Monday, February 26, 2007

When Melville talks Cetology - Hilarity Reigns?

Having recently conquered, or should I say devoured, Moby Dick, I was amused with Christopher Frizzelle's article on the intimidating reputation of Melville's masterwork.

In my school days I was mildly enthusiastic about Moby Dick, and slogged through it, almost in disbelief that the White Whale doesn't appear to the crew of the Pequod until the last quarter of the book.

In my recent attempt at Moby Dick, I tore through it in about two weeks of just reading at night or in spare moments during the day. I was so voracious that I started to make time to read it, sometimes reading later into the evening than is probably healthy. (One night I was reading by my little book light so late that the battery died out as I was racing through the paragraphs to the end of the chapter.)

Moby-Dick is not anywhere near as difficult a read as Ulysses. But it is dense and intimidating. The actual story of Moby Dick is so infused into our culture that most people know the plot, and even the names of most of the characters, (Ishmael, Ahab, Queegueg, Stubb, Starbuck,) places, (Nantucket, New Bedford, the Pacific,) and sailing vessels, (Pequod, Rachel.) In fact, they even know most of the themes and allegories.

Frizzelle cleverly points to this as just one of the things conspiring against actually reading the book.

"The guilt some people feel over not having read Moby Dick, combined with how much they already know about Moby Dick, combined with how long Moby Dick is—all this conspires to make sure that a lot of people never read Moby Dick. "

Though Moby-Dick gave me some chuckles, I didn't find it as hilarious as Mr. Frizzelle does. What I found was that the craft Melville learned from his earlier romances, and his later commercial offerings, is put to great use in the opening chapters of the book. A pleasant narrator, self-depracating and cynical without being off-putting, leads us on his personal adventure. He seems an above average intellect of slightly above average means, in search of adventure, and we happily tag along

Melville waits a little bit to start laying on the encyclopedic knowledge. We read through those informational chapters and philosophical musings with the knowledge that we are following this narrator, and also with the knowledge that he has an ability to always bring his subject around to how we live our lives. For instance, the chapter titled "The Line" is filled with technical specifications and the history of the ropes used in whaling. Ishmael points out how the line is whipping about dangerously in the air around the whaleboats when they harpoon a whale. The line could snag someone and pop off their head or drag them to the deep, but the whaleboat oarsmen keep steady on their rowing. As a conclusion to the chapter, he adds the following:

But for me, where the craftsmanship triumphs is after half-way through the novel, when we are so interested in the other characters that we are reading along with the knowledge that we are following them. Ishmael? Who's he? In the end, Ishmael even winkingly acknowledges this transposing of our interests. He waits till the Pequod and all on her, (save one,) are sucked into the vortex to point out that, oh by the way, he was on one of the whaling boats.

If you haven't tried Moby Dick in a while, give it a go. I would love to hear what you think.


Novel said...

This is going to sound like I'm trying to be impressive, but I really, really, this weekend was debating whether I wanted to try MD or Ulysses as another friend just finished that. I did have the sense that I had avoided it because I know so much about it. Thanks for the nudge.

YS said...

Ulysses is a much harder slog than Moby Dick.

I had read sections of Ulysses in college, but read the whole thing through during last summer. I was surprised by how much I absorbed

Good Luck