Monday, September 9, 2013

Everyone Should Read Moby-Dick

Part of a series on Stuff You Might Not Know About.

This book totally rules. Just look at it: this is the plot, right here, in this picture. Click to enlarge.

The harpoon and the line fly through,
Very deep into the whale;
She split the timbers of the ship,
With a flurry of her tail.

—"The Humpback Whale," Traditional, arr. Nic Jones

Every year at the University of Chicago Scav Hunt, the team captains are required by the rules of the Hunt to dress up in certain garb: samurai gear, say, or ball gowns; it varies from year to year. A few years ago, the required costume was famous fictional captains: one team's captains all dressed as Captain Han Solo, for example, and another's dressed as Captain Ahab. On Scav Judgement Day, I visited the team with the Captain Ahabs and hung out for a bit, examining their coolest items and chatting with acquaintances on the team. And I noticed something very wrong: all the Captain Ahabs had wooden legs.

In Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab is indeed missing a leg, but his prosthesis is made out of whale bone, not wood. It's kind of a key image in the book: a whale bites Ahab's leg off, so he fashions a replacement from the jawbone of a whale and swears revenge on the whale that dared to maim him. It's pretty badass. I asked around, and it turned out that not only did none of the Scav team captains knew this, none of the members of their team did either. In short, none of these kids had actually read Moby-Dick.

I was sad, not because I was surprised, but because it confirmed a suspicion I'd had for a while: no one reads Moby-Dick. "If this gaggle of bright, inquisitive, creative, and intelligent young people hasn't read it," I thought, "who has?"

This is less elitist than it sounds. This is not about "kids these days blah blah no one reads the classics blah blah I'm so smart I know all the things and you don't." What bothers me isn't that people don't read the classics, or anything like that; instead, it's that Moby-Dick has this horrible reputation for being a total downer, a needlessly challenging slog through heavy-handed metaphors and hard-to-absorb 19th-century prose. The way people talk about it just makes it sound profoundly un-fun and hard to read.

Here's the thing: that reputation is bogus. Moby-Dick is a beautiful, weird, wicked, funny, thoughtful, and emotionally engaging book.

Moby-Dick is the story of one man's quest to get revenge on a whale that bit off his leg, but it is way, way more than that also. In addition to the plot, which is scary, weird, and awesome, there are asides on philosophy, theology, and most importantly, cetology: sometimes Melville will just take a chapter off from the plot and explain what he thinks about, say, whales and whale science; it's magical because, if you dig it, it's really fun, and if you don't, you can skip it with no consequences for your understanding of the novel's plot. Throughout the book there are playful moments and disturbing moments and plenty of stuff that is just plain strange. Moby-Dick contains so much that, if you read it, you will almost certainly find something you really like in it.

My favorite thing about Moby-Dick is probably the narrator's (that is, Ishmael's) little moral asides, his moments of minor philosophizing. They tend to be funny and to ring true, and they're also often somewhat progressive for a man of his day. For example, after Ishmael freaks the heck out when he finds out his bedmate for the night at the inn he's staying at is a "savage cannibal" from parts unknown (and not, in fact, a white person) this happens:
 "'You gettee in,' [Queequeg] added, motioning to me with his tomahawk, and throwing the [bed] clothes to one side. He really did this in not only a civil but a really kind and charitable way. I stood looking at him a moment. For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What's all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself- the man's a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian. (Chapter 3, emphasis mine)
Or check out this little bit, in which Ishmael defends his decision to go to sea as a sailor and get ordered around by some "old hunks" of a captain:
What of it, if some old hunks of a sea-captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks? What does that indignity amount to, weighed, I mean, in the scales of the New Testament? Do you think the archangel Gabriel thinks anything the less of me, because I promptly and respectfully obey that old hunks in that particular instance? Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that. Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about- however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way- either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content. (Chapter 1, emphasis mine)

There's lots more to be said in the book's favor, but I don't want this post to get too long; the last thing I'll says is that the book has some incredibly rich, beautiful language, which, if the reader slows down and really drinks it in, can provide moments of pure, readerly pleasure unlike almost any book I've ever known.* In this scene, for example, a boat caught in a storm is described with mesmerizing power:
The wind increased to a howl; the waves dashed their bucklers together; the whole squall roared, forked, and crackled around us like a white fire upon the prairie, in which unconsumed, we were burning; immortal in these jaws of death! In vain we hailed the other boats; as well roar to the live coals down the chimney of a flaming furnace as hail those boats in that storm. Meanwhile the driving scud, rack, and mist, grew darker with the shadows of night; no sign of the ship could be seen. The rising sea forbade all attempts to bale out the boat. The oars were useless as propellers, performing now the office of life-preservers. So, cutting the lashing of the waterproof match keg, after many failures Starbuck contrived to ignite the lamp in the lantern; then stretching it on a waif pole, handed it to Queequeg as the standard-bearer of this forlorn hope. There, then, he sat, holding up that imbecile candle in the heart of that almighty forlornness. There, then, he sat, the sign and symbol of a man without faith, hopelessly holding up hope in the midst of despair. (Chapter 48)
 I really think that everyone who can should read Moby-Dick. Folks might just love it as much as I did.

This post owes a large debt to Robert Alter's book The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age and especially to Walker Percy's short essay Herman Melville (check it out if you're on the fence).

*Note that reading Moby-Dick kind of ruined all other books for me for a few months after I finished it, because pretty much nothing on earth is as rich, beautiful, and strange. It can be hard to get back into paperback sci-fi after stewing your brain in Melville's language for a while. 

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  1. Do you remember Hannah C? Not only did she read Moby Dick but could quote it at length, including that passage about the universal thump and rubbing each other's shoulders. I think she lives the philosophy in a way. She has a tattoo from the book as well.

  2. Holy cow, that's awesome! I wish I did remember her. She sounds radical.