I once had the ambition of being well-read. I mean really well-read--having read all the major books of the Western tradition, and the more important ones more than once, and being fairly intimate with the most important. Even after I got too far along in a life occupied with other things to have any hope of achieving that state of well-read-ness, I still had this idea that if or when I ever had significant leisure I would take up the effort again and perhaps even achieve what, if I remember correctly, Lewis called the state of being half-educated: having read the great books once. But now I've given up even on that. I have more free time than I've ever had, but it still doesn't seem enough, and I'm going to turn 70 this fall.
I decided to give up not only that plan but any plan at all in my reading, and just follow my nose: to read what I want to read, with the proviso that I limit the amount of relatively lightweight fiction (murder mysteries and such) in my diet. That's how I came to be reading Moby Dick. For several months I had had an odd yen to read it--to read it again, actually, as I had read it in high school or maybe college, but didn't remember it very well. Also when I was ten or twelve I had seen the John Huston movie, with Gregory Peck as Ahab, which I think at least gets the basic plot right (and which I'd like to see again), and it had made a big impression on me. So one day a few weeks ago I picked it up.
Well. This is a great book, by which I mean a Great Book. It's so great that I'm almost at a loss for words, and I certainly can't expect to do it any sort of justice in a blog post, so I'll try not to try, and just mention a few of the things that most struck me about it.
First of all is the prose. It's wonderful. It's majestic, sardonic, somber, thunderous, learned, playful...it's everything. The best prose ever written by an American? Can't think of a rival, offhand. The comparison that comes to mind is not any other novelist but Shakespeare.
It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that I enjoyed every word of this book--only a pedantic hesitation about the word "every" stops me. I admit I did expect that there would be at least a bit of a sense of performing a chore in reading it, but I didn't find that to be true at all. I was captivated and if I'd been free to do nothing but read would probably have finished it in a few days.
That's not because it's such a gripping narrative. It starts out that way, and it ends that way, but for a couple of hundred pages (at least) the narrative more or less pauses and we get a series of meditations prompted by this or that feature of whales and whaling. I think many or most people who read it don't like this, and see the whaling lore as an interruption or digression, and moreover as somewhat tedious. Or, for some, very tedious.
But I didn't find it so, and I think that to consider these as distractions misses a major part of the book's greatness. It's not just a novel. In fact maybe it should not be described as a novel at all, but as a meditative poem. Yes, it's prose, and it does include a powerful story. And yes those digressions, which comprise more of the book than the story proper, are really not digressions at all, if you stop thinking of the book as a novel in the usual sense. They do go into a lot of detail that one might reasonably find uninteresting--I did not, but I can understand that some might. But they don't stop there. Almost every one of these little chapters dealing with some specific detail such as the whale's tail is in the end a little homily. Melville jumps off from the matter at hand to draw some lesson of psychology or ethics or metaphysics. That one in particular is typical: it ends with Ishmael admitting that he does not really know the tail very well:
But if I know not even the tail of this whale, how understand his head? much more, how comprehend his face, when face he has none? Thou shalt see my back parts, my tail, he seems to say, but my face shall not be seen. But I cannot completely make out his back parts, and hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face.
See Exodus 33:19-23, in case your memory needs jogging. It's that constant widening of scope from the mundane to the cosmic that makes Moby Dick more than a great novel. I think Clifton Fadiman is right in the introduction to the edition I read: it's one of the world's great books. It's in the class with Shakespeare, with Dante, with Sophocles--even with the Bible considered as a penetrating look into the depths of the human condition.
Eliot says in some critical essay or other that the mythic character of Huckleberry Finn is all the more powerful for being unstated and possibly unconscious. That's true, but Melville proves that there's more than one way to construct a potent symbol. The story of Ahab and the white whale could be written in a Hemingway-ish sort of way, all show and no tell, and it would be very powerful. But Melville doesn't hesitate to pour on the explicit philosophizing, and that works, too.
The matter of that philosophizing is decidedly post-Christian. Maybe it's existential, I don't know enough philosophy to say. But the whale embodies all the incomprehensible and indifferent forces of the cosmos against which man contends and rages hopelessly, in the person of Captain Ahab. The book is soaked in the Christian tradition, and specifically in the King James Bible. It feels like the Protestant tradition, even apart from the KJV influence, though I don't know anything about what Melville himself believed. It seems the voice of someone who knows the faith but can no longer believe. I'm sure scholars have cataloged all the many biblical allusions in the book. In a sly sort of way they are often brought in to suggest questions: "is this really the work of an omnipotent and benevolent God?" But it seems to me that there's more of awe than bitterness in it. The summoning of that awe is also part of the reason for the "digressions": many or most of them are devoted to illuminating the size and power of the whale.
Well, I have to stop. Maybe I'll write a full-blown essay about Moby Dick. Though I suppose I should first read what others have said.
Oh, one more thing: Moby Dick is generally credited with having one of the great opening sentences. You probably know it: "Call me Ishmael." But it also has one of the great closing sentences. Those who have read the book probably know what I mean. Those who haven't I'll leave to discover it for themselves.
A few nights ago I dreamed that the end of the world was imminent. The setting of the dream seemed to have been borrowed from my visit to Belfast Castle, which is not really a castle but a 19th century estate with beautiful grounds. There were a great many people there, and I seemed to know a lot of them. We sat or walked among the gardens and patios waiting for the end. We all seemed to be Christians and although it was not said that this was the Second Coming that seemed to be the expectation. There was some anxiety but no panic.
There was a major annoyance, though, for me. There was a guy who was determined to have a theological argument. I kept trying to deflect it but he was persistent. I don't remember what it was about. I'm not even sure that was clear in the dream. I just remember that it seemed ridiculous to be talking about it under those circumstances. I was saying something like "Come on, man, just let it go. We're about to encounter the reality. Those questions won't matter anymore." It was a wonderful feeling.
Speaking of dreams: Is it an omen if a Nash Metropolitan appears in your dream? Actually two Nash Metropolitans? If so, what does it mean?
Neither waving nor drowning.