Sunday, July 26, 2009

What is it about Moby Dick?

I received an email from my Mother. She has a friend who is reading one of my favourite books – Moby Dick – for a book club selection. She wanted to know why I loved it. I haven't really thought about it that much in definable terms, so I kind of got into my reasoning a bit. It's not a very good literary critique, but I thought it was worth posting nonetheless.

Hi Val,

Mom tells me you're reading Moby Dick for you book club and that you are curious why it's one of my favourite books. (NOTE: This explanation got a little bit away from me, and ended up turning into a really crappy turgid essay. A literary critique that would have my University professors giving me retroactive fails. But it was fun to focus my thoughts a bit. I suspect I'll have to answer the basic question again someday.)

For starters, let's take the basic story-line. A lot of people complain that the book is too complex. And there is an awful lot going on on various levels, but when it comes right down to it, the essential narrative is quite simple and it's fairly simply presented. Many people, myself included quickly tire of the florid writing of anything written before the early 20th C. but I don't find that Moby Dick goes far in that direction. Perhaps that it's a North American novel – and thus written in a more colloquial form of English – is the reason why. Certainly the traditional image of 'classic literature' is more likely to be written on the other side of the Atlantic. I'm getting off point... The story itself is really very simple, and I think on that basis arguments of its complexity are easily cast aside.

Perhaps it's a testosterone thing, but naval adventure itself has a certain visceral effect on me, and evidence suggests I'm not alone.

But to take the book simply as a naval adventure is to do it an obvious disservice. It's hard to talk about the book without defining its two major elements as separate structural pieces and dealing with each as its own entity.

I'll come back to the narrative after I've dealt with what I think of as the 'documentary' chapters. It actually amazed me when I re-read the novel just how late in the book the documentary chapters begin – somewhere in the forties if I'm not mistaken. They are such an important part of what I love about the book. The precision with which Melville itemizes the aspects of whaling and breaks down the minutiae is for me the most fascinating thing about the novel, and I believe it was one of the most interesting parts of the book when it was published (serially, if I'm not mistaken). Whaling was at the time a very important industry and 'on the radar' of most if not all people – yet unless it was something one had embarked upon, it was an industry that was largely un-illuminated in its detail. All the most essential aspects of it occurred out on the sea, well out of the awareness of the common person and amongst a demographic sub-set which was not known for its public availability. When the book was written it was opening up a new world to people via the story and plumbing detail with the documentary chapters. Compare that to today where whaling is caught between being a dead industry and a criminal act and we get to examine a very different world than our own.

That latter thought is taken to greater/more-specific detail when we look at the knowledge and social norms of the time. Whether it's as simple as looking at the racism applied to Queequeg – even from the relatively enlightened Ishmael – in a manner that was so acceptable at the time that it's baldness is in itself interesting; or looking at Melville's own ad hoc taxonomy of whales – which is so simplistic by today's standards, showing hints of Linnaean influenced order which was probably not popularly known at the time of the writing. I think the chapter on types of whales may even be the first of the documentary chapters – it's an interesting way to begin them; bearing witness to the scientific ignorance of the time and author.

Of the documentary chapters much is said about the literary value of the "Whiteness of the Whale" chapter – which is an oddity among the documentary chapters as it is more like a poem than a clinical or historical examination of anything. I have a very well read friend who loves that chapter and is totally unflinching about the possibility of tossing the rest of the novel away wholesale. For myself I am far more interested in the chapters about the minutiae – the chapter about the use and creation of rope for example – utterly mundane until examined in detail. Who knew that so much thought had ever been put into rope? We tend to just take it for granted.

To the best of my knowledge, Moby Dick is one of the first post-modern novels. I can't really say why it is, but I have a looo-ong appreciation for the clash of styles and approaches that can be used in a post-modern work. There are many ways a story can be told and using multiple styles – chapters in Moby Dick include (beyond the documentary chapters) one which is a short play and I believe plural chapters which are songs. The lack of strict format would not work for all books, but if one format might work better for a certain element, then why not use it? Being an early attempt, Moby Dick is hardly a paragon of post-modernism – having only a fraction of the refinement of say "Ulysses" but I don't think it suffers from it. I don't think I'd be the only person to fairly be able to say that Ulysses borders on unreadable, despite being so tightly crafted to encompass a wide variety of styles without sacrificing unity.

Though it's not a major focus of my appreciation, I find Melville's brewing agnosticism – or perhaps better identified "defiance in the face of god" – interesting as expressed through Ahab. I guess I personally find the mid 1800s to be an interesting time in the philosophical development of western thought because of the dawning possibility/awareness that there might not in fact BE a god in the Judeo-Christian sense. Melville was a little ahead of the curve in that way of thinking. Not outright denying the existence of god, but denying god's authority over himself as a person. "Moby Dick" was written nearly a decade before the publication of "The Origin of Species" really started to shake things up. I do have to wonder if Melville had a chance to read "Origin..." and what that did for his way of thinking. In any case, that was years after he symbolically railed at god through Ahab at the storm and the white whale. As I said, I haven't considered this aspect in depth – and there is much depth to be considered in the book if one wants to read into it beyond the narrative and the documentary – but I suspect that should I get around to reading Moby Dick again, this will be what I focus on.

One more thing that I found interesting (if ultimately unsupportable) was upon my last reading it was suggested in some critical literature that there is a chance that Ishmael is in fact himself Ahab. He does not actually say his name is Ishmael, he merely says "Call me Ishmael." And now Ahab, sole survivor of the Pequod, is banishing his guilt by divorcing himself from his true identity and telling the tale of how he, in the name of revenge, doomed his entire crew. It's an interesting thought – but I don't really think it stands to scrutiny.

I have occasionally noted that there is so much to read in the world that there are few books that are great enough to read over again. I have read Moby Dick twice now, and I suspect there is a good chance I will read it again someday. I really think it is that good.

I hope you enjoy it.

  • Kennedy

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