An erudite adventure story whose progress is slowed by digressions on the art and science of whaling.
I first read this book in 1980. Conscious of reading a classic, and not wanting to miss any more than I had to, I read it slowly, checking each page against Harold Beaver’s extensive notes on the text; and, following this painstaking method, I enjoyed the book hugely. The unhurried pace of the story, combined with its feeling of symbolic depth, made it ideal for reflective savoring along the way, even as the story itself was as straight-up a yarn of manly derring-do as you could ask for. Just as the samurai sword gained its renown by combining in itself the antithetical qualities of hardness and flexibility, so Moby Dick fascinates the reader by combining the romance of nautical adventure with a sense of metaphysical depth.
This second reading I undertook as part of my progress through the Britannica Great Books of the Western World set, and, staying true to the philosophy of that set, I read the novel without looking at any of the accompanying material in the text (apart from reading the 2-page biography of Melville in the Britannica volume). The Great Books are published without commentary, so that the reader can engage directly with the work itself, and form his own impressions uncolored by the scholarship and opinions of experts. And, reading the novel with this less laborious approach, I again enjoyed it.
However, I found that I enjoyed it less than the first time. This will no doubt be partly because I missed the wealth of background and association provided by Harold Beaver, but it was also because I found myself less tolerant of the interruptions in the flow of the story. For the narrator, an experienced seaman but novice whaler named Ishmael, breaks off his narrative at many points to expound upon aspects of whales and the whale fishery. Indeed, there is something obsessive in his fascination with the industry of which he is no longer a part, and as I type these words I realize that his obsession is no doubt a reflection of the obsession of his old skipper, Captain Ahab.
Captain Ahab, the true protagonist of the story, is one of the most famous literary characters ever created. And like all the great characters, he embodies a particular passion. For, just as Homer’s Achilles embodies resentment and Othello embodies jealousy and Ebenezer Scrooge embodies avarice and Scarlett O’Hara embodies envy, Captain Ahab embodies vengefulness. For the captain of the Pequod lost his leg to the Great White Whale named Moby Dick (a name usually spelled without hyphen throughout the book) on a previous voyage, and, in a fishery where the loss of body parts is commonplace, he is not able to let this go; he takes it personally. He holds Moby Dick accountable, and he intends to settle the score.
Ahab’s presence casts a pall of brooding mystery over the ship long before the man himself appears. For he remains hidden in his cabin while the Pequod gets under way, not emerging until they are long out of sight of land. He walks on a peg that is itself made of whalebone, anchoring it in specially drilled holes in the deck so that he can stand steady watch. And soon it becomes clear that, with Ahab in charge, the Pequod is engaged in no ordinary whaling venture; for Ahab no longer cares about whales; he cares about one whale, and he swears his entire crew to this same quest: to find and kill Moby Dick.
Not all the crew agrees with this obsessive mission. The first mate, Starbuck (and yes his name is the source of the name of the famous coffee chain), sane and rational, wants none of it. The friction between these men generates sparks in the course of the voyage.
The story is a true romance, an adventure as exotic as can be in just about every way. For not only does the Pequod set out for the most remote and unknown places on planet Earth, the whale fishery itself is a strange and daunting one in the nautical world, and the crew of the Pequod are an assemblage of some of the most diverse progeny of Noah. For the three harpooners who first set out with the ship are Queequeg the Maori, a freed black slave, and an American Indianall powerful, imposing, fearless, dark-skinned men. (A fourth, secret, harpooner emerges along with Ahab: a Parsee from India.) Ahab’s monomania notwithstanding, they do engage in plenty of whaling along the way as they hunt for Moby Dick, and the reader is treated to many stunning spectacles, all made credible by the fact that Melville himself had been a whaler and had seen it all first-hand. Ishmael’s first time out in a dinghy to chase a pod of whales proves traumatic, and, having survived, he is able to gain peace of mind only by writing his last will and testament.
The story of Moby Dick is simple, but riveting and brilliant. But, too often I felt, Melville puts his story on pause while he spends a chapter or two or three discussing the details of cetology and the whaling industry. These things are interesting, but I was reminded of reading Tolstoy’s theoretical digressions in War and Peace: they get in the way of the story. On my first reading in 1980, I was not bothered by this because I was taking a leisurely approach to the work as a whole. But this time I became impatient with it.
One interesting point is the perspective brought by the change in time. For whaling is now essentially a banned industry in international waters, and we now know that whales of all kinds are highly intelligent mammals. The whales being chased by the men of the Pequod were still mostly a mystery to the men; Ishmael, studying all the available evidence, decides that the whale is indeed a fish, and not anything else. But he also sees that whales have feelings and intentions. I felt great sadness as the whales were hunted and killed, and I was incredulous that the men were so surprised and even resentful when whales turned on them in anger.
It’s a powerful novel, and deserves its place on the list of Great Books. It is shot through with symbol and myth. Who or what is Moby Dick, exactly? The sea monster Leviathan was present at Creation, apparently, and plays an important role in the Book of Job, which Northrop Frye regarded as the epitome of the narrative of the Bible. Right now I’m reading Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, which image he uses to depict the great beast of the commonwealth, made up of individuals. The meanings and echoes are many. There is an intelligent power of Otherness out there, it seems to be saying. Maybe it’s malevolent, or maybe it’s just mirroring our own malevolence to us, for no whale after all ever came on land to stick us with harpoons; that was our idea.
In short, this book got me thinking, and I take that to be only a good thing. I will no doubt read it again, but I expect it will be with commentaries switched on.