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Nonsense, Fiction, and Miscellaneous Things

Herman Melville's 'Moby Dick'
Moby Dick is exhausting.  A single reading does not entirely reveal what Melvillle, rather frantically, wants to convey.

On one level, the book is about the narrator, Ishmael, and his 3-year long whaling voyage.  On this level, emphasizing the distinction between Ishmael and 'Ishmael's voyage', seems necessary.  Sometimes Ishmael's character itself is the story, sometimes Ishmael's character is only necessary as he is the bearer of the news of this story or voyage.  It's hard to swallow if you read it as either a story about Ishmael alone, or as a story about 'Ishmael's voyage' alone.  You kind of have to read it as both.

So what does one come away with from just one reading of this mighty book.

For me, two things.  One is the language and writing style of Melville.  He often clarifies his sentences with additional modifying clauses and the like.  There seems to be an obvious joy for him in doing this.  He's not writing with conformity but, rather, to clarify his say. In the process the sentences are unusually long and u-turn on themselves as Melville further clarifies an initial thought.

For example, I'll edit a couple of Melville's paragraphs in a modern sort of cropped or abridged style, then I'll quote Melville's actual paragraphs.
For all these reasons then, Ahab plainly saw that he must still in a good degree continue the nominal purpose of the Pequod.
Be this as it may, his voice was often heard hailing the three mast-heads and admonishing them to keep a bright lookout.  This vigilance was not long without reward.

For all these reasons then, and others perhaps too analytic to be verbally developed here, Ahab plainly saw that he must still in a good degree continue true to the natural, nominal purpose of the Pequod's voyage; observe all customary usages; and not only that, but force himself to evince all his well-known passionate interest in the general pursuit of his profession.
Be all this as it may, his voice was now often heard hailing the three mast-heads and admonishing them to keep a bright lookout, and not omit reporting even a porpoise. This vigilance was not long without reward.1
The long sentences with their modifying clauses don't obfuscate some simple point but, rather, point out Melville's, rather more involved, intellection .  After reading these long sentences I found myself, in my own conversations, modifying in order to clarify although not to the extent Melville does. I was affected by his writing.  I don't expect this to be a long-term effect of having read Moby Dick, just a short-term effect.

The second thing I come away with is that the theme of the book, which is often described as being about man's obsessiveness or obsessive nature, is almost as likely to be about two types of adaptings. Each of these adaptings is like an opposite to the other.  

Ishmael, in adapting to life during this era, is
a bit of a wanderer .  He's bookish, learned, and seems to avoid most of the standard commitments of life of this era.  He wants to get away from society so to speak. On the other end is Captain Ahab. Captain Ahab's adapting is of a joining sort.  Ahab is an integral part of  the whaling economy of Nantucket, he's married with a young son, he's Captain of the ship Pequod, and he's an experienced whaleman within the whalemen community.  He can get very passionate in these roles as opposed to reflecting on them.  Ishmael on the other hand seems to spend 90 percent of his time reflecting on people, places, and things.   So these two are, sort of, opposites.  Unfortunately, having read Moby Dick only once I can't honestly say much more about this relationship.  Which brings me to another point.

I have the feeling that any real understanding of the book requires a minimum of 2 or 3 readings.  There is just too much going on; whaling, mentions of historical figures, mentions of historical events which have nothing to do with whaling, renditions of Shakespeare's style of writing, quite a few characters other than Ishmael.  All these things seem to have their peculiar place in the novel.  Understanding their place and their respective support of the story is hard to do in one reading. The more re-readings, the better will be one's understanding of the book. Since I've only read it once, I can only give a superficial reading of it. 

Also, it seems the reader is expected to be as familiar with the history of civilization as Melville appears to be, and if you're not as familiar with people and events of an historic kind then you probably won't understand the intricacies of all his allusions.  The story will, somewhat, fly over your head as it did mine.  The allusions are frequent and I didn't stop to investigate any of them.  Reading it this way makes Melville's writing seem like a headlong rush which blows past the reader without a second thought to the reader's discernment.  This effect is similar to the unstoppable, headlong rush of the whale Moby Dick.      

What follows was posted before I finished the book.  Although it's not an entirely pertinent description of the confusion I sometimes had, it is illustrative of a confusion that Melville, sort of, brushes aside.  His concern seems for the story not the reader.

So, you take a date, boyfriend or girlfriend, to a magician's show.  The show starts, the magician is onstage.  A female assistant brings out a box to be used in the first trick.  It's about 5' high X 5'wide.  You lean in to your date and say, 'This is the trick where the girl crawls into the box and out come 2 girls.'  You return to sitting normally and prepare for the magic.  The assistant walks offstage, the sides of the box drop to the floor resulting in a flat piece of cardboard lying on the floor. 2 other, male, assistants rush onstage and drag the flattened box offstage.  The crowd, somewhat dumbfounded, applauds anyway.  Next, the first assistant returns, delivering a hoola-hoop to the magician.  You lean into your date and say, 'Oh, this is the one in which the girl disappears as the hula-hoop is dropped over her body.'  The magician takes the hoop and, with outstretched arms, turning left and right, presents a good view of the hoop to the audience.  He then pulls it apart, showing the audience the resulting 2 halves of the hula hoop. He then tosses both halves offstage.  Most of the audience gives an obligatory applause although some, in a bit of a stupor, withhold their applause.  Once again the first female assistant returns.  This time she's pushing a little end table on wheels with an upside down tophat on the tabletop.  Your date leans into you and asks, 'Is this the one where he pulls a rabbit out of the hat?'  You smile, a little embarrassed, since the first 2 tricks are evidence that you haven't a clue as to what's going on.  But she's waiting for a reply so you say, 'I'm not sure.  I think this is the one where he takes the tophat off the table, puts it on his head, wears it for a few seconds, then tosses it offstage.'  Of course, this is exactly what the magician does.  You now have some idea of what it is like to read Herman Melville's Moby Dick.


Okay, here's one more metaphor revealing the scope of  Moby Dick.

Any novel is, to some extent, structured.  Words form sentences, which form paragraphs, which form chapters, etc.  Most novels are of a common structure.  Say like an office building is a structure, a 2 or 3 bedroom home is a structure, etc.  Sometimes these structures are inviting and comfortable, sometimes less comfortable.  Moby Dick's structure is similar to the Vanderbilt mansion or, maybe, any ornate, famous mansion.  You approach it with some awe and excitement, it reveals itself to be vast with ceilings higher than the norm, rooms larger than the norm, and decorations less simple than the norm.  Some rooms you don't even know what exactly they are about; A drawing room, a tea room, etc. Finally, you may conclude this is exceptional but I'm going to return to my 1 bedroom apartment or whatever.  In other words, it was nice visiting but I'm not sure I'd want to live there.  So it is with this ornate mansion known as Moby Dick.

I'll leave you with this final thought.  I'm fairly certain that if Herman Melville were alive today, among his favorite performers would be the comedian Gallagher.

Frankly, it's been a rough read.  I think I need a break.

1Moby Dick, Herman Melville,
Dover Giant Thrift Editions, ©Dover Publications Inc., Mineola, N.Y., U.S.A., 2003, pg. 178
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