Friday, July 15, 2016

Friday BookReview: MOBY DICK -- America's majestic novel

"To the Sea, to the Sea! The white gulls are crying,
 The wind is blowing, and the white foam is flying..."
    (the elf Legolas in Lord of the Rings)

Here is the 30th chapter of Herman Melville's story -- a single page entitled 'The Pipe':
When Stubb had departed, Ahab stood for a while leaning over the bulwarks; and then, as had been usual with him of late, calling a sailor of the watch, he sent him below for his ivory stool, and also his pipe. Lighting the pipe at the binnacle lamp, and planting the stool on the weather side of the deck, he sat and smoked. 
In old Norse times, the thrones of the sea-loving Danish kings were fabricated, saith tradition, of the tusks of the narwhal [a large fish with a unicorn-like, long sharp twisted tusk sticking out of his head]. How could one look at Ahab then, seated on that tripod of bones, without bethinking him of the royalty it symbolised? For a Khan of the plank, and a king of the sea, and a great lord of Leviathans was Ahab.
Some moments passed, during which the thick vapor came from his mouth in quick and constant puffs, which blew back again into his face. "How now," he soliloquised at last, withdrawing the tube, "this smoking no longer soothes. Oh my pipe! hard must it go with me if thy charm be gone! Here I have been unconsciously toiling, not pleasuring, -- aye, and ignorantly smoking to windward all the while; to windward, and with such nervous whiffs, as if, like the dying whale, my final jets were the strongest and fullest of trouble. What business have I with this pipe? This thing that is meant for sereneness, to send up mild white vapors among mild white hairs, not among torn iron-grey locks like mine. I'll smoke no more." 
He tossed the still lighted pipe into the sea. The fire hissed in the waves; the same instant the ship shot by the bubble the sinking pipe made. With slouched hat, Ahab lurchingly paced the planks.

"Reality outran apprehensions; Captain Ahab stood upon his quarter-deck."

Take a look at this short video of Nathaniel Philbrick's overview of the novel.

Queequeg, son of a cannibal chieftain

Some excerpts from a review by Chris Riddell:

I had known about Moby Dick for a long time, but until last year I never attempted reading it. The reason I picked it up was because an editor friend recommended it to me along with a list of other classic literature...

Moby Dick begins with one of the most famous opening lines in all of literature: “Call me Ishmael.” He is the story’s narrator throughout the Pequod’s three year voyage on the seas led by the monomaniac Captain Ahab. As a lowly deckhand, he does not often take action but mostly is a passive observer in much the way that a journalist would report a news story. He is on the side lines watching and telling us the story. In many ways, he is the perfect narrator. At times digressive, insightful, and vulgar he takes us inside the whaler’s world.

It is dense, and long, but also transcendent. Moby Dick is one of those books that every aspiring author should read. Herman Melville created a work so timeless that people today can still learn a lot about the craft of writing from it. Every line is like poetry. Take this passage for example explaining how Ahab lost his leg, and why he so fervently hates the whale.
"And then it was, that suddenly sweeping his sickle-shaped lower jaw beneath him, Moby Dick had reaped away Ahab’s leg, as a mower a blade of grass in the field. No turbaned Turk, nor no hired Venetian or Malay, could have smote him with more seeming malice. Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations."
The book is filled with writing like this. But one of the frustrating things for many people who try to read Moby Dick is in how Melville focuses on very specific aspects of the whaling industry and describes them to extreme detail and length...

There are many times when his style works very well. For example, there is one entire chapter called 'The Whiteness of the Whale,' which is over 3000 words and only talks about the color white with an inexhaustible compendium of metaphors and similes. You can’t help but wonder where he comes up with this stuff.
"This elusive quality it is, which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds. Witness the white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics; what but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors they are?"
All throughout Moby Dick, Melville demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of whales and the whaling industry. At times it’s hard to figure out what the hell he’s taking about because of all the technical terminology. Thankfully there are footnotes and endnotes... Not only is Moby Dick a novel, but it also doubles as a textbook on the practice of whaling. Entire chapters are devoted to things like the whale’s teeth, or the valuable oil the crew extracts from their bodies.

At its core, Moby Dick is about obsession and self-destruction. Ahab’s quest to find the whale sends them all over the world and he will stop at nothing until he drives his spear deep into the whale’s heart. Hence the famous line in the final chapter: "From hell’s heart I stab at thee. For hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee." Ahab puts aside the safety of his own crew, and even his own mortality in pursuit of vengeance. In the end, one cannot take revenge on an animal and we see Ahab’s final doom in the futility of it all.

Moby Dick suffers from being one of those books that is studied rather than enjoyed, but there is tremendous value in here for anyone...The enjoyment of this book lies in Melville’s elegant prose, and the beauty contained in each passage. I put it down with a great feeling of achievement, as if I had come home from a long journey...



One of my favorite characters is Father Mapple, pastor of the Whaleman's Chapel in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

"He had been a sailor and a harpooner in his youth, but for many years past had dedicated his life to the ministry." He ascended to the pulpit via a perpendicular side ladder, "as if ascending the main-top of his vessel." Then, he would "deliberately drag up the ladder step by step, till the whole was deposited within, leaving him impregnable in his little Quebec... Yes, the world's a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow."

Father Mapple leafed through his Bible, and proceeded to deliver a sermon on Jonah:
"Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters -- four yarns -- is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah's deep sea-line sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish's belly!" 
He reminds his flock that "all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do... and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavours to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists." 
"Sin not; but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah... [After the whale vomited him out on dry land] the word of the Lord came a second time; and Jonah, bruised and beaten -- his ears, like two sea-shells, still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean -- Jonah did the Almighty's bidding. And what was that, shipmates? To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood! That was it!" 
"Woe to him whom this world charms from Gospel duty! Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale!... Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation! Yea, woe to him who, as the great Pilot Paul has it, while preaching to others is himself a castaway!" 
"But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is a sure delight; and higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep. Is not the main-truck higher than the kelson is low?"

Moby Dick continues with Ishmael setting out for the island where so many whaling vogages commenced. Accompanied by his new best friend, the South Sea harpooner Queequeg, they board a packet schooner in New Bedford, and "... after a fine run, we safely arrived in Nantucket. Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore... Look at it -- a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background. There is more sand there than you would use in twenty years as a substitute for blotting paper. Some gamesome wights [a living being] will tell you that they have to plant weeds there, they don't grow naturally... that pieces of wood in Nantucket are carried about like bits of the true cross in Rome... that one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day's walk a prairie... "

"Praise Him, you that sail the sea;
 praise Him, all creatures of the sea!"
                    (Isaiah 42)

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