Monday, June 23, 2014

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851)

So d'ya think Melville added the alternate title so people could use it when in the presence of thirteen-year-old boys to keep them from snickering (let's just forget for a moment that all his books have secondary titles, eh?)?  If that was the goal, I feel the constant references to sperm getting all over the place would probably mostly cancel it out.  Anyway, whatever you want to call it, I think it was the biggest lacuna in my literary education--certainly in terms of American lit--so it had to be read.

This is one of those books that's so, so‚Ķmuch, that I hardly feel qualified to talk about it.  One thing I can definitely say, though: I really, really appreciate that the original Great American Novel is so completely fucking unhinged.  And if it feels like that now, what must it have a hundred sixty years ago?  As you know, I am not what you would call a patriot, but I must admit, I feel the faint stirrings of national pride when I reflect that we've so indisputably given a book like this a very prominent place in the literary canon.  I mean, sure, you can maybe say the same thing about, say, Gravity's Rainbow, but that was done in an atmosphere that feels a lot more rarified, you know?  Whereas Moby Dick is substantially more widely established.  Everyone knows the name, and probably at least the bare outline of the plot (such as it is).

There have been a fair few filmic adaptations, and I also feel like that really shows up the extent to which the novel is ahead of its time.  There are definitely bits of the novel that would lend itself well to a cinematic conversion, but if you were going to be even a tiny bit faithful to the novel, you would end up with the most bizarre movie ever, and certainly not one that would have any commercial potential whatsoever.  It would be a plotless movie, half of which would consist of bits of whale documentary interspersed with philosophical musings, and a large percentage of the rest would consist of the Pequod meeting other boats and Ahab going "hast seen the white whale?  No?  Well, bye then!"  Yes, there's some exquisite madness from Ahab (though I was actually surprised how understated that is until very near the end), and yes, there are a few ominous mystics prophesying doom, which is all good fun, but that's a pretty small percentage of the whole.  All of which is to say, it just goes to show: Melville was doing things that film (at least outside the far-avant-garde), for better or for worse, would never dare to do.

It's also one of those books where I feel like the concept of "enjoyment" is woefully inadequate; when you think about it, judging any book that isn't pure escapism by that metric radically straitens your literary horizons, but here more than most.  So the All About Whales sections-- there are people who will claim to have unreservedly enjoyed these parts, but I don't really feel like we can trust those people, 'cause come on.  I know you want to seem all erudite and shit, but whom do you think you're kidding?  You might as well claim to be wild about the list o' ships in the Iliad.  I feel like you're buying into the same "it must be enjoyable to be good" as less high-brow people are, and going, SHIT--this book is GOOD; ergo, it MUST be non-stop entertainment!  

Honestly, there are places that are a bit of a grind, but it kind of reminds me in that regard of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels: it creates a cumulative effect.  If I were to reread it, would I do a li'l skimming in places?  Indubitably.  But it's just such an amazing thing, as deep and unfathomable as the ocean itself (okay, that was a hackneyed simile; sorry, it just came out).  As I read it, I was at sea: sure, I've read books that most people would probably consider more "difficult," but at least with Ulysses or what have you I generally have an idea of what the intent is, whereas here?  Rarely.  The sheer tracklessness of Moby Dick is kind of stunning, in multiple senses of the word.  Sure, I can complain about it: I could argue that, in spite of everything, the expository bits are rather more than is necessary for the use; I could note that most of the characters--even seemingly important ones--sort of flit in and out without ever really making any lasting impact; I could suggest that killing off the entire cast at the end feels sort of gratuitously nihilistic; I could note that, no matter what Melville insists, a whale is not a fish, dammit; I could even--though I know to do so would be missing the point to a comical extent--say "I don't approve of whaling."  But this is neither here nor there.  Hackneyed it may be, but I'm really struggling to find a better word than "oceanic" to describe the reading experience.  You don't look at the ocean and go, "well, that wave could certainly have been more aesthetically pleasing."  It's the fucking ocean, man.


Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

I think you're spot on about the cumulative effect of all the non-plot business. The book is taught in any number of college classes, but at many of them (the one at Earlham at least), my understanding is that the reading assignments tend not to include most of the "non-plot" bits. That's maybe understandable given the amount of material you want to cover in a course and the reading habits of undergrads, but it does seem like it might be missing a good deal of the point.

I don't know about your comments on "enjoyment" falling shy as a metric for anything not intended as pure escapism though. I picked up The Wings of the Dove by HJ a while back, and while I admit I haven't read it yet, the cover flap assures me that this book "will carry you to new heights of reading pleasure."

11:58 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

New heights? Shit. Let me know how that works out for you.

Clearly, the very concept of "enjoyment" is a helluva lot more complex than I'm making it out. No doubt there have been books written on the subject.

12:33 PM  

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