Saturday, June 28, 2014

Herman Melville — ‘Moby Dick; or, The Whale’

In 1995, I left a Wordsworth Classics edition of Moby Dick in the drawer of the bedside table when I moved out of Belmont Halls of Residence. That, and a thick hardback religious book I had had pressed upon me by an evangelist of some sort, still shrink-wrapped (no idea which book or religion). Between then and now, my room got stove by the commercialisation of university accommodation, replaced by Belmont Flats, a peculiarly angular construction, too jaunty for the acute angles to have any edge. But perhaps they are no worse than the drab ’60s concrete I remember. I left Moby Dick behind in frustration at not having finished it (and the religious book in embarrassment at having accepted it). I’ve seldom felt tempted to go back to it, because, for one thing, it’s 600 pages about the most reviled form of hunting there has ever been, and for another, good novels have to feature men and women, don’t they? There was no way it wasn’t going to be full of blood, guts and machismo. But The Confidence Man turned out to be great, and so did ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’; then Leviathan was one huge advert for reading it, so now seemed the right time to have another go. And do you know what? It is particular, inquisitive, inventive beyond belief. It even (occasionally) has animal rights tendencies:
Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take up a tooth out of the cannibal’s jaw? Cannibals? Who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that Fejee, I say, in the day of judgement, than for thee, civilised and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in their paté-de-fois-gras. (p. 327)
On the other hand it delights in gore, as in the chapter ‘The Shark Massacre’, when sharks are attracted by a whale carcass moored to the Pequod, and are kept at bay by Queequeg and Stubb, who hack at them with ‘whale-spades’:
They viciously snapped, not only at each other’s disembowelments, but like flexible bows, bent round, and bit their own; till those entrails seemed swallowed over and over again by the same mouth, to be oppositely voided by the gaping wound. (p. 329)
Isn’t that a great image? So pregnant with allegory, it could stand for hunting or consumerism; and it could certainly stand for Captain Ahab’s insane passion for catching Moby Dick, which eats away at him, but feeds him at the same time (what would he be without it? It is his only characteristic). Melville has a knack of creating irresistible images like this, the bigger and more grotesque the better. He has the crew of the Pequod catch a second whale before the first has been processed, and the heads of the two creatures are hung on either side of the ship:
The carcases of both whales had dropped astern; and the head-laden ship not a little resembled a mule carrying a pair of over-burdening panniers. (p. 358)
One is a sperm whale, the other is a right whale. He takes the opportunity to compare the anatomy of the two creatures:
standing in the Right Whale’s mouth, look around you afresh. Seeing all these colonnades of bone so methodically ranged about, would you not think you were inside the great Haarlem organ, and gazing upon its thousand pipes? (p. 366)
On to the sperm whale:
you observe that the mouth is entirely under the head, much in the same way, indeed, as though your own mouth were entirely under your chin. Moreover you observe that the whale has no external nose; and that what nose he has — his spout hole — is on the top of his head, nearly one third of his entire length from the front. (p. 368)
Just as Leviathan spends a good chunk of its length being a book not about whales but about Melville and Moby Dick, so Moby Dick itself spends the absolute bare minimum of its time being anything one might recognise as a novel. Ahab aside, its characters (and arguably the story) are relatively unimportant, compared to the great task of explaining all about whales and whaling. I’ve never read a novel with so much technical information, but it is riveting technical information. In chapter 72, ‘The Monkey-rope’, the process of flensing a whale (removing its skin and blubber) is described. A large hook is suspended from high up in the ship’s rigging, and attached to the blubber near the tail of the whale carcass floating alongside. Cuts are made, with the whale-spades, in a spiral around the whale’s body, to allow the skin and blubber to be peeled away like an orange skin. But here’s the crazy part: supervising the process is a man (here Queequeg) standing on the mostly-submerged whale carcass as it spins, surrounded by sharks trying to get at the flesh, and attached by this monkey-rope to a man on deck (Ishmael) whose job it is to jerk him back in to position whenever he slips or falls. Melville admits in a footnote to embroidering the truth: ‘The monkey-rope is found in all whalers; but it is only in the Pequod that the monkey and its holder were ever tied together’ (p. 350). This allows him an analogy with the dependence inherent in the human condition: ‘If your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die’ (p. 349). There is an undercurrent of attraction, too, between Ishmael and Queequeg: the latter dresses for the flensing ‘in the Highland costume — a skirt and socks — in which to my eyes at least, he appeared to uncommon advantage’ (p. 348). Love, too, is a monkey-rope.

I have covered fewer than twenty five pages of Moby Dick above. It is so dense with amazing thoughts, images, analogies, and raw information; it is like no other novel, and it gains stature from its imposing subject, rather than losing it from its circumscribed cast of characters. When I’d just started reading it, my mum asked, ‘Who is your sympathy with, the whalers or the whale?’, and I’ve thought about that a lot without coming to a conclusion. Ahab is not a sympathetic character, but neither is Moby Dick, who is equally gnarled and grotesque. I think he is a warning, though: his rage is justified, whereas Ahab’s is not. Sadly, his rebellion against the fishery (apparently based on fact) could not hope even to slow down its exploitation.

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