52 Poems, Week 30: The Horses (Edwin Muir)
52 Poems, Week 31: In the Time of the Tumult of Nations (Samuel Hazo)

Sunday Night Journal, July 29, 2018

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.

NeitherWavingNorDrowning

Comments

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Moby-Dick is indeed great, Mac. I read it for the first time several years ago, and I also enjoyed all of the digressions and philosophizing a great deal. You are correct, every "reader" that you encounter who gripes about having either read or attempted to read MD has that same complaint. I've been wanting to pick it up again. As I do often with large books, I read faster and faster as I approach the finish line and thus feel that I miss much by the end.

I was about 100 pages or so from the end when I had to put it aside due to travel and other things. That unfortunately sort of broke the spell. But I did plan things so that I was able to read the last 50 pages at one sitting, which was good.

I just discovered that there are two mini-series versions, as well as many other adaptations:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adaptations_of_Moby-Dick#Film

A brief look at the customer reviews on Amazon suggest that neither is all that great.

The 1957 one starring Woody Woodpecker is probably worth investigating.

And Moby Dick: 2010 looks like a winner:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moby_Dick_(2010_film)

oh my goodness ... Moby Dick 2010, how did we not hear about this eight years ago?

Darn it! I can't read this until I write something, which I was going to do this morning.

That tree is so haunting, I'm not sure I could bear to be around it.

AMDG

Yes! I loved this book when I read it ten (!) years ago. I really should try to read it again.

The point you make about the technical "digressions" on whales and whaling being, in fact, integrated into the overall thrust of the book, even if not exactly integrated into the plot, is a good one.

For what it's worth, I wrote a brief appreciation of the book when I read it.

I'm also looking forward to hearing what Janet has to say. Did you two plan to read it at the same time?

I tried to read Moby Dick eight or ten years ago, but didn't get very far with it. I intend to get back to it at some point but I need to tackle some Hawthorne first.

That tree is really creepy -- would make a great prop for a ghost story!

Craig,

No. When Maclin said he was going to read it, or was reading it, I laughed because I had it sitting on the desk, ready to read.

AMDG

The tree didn't really strike me as creepy. Mainly funny. But as for the problem of being around it, Janet, it doesn't look like that any more. That shore is constantly changing and the tree is not in the water now, and mainly you just see the two uprights sticking up out of the sand, so the human-figure effect isn't really there.

Your review is excellent, Craig. I see we are of very similar minds about the book.

I had only read the first paragraph of the Clifton Fadiman intro when I wrote this post. I read the rest of it this morning and I see that he's pretty much on the same page, too. He was writing in the 1940s and says it was only "in the last twenty years" that MD was more widely and fully appreciated.

Rob, I haven't read Hawthorne for a long time, but from what I remember I think I'd find it a comedown to read him after Melville. Or at least after MD. I read Typee in college and wasn't much impressed. Even at that age I thought it was sort of naive in its "these primitives are so superior"-ness. But that could be a very mistaken impression.

I'm way behind on finishing Marion Montgomery's "Prophetic Poet" trilogy because the last book is on Hawthorne, and I've read very little of him.

Well, both of yours are much deeper than mine, but I agree with all you say.

https://readingmylibrary1.blogspot.com/2018/07/moby-dick-by-herman-melville.html

AMDG

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."

That is pretty much how I feel even now. I have very little interest in apologetics. I will only discuss that sort of thing if I am talking to someone who asks a question. I just want to try to live my Catholic life and help other people hang in there. ;-)

AMDG

I'm just trying to hang in there, Janet. I think I need help. Wait a second, I guess we all do.

"Come on, man, just let it go." needs to be the new mantra for 21st century America.

I think the only things I've ever read by Hawthorne are Young Goodman Brown, and The House of Seven Gables (and some of his children's mythologies). I liked Seven Gables, but it is SO dark, and what little I've read of The Scarlet Letter--a very few pages--is also dark. As dark as Ahab's quest is, though, Moby Dick always seemed to me to be infused with light.

I always think that I should read The Scarlet Letter, and maybe I will soon, but I think my next novel will be The Violent Bear It Away.

AMDG

So, obviously dark.

AMDG

I think there's something close to a consensus across several generations of high school students that The Scarlet Letter is boring. And of course we need to Listen To The Youth.

I was wondering earlier whether Montgomery had written about Melville at all. That would be interesting.

"...the new mantra..." Yes!

There are maybe a couple of dozen references to Melville in the footnotes to Why Hawthorne Was Melancholy.

My current book is Joan Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem. She was quoting that before it was cool. Also dark.

"There are maybe a couple of dozen references to Melville in the footnotes to Why Hawthorne Was Melancholy."

I suspected so. I believe MM mentioned him in passing several times in the first couple volumes.

"My current book is Joan Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem"

Just bought that recently but haven't started it. Currently reading D.C. Schindler's recent book on Locke, Freedom From Reality, after reading two collection of D.B. Hart's essays back to back.

Maclin, Did you ever read Each Man in his Darkness?

Every time you mention Joan Didion, I think, "I need to read that." But how to fit it in?

AMDG

In response to the "western canon" aspect of this post, that is certainly my goal, reading and re-reading great European and American novels from mainly the 19th century but some before and some after, probably none in the 21st century. We might agree on what to actually read, but the re-reading part does become difficult. I just re-read Les Miserables, and think I enjoyed it this second time more than the first, but my goodness it is a long slog. This has me wanting to re-read War & Peace, just as long if not slightly longer. Both of these make a re-read of Moby-Dick seem like childs play. I get a lot out of reading a book a second (or third) time that I did not get the first time around, when I seem more interested in the framework/plot of the novel and perhaps am less keenly into the details. Then of course there is my predisposition to buy new versions of classic novels if my original ones seem old, yellowy, cracked, etc. there being so many new ones always being published. Someone has to support the book industry!

I'm sure you are storing up treasure in heaven by buying books. :-)

When I talked about reading All The Books, I meant starting with Homer. I even have a copy of selections from Homer in Greek, and a Greek textbook. Such were the illusions of youth....

No, I haven't read Each Man yet, Janet, but I plan to. It was actually next on my list, but I picked up the Didion book to look up one thing and decided to read it all, back-to-front, which I'd never done before--it's essays so you can pick and choose.

Wow, that is a much more lofty goal, Mac. I do often wish that I could read in French and Latin, but other than that my goals are a little less than Homer in the Greek and forward.

I have the textbook to read Homer and I actually studied it for a while. I keep thinking that I should get rid of it, and then I think, "Not yet."

AMDG

If the Didion is essays, I will try to get it on Hoopla tomorrow.

AMDG

The time for me to give away the Greek books has definitely arrived.

I have a lot of theological books I need to say goodbye to. I'm simply not that interested in straight theology anymore and most of them have not been looked at in ages. I think the last time I read an actual work of theology was probably around 2005.

Reading theology mostly went the way of reading Homer in Greek for me. Gilson's four-volume commentary on Aquinas is another one I need to unload. Though I think the reason I have it in the first place is that a college library was discarding it and I thought I should save it.

That's how I got my 30 volume Eerdman's Church Fathers. It's gone now.

I have one Gilson that I'm keeping because I think I would like to have some idea what he was like.

AMDG

30?!?!? I guess I might have done that, too, to save it from death.

I had wanted a set of those for years, and they were selling them in the seminary library for 50 cents each. I couldn't believe that none of the seminarians wanted them. So, when I showed interest, the librarian said I could have them. However, the pages were deteriorating and I couldn't read them for long, so after 10 years, I gave them to the public library to sell.

AMDG

I hope somebody buys them. And maybe even reads them.

Mac --

Two lines in this marvelous post compel me to comment.

1. Moby Dick being told in Hemingway-esque prose is the most thought-provoking idea I have come across in...well, in some time. I agree with you that it could be effective, assuming readers who are willing to do the extra work that Hemingway requires of his readers. And then it occurred to me that, in one sense, Moby Dick and The Old Man and the Sea tell the same story. Isn't Ahab's tragedy the same one that Santiago -- Hemingway's old man -- identifies as his own: he "went out too far"? A tragedy that's not really a tragedy, or, at the very worst, the defining tragedy of the human spirit.

2. What does it mean when you dream about a Nash Metropolitan? It means you're at least as old as I am. Question: Was it the pink-and-white, the aqua-and-white, or the yellow-and-white? That could be significant.

1. I was thinking of Old Man, actually. Definitely a broad similarity. I haven't read it for a long time, but if memory serves, the situations are similar but the old man is Ahab's opposite. Or maybe only 90 degrees from him rather than 180. Anyway, I remember the old man being purely resigned, not defiant and obsessed like Ahab.

2. There were two, one indeed aqua-and-white but the other red-and white. Whereas the one I knew in real life, which belonged to a teenage friend of mine, was yellow-and-white. It was a preposterous vehicle, embarrassing to be seen in, which we could only deal with by treating it as a joke.

p.s. Thank you.

I didn't know Nash Metropolitan was a car, but as soon as Jeff mentioned the colors, it appeared in my mind.

AMDG

You mean you remembered seeing one?

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