Thursday, May 24, 2018

A Damp, Drizzly November in my Soul

What book published before 1900 left an indelible impression on you? 

From Jim

Moby Dick (Herman Melville, 1850) is not an easy novel to read. Or, rather, parts of it are difficult. The encyclopedic chapters that tell us more than we’d ever want to know about 19th century whaling, ships, navigation, rigging, monkey ropes, and try-works have perplexed, challenged, and bored countless students for generations. Ever wonder what the rendering of whale blubber smells like?

“(The try-works’ smoke) has an unspeakable, wild, Hindoo odor about it, such as may lurk in the vicinity of funereal pyres. It smells like the left wing of the day of judgment; it is an argument for the pit.”

In addition to the stench of melting fat, Melville treats us to exhaustive detail on whales themselves, their heads, teeth, and skeletons, even their dying habits. Talk about loading up on exposition and background... It seems the author, like many of us, was tempted to include every bit of his research come hell or high water—and did! Something approaching half the book has nothing to do with Ahab’s obsessive chase of the great white whale, but is scientific or technical in nature.

Yet I love this book. I love it for its first-person narrator. (I’ve never understood how some obdurate readers can refuse to read anything written in the first person.) Ishmael is, in fact, one of the most famous narrators in all literature. He is the witness. The sole survivor of the Pequod’s fateful voyage. Oh, come on! The book was published 168 years ago. That’s not a spoiler! His opening paragraph is at the same time poetic, literary, and downright modern. Who among us hasn’t felt some kind of wanderlust when we feel a damp, drizzly November in (our) soul? Or when we are tempted to descend into the street and methodically knock people’s hats off? Ishmael takes us from boarding houses in New Bedford, Massachusetts, past maelstroms and through typhoons, all the way around the world. And through his lens we learn what percentage a crewman might make on a three-year voyage in search of precious whale oil. And what might happen to maniacal zealots who obsess over unholy leviathans. Kind of reminds me of a certain foaming-at-the-mouth maniac in the White House and his fixation with his immediate predecessor...

Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

I get giddy over the allegory and religious imagery in Moby Dick. And the language. It’s antiquated, tragic, and epic. At times it calls to mind the Old Testament. 

“Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” 

The realization of the Parsee’s prophesy of Ahab’s death “by hemp” is mythical and magical in its accuracy and inevitability.

“The harpoon was darted; the stricken whale flew forward; with igniting velocity the line ran through the groove;—ran foul. Ahab stooped to clear it; he did clear it; but the flying turn caught him round the neck, and voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim, he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone.” 

After hundreds of pages, Ahab’s death happens in an instant and, though foretold, manages to take us by surprise. And despite popular opinion, Ahab does not end up lashed to the whale. (Except in the movie with Gregory Peck.) It’s the Parsee who suffers that fate. 

Suddenly, it’s the epilogue. The rescue of Ishmael, floating atop a casket sent rocketing from the depths of the vortex caused by the sinking Pequod, hints at a divine mercy. Not even the “gliding sharks” or sea-hawks dare harm him, but witness his deliverance instead.

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