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"There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method."
am 7. August 2009
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!"