Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Images from leftist artist Rockwell Kent's 1930 illustrated version of Moby-Dick, which was sold through the Book-of-the-Month Club and revived the book's popularity. Kent was asked to do a version of Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, but proposed the Melville classic instead. Weirdly enough, the cover of this version did not credit Melville (is Moby-Dick himself the author? V. fitting).

Title: Moby-Dick, or, The Whale (1851). I read the Penguin Classics edition, introduced by Andrew Delbanco.

Author: Herman Melville, 1819-1891. It's sad to think how early in his life he wrote this amazing book, and how anti-climatically it was received. Melville's first couple of books, which were more conventional adventure stories, got a degree of popular acclaim, but Moby-Dick didn't sit so well with the type of readers who had gone for his more salty (sorry) stuff. Melville saw a revival in the 1920s, spearheaded by the writing of several biographies (Lewis Mumford wrote one in 1929! was there anything the Mum couldn't do?), as well as the belated publication of Billy Budd, Sailor in 1924. See above caption for info about the popular revival of Moby-Dick. There have also been a couple of film version of this book, including one made in 1930 and one in 1956, directed by John Huston and script-written by Ray Bradbury, which I would really like to see.

Some words: This book was totally wasted on seventeen-year-old me the first time I read it. It's a fever dream, it's obsessive, it's beautiful, it's funny and very sad.

I appreciated Andrew Delbanco's introduction for a number of reasons, but I most profited by keeping in mind his comment about the looseness of the narrative form. He writes that there are times in the novel when there's no way that Ishmael can still be the narrator, in the traditional first-person sense, and the reader must give up on wondering "How could Ishmael know what Ahab said to himself in the belowdecks...or what Starbuck said to Ahab in private conversations..." etc.

Forewarned, I pictured the narrative more as Ishmael's scrapbook on the fall of the Pequod, a series of texts, accounts of things he witnessed, reports of his studies, but also things he might have imagined or foreseen or projected. (I suppose you could also look at the book as alternating between first and third person narrators, but I think my way is more fun.)

I kept a list of the different narrative forms that these small texts/chapters took, and I came up with: Dramatic script or soliloquy; affadavit; natural history (these were the chapters on the whale's anatomy, which I thought were hundreds of pages long when I was in high school reading this, but were actually much shorter); adventure story; yarn-within-a-story, a la Heart of Darkness (the chapter on the Town-Ho!); Emersonian essay (the amazing "Whiteness of the Whale"); object study resulting in multiplicity of character perspectives (the chapter in which each character reacts to the doubloon pounded into the mast); and horror story (the appearance of the dead Parsee, lashed to Moby-Dick's back and staring at Ahab, was an indelible image worthy of Poe). This is a very postmodern book, perhaps. I'm sure somebody has written on that.

I am going to forebear to comment too much on the questions of what Moby-Dick means for America or American literature, since I'm pretty sure a couple of the authors I have yet to read will do that, but I am interested to know if anyone has written an ecocritical or animal-studies analysis of the book. The chapter on the possible future extinction of the whale (in which Ishmael points to the buffalo, who, he argues in 1851, are commonly slaughtered without going extinct, as evidence of the whale's similar ability to withstand constant culling - heh) is one candidate for an analysis, but I also kept fixating on how Ishmael constantly points out how ironic it is that the whale lights the scene of his own slaughter. There's something here about the way that the body of the animal is made to betray itself, and how the nineteenth-century character sees this as somehow grotesque yet inevitable.

Also, the entire project of Moby-Dick could be seen as a forced re-marriage of production and consumption; during a time in which whale oil is used to light the ceremonies and celebrations of humanity, Ishmael writes, fewer and fewer humans seem to understand the risks and death involved in the killing of whales (risks and death both for the whales and the humans). The chapters on the floating factory that is the Pequod after a kill point toward a sort of a Jungle for the whaling industry, but with a less activist slant - it seems as though Ishmael simply wants the landlubber to realize the ultimate madness of technological achievement that their desires can stimulate.

In a way, the madness of Ahab is the ultimate extension of an endeavor (whale-hunting) which comes about because of the mad strivings of humanity. Even Starbuck (aka reasonableness/rationality) is unable to stop it. The human bond, as between Ahab and Starbuck, is finally unable to slow down Ahab's mad desires - after Ahab bids Starbuck to come close and "let [him] look into a human eye", which gaze is "better than to gaze upon God" (591), the bond that's created doesn't stop Ahab from continuing, but seems rather to seal Starbuck's fate. The first mate is unable to make a moral stand against Ahab's madness, because he sees Ahab's humanity. So, Melville says, we are all complicit in allowing each other to run amuck with doing and fixing and pushing and achieving.

Other books I've read which analyze this one: In Aaron Sachs, The Humboldt Current, he points to both Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1938) and the writings of J.N. Reynolds (most prominently the story "Mocha-Dick" [1839]) which he describes as antecedents to Moby-Dick. Leo Marx's Machine in the Garden juxtaposes the chapter in which Ishmael sits on the masthead and meditates on the meaning of life and the dirty, dark production chapters, in order to show the conflict in American life between lofty transcendentalism and the underpinnings of capitalism and material progress.

Vocab words: "puissant" ("possessed of or wielding power"); "poniard" ("a small, slim dagger"); "tierce" ("a third part").

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