Moby Dick   Leave a comment

At such times, under an abated sun; afloat all day upon smooth, slow heaving swells; seated in his boat, light as a birch canoe; and so sociably mixing with the soft waves themselves, that like hearth-stone cats they purr against the gunwale; these are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang. 

Herman Melville is not an easy author. He is capable of great beauty in language, as per the above, but he is far more fond of terrible droning about his esoteric interests… which, in the case of Moby Dick, is whales, whales, and more whales.

I get it. Melville was a whaler, and he obviously fell in love with the pursuit and the prey of whaling. There are several instances in the book where you can hear Ishmael speaking in Melville’s voice: at one point, he chides captains not to put meditative people on the lookout post, because it’s the ideal place for introspective day-dreaming, and whales could be fluttering all over the horizon and these dreamers would be none the wiser. I get it. He loved whales and whaling, and Moby Dick is his gift to the world to put whaling on the pedestal it deserves.

Unfortunately, this gift is blubber-wrapped shit.

“But this is an American Classic!” So it is, and it’s classics like these that make children curse their literacy. Melville did do something amazing with Moby Dick, but it’s nothing he intended; he managed to make the story of one man’s obsessive quest for revenge, playing out over the seven seas, where no man, beast, or God could stand in his way into something boring! One would be fair in assuming, that, with this style of work, you could expect lots of action, or, at the very least, deep delving into the nature of obsession and vengeance. Instead, Melville offers us a personal encyclopedia entry for the types of whales he’s encountered, and how he thinks they should be classified among species and each other. Instead of exploring the politics of the ship’s crew, where men from all walks of life will be living together (conceivably) for several years, we get superficial character sketches and far more pages of text devoted to rope purposes and locations on small, row-able, whaling craft.

We should be thankful for one aspect of Moby Dick. In Melville’s constant talk of rope, he reminds his readers that there is still a way out, and that, were he with you, he would have no problem tying the knot to get your job done. 

I have a good eye for language. I have no problem reading past the words on the page into the realm of the symbolism and metaphor. Speaking objectively, I admit it’s possible that my sheer boredom with the book blinded me to it’s greater symbolism. But I don’t think so. The book I read had a little over 600 pages. I swear to you, you could safely cut at least 200 pages right out of the book, and while you may be sacrificing the occasional motif set-ups, you would sacrifice little story and enhance the meaning of what remains. It’s very tedious to hear someone speak about sperm-whale this, sperm-whale that… and then repeat almost verbatim the same shit but involving multiple other kinds of whales. Again, I get it. Melville wanted to bring whaling home to the greater audience of the American public, but instead of making me want to harpoon a whale, I want to harpoon Melville and break his writing hand.

Now, I think I’ve established that I didn’t, on the whole, enjoy this book. However, it wouldn’t be fair to say I hated the whole thing… it’s probably the most frustrating aspect of the book, but it can be brisk and entertaining. Ismael and Queequeg meet as complete aliens to each other, socially and culturally. However, in a very short time they become very affectionate and close to one another, and that entire turnaround is handled deftly and succinctly. In addition, the Sermon of Father Mapples (youtube the scene from the Gregory Peck movie, Father Mapples is played amazingly by Orson Welles), is a fantastic confluence of religious and oceanic imagery (come to think of it, the part of the book that occurs on land might be the most efficient part of the book). Also, the other bookend of the book, Ahab finally getting close to Moby Dick, plays straight and readily enough. It’s that horrible middle, where eyes glaze, and words roll off the page like so much blubber from the skin of a sperm-whale, that the story flounders like the sails of a ship in windless seas.

I’ll give Moby Dick three stars. If you can stomach the tedium, there are some excellent passages that can move you. In addition, you do have to give props to the guys who actually did this shit for a living, as it seems like anything but an easy job. But at the end of the day, there are just too many problems with the book to move it any closer to “masterpiece” level.


Posted April 19, 2012 by fatmoron in Uncategorized

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