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Thus begins Chapter 82 of Melville's masterpiece "Moby-Dick", where Ishmael tries to give the reader some understanding of the history and meaningfulness of whaling. The selfsame motto also seems to apply to the composition of "Moby-Dick", because in terms of richness and intricacy it ranges on the same level as Sterne's "Tristram Shandy" or the works of James Joyce.
Whosoever simply expects a gripping, speedy tale of an adventurous whale-hunt will surely be disappointed with "Moby-Dick", since the actual fight between Ahab and the White Whale takes place on the last 35 of 630 pages, and the plot-line at times is hardly discernible what with long passages on the species of whales, on the history of whaling and on the processes of hunting, killing and exploiting the whales and with interior monologues of the characters involved. So if you are bent on tension and action merely, you had better watch the excellent film adaption of the novel starring Gregory Peck as monomanic Ahab. Apart from that "Moby-Dick" falls short of basic narrative conventions in that the first person narrator Ishmael, who seems to be about to tell of story about himself at the beginning, is more and more fading out of the tale, finally taking on the character of an omniscient narrator, who knows the innermost thoughts of Ahab and other crew members, and of a commentator. Then there are long passages where seamen suddenly talk as though there were imbued with Shakespearean spirit and where the whole novel takes on the character of a play.
What kind of botch is that, you may asked dismayed. The answer is that "Moby-Dick" is a brilliant experiment in language, which becomes clear when you read some of its chapters aloud to yourself. Start with Father Mapple's sermon on Jonah here, and you will see what I mean. Melville taps the full dramatic potential of the English language, indeed seeming to be willing to emulate Shakespeare at times.
Then there are other passages which abound in a comic and frolicsome exuberance of imagination. Let me give you an example: "Certain I am, however, that a king's head is solemnly oiled at his coronation, even as a head of salad. Can it be, though, that they anoint it with a view of making its interior run well, as they anoint machinery? Much might be ruminated here, concerning the essential dignity of this regal process, because in common life we esteem but meanly and contemptibly a fellow who anoints his hair, and palpably smells of that anointing." (Chapter 25)
"Moby-Dick" is full of these little gems; it unites the ludicrous, the serious, the scientific, the mystic and many more aspects of human life, thus being what great literature is all about. It provides ample food for thought and it gives its readers many an opportunity to relish the power of the English language.
It is also interesting to see how much sympathy Melville apparently has for Captain Ahab, who is driven into madness by his wish for revenge on the White Whale. "All visible things, man, are but pasteboard masks. But in each event - in the living act, the undoubted deed - there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask! [...] [The White Whale] tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate [...] Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me." (Chapter 36) This is surely an unfailing recipe for unhappiness, but there is also something noble in this foolhardy energy. Was not much of man's civilisation and of human progress achieved in the teeth of the seemingly impossible or blasphemous?
Well, there is no orthodox reading of the symbolism of "Moby-Dick", and everyone might get his own idea on Ahab and his fight against the Whale. Last night I was in a pub and had an animated and long discussion with a friend of mine on this very book, and this is more than you can say about many other books.
So have a go at the adventure of reading "Moby-Dick": "Thar she blows!"
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am 7. Juli 1999
I am one of those who firmly believes that Melville's non-fiction is superior to his fiction. "Typee" and "Omoo" are more to my taste. "Moby Dick" contains any number of memorable characters, scenes and philosohpical speculations, but, unconfined by the autobiographical incidents that formed his early work, Melville's mind and his syntax here ramble all over the place. It's interesting to note that this novel was resurrected from obscurity by Hollywood in the 1920's when it was adapted as a vehicle for John Barrymore.
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am 11. Mai 2011
The storyline is that of the protagonist, Ishmael, hiring aboard the Pequod for a whaling voyage. The ships captain, Ahab, sets out for the relentless and ill-fated pursuit of the white wale that previously took one of his legs. Melvilles writing is best described as experimential. There are passages narrated by the protagonist, lectures on everything to do with whales and whaling, scenes that almost seeme written for a stage-play, as well as passages narrated as if by an impersonal observer. Maybe less than half of the book is the actual account of the pursuit of Moby Dick, yet the lectures on whaling and what not, just seem to give the story more substance.
Clearly Melville portrays an archetypical struggle between, well, good and evil perhaps, or maybe God and man. Yet, many times it seems unclear who is good, who is evil. Even the relentless Ahab has his soft moments, and still is driven by fate towards his certain end. There is something promethean about Ahab, who, for all his hate and madness, seems more human than his mechanical dull-wited crew.
To sum it up, Moby Dick was a very enjoyable read that certainly starts you thinking. I thought about reading it for years, but heard that the language was rather difficult. It is rather antiquated - as was expected - but understandable, nevertheless. Non-native readers probably need a better-than-usual command of english. The chapters are, for the most part, rather short, which makes this book easier to read. Highly recommendable.
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am 17. Juli 2012
Als fleissiger Anglistikstudent habe ich angesichts der Abschlussprüfung mir den Moby-Dick zugelegt und frage mich, wie fördert man Lesbarkeit eines über 150- jährigen Klassikers? In dem man ihn auf graues "Toilettenartiges" Recyclingpapier druckt und für Randnotizen auf den Seiten kaum einen Zentimeter Platz lässt. Während das Buch sich ohnehin vom Aufbau her (15 Seiten Etymologie und Zitatenschatz zum Einstieg) gegen einfachen Zugang wehrt, tragen Druckmaterial, spärliche Anmerkungen, eine völlig sinnlose "List of Textual emendations" und ein Vorwort von 1992 (auch die Anmerkungen stammen aus der Zeit) wenig zu einem Lesegenuss bei. Das Buch ist umwerfend, witzig, lyrisch und unglaublich spannend - den Text wie ein Ware as cheap and as much es possible zusammenzustauchen ist leider ein Merkmal der englischen paperback Kultur. (Für ein schönes Buch siehe daher die Neuübersetzung von Matthias Jendis, München 2001.)
am 19. Juni 1999
When you read the book you'll find passages that are so perfectly written they easily rival shakespeare in their power. The book is like a poem in so many ways...it is very poetic...I did a critical review on Ahab, about what the main critics thought about him, and that gave me an even more greater respect for Melville. Ahab is an incrediable character---possibly the greatest and most complex in literature. He fights against fate and/or God.....he wants to assert himself--he wants to be in control...instead of being a thing or object, he wants to be in control...and so he trys to trump himself as a God....His fight to assert himself past his humanity--so he is more then just a man--is seen in everybody. He wishes he were something more then he is. But he keeps having to deal witht the fact that he is mortal...In the end, Ahab is seen really as a tragic hero...a good guy sorta...The reader starts to root for him. No movie can even come close to capturing the power of the book...it is too poetic and philosophical...Melville's ramblings in the middle of the book can seem tedious but add to the book greatly. They give the book so much depth in which to look at it...the world is seen as an ocean...on the ship are the earth's inhabitiants....they all try to figure out the purpose of existence, but with no shore (or landmarks) in sight, they all shoot from the hip, and each one's personnel view about life is as good as someone elses since there is no roadmap (very Hamlet like). Ahab's view of the whale as being the transcendese (sp--who cares) of evil is as good as Starbuck believing the whale is a dumb animal. The Doubloon in my eyes is one of the greatest chapters in the book....Side note: Melville himself said that he had written a "wicked book"---one that shows how life can be seen in so many different ways by different people and be correct, and Melville was a christian...hmmm...he also noted that the theme can be derived from the ship's cooks speech to the sharks.... In summery, one awesome book....SUPER deep and insightfull....reality is questioned thourougly...however, the book seems to indicate, if you stray to far from reality (whatever that is), then you'll fall of a crow's nest and die (you'll understand when you get to that chapter).....
am 31. Oktober 1998
Most readers of Moby Dick seem to praise it for the wrong reasons and some miss the boat completely.
Criticize all you want of Melville's scientific inaccuracy, wandering themes, or even his improper punctuation. The guy wrote this thing in a year - not enough time to refine it, and it was a book he knew would not sell.
Underneath a mess of useless whaling information and Ishmael's rambling are ideas and questions that most people don't dare think about. Unlike Charles Darwin, Galileo or the fearless Ahab, Melville hid safely behind his metaphors and guided the careful readers to draw their own conclusions without completely leading the way.
Let me explain.
While to Ishmael, Moby Dick is nature's wonder and to Starbuck is just a whale, to Ahab Moby Dick is God, with his infinite power.
There are some disturbing things in the universe begging for an explaination, such as why one person is rewarded with happyness while another punished in suffering. There are feel-good answers, like the idea that the score will be evened in the afterlife and there are humble answers, like the book of Job, which suggests that man has no right to complain or question God. Melville's Ahab takes this to another level when he asks why man needs to be God's puppets. Ahab is insulted by God's creation of man, letting man live in suffering, "with half a heart and half a lung".
The bewildered God-fearing masses will not comprehend the depth Melville trys to take them. This most important theme was written for the pursuit of truth, not happyness. This book is not for everyone, and a lot of chapters are better off skipped, but those with enough empathy for Melville will find an emotional and intellectual adventure.
am 22. April 1998
'Already we are boldly launched upon the deep; but soon we shall be lost in its unshored, harborless immensities.'
Be warned land lubber! So too, shall you become lost when you make your first 'lowering' into Moby-Dick! Full of grandiose digressions and pages of speculation, finishing Moby-Dick can be like hunting down the White Whale itself! But take heart! Any attempt to penetrate the inscrutable imagination of Herman Melville and plunge into the pinnacle of nineteenth-century American Literature will be time well spent. Consider its American Renaissance context: written in the age of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Poe, Moby-Dick has been read as Melville's critique of the Transcendentalist movement. In one fascinating passage, Ishmael describes the time spent by a 'young Platonist' whale-watching up in the mast-head: 'lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie... at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature... .' Sounds like Emerson's 'transparent eyeball.'All well and good, yet, as a harpooner notes, he hasn't raised [spotted] a single whale!
Or consider the exquisite peculiarities of the Pequod and 'her' crew. There are no females on board. Are any feminine aspects then, more forcefully present for their absence? Yet, culturally, the ship contains a vast array of nationalities. Melville's own time spent on South sea islands surely plays into his inclusive view of foreign tribes. Ishmael and Queequeg's relationship demonstrates just such a view. Ishmael quips, 'I'd rather sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.' Later he states, 'to landsman in general, the native inhabitants of the seas have ever been regarded with emotions unspeakably unsocial and repelling; though we know the sea to be an everlasting terra incognita, so that Colombus sailed over numberless unknown worlds to discover his one superficial one.'Clearly, the cultural explorations allowed by this novel are vast.
Lastly, consider that Moby-Dick is what many critics call an encyclopedic novel--meaning that it attempts, in its own obscure way, to contain everything, in some form or another, between its covers. Incredible ahead of its time, Moby-Dick points forward to behemoth works such as Ulysses and Gravity's Rainbow, to name only a couple. Of course, the encyclopedic novel, like Moby-Dick, is long and daunting. But do not depair! It takes many 'lowerings' to fully appreciate the brilliance of this novel. In the meantime, savor the Shakespearian prose as it drips off your tongue like honey! Revel in the breakneck speed of the final chase! See for yourself why it's so hard to believe that Moby-Dick is an almost forgotten text, rediscovered in the 1920's in an attic. Remember: 'in a matter like this, subtlety appeals to subtlety, and without imagination no man [or woman] can follow another into these halls.'
am 11. April 1998
Well, Obi-wan, the circle is now complete; when I left you I was but the pupil,- now I am the master!
For me, Moby Dick has always been a symbol of my unhappy childhood, (it wasn't that bad, in retrospect, it just seemed alot like Moby Dick at the time). It reminds me of it.
It was always a book (literate) grown-ups seemed to know about; it came on TV; it always appeared in the childrens' classics section of the understocked bookstores of the sixties, and was too boring and too abstruse for a child to seriously contemplate, much like life.
As I grew and experienced the awkwardness of youth, it still was a daunting and formidable idea to contemplate reading MD: one of those activities like joining the Marines, or getting a career and settling down, or having one's tonsils out, which must perhaps be done eventually, but one resists because it only serves to highlight and accent one's own frail mortality.
It is the classic American novel in terms of style, it seems to me, because the prose is classic American prose of the 19th century: highly seasoned with Biblical turns of phrase and psychology, but accessible in the main.
It IS interesting to me in the way it presents the problem of man's mortality. Beethoven-like, Ahab defies all the "thou-shalts" of a moral universe. Perhaps this is what is so maddening to mankind: we seem to live in a moral universe, and yet for some men, punishment seems more ruthlessly exacting and swift when WE are the transgressor, -not when we are the transgressed.
Perhaps this is a truly human response: to defy the powers that seem to mock us in our weakness: compel us to strive and inevitably fail.
Nietzsche observes in the Prologue to "Thus Spake Zarathustra" that the 3 transformations of the Spirit lead to a state of being where one has thrown off the "thou shalt" system, but as Joseph Campbell observes, the person who has thrown off the "thou shalt" system, (the civilizing system of obedience to authority, tradition, etc.), IS in fact a civilized human being; he has internalized the "thou shalt" system, and thrown it off as a "thou shalt". Ahab appears to fall into that category of men, like Dostoevsky's Raskolkin, who at great torture and strain to themselves, attempt to overcome the moral order of the universe, without having been civilized by this "thou shalt" system.
Older and wiser now than my childhood days, I look now at Moby Dick and feel not so awed by it anymore. I have myself lived through some of what Ahab appears to perceive, and feel, and carry out. There is a dark side to us all, but one finally becomes the master: I have read Moby Dick, and have felt as does Ahab, and am no longer intimidated by the work, or life's questions, or what MD represented to me as a child. (I have been civilized by the "thou shalt" system, perhaps?)
The question of morality vs. integrity is not confined to MD; it is much larger than MD, and knit into the fabric of our experience as human beings.
I can now look at Ahab not intellectually, but with empathy: no word passes between us, but I know his struggle, and Melville's moral.
A central question of the book: is the business of being a man morality, or facing life with the strength of our own convictions, no matter how life may try to turn us against them?
I no longer am sure, but I am sure that neither was Melville.
am 7. April 1998
It's an allegory. No! It's an encyclopedia entry! Herman Melville tells a gripping, affecting tale of an obsessed Captain's quest for a white whale. Told by Ishmael, a member of Captain Ahab's crew, the novel recounts one man's obsession with a whale. However, the philosophical implications of his obsession soon become evident. Whiteness is equated with purity and goodness, as well as absence and death. Ahab's quest for revenge eventually causes his destruction as well as the destruction of those on board the Pequod. Did God send the whale to tempt Ahab, or save him? Is Ahab Jonah, waiting to be swallowed whole and reborn? Is the whale God? Is the whale Satan? Ahab and Ishmael grapple with these questions, and Melville challenges the reader to do so as well.
All of this sounds like a compelling read; it is. However, it is only half the story. The other half, unfortunately, comes in the form of more information than anyone ever wanted to know about whales, whale hunting and whale habits. In one chapter, types of whales are chronicled. In another, the method of collecting ambergris from whales is detailed.
The information, while presented well, is completely out of context. It would have been better suited as an appendix or introduction to the novel. Instead, it breaks up the flow of the narrative and pulls the reader out of Ahab's thrall. The story of Moby Dick hypnotizes and captivates us as surely as it does the Captain, but Melville is not content to let us drift along with the Pequod. Instead, we have to endure an Encyclopedia Brittanica full of information on whales.
Moby Dick is a great novel and it is a fascinating factual chronicle. Unfortunately, the two do not peacefully coexist. I emerged from my reading experience frustrated. Melville could have easily given us the best of both worlds. Instead, he chops up Moby Dick and feeds him to his readers in bits and pieces, causing us to shift gears continuously. Keeping us on our toes, perhaps? Maybe, but it does not q!uite work. I only wish that great literature had a fast forward button.
am 6. April 1998
First I have to say that Moby Dick is probably easier to get into if you occasionally like to read poetry. Otherwise it's a challenge for the average reader like myself, and a challenge that I personally found worthwhile. It's not the "light read" to take to the beach for summer vacation. There is a flow to the writing that is an essential part of drawing the reader into the story, similar to Shakespeare. The plot is exciting without it, but the writing is what raises this story to a classic. Captain Ahab (our hero?) is a man whose personality and fate have been twisted from a comfortable course as a successful whaler. When we meet him, he is well on his way to turning from an intelligent, logical captain and family man into a driven hunter. As we read, we notice the remains of what was a simple love story: A man of strong senses and the passions of an artist; in love, as he knows it, with whaling. Instead of a life of turbulence, which would seem more to fit his intense, sensitive nature, Ahab is a respected whaler with a deep and quiet love for the ever-changing sea living a lonely but content life providing for a rarely seen family. We watch his submersed passion turn from a sense of joy in pitting himself against the giants of the deep, to a slow, consuming hatred of one whale--Moby Dick. Moby Dick is the great white whale who took Ahab's leg and left him with eternal physical pain. Where this physical pain began, so through the story Ahab's emotions follow. Moby Dick changes Ahab's submerged passion from gentle love and appreciation to intense hate. Ahab has been betrayed. He has been hurt. In his contorted mind, his pain can only be removed by the death of Moby Dick. We came on a game, a hunt. Now the hunt is everything and death is the only end. In the telling of this tragic adventure, we are swept into the picture. We feel the vastness of the deep ocean, the power and beauty of nature, the awesome strength of the whale, the fury of the storm, the boredom of endless hours of waiting, and the exhilaration of the battle of man against nature. We become one with, now, the man, now, the whale. Words disappear behind feelings. And we feel it all. "Moby Dick" takes us on a splendid trip to a time and a place and a state of mind. This book can entertain the readers who like "Starship Troopers" and enchant those who enjoy Phyllis Whitney. For those not into long sentences and rhythm, it may be more work than fun to get started, but I don't believe anyone could stick with the book to the end without growing as a reader and ultimately liking the book a great deal.