Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Book Review: Why I love...Moby Dick

A while back I decided to re-read those books on my top book list.  First up was Moby Dick.

Highlighters are my friends
There’s something irresistible about Herman Melville’s 1851 opus, Moby Dick; a novel of monstrous proportions that lurches from high seas rollicking adventure to natural history to existential debate to political satire to etymology lesson like a green sailor yet to find his sea-legs.

From its famous first line ‘Call me Ishmael’ (in which out narrator is introduced) you might expect to become very well acquainted with our guide. But after 680 or so pages we end up knowing surprisingly little about him.  Despite a lengthy set-up in which Ishmael visits Natucket, selects his whaling ship and becomes very good friends with Queequeg (a friendly cannibal who carries around shrunken heads) we kind of lose sight of him as he slips from the narrative. 

Instead Melville embarks on detailed chapters on cetacean anatomy, philosophy, the grisly reality of whaling and of course Ahab – all without a single “I” in sight.  When Ishmael does pop up again it takes a moment to remember who he is.  And then there’s the genre and style of Moby Dick.  It’s a mashed-up tapestry of prose, poetry and drama.  We actually get monologues from Ahab, Starbuck and Stubb plus chapters made up entirely of script complete with stage directions and asides, breaking any remaining illusion of Ishmael actually owning this story.  It’s all very grandiose, Shakespearean, self-aware and also surprisingly modern; there’s just so many voices vying to be heard. 

And what about the ending?  After pages and pages (and pages) Moby Dick pulls Ahab down to a watery grave, along with the Pequod and all her crew (bar Ishmael) in just a few brief sentences.  It’s certainly a strange beast of a novel, but one that’s magnetic in its dramatic urgency.

At the centre of this watery maelstrom is Ahab’s obsession with hunting down the infamous white whale, Moby Dick, who chomped his leg off in an earlier encounter.  The crew may have thought they were off to see the world and gain their fortune in blubber, but soon they’re locked in a fatalistic journey to the depths of mania and madness.  Like the wiped out North American tribe the Pequod is named for, the ship is doomed and Ahab is the devil’s own.  One of my favourite scenes shows the crew working feverishly through the night burning the carcass of a whale in the try-works.

As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.

The Pequod hurtles towards her doom, the lives of her crew tied to Ahab’s infernal purpose – it’s all pretty epic.  Even worse is the sinister Fedallah, a creepy Parsee who Ahab smuggled aboard.  Fedallah spends most of his time literally hanging around in Ahab’s shadow so he doesn't cast one (clearly also of the devil) and prophesying an ominous future.

But Ahab isn't just a cut-out monomaniac.  Melville gives his captain Shakespearean tragic depths as we see both the extent of his hubris as well as the tantalising possibility of deliverance through Starbuck.  I'm a little bit in love with Starbuck.  Ahab’s first mate, he’s in between a rock and err...another bigger rock as he tries to follow his master while battling with the knowledge that Ahab is completely bonkers and will get them all killed.  There’s a great passage when he hovers outside the captain’s door, questioning whether to murder him.  Of course he can’t.

‘Oh my Captain! my Captain! noble soul! […] why should any one give chase to that hated fish! Away with me! Let us fly these deadly waters! Let us home!  Wife and child too are Starbuck’s […] this instant let me alter the course! […] See, see! The boy’s face from the window!  The boy’s hand on the hill!’

Nice try Starbuck.

However Ahab’s having none of it.  ‘This whole act’s immutably decreed,’ he tells poor Starbuck, ‘‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled.’

Ahab is created in the mould of Shakespearean tragic hero – flawed and doomed to follow his purpose to the end.  He reminds me a bit of Macbeth in V.vii when he’s outmanoeuvred and knows he’s heading for a sticky ending.  ‘They have tied me to the stake,’ Macbeth says, ‘I cannot fly / But, bearlike, I must fight the course.’  There’s something strangely impressive about a man who will always stand by his decisions and actions, even when they’re clearly insane. 

Noah's not bothered about Ahab's troubles
Other Shakespearean motifs abound in Moby Dick too, such as little Pip, the cabin boy who goes overboard.  When he’s picked up later he’s lost his mind through a mixture of pure terror and transcendental experience in the open empty waters: knowing God.  Not surprisingly he ends up living in Ahab’s cabin (the crazies stick together), reminiscent of Lear’s fool, poor Tom.

It’s no wonder that Khan Noonien Singh liberally quotes and adapts Moby Dick throughout STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982) – another reason I love this book.  Reading through Moby Dick and finding passages used in Star Trek is like looking in the pocket of a pair of jeans you haven’t worn in a while and finding a twenty (and it’s also one of the many reasons why the new reboot just isn't, well, real Star Trek….).  Like Ahab and his whale, Khan is obsessed with getting his revenge on Kirk and he will sacrifice anything and everyone to get it (there’s a great Moby Dick reference in STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT too concerning Picard and the Borg). 

In epic vengeful situations nothing beats a bit of Ahab:

Khan: ‘He tasks me! He tasks me, and I shall have him! I'll chase him round the Moons of Nibia, and round the Antares Maelstrom, and round Perdition's flames before I give him up!'

Ahab: He tasks me; he heaps me […] and I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up!’

Or when Khan borrows some of Ahab’s exact words from the end of the novel, as he also faces destruction:

Ahab: ‘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. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!’

And then there’s Moby Dick: Ahab’s nemesis and the epicentre of his rage.  The fact the whale is white makes it even more horrific; ‘an ‘elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than the redness which affrights in blood’.  Ahab believes Moby Dick is the source of all evil.  Yet at the same time Moby Dick is almost sublime – beautiful in its ghastliness and capable of bringing you closer to God – if you can actually figure out the divine workings going on.  The sailors dissect other whales they've killed, trying to pin down the essence of “whale-ness” but it’s something they can’t find or explain.  The white whale becomes a site where meanings multiply and collapse.  The ultimate mystery, Moby Dick sinks from view, Ahab trapped forever in its jaws (as you can see Melville brings out the grandiose in anyone).

Best Moby Dick Quotes

‘Come, Ahab’s compliments to ye; come and see if ye can swerve me. Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! man has ye there. Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!’

‘He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.’

‘Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.’

Moby Dick goes with…

  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov for obsession
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison for a darkly destructive and obsessive relationship

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