Saturday, September 08, 2007


"Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee." - Captain Ahab, p. 519 in Herman Melville's aquatic thriller Moby-Dick.

* * *

I finally finished reading Moby-Dick about a month ago, and now I wonder why I ever started the damnable thing in the first place. The text of the edition that I have (Bantam paperback, 1981) spans 521 pages in what is probably size-6 font, which caused my contacts prescription to move 1 1/2 notches during the time that it took me to read the book.

Naturally all of us who have had a modicum of schooling are familiar with the story: It is a tale about a big fucking anthropomorphized white whale to whom is attributed a menacing, violent disposition, and said whale takes a ship captain's leg off at the knee in even retribution for the ship captain trying to kill the whale in order to harvest its sperm oil, and the monomaniacal captain gets all crazy hacked off and spends the rest of his life trying to murder the whale in disproportionate retribution for what was probably a reasonable reaction by the whale in view of the attempt on his poor beastly life.

Basically, it is: (1) whale bites sailor; (2) sailor pursues whale all crazy like. I won't tell you the end unless you e-mail and ask me, but don't bother. You can imagine what happens. (The whale wins.)

There are CXXXV chapters, which by my quick calculation is somewhere between 500 and 1000. Only four (that's right: four) of the interminable chapters actually advance the plot. This I'm not kidding about. Nearly every chapter sets out to explain some highly technical aspect of the whale trade, whale anatomy, what sailors do on ships when they are bored, what tools and implements sailors use, all the neat things you can use whale oil for, and so on, ad freaking nauseam.

Below I have included the first sentences of a few of the chapters that are representative of every single chapter except the handful that actually tell the story about Ahab's pursuit of Moby-Dick (my comments in italics):
1. "Concerning the officers of the whale-craft, this seems as good a place as any to set down a little domestic peculiarity on shipboard, arising from the existence of the harpooneer class of officers . . . ." (Chapter XXXIII)
2. "Already we are boldly launched upon the deep. . . . Ere that come to pass, at the outset it is but well to attend to a matter almost indispensable to a thorough and appreciative understanding of the more special leviathanic revelations and allusions of all sorts which are to follow. It is some systematized exhibition of the whale in his broad genera that I would now fain put before you. (Chapter XXXII)
[A systematized exhibition of the whale in his broad genera? Stab me in the fucking head.]
3. "I shall ere long paint to you as well as one can without canvas, something like the true form of the whale as actually appears to the eye of the whaleman . . . ." (Chapter LV)
[Please, no! Didn't we cover this in Chapter XXXII?]
4. "With reference to the whaling scene shortly to be described, as well as for the better understanding of all similar scenes elsewhere presented, I have here to speak of the magical, sometimes horrible whale-line." (Chapter LX)
[Melville's description of the "whale-line" was eleven paragraphs longer than Earl Warren's majority opinion in Brown v. Board of Education.]
5. "A word concerning an incident in the last chapter. According to the invariable usage of the fishery . . . ." (Chapter LXII)
6. "It is upon record, that three centuries ago the tongue of the Right Whale was esteemed a great delicacy in France . . . ." (Chapter LXV)
The astute reader will notice that like a million chapters into the book, the author is still having trouble getting to the fucking point.

Now, all this is not to say that there aren't some great aspects to the book. For example, it is, I believe, the world's most complete compendium of whale lore ever assembled. If you want to know what the world knew about whales circa 1851, Herman Melville has compiled it for you within the covers of Moby-Dick.

Also, as an item of interest there is a fair amount of really gay stuff in the book as well. And when I say "gay," I mean really freaking gay. Larry Craig gay. Possibly even Kevin "No Wheat" White gay; hard to tell.

My perception is that the whole thing is a homoerotic allegory for one man's quest to find and land a truly gigantic, angry white penis. Surely it is no coincidence that the whale is named Moby-Dick and he's a sperm whale. (Maybe I'm just incredibly immature; and I'm not even counting all the times the word seaman appears in the book.)

Consider, for example, the following passage, in which the narrator (the ever faithful Ishmael) and others aboard the Pequod squish globules of sperm oil between their fingers:
"Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long! I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; . . . and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; . . . Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness. Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm forever!" (Chapter XCIV)
And then another digression: "Now, while discoursing of sperm, it behooves to speak of other things akin to it, in the business of preparing the sperm whale for the try-works."

And there are many, many other examples. Early in the book, Ishmael finds himself at The Spouter Inn in Nantucket and rents a room for the night from a bloke named Peter Coffin (heh heh). Due to a dearth of available rooms, Ishmael is forced to share a room and a bed with the harpoon-toting savage Queequeg, the first four consecutive letters of whose name are in common with two other prominent words in the English language, both of which are susceptible of the same connotation. (At this point I'll stipulate that I am perhaps incorrigibly immature.)

As far as I can tell, Queequeg lets Ishmael polish his harpoon and they wake up entangled like a state-fair pretzel. Melville writes:
"Taking up his tomahawk from the table, he examined the head of it for an instant, and then holding it to the light, with his mouth at the handle, he puffed out great clouds of tobacco smoke. The next moment the light was extinguished, and this wild cannibal . . . sprang into bed with me. . . . Upon waking the next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg's arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife." (Chapters III and IV.)
Indeed, there are some historical indications that Melville had the gay DNA, and there are some pretty steamy letters that went back and forth between Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, the latter being the author of the well-known works The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851), as well as other works of questionable literary significance, such as The Maypole of Merry Mount (1837), The Gentle Boy: A Thrice-Told Tale (1839), and Feathertop (1852), these secondary works all having extremely gay titles.

Here is an excerpt from a letter Melville wrote about Hawthorne:
"A man of a deep and noble nature had seized me in this seclusion. . . . The soft ravishments of the man spun me round about in a web of dreams. . . . But already I feel that Hawthorne had dropped germinous seeds into my soul. He expands and deepens down, the more I contemplate him; and further and further shoots his strong New-England roots into the hot soil in my Southern soul."
Reading passages such as this, it is hard to escape the conclusion that what Melville really wanted was Hawthorne's strong New England root and germinous seeds in the hot soil of his ass. PA-TOW!

Nevertheless, Moby-Dick does have its moments of brilliance. There are innumerable insightful passages and an abundance of poetic flourishes, all of which reveal that Melville was indeed a brilliant and tortured soul, if a bit long-winded here and there.

Recalling that the book was first published in 1851, the following passage in which Ishmael contemplates the homological similarity of the skeletal fins of the whale and the human hand is fairly prescient from a biological point of view (considering that On the Origin of Species was published in 1859):
"It is also very curiously displayed in the side fin, the bones of which almost exactly answer to the bones of the human hand, minus only the thumb."
On a more literary note, one extraordinary passage occurs in Chapter XCVI, when Melville tells of the Pequod sailing in the black of night as the useless remnants of a whale captured for its oil burned red and sinister from the try-works of the ship, its barbarous crew savagely feeding the fire as "[t]he burning ship drove on, as if remorselessly commissioned to some vengeful deed":
"Their tawny features, now all begrimed with smoke and sweat, their matted beards, and the contrasting barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, all these were strangely revealed in the capricious emblazonings of the works. As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in the words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spit round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into the blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul."
(I suspect it may be obvious even from the few passages that I have included herein, but it bears noting that Melville used commas and semicolons almost interchangeably, incorporating both liberally to allow for impossibly long sentences.)

And there is a great deal in Moby-Dick that is of a similar descriptive quality as the last quoted passage.

Unfortunately, much of the book contains little about the adventure and more about whaling and whales in general and in the very, very specific. I believe that the book could have been dramatically improved with a bit of good editing, such that the tale of the pursuit of the white whale would have been expanded, with the technical whaling stuff abridged to some degree. Read it and tell me I'm wrong.

Aside from all that, what is truly the most compelling aspect of Moby-Dick is Melville's characterization of the human condition as depicted in Captain Ahab, who throughout the tale finds himself inextricably impelled by some relentless force or agency that exceeds Ahab's ability to comprehend, much less defeat. Melville depicts Ahab as a man destined, without choice, to pursue the white whale despite the doomed captain's perfect foreknowledge that his quest will ultimately have ruinous consequences. Life, at times, appears to leave us little choice but to pursue that which we know may lead to a ruinous end.
"A strange fatality pervades the whole career of these events, as if verily mapped out before the world itself was charted. . . . This whole act's immutably decreed."
And so Ahab pursues the whale, and so indeed it was ruinous.

Ahab was consumed as perhaps one would be consumed who once held his one true love in his arms but somehow left her in the past, lost in time already passed, without hope of ever returning to her, unable to return to her, the girl and the love as unreachable as the canopy of stars; a love that would cause one to say, "On this earth, under our one moon and myriad stars, I swear you are the one I love." Such loss becomes madness that consumes; that weighs upon each waking and dreaming thought; such loss turns men to madness. Such is the tyranny of time.

And so Ahab was consumed; and I know his madness.

"Ahab and anguish lay stretched together in one hammock . . . ; then it was, that his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another." And I know his woe.

Ahab was "[g]nawed within and scorched without, with the infixed, unrelenting fangs of some incurable idea . . . . He sleeps at night with clenched hands; and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms." And I know his anguish.

Such is the tyranny of time. The white whale was Ahab's foe; inexorable time is mine. From hell's heart, I stab at thee.


Anonymous said...

So basically what you are saying is that Melville captured man's lifelong struggle to accept his fate, say a "compromised" hairline inherited from his mother (holy Rogaine™ Batman) and need – nay DESIRE – for a larger penis (have you seen the Enzyte™ ads? That is one smiley dude)?

Did you know that castrated men don't go bald? Google it!

Is this strictly a male perspective on life?

Oh, and you finally confirmed what sailors do when bored. All said in done – reading Moby-Dick was a very worthwhile undertaking.

H. Philip Aster said...

As an initial matter, bush, you have my respect for not only including the TM (big fan of that), but also for managing to get it to superscript. HTML trick of some sort, or just copy and paste? In any event, you are a bad-ass. Perhaps you are in advertising?

I don't know about the hairline thing (cough), but I tried Enzyte(TM) once and it just made my back itch. Those pumps have been around for a long time for a reason. All I'm sayin' is, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

I'm going out for more beer.

Anonymous said...

Never underestimate the power of a good slap and tickle - or in this case, cut and paste (or pump).

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you had a whale of a time. (Snick)

Anonymous said...

I would just like to say that these are about the gayest blog comments I have ever read . . .

But great blog! When it comes to Moby Dick I have tried and failed, and tried and failed, etc., including once this summer when I started to listen to the unabridged audio verson -- ha ha ha. Yeah.

Now I feel like I know everything I will ever need to know about Moby Dick -- I can immaturely reference the homosexual undertones (or overtones, as the case may be); I can lament the incredible tediousness of passages about whale sperm and the order of harpoonists; and I can wax poetic with lovely tidbits like "Ahab and anguish lay stretched together in one hammock" -- I mean, god, that is a really great freaking line.

It is such a good line it is almost good enough to make me want to read the whole book. Well, that's actually not true at all. But I wish I were the kind of person who would read the whole book just because of one great line, that counts for something, doesn't it?

(brief aside: I got into quite a quagmire trying to decide between "I wish I were" and "I wish I was." What do you think, oh Master of the Grammatical?)

Coolest blog ever, Baby-Hawk.

Anonymous said...

I feel like I just read a Beavis & Butthead script ("he said Queequeq").
I must admit to giggling a few times as I read your blog, but I want to know what is up with your unwarranted attack on the LEAST gay person in our family (Kevin "no wheat" White). I mean, you're the one who kept slogging through all those passages about sailors and squeezing. Did we find it just a wee bit titillating Mr. Hornbeck?

H. Philip Aster said...

Left Horse: I believe "I wish I were" is correct in that instance; common prescriptivist usage suggests that the subjunctive mood requires such a construction even though sometimes it sounds silly to the ear.

Mama Hawk: what I found titillating was the remarkable resemblance in mannerisms between some of these well-dressed sailors and your gluten-avoiding, Red Bridge drinking husband. Did that shirt he was wearing on Saturday come out of Kmart's Marcel Marceau autumn ballet collection? Cause damn.

Anonymous said...

Gregory Peck starred in the movie version of "Moby Dick." It was more quickly seen than the book can be read. I think the best that can be said about a person who actually reads the entire book is that he is one determined sonofabitch, not easily deterred by the continuously nagging thought that 'I must be fucking crazy to read this whole thing when I have more important things to do like wash my car.' Melville wrote and some company published that monster back when telegraphs were a novelty. If a writer walked into a publishing house today with a similar piece of work, they would call security and throw his ass out on the street.

Aside from that, though, I enjoyed reading your remarks. They are insightful and entertaining as well as informative. Useful, too. No one who reads what you have read will purchase or borrow "Moby Dick" much less read it. You've pretty much done Melville in for your readers. He was brilliant but should have written three or four books instead of "Moby Dick" (I think he may have written one or two more).

Nadesan Permaul said...

The last comment in this thread seems so American in character. The notion that the length of a novel should determine the value as art or worth as cultural inheritance, by contrast "with more important things to do like wash my car", suggests volumes about our cultural character. The novel Moby Dick speaks as powerfully to contemporary America as it failed to speak to ante-bellum America. As if writing about a metaphoric Titanic and iceberg, Melville was warning the nation of impending doom around the institution of slavery. But just as they missed his brilliance then, it appears we are still sruggling with it today when our White Whales take different form.

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