Monday, November 17, 2008

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

Long ago, in my youth, I subscribed to the notion that, if a work of art were sufficiently beautiful and perfect (at the time I believed the words to be somewhat interchangeable, a notion I've since been disabused of) that it would unavoidably affect the audience that through sheer muscular power, it would overtake the human reader, viewer, listener, etc with the message it meant to convey to them.
The implication of any such idea is, of course, fairly arrogant - if someone does not understand or enjoy some beautiful thing, it must either needs be that the beauty is not good enough or that the viewer is less than human.
That's hogwash, Emily Dickinson taught me that. Beauty, like all good things, is what it is, and requires the hard work, and often the incidental good luck, of the viewer to enjoy it. Statements to the contrary - statements that a given work of art must be enjoyed by any sufficiently sensitive soul, are demeaning to beauty itself, and horrifyingly dismissive of humanity.
Moby Dick is like that. IT's not an easy book, it's not really even a 'fun' book, I suppose, although it can be fairly involving at times. But it is beautiful, beautifully constructed, beautifully conceptualized (though, in accordance with my other disabused notion, far from perfect). Recounting the plot would be pointless, as the plot is far from central to the story. Recounting the characters would be pointless, because their exceeding humanity makes them difficult to express in short words. Like the Bible, the beauty of Moby Dick is in it's utter density and breadth. Of all American novels, there are many that are more poignant, there are many that are more perfect, there are a few that are equally beautifully wrought, but there are very, very few that approach it in it's complexity, in it's ability to speak to such a low, hollow place that it echoes into all hollows of the consciousness. In some sense, every struggle of the American people is tied up somewhere in the story of a whaling ship chasing a white whale, in it's mad captain, in it's invisble narrator, in it's 'heathen' harpooners, in the mysticism of Starbuck, and the blind, mindless humor and courage of Stubb.
I've heard that Moby Dick is the favorite novel of President-Elect Obama, a fact I found out after starting this novel, and after writing about my feelings about the new president's task in rebirthing American history. In the best and worst of ways, in the congenial fraternity of the men squeezing the lumps out of the spermaceti, in the mad defiance of Ahab staring down the whales gullet, in the fading spectre of the Rachel coursing the sea in search of it's lost children, and finding only the wandering Ishmael floating on his best friend's empty coffin, this novel seems like an appropriate metaphor, hopeful and hopeless, spiritual and godless, full, empty, overblown, excessively simple, endlessly faulted, and completely whole, for America as she crouches with the lance today, as she stood on the bowsprits of history in Melville's time, as she will lie at the bottom of an endless ocean a year, a hundred years or a thousand years from now.
Moby-Dick or, The Whale (Penguin Classics)
By: Herman Melville
Amazon Price: $13.00

13 comments:

Amanda said...

I will thank my lucky stars if I manage to get through life without ever having to read this one. *shudder* Sorry Jase, I just don't like Melville. This review didn't up my opinion of him any. ;)

hamilcar barca said...

i was told (and admittedly, i have never confirmed this) that the first umpteen chapters of Moby Dick are nothing more than a technical treatise on whaling. if so, that's enough for me to continue to avoid the book.

Amanda said...

I've heard many people say that Melville wanted to write a fictional novel, but also wanted to write a whaling mss (nonfictional), and couldn't decide. Moby Dick was supposed to be a combo of the two. I'm not sure if that's true or if it's just something people say. All I know is we read Billy Budd in HS, which is far tinier than Moby Dick, and it was one of the most awful things I've ever endured. I can't imagine Moby Dick is any better, especially if the big joke is that half of it was a whaling instructional guide.

Jason Gignac said...

Yeah, well, as I implied in my opening paragraph, I know not EVERYBODY likes it. Actually, the first umpteen chapters of Moby Dick are some of the most plotty in the book. It's only once you get on the ship, that Mr. Melville feels the need to interrupt with his views on whaling. Many of which are now proved eminently wrong. Many of which, honestly, I think he knew were wrong at the time, but that's a more arguable point.

It's kind of like Les Miserables. Could Hugo have written the book without giving me a treatise on the history of the Battle of Waterloo for 120 pages? Well, yes. But it wouldn't have been the same book. It might have been a good book, btu not the SAME book.

Amanda said...

A good reason for me to avoid Hugo, perhaps...then again, you've already told me I probably wouldn't like his work.

hamilcar barca said...

ooo. Les Miz. i have been banned by the rest of my family from ever attending that play again. maybe i should try the book instead.

Amanda said...

Hm, I want to hear THAT story...

Rebecca Reid said...

I absolutely loved reading Moby Dick in school, and I absolutely loved the Waterloo chapters in Les Mis.

Of course, I read Moby Dick under a deadline (I think 3 weeks) so I really should read it again without any time crunch.

Thanks for this great review, because I do want to reread it!

Booger said...

Would Moby Dick ever be considered a great work in the American literary canon if it were written today?

Jason Gignac said...

It would never be published today. Partly, of course, because it glorifies whaling, not the most popular topic these days, btu also because this kind of book doesn't get published now. Experimental work must either sleep with death or sneer at itself to be published in today's market. Sincerity is a dead art.

Amanda said...

You would consider Moby Dick "experimental"?? I don't think I've ever heard it given that distinction before.

Jason Gignac said...

'Experimental' - like 'Modern' - can mean two things. Do I mean it is in the 'experimental' genre? No, of course not. But, it's writing was very 'experimental' - noone had ever really written anything like Moby Dick, and not many books have ever really been like it since. I compare it to, for instance, Les Mis in the post, but it's not really LIKE that - Les Mis is a rambling work drawn across 50 or so different plotlines, spanning a good 50 years of time. Moby Dick really only has one plot, and spends a great deal of time not worrying about a plot at all, and Is compressed into about a few months time, and that only because it happens to take that long to sail around the world.

I'm not a close student of modern lit, mind you, so I don't mean to imply that I have a complete understanding of experimental literature, now. But most 'experimental' literature isn't really unique at all. Love it or hate it, Moby Dick is what it is, and there's very little else that is what Moby Dick is. It wasn't like anything before it, and it was sincere, a pretty rare combination in books.

Booger said...

Moby Dick is number one on the top ten list of whale books. The list is interesting, because it discusses the books that influenced Moby Dick and from which Melville "borrowed."

Philip Hoare's top 10 whale tales (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/oct/06/books.top.10.whales )