Already we are boldly launched upon the deep; but soon we shall be lost in its unshored, harborless immensities.
When I wrote about Madame Bovary here a couple of years ago, I commented that reading a very famous novel for the first time is
like meeting a celebrity in person (or so I imagine). It is intensely familiar and yet strange at the same time: it is exactly what it always appeared to be, and yet it is no longer an idea of something but the thing itself.
That certainly applies in this case too — more so, perhaps, because I think Moby-Dick has a larger presence in the popular imagination than Madame Bovary. And not just the things everyone “knows” about it (the white whale! Captain Ahab! “Call me Ishmael”!) but the book itself, which is a kind of legendary object, so deep and vast that reading it (or so you’d think) is itself a kind of fantastical quest.
So, once again, I find myself reading something that I already knew a lot about, and in the process discovering how little I really knew about it. So far, anyway, the surprise factor is much greater with Moby-Dick than it was with Madame Bovary (which really was the perfection of the sort of thing I expected it to be). I didn’t really know what Moby-Dick would actually sound like, and I especially had no idea (I don’t know why, but I really didn’t) that Moby-Dick would be so much fun. I also thought it would be much longer! I ended up getting the Penguin Classics edition — a choice I’m very happy with, as the font is very readable and the notes are helpful but not overwhelming — and it’s under 700 pages, which for someone who reads Vanity Fair, Middlemarch, and Bleak House regularly is not scary at all.
I decided against the highly- recommended Norton Critical edition because I wanted to approach this first reading not as a chore to be done diligently but as a reading experience to be, well, experienced! No doubt I will finish the novel without having plumbed its depths, and if I weren’t enjoying Melville’s prose so much first-hand, I might have changed my mind (and in fact I do have a copy of the Norton out from the library, ready to turn to if the need arises). I feel like Herman and I are doing pretty well so far, however.
One reason for that, I’m quite sure, is that I’ve read Carlyle, which makes a lot of the wackier features of Moby-Dick (its rapid changes of register, from the prophetic to the bathetic; its elliptical allusions; its delight in the grotesque and the absurd; its insistence that everything — everything — is not just literal but symbolic) seem, if not necessarily reasonable and explicable, at least familiar. Here’s one of many examples of a moment that wouldn’t be out of place in Sartor Resartus:
Men may seem detestable as joint-stock companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes. That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! the great God absolute! The centre and circumstance of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!
All it needs is some more capital letters and it could be part of the unfolding of the Clothes Philosophy — or at any rate some kind of appendix to it.
I know from experience that not every reader finds Carlylean prose exhilarating, but I do: I have ever since I read The French Revolution as an unsuspecting undergraduate. What I loved about The French Revolution then (before I knew anything at all about Carlyle) was that it exuded the conviction that its writing absolutely mattered — that it was about something hugely important and written in a style meant to convey and to reproduce that significance. It was daring and unconventional because it had to be. I get the same feeling from Moby-Dick. Even when it’s going along a bit more quietly than in the passage I quoted, it has the humming energy of a book with something (many things!) it really, really wants to say, and to say in a memorable way. It doesn’t feel artful, if that means constructed to create an aesthetic effect: it feels spiritual — meaning not religious in any doctrinal way but about the spirit, about what matters, what drives us, what scares us, what means something to us. It’s exciting! I’d really rather quote from it (or read it aloud) than write about it!
That said, so far I can’t disagree with the contemporary opinion I’ve read that the book is an “intellectual chowder.” Up to the half-way point I’ve reached (Chapter 60) there has certainly been (off and on) a forward-moving narrative — I hesitate to call it a “plot” when really all that’s happened, in terms of events, is that Ishmael and Queequeg have met, signed on to the Pequod and been at sea for a while, including one “lowering” of the boats. That through-line is enough, but barely enough, to give some coherence to what is otherwise rather a jumble of anecdote, sea lore, nautical trivia, character sketches, and poetic outbursts. I like the divisions into short chapters, though: that helps each of those ingredients have a certain distinctness, and also mostly prevents them from feeling like digressions, because they are so clearly puzzle pieces. In fact, a metaphor that might work as well as the chowder one is patchwork: I wonder if anyone has worked up a theory of Moby-Dick as literary quilting.
I doubt it, because something else that’s hard to miss even on a first reading is just how very masculine the book is. I don’t recall that any women have even had any speaking parts at all in the novel so far — though I may be forgetting something, perhaps from back at the Spouter Inn. Certainly at sea it’s a man’s world. What does that mean for the oft-invoked universality of the novel’s mythos? Coincidentally, we’re watching Season 2 of The Affair, and last night’s episode featured a long scene between Noah and his therapist (played by Cynthia Nixon, which kept confusing me — why is Noah talking to Miranda?) in which Noah expounds a theory of greatness founded on abandoning ties — isn’t it more important to do (write) something great than to respect constraints like family and fidelity? What does it matter if other people suffer through your pursuit of greatness, especially if you achieve it? Obviously, in his case there’s a lot of wishful self-justification at work there, but what struck me was how much power that myth of greatness at any cost still has … when it’s a man talking, anyway. Not that Ahab (who is the most single-minded one in Moby-Dick) comes across as great; if he’s heroic, he is dangerously so, and presumably one thing the rest of the novel does is explore what is noble and what is disastrous about his quest for the white whale. (“And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”)
I’m reading Moby-Dick because my book club chose it; we’re meeting next week to discuss the first 60 chapters, so I’m going to set it aside for other reading in the meantime so as not to muddle the conversation. I’ve already discovered that the fragmented structure makes putting it down and picking it up again easier than with books whose plots are more intricately woven (which is not to say that there aren’t continuities and patterns unifying Moby-Dick, particularly metaphorical ones). I’m really glad we did choose it: the suggestion was quite unexpected, and I was kind of skeptical about it when it was made, but now I’m grateful to have been giving that extra push. One more thing I’ll be able to cross off my ‘Humiliation’ list! (Maybe next I can suggest we read Ulysses … )