Moby Dick by Herman Melville

My challenge towards the end of the year is to read some of those books I bought with lofty ideals in mind only to place them on my shelf like so much high-brow decoration. When I first conceived of this approach, Moby Dick was the first book I thought of. I bought Moby Dick years ago; I’d like to say I bought Moby Dick because it’s a master work of American literature and I was desperate to read the story of Ahab and his doomed hunt for the infamous white whale, but the fact is that I watched Star Trek First Contact many times and was highly influenced by Patrick Stewart’s masterful quoting of the book. For those (possibly many) among you who have never seen First Contact, the story goes something like this: the Borg attack Earth (the Borg are a race of cybernetic beings comprised of people forced into the collective by means of cybernetic alteration, operating as a hive-mind in which the assimilated are effectively mindless drones). The Enterprise attack the Borg, destroying their cube-shaped ship. The Borg eject an inner ship which is lovely and spherical and which travels through time to alter Earth’s history by preventing the invention of warp drive. The Enterprise follows. The Enterprise is overrun by Borg. Resistance is futile! Captain Picard was once assimilated by the Borg (Locutus of Borg). Captain Picard goes a bit crazy trying to kill all the Borg including his assimilated crew members (Ensign Lynch!). When trying to protect the developing warp ship an Earth woman is injured and brought to the Enterprise. She is called Lily (and she is awesome). When Captain Picard decides that rather than having all their biological and technological distinctiveness added to the Borg’s own his crew should fight to the death or the assimilation, whichever comes first, in a scene which is singularly captivating (for a Star Trek movie) Lily confronts Picard demanding they evacuate and Picard should ‘blow up the damn ship!’. Picard refuses, gets angry and breaks his Enterprise model collection: This far, no further!” he spits. Here Lily retorts: “Captain Ahab gotta go hunt his whale,” in response to which Picard reflects and replies, in his gorgeous well-trained Shakespearean actor’s voice, “And he piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race. If his chest had been a cannon, he would have shot his heart upon it,” and the whole scene is utterly compelling and memorable and reflective of Star Trek’s many dalliances with Moby Dick and I bought the book shortly afterwards absolutely sure that unlike Lily, who admits post fight “actually I never read it,” that I would certainly read it, then I never did.

Yet this doth no more be true! Avast! Here be the livid tale of monomaniac Ahab and his hunt for that malicious white whale!

I approached Moby Dick with some trepidation, having heard so many conflicting things about it. I have heard it is considered a master work of American literature, but I have also heard tell of its strange digressions into whale-lore and its myriad of spurious information about whaling and whales in general. To my surprise, then, the opening segment of the book is both interesting and compelling, quite an easy read in fact, serving as an introduction to our narrator “Call me Ishmael” and his friendship with the ‘savage’ Queequeg, and how this led them to the Pequod and the strange and disturbing voyage in hunt of the mystical white whale. Ishmael is a naïve and green sort of whaler. He has been to sea before, albeit not on a whaling ship. Queequeg, on the other hand, is an experienced harpooner. Having been thrust together in unusual circumstances at an inn, Ishmael is rather wary of the ‘savage’ Queequeg being fearful of his unusual (to Western minds) ways, but when the cannibalistic Queequeg doesn’t eat him or stab him in his sleep he’s won over and the two become firm friends:

“No more Image result for moby dick book covermy splintered head and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it. There he sat, his very indifference speaking a nature in which there lurked no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits. Wild he was; a very sight of sights to see; yet I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn towards him. And those same things that would have repelled most others, they were the very magnets that drew me. I’ll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.”

Having become friends the two commit to a life of whaling together, and Queequeg foolishly entrusts Ishmael to choose the craft on their behalf. Ishmael signs up for the Pequod having not even met the captain and on decidedly rubbishy terms. Having done so, Queequeg is soon signed up too, and despite some bizarre warnings from a strange and oddly unexplained bystander called Elijah (whose ramblings I never understood and neither, it seems, does Ishmael) the two embark on their voyage. Henceforth matters take a stranger turn. The Captain, whose character has such influence over the lives and wellbeing of his crew, is mysteriously absent and in fact does not appear until around page 100 at which point he inspires his crew to swear an oath to aid him in his hunt for the vicious white whale who tore his leg from him on his last voyage, an act for which Ahab has sworn certain revenge. In examining Ahab’s monomaniacal nature (and that word ‘monomaniac’ appears often), Melville opines thus:

“He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”

Double-triple take, as these are the very lines the temporarily, and rather out of character, monomaniacal Captain Picard speaks but with different words entirely! After a little internet research I find, in fact, that the illustrious and most confident Picard has misquoted and, thus, forever in my eyes stained his otherwise unimpeachable character. I can only infer that his mind was temporarily addled by anti-Borgish rage. Or he read the Klingon translation. Otherwise I can’t account for it.

What follows is a most unusual work of fiction. Those portents of excessive whale-lore and random snippets of information were not entirely inaccurate (read: completely accurate). Over the next several hundred pages the book swings between the story of the voyage of the Pequod and a ‘how to’ guide on whaling. In fact, it’s about 90% how to guide and about 10% story. Thus we learn all about harpoons and the trying room, how to capture whales, what the difference is between Sperm Whales and Right Whales; why whales are fish (this whole chapter was quite funny); the unbearable whiteness of being (not so funny); how to harvest oil from whales; how whales behave; how big whales are; why contemporary whales are no smaller than ancient whales; awesome whalers (Perseus, St. George, Hercules, Jonah and Vishnoo…the latter of which is considered a whaler because legend tells he turned into a whale. Hmm); pitchpoling; the whales’ spout; the whales’ tail; the whales’ enormous battering ram of a head, lots and lots of mentions of sperm. You get the picture, it’s a lot of information about whales. In fact I think it is fair to say that at its heart, Moby Dick is a non-fiction book about whaling with a short story about a man’s maniacal hunt for a whale that, perhaps quite righteously, defended itself from being murdered by a ship-full of men intent on stripping its body of its valuable (to humans, though arguably more so to the whale) oil kind of stretched around it. And in case that’s not a strange enough pairing, there’s a little bit of theatre thrown in as well as Melville tries his hand at a bit of playwrighting now and then. It’s a bit of a strange blend.

As sparse as the story elements are, Moby Dick himself is an even sparser participant in the book, appearing only as myth and legend until the last 30 or so pages, but instead we experience lots of other whales meeting a violent and gory end either as an interlude to the whale-lore calculated to maintain interest, or as a way of introducing more whale-lore. Like here, which led to lots of follow up discussion about the nature of a whale’s eyes and visual acuity:

“As the boats now more closely surrounded him, the whole upper part of his form, with much of it that is ordinarily submerged, was plainly revealed. His eyes, or rather the places where his eyes had been, were beheld. As strange misgrown masses gather in the knot-holes of the noblest oaks when prostrate, so from the points which the whale’s eyes had once occupied, now protruded blind bulbs, horrible pitiable to see. But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-making of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.”

Thus Moby Dick evolves from a textbook about whales with a bit of fictional story-telling and the odd smattering of play-scripting thrown in to a polemic aiming to ennoble the whalers who risk life and limb to keep those gay bridals and churches lit long into the evening. To modern sensibilities this might be a little difficult to swallow for whilst Melville assures his deep certainty that the whales could not be driven to extinction by whaling, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight we know better and the ‘noble’ art of whaling is a difficult art to sell. Yet Melville does make an important point which is this: our comforts are bought at a terrible price and perhaps it is important, at least, to understand what that price is. This he lays out in forensic, some might say excessive, detail.

Moby Dick is a strange, strange book. It is long, dense and often difficult to follow. There are large sections of what is pure non-fiction, an instruction manual on whales and the art of whaling wrapped around a short gothic horror story of a man bent on destruction and revenge without a care of who gets caught up in his monomaniacal plan. Ishmael, our promising narrator, appears to be a man without character and who barely acts in the story at all. He is the storyteller, but his role as a participant on the ship is as invisible as a whale’s spout in a thick sea-mist, in fact he is barely there at all. He is, rather, the convenient mouthpiece of Melville, a mechanism through which he can impart his knowledge of whaling. Despite the initial promise in exploring the friendship of Ishmael and Queequeg on land, that all but disappears once they set to sea. Ahab himself barely appears, and when he does his actions are often incomprehensible or presented through strange little expositionary chapters in which Ahab appears to speak to camera, if such a thing existed in Melville’s era. Moby Dick is even more elusive, or perhaps that is the point, perhaps to allow him greater scope to exist in the story would be to throw Ahab’s crazed obsession with revenge into an even more negative light. Of the side characters, the ship’s mate Starbuck is one of the few who have any substance, whilst the other mates – Stubb and Flask – appear to be comic interludes except their drivelling monologues were lost on this modern, non-seafaring reader. In fact whenever Stubb had a chapter devoted to him I was highly tempted to skip it though I didn’t (but much was largely lost on me anyway).

Despite these many criticisms, Moby Dick is also a weirdly compelling book. It doesn’t fit together very well, it is bombastic and sometimes full of drivel, sadly lacking in character or character interaction (barring Ahab and Starbuck who pass some interesting turns). The final confrontation with Moby Dick beggars belief – think Jaws but a whale – whilst ending unexpectedly abruptly. Yet there is still something highly interesting about it. It is as though Melville had this marvellous idea to write a book about whaling but, realising it wouldn’t sell, thinly veiled it in a fictional narrative following a bunch of mismatched characters embarking on a doomed adventure. It didn’t feel to me like he exactly pulled it off, but what he tried to do was quite innovative and there was enough story, running through what would otherwise be a textbook, or a tract of whaling philosophy, to keep the interest flowing. Running in at 478 pages long this would be an easy book to give up on and set aside, but despite my many reservations, and the occasions when I found myself laughing aloud at Melville’s misguided (to modern eyes) opinions, or being appalled by the slightly more frequent casual racism, I never quite felt like giving up on it. It is personable, honest and true in a way I cannot quite describe nor give explanation to. I’m not sure I could say I enjoyed it, nor that I considered myself sold on the idea of it being the ‘great work’ of American fiction it is often lauded to be, but it is innovative and different and it represents a kind of way of being which is (perhaps happily) largely lost to us now and it represents faithfully an age and a type of living which would otherwise be no more than a nasty idea without Melville’s well-intentioned ministrations on its behalf. And through this twisty-turny story Melville reveals something important: the idea that whilst we may seek to destroy what we perceive as monsters outside ourselves (Moby Dick), the true monster is our own rage and pride and need for revenge, for it is Ahab that is the true monster of this story. Ahab and his limitless rage and madness and his willingness to destroy everything that stands between him and the satisfaction of his vengeful dream. It is a message that is as true now as it ever has been; we may not be able to stop the Moby Dicks and the Ahabs that surround us, but we can prevent ourselves becoming an Ahab in our own part and this, I think, is what makes Moby Dick a book that transcends its time and context, and is why it is a book that remains relevant and important to this day. Or maybe people are just more interested in whale-lore than I realised. Or easily influenced by sci-fi movies. Who knows?

And on the Star Trek front I can happily report that whilst Captain Picard failed to accurately represent Moby Dick the villainous Khan did not, for a mere spitting distance (ha ha) from the end I read this: “from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”  which I recognised from that memorable and yet slightly silly end battle in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, spat from the twisted lips of Ricardo Montalban on a bad hair day, and I felt like, perhaps, Star Trek had brought me honestly to Moby Dick afterall; and having reaped that meagre reward I could, in good conscience, finally let it go.

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About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
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9 Responses to Moby Dick by Herman Melville

  1. There can’t be many reviews out there that manage to link Startrek with Moby Dick! I’m afraid I was one of those who put it aside. I couldn’t seem to find a way into it. Congratulations on seeing it through.

    • bookbii says:

      Unfortunately it’s not that hard to link Star Trek and Moby Dick because the creators of Star Trek are obsessed with Melville’s creation. I’ve no idea why. It’s such an odd book. I’m ‘glad’ I read it, but equally glad not to have to read it again.

  2. Read this as an undergraduate many years ago – hugely impressed. Must reread

    • bookbii says:

      I’d love to hear what you think of it if you do re-read it Simon. I’m still on the fence. I can see why it is considered a great, but even as a closet mariner (okay, marine insurer. It’s close enough) some of the intense factual detail was still too much for me.

  3. JacquiWine says:

    I admire you for taking on this classic, I really do In spite of your reservations around certain aspects, it sounds as though you got a lot out of the experience. That’s encouraging to hear.

  4. SimplyMe says:

    “Melville does make an important point which is this: our comforts are bought at a terrible price and perhaps it is important, at least, to understand what that price is.” Given I live in a resource-based community, there is never a year that individuals do not lose their lives in the logging or fishing industry. It is the case, then, that not only our luxuries, but also those things which we deem necessities can cost far more than we normally assume, not only in terms of the environment and the other forms of living beings which inhabit it, but also with respect to our own species. People here readily accept that death is a part of life in a way that I find impressive. Deep bonds are formed among those who work in these jobs (in part, I suspect, because they know they will be turning to one another in times of peril and grief).
    On a lighter note, given I also live in close proximity to whales, seeing them evokes feelings of power and beauty and unity, the latter because one senses a certain constant communication between each and all in a pod.
    I’ll pass on reading Melville at the moment, but I am, as always, so grateful for your thoughts.

    • bookbii says:

      How wonderful to live in close proximity to whales. I have never seen a whale, and can only imagine how extraordinary it must be. There is something special about them. I’m very glad we’ve stopped killing them for oil; it is one of the more disturbing aspects of the book.

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