I’m an aspirational reader — meaning that my shelves are full of books I intend to read . . . some day. It is only with great reluctance that I am willing to admit defeat after years of gazing at their spines, and place some of them, unread, on the shelf in our office reserved for tomes destined to be sold off in bulk to the second-hand bookstore The Strand.
It was in this spirit that I bought a used copy of Moby-Dick a long time ago, hoping to read it again. I had it on a shelf in my bachelor-pad apartment for a while and then when I got married and my wife demanded a domestic book purge, it was removed to a shelf in my office. There it sat for a couple of years. Finally, over the holidays, the mood struck and time allowed, so I picked it up and reread Moby-Dick (skipping, I must confess, the most technically cetological parts).
I was stunned. Moby-Dick is a byword for literary greatness with an off-putting capital “G,” the kind of book you should read and the kind of book you probably have to read somewhere along the line during your education. None of this makes for a very appealing image for Melville’s masterpiece, but Moby-Dick outstrips its ponderous reputation in almost every way.
Outside the occasional treatises on marine biology, it is a crackling good read. I marveled at the wit and whimsy; the lush descriptive language; the Shakespearean soliloquies; the haunting sense of foreboding that builds from the first pages, when our narrator, Ishmael, tells us he decided to go to sea again after lingering around coffin warehouses, toward the finale that is no less crushing for its inevitability.
I last read it in high school and was amazed how much of it stuck with me. I read Remembrance of Things Past a few years ago and can’t recall a thing about it, except that the sentences are pretty. The major — and many of the not-so-major — episodes of Moby-Dick had stuck with me for a couple of decades, such is their vividness and power.
Melville published it when he was 32. Famously, its first edition never sold out and many copies were destroyed in a New York City fire, before the book’s reputation built after Melville’s death. It is, of course, a very odd book — part novel, part philosophical meditation, part play, part encyclopedia entry. E. M. Forster characterizes it as “Prophecy,” a select category of profound, world-encompassing fiction in which he also includes the works of Dostoevsky.
From my 21st-century, landlubbing perspective, the book is almost a brief against whaling. Although Ishmael extols the whaling business, there’s no glossing over its cruelty. As the whales are hunted down, they feel fear, rage, pain, and despair. At one point, Ishmael’s boat is becalmed in the midst of a circle of maternal whales visible beneath the surface. Nursing and pregnant, they “serenely revelled in dalliance and delight.”
But the blissful idyll is disturbed when a wounded whale, entangled in a harpoon line, is “tormented to madness.” The beast was “churning through the water, violently flailing with his flexible tail, and tossing the keen spade about him, wounding and murdering his own comrades.” Yes, that’s whaling. Ishmael notes, in one of his explanations of the finer points of the craft, that if a whaler accidentally lances a mother’s breast, “milk and blood rivallingly discolor the sea for rods.”
When the Pequod kills its first whale, it is almost night and the crew can’t carve it up until daybreak. Hanging off the side of the ship, it is food for a frenzy of sharks. One unaccustomed to the sight “would have almost thought the whole round sea was one huge cheese, and those sharks the maggots in it.” Ishmael’s friend, the harpooner Queequeg, stabs as many sharks as he can so the whale won’t be reduced to a skeleton by morning, and when he merely injures one it is feasted on by its voracious brethren, in a grotesquerie of viciousness.
While the sharks feast below, Stubb eats a steak carved from the whale on deck and “were you to turn the whole affair upside down, it would still be pretty much the same thing, that is to say, a shocking sharkish business enough for all parties.” Just so.
The particulars of whaling aside, Moby -Dick is obviously as weighted with symbolism as a T. S. Eliot poem. D. H. Lawrence wrote of the “White Whale”: “Of course he is a symbol. Of what? I doubt even Melville knew exactly. That’s the best of it.” For my part, I consider the book a tale of the fanaticism of a proto-totalitarian.
Ahab uses the same means, pursues the same purpose, and effects the same heedless destruction as history’s dictatorial monsters. In a demagogic speech near the beginning of the Pequod’s voyage, he whips the crew up into sharing the hateful urgency of his monomania. By the end, his control is total: “Alike, joy and sorrow, hope and fear, seemed ground to finest dust, and powdered, for the time, in the clamped mortar of Ahab’s iron soul.”
Ahab, this “proud, sad king,” this “grand, ungodly, god-like man,” is revolting against God and against nature. He honors only his own unyielding purpose. “What I’ve dared,” he declares, “I’ve willed, and what I’ve willed, I’ll do!” For him, “right worship is defiance.” Ahab rebukes his chief mate, Starbuck, who calls his obsessive quest for Moby Dick a form of blasphemy: “Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. . . . Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.”
Ahab is a twisted utopian. His pursuit of the whale is a gesture toward, as we put it around here, immanentizing the eschaton. “All evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.” The whale is the kulaks, the Jews, the intellectuals — whatever force in the world is falsely presumed to be the locus of its malevolence.
Such a project always makes elemental human sympathy impossible. In an affecting passage, the Pequod meets another ship, the Rachel, whose captain is distraught. In his own chase after Moby Dick, he has lost his twelve-year-old son, adrift somewhere at sea in a missing boat. He wants Ahab’s help in the search. Ahab will have none of it: “Even now I lose time.”
When he catches up to Moby Dick, the climactic three-day chase ensues, with repeated opportunities to turn back as the danger becomes ever clearer, and yet Ahab persists, even unto death for him and his crew. He is willing to sacrifice all the world, as represented by the Pequod, to his vision, raging at the whale, “From hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”
The failure of Ahab’s quest brings a blessed relapse into normality. The sharks and the birds, whipped to a frenzy during the final chase, are quiet. Ishmael is the sole survivor, eventually picked up by the Rachel, “that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”
And with that, back Moby-Dick goes on the shelf, with awe and enduring admiration.