Thursday, December 22, 2011

Review: Moby Dick

Moby Dick

From Moby Dick, or, the whale, by Herman Melville:

Open quote 

I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts."

A few days ago, in my review of The Art of Fielding, I recommended that you also read Moby Dick. That wasn't just a perfunctory compliment to a classic novel everyone thinks they know already, but if they ever read it at all, it was probably way back in high school. No, I really mean it's worth dusting off and reading Moby Dick again. And just to show that I wouldn't ask you to do something I wouldn't do myself, I've been re-reading Moby Dick.

After the jump, my review and excerpts.

Moby Dick was published in 1851. Some call it the Great American Novel. I won't insist on that nor deny it. Moby Dick is an adventure story. It's a psychology study of monomania. It's poetry and philosophy and theology. It's a treatise on whales and whaling. It's a revealing portrait of American life in the early 1800s. It's this latter identity that struck me most in my first reading of Moby Dick in decades.

The crew of the Pequod is quintessentially American -- that is, it's made up of people from all over the Earth -- Americans, Europeans, South Seas Islanders. It's made up of Christians, Muslims and Pagans. Ishmael, the narrator, has the quintessential American value of tolerance. Maybe that's related to serving three years on a sea voyage on a whaler. Either you all get along or you all don't survive. The same attitude serves American society in general as well.

Still, the Pequod's crew doesn't survive. But it's not due to divisions within the ranks. It's due to single-minded obsession by the captain. There is a difference between Good and Evil, but the roles are not always played by the characters we like to think. Sometimes Evil is within.


"'Clap eye on Captain Ahab, young man, and thou wilt find that he has only one leg.' 'What do you mean, sir? Was the other one lost by a whale?' 'Lost by a whale! Young man, come nearer to me: it was devoured, chewed up, crunched by the monstrousest parmacetty that ever chipped a boat!'"

"I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody's religious obligations, never mind how comical, and could not find it in my heart to undervalue even a congregation of ants worshipping a toad-stool; or those other creatures in certain parts of our earth, who with a degree of footmanism quite unprecedented in other planets, bow down before the torso of a deceased landed proprietor merely on account of the inordinate possessions yet owned and rented in his name. I say, we good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things, and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals, pagans and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits on these subjects. There was Queequeg, now, certainly entertaining the most absurd notions about Yojo and his Ramadan; -- but what of that? Queequeg thought he knew what he was about, I suppose; he seemed to be content; and there let him rest. All our arguing with him would not avail; let him be, I say: and Heaven have mercy on us all -- Presbyterians and Pagans alike -- for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending."

"Hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling."

"In the serene weather of the tropics it is exceedingly pleasant the mast-head; nay, to a dreamy meditative man it is delightful. There you stand, a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts, while beneath you and between your legs, as it were, swim the hugest monsters of the sea, even as ships once sailed between the boots of the famous Colossus at old Rhodes. There you stand, lost in the infinite series of the sea, with nothing ruffled but the waves."

"'Aye, Starbuck; aye, my hearties all round; it was Moby Dick that dismasted me; Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now. Aye, aye,' he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose; 'Aye, aye! it was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!'"

"'D'ye mark him, Flask?' whispered Stubb; 'the chick that's in him pecks the shell. 'Twill soon be out.'"

"'Aye, aye! and I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out."

"So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory."

"There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody's expense but his own."

"And had you watched Ahab's face that night, you would have thought that in him also two different things were warring. While his one live leg made lively echoes along the deck, every stroke of his dead limb sounded like a coffin-tap. On life and death this old man walked."

"By these means, the circumnavigating Pequod would sweep almost all the known Sperm Whale cruising grounds of the world, previous to descending upon the Line in the Pacific; where Ahab, though everywhere else foiled in his pursuit, firmly counted upon giving battle to Moby Dick, in the sea he was most known to frequent; and at a season when he might most reasonably be presumed to be haunting it."

"A sweet and unctuous duty! No wonder that in old times this sperm was such a favourite cosmetic. Such a clearer! such a sweetener! such a softener! such a delicious molifier! After having my hands in it for only a few minutes, my fingers felt like eels, and began, as it were, to serpentine and spiralise."

"The rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul."

"'There she blows! -- there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!'"

"The glittering mouth yawned beneath the boat like an open-doored marble tomb; and giving one sidelong sweep with his steering oar, Ahab whirled the craft aside from this tremendous apparition."

"'Aye, breach your last to the sun, Moby Dick!' cried Ahab, 'thy hour and thy harpoon are at hand!'"

"The White Whale churning himself into furious speed, almost in an instant as it were, rushing among the boats with open jaws, and a lashing tail, offered appalling battle on every side; and heedless of the irons darted at him from every boat, seemed only intent on annihilating each separate plank of which those boats were made."

"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."

"Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect, and spite of all that mortal man could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship's starboard bow, till men and timbers reeled."

"Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago."

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