,” Portugal’s modest contribution to fish literature.

But there might a reference to The Lusiads in the novel. In the chapter “The Prophet,” Ishmael meets a man called Elijah at the start of the voyage who casts a dark shadow over Ahab’s intentions. This ill omen is reminiscent of the episode narrated in Book IV of Camões’ epic poem, one of the most memorable episodes of the poem. As Vasco da Gama sails out to India, an old man on the pier admonishes that nothing good will come from the voyage:

"Curs'd be the man who first on floating wood,
Forsook the beach, and braved the treach'rous flood!
Oh! never, never may the sacred Nine,
To crown his brows, the hallow'd wreath entwine;
Nor may his name to future times resound;
Oblivion be his meed, and hell profound!
Curs'd be the wretch, the fire of heaven who stole,
And with ambition first debauch'd the soul!
What woes, Prometheus, walk the frighten'd earth!
To what dread slaughter has thy pride giv'n birth!
On proud Ambition's pleasing gales upborne,
One boasts to guide the chariot of the morn;
And one on treach'rous pinions soaring high,
O'er ocean's waves dar'd sail the liquid sky:
Dash'd from their height they mourn'd their blighted aim;
One gives a river, one a sea the name!
Alas! the poor reward of that gay meteor, fame!
Yet, such the fury of the mortal race,
Though fame's fair promise ends in foul disgrace,
Though conquest still the victor's hope betrays,
The prize a shadow, or a rainbow-blaze,
Yet, still through fire and raging seas they run
To catch the gilded shade, and sink undone!" (1)

What most interests me about Ishmael, though, is the religious awe he has of whales. Consider this passage:

In life, the visible surface of the Sperm Whale is not the least among the many marvels he presents. Almost invariably it is all over obliquely crossed and re-crossed with numberless straight marks in thick array, something like those in the finest Italian line engravings. But these marks do not seem to be impressed upon the isinglass substance above mentioned, but seem to be seen through it, as if they were engraved upon the body itself. Nor is this all. In some instances, to the quick, observant eye, those linear marks, as in a veritable engraving, but afford the ground for far other delineations. These are hieroglyphical; that is, if you call those mysterious cyphers on the walls of pyramids hieroglyphics, then that is the proper word to use in the present connexion. By my retentive memory of the hieroglyphics upon one Sperm Whale in particular, I was much struck with a plate representing the old Indian characters chiselled on the famous hieroglyphic palisades on the banks of the Upper Mississippi. Like those mystic rocks, too, the mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable.

By comparing whales to the Egyptian hieroglyphics, he’s giving these creatures an aura of wondrous mystique, making them magical and mysterious like gods. But perhaps not without some vanity, he also avails to himself the role of interpreter of their mysteries, for that is what Moby Dick is, one big holy book of whales, written with religious fervor. If doubts exist, the next lines couldn’t be less ambiguous. After quoting a traveler on a temple made of whale bones in Africa, Ishmael concludes:

In this Afric Temple of the Whale I leave you, reader, and if you be a Nantucketer, and a whaleman, you will silently worship there.

Ahab goes even further and likens the head of a dead captured whale to the ancient Sphinx. "Speak, thou vast and venerable head," he says, "which, though ungarnished with a beard, yet here and there lookest hoary with mosses; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee.”

When Ishmael isn’t discoursing on whales, the novel is about Ahab, a Gothic villain if I ever saw one. He has the intensity of Heathcliff and displays the same ruthlessness in his single-minded objective. Frankly he didn’t seem a human person to me. His rage has something owing to the childishness of the gods, it’s nearly superhuman and treads carefully the path that separates the tragic from the absurd. I’m with Starbuck when he says that it seems blasphemous to seek ‘vengeance on a dumb brute’ that took his leg ‘from blindest instinct! Madness!’

At one point I noticed that Ahab wasn’t so much a character as a voice. This was evident to me with Tolstoy’s characters still fresh in my memory, constructed as delicate and logical accumulations of behaviors, patterns, reflections, experiences, mistakes, disappointments shaping their consciousnesses over time. Ahab instead is all dialogue, he’s a tone, a mood sustained by rage, he’s theatrical (and Melville turns the novel into a play sometimes to show this), he barely acts, his persona is all in his words, in his incredible monologues. He’s the best Shakespearean character the Bard never wrote, strutting on Pequod’s deck as he journeys to his implacable fate. Let’s marvel at some of the lines Melville puts in his mouth:

“What I've dared, I've willed; and what I've willed, I'll do! They think me mad—Starbuck does; but I'm demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that's only calm to comprehend itself!”

Speak it aloud and savor the music of the words.

The next excerpt I hereby declare as the greatest speech of English-language literature:

"Starbuck, of late I've felt strangely 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 obeyest 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, yell 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—tomorrow will be the third. Aye, men, he'll rise once more,—but only to spout his last! D'ye feel brave men, brave?"

Ahab has so much charisma he keeps his crew under spell even when it’s clear he’s leading everyone to destruction. There’s a running theme of the individual versus the community in the novel. And the boat is an obvious metaphor for America, that much is clear in the ‘Knights and Squires’ chapter, when Ishmael lists the many nationalities (2) that constitute the ship’s crew, a truly international group bound together for a single purpose but also by comradeship and tolerance. Nor does Ishmael hide the fact that he has more sympathy for the crew “chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals” than for Ahab, guilty of ‘usurpation’ in his view, and whom “with perfect impunity, both moral and legal, his crew if so disposed, and to that end competent, could refuse all further obedience to him, and even violently wrest from him the command.” There is then also here a story of freedom and dictatorship, of democracy as part of America’s mythology. That Ahab manages to take the whole crew to the bottom of the ocean, including ‘poor Queequeg,’ Ishmael’s best friend, perhaps shows a pessimism on Melville’s side that the promises of democracy haven’t been realized.

If anything shows Ishmael’s love for democracy and tolerance, it’s his friendship with Queequeg. A native of Rokovoko (“It is not down in any map; true places never are.”), Ishmael initially fears him because he looks like a dangerous savage, always carrying around a tomahawk. In an early episode at an inn, he has share a bed with him and is afraid he’ll kill him, until Queequeg’s politeness disarms him:

"You gettee in," he added, motioning to me with his tomahawk, and throwing the clothes to one side. He really did this in not only a civil but a really kind and charitable way. I stood looking at him a moment. For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What's all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself—the man's a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.

From there on they become inseparable friends. He gently mocks some of his customs, like in the “Ramadan” chapter, where Queequeg feasts for days in an immobile position, but he also shows respect for his god, the little idol Yojo. Although there’s a tinge of the Noble Savage in Queequeg, Ishmael humanizes him. He even launches into a defense of cannibals:

Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal's jaw? Cannibals? who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy pate-de-foie-gras.
But Stubb, he eats the whale by its own light, does he? and that is adding insult to injury, is it? Look at your knife-handle, there, my civilized and enlightened gourmand dining off that roast beef, what is that handle made of?—what but the bones of the brother of the very ox you are eating? And what do you pick your teeth with, after devouring that fat goose? With a feather of the same fowl. And with what quill did the Secretary of the Society for the Suppression of Cruelty to Ganders formally indite his circulars? It is only within the last month or two that that society passed a resolution to patronise nothing but steel pens.

Tolstoy wrote of War and Peace that it was “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle." As someone who loved the novel, I do have to ask, what was he thinking when he wrote this? It’s clear to anyone that it’s a cross between the historical novel and the realistic novel championed by Balzac, with a dash of Romanticism thrown in. A handful of chapters about historiography don’t change the fact that it’s very conventional in form. As I was reading Moby Dick, I thought that it didn’t look like a novel at all, and yet it’s one of the most novelistic novels ever written. Here is the novel as an example of what Russian critic Mikhail Bakthin called the super-genre: the novel as a format that encompasses all other genres without losing its own identity. And Melville’s novel has everything: prose, song, memoir, monologues, an encyclopedia, shifts between third and first narrator, and the obliteration of narrator when the novel turns into theater. There’s a lot of Rabelais in this novel, of the freedom of the early novel before its structure fossilized into a type. Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel talks about how the novel could have taken a different course, how each innovation in the novel also meant shutting off many other possibilities. Melville gives here a glimpse of what the novel could have been. We can also see in his novel what José Saramago meant when he once said that he wrote the way he did, making little difference between fiction and essayism, because he wanted to return to the Renaissance novels that were great compendiums of human knowledge. Remarkably this doesn’t make the Moby Dick look like a relic but rather a 20th century novel closer to James Joyce than Tolstoy, a modernist novel ahead of its time. (3)

The novel is disjointed, yes, and Melville is fully aware of that because Moby Dick is also its own ars poetica. Melville is writing about writing Moby Dick. “God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!” says Ishmael. And indeed there is a sense of incompleteness in the novel, of things left unsaid. After so much foreshadowing about ‘poor Queequeg,’ for instance, he just disappears in the last fifty pages, never mentioned in Ahab’s final fight with the white whale. When Melville is telling a story it seems his heart is not in the writing. It’s only when Ishmael is on the page, discoursing about obscure whale trivia in his unique way, that the author is having fun. Ishmael is a garrulous, verbose, passionate narrator and one of the friendliest companions a reader will ever have in a novel.

These are my thoughts about a novel I didn’t like very much.

1. Translated by William Julius Mickle (1735-1788). Richard Francis Burton is the author of a more famous one, but I couldn’t find it.

2. The day after I finished reading the novel, I was in the car on my way to the beach when a radio program starts. It was about the old Azorean whalemen, who fished whales in the Atlantic until the 1980s when Portugal banned whale-fishing. Ishmael mentions the Azoreans in his roll-call. I thought it was a neat coincidence.

3. Moby Dick received mixed reviews in its time. It wasn’t until the 1920s, with the advent of Modernism, that its consecration began. Critical success had to wait until there was a new generation of readers and writers ready to understand and appreciate its innovations.


  1. Great commentary as usual Miguel. Moby Dick is one of my favorite works. I admit that it can be very difficult book to swallow.

    As you allude to there are so many themes here. You wrote,

    "That Ahab manages to take the whole crew to the bottom of the ocean, including ‘poor Queequeg,’ Ishmael’s best friend, perhaps shows a pessimism on Melville’s side that the promises of democracy haven’t been realized."

    I absolutely agree. I also think that it is more then just Democracy that Melville is being pessimistic about here. He may also be exploring the futility inherent in the human quest for knowledge, religion, general human endeavor, and who knows what else!

    1. Yes, Ahab's chase of Moby Dick works as a metaphor for any pursuit, wanting something so bad it leads to one's own destruction, even for the pointlessness of life, pursuing something and not being satisfied with it. It makes me think of Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe.

  2. Though it's been years since I've read it (again), I loved Moby Dick. It's so...weird - so singular a thing in American literature. Have you read D. H. Lawrence's essay on Moby Dick? It's nearly as memorable as the novel itself.

    1. Nope, not very well read on D.H. Lawrence. What does he say about Moby Dick?

  3. This post would be an award-winner, if there were awards for such things, which there should not be. But if there were...

    My last run through this novel ended up taking a highly mythological turn, with a sun-worshiping Ahab in the service of Yahweh and Ishmael as an ally of the water god (just as you have it), of whom Leviathan is also a servant. Weirdly, this is all in the text. Maybe everything is in the text.

    I do not remember the engraved whale at all, which is embarrassing since it is part of a theme that includes Queequeg's tattoos, the most Borgesian part of the book - which text are we supposed to be reading? Perhaps I should be reading the whale, not the novel. If I only could.

    So many good points at the end of the post. I'll just slide past them.

    It amazes me now how weird this whole period of fiction was in the U.S. I mean the good stuff - Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Walden, Whitman, Dickinson - so much weirdness.

    1. Eh, I didn't see the connection between the hieroglyphs and the tattoos - good call, Tom. It's not just Borgesian, it's also reminiscent of Kafka's "In The Penal Colony."

      Yes, this period in American literature was singular, as a prose writer Melville towers over everyone, especially Poe.