Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Finally Caught Up to Moby Dick

Being a whaler was a complex and arduous profession. Sighting, chasing, catching, and flensing a whale was another complex and arduous procedure. All the exciting and beautiful moments on the sea, the way waves and birds behave, the varied characters of Christians and cannibals...

Well, reading "Moby Dick" is a complex and arduous pursuit, and you don't even get a "lay" for finishing it -- unless you want to get laid by a bibliophile, of course. I can't possibly do this behemouth justice -- I leave that to Thinkulous, who has even made a pilgrimmage to New Bedford in honour of the book -- but I can at least tell you how I FELT about it during the beginning, middle, and end.

At the beginning of the book I was sprightly and enthusiastic, full of devil-may-care derring-do. I was prepared to read slowly and carefully. From previous experience I knew that "Moby Dick" requires commitment and concentration; if I "skimmed" I'd find myself adrift like poor Pip, watching the narrative float away, and the only review I'd finally offer would be "I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look." Which is just plain confusing.

In the middle I was getting into the swing. I'd found my sea legs. Every digression was a new revelation. Every word was essential. I loved Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask. I loved their theatrical asides. I loved Tashtego's gruesome descent into the Great Heidelburgh Tun.

But somewhere around chapter 99 ("The Doubloon") my mind began to wander. The book had given up all pretence of "adventure," and had even left behind much of its naturalism, and was becoming more and more concerned with ethereal notions...and by chapter 104 ("The Fossil Whale") I found my mind wandering. Where the heck was Moby Dick? Did it matter? I could still appreciate the ideas behind Melville's digressions, but I no longer wanted them to be in this particular book.

The final chase and climax was a bit like watching a constipated person on the toilet. We know the whale is in there somewhere, but it just won't come out. It seems like Melville's pushing and pushing -- chase number one, chase number two, chase number three -- and when finally -- ah! -- the release...well, it's not a whale in the bowl, it's just a small porpoise turd.

I'm not saying I didn't like the ending. I am saying that it doesn't do justice to the lead-up or to the route we've taken to get there. And I still love the book and I think it's something special, but -- on first complete reading -- I appreciate it more for its digressions...and, strangely enough, it's the PLOT that prevented me from enjoying the digressions as much as I might have. When Melville described the whale and the ocean and the slickness of spermicetti, I was in love. When he brought us back to Ahab's insane quest, however, I wished Ahab would just GET THE HELL ON WITH IT.

PS: It turns out that I DIDN'T know how it ended after all. I thought that Ishmael was telling us the tale from the bottom of the ocean, no doubt thanks to these lines from Laurie Anderson's song "Blue Lagoon":
Full fathom five thy father lies.
Of his bones are coral made.
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade.
But that suffers a sea change.
Into something rich and strange.
And I alone am left to tell the tale.
Call me Ishmael.
Now I realize that the bulk of those lines do NOT come from "Moby Dick." Anderson has a long obsession with the novel, and this has inspired me to go back and have another listen to her "Life on a String" album, which contains some songs inspired by the book. Songs I didn't like much the first time around.

PPS: I did see a "Moby Dick" movie adaptation about ten years ago. I remember not caring much for it, but I do recall one haunting image: Fedallah flopping back and forth in the tangled lines.


Eric Little said...

If I remember correctly, when "The Whale" (as it was called there) was published in England (and it was published there before it was published in America for aracane copyright reasons of the time), the last chapter was missing--so Melville's readers there were triply confused (for 70 years the novel was considered a manic mish-mash), since they did not yet have the example of "Sunset Boulevard" of having a corpse do the narration.

The lines in "Blue Lagoon" are from "The Tempest" and are spoken by Ariel, and are among the most quoted from Shakespeare, including in "The Waste Land." Maybe Anderson had read "Ahab and Pip: Those Are Pearls That Were His Eyes," an article by Sharon Cameron? (Nah.)

As a young and enthusiastic English major, I was asked, "Are you going to write the great American novel?" I'd always answer, "It's been written--and its name is 'Moby-Dick.'" It is not great for the story of the quest itself, or the way Melville consciously tries to mold Ahab into a Shakespearean tragic hero. It's American in the way it always gets back to the quotidian life on a whaler--how to do things, and do them well. It's also American in that it's about destroying life and the environment (here's my 1960s ethos coming out). These beautiful, magnificent mammals, hunted down all over the world, and then everything of them used to make things--except maybe the "pulpit."

It's also classically American, as D. H. Lawrence and Leslie Fiedler pointed out long ago, in that its principal emotional relationship is between a white man and a man of color--as in the Leatherstocking Tales by Cooper and "Huckleberry Finn" by Twain. (Melville has a real problem writing about women--read his next novel, "Pierre," which was supposed to be a romance potboiler to bring in dough and turned into a tale of brother/sister incest).

Of course, "Huckleberry Finn" is another classic American novel that has been excoriated for its ending. (Who tf let Tom Sawyer in?) I think Melville at that point--no excuse--was running out of steam.

As I told thinkulous, I saw that adaptation of "Moby-Dick" in the Garrick Theater in Chicago when it was first released. It's the first movie I have memories of seeing--the St. Elmo's fire scene in particular. And the screenplay was by Ray Bradbury, who later wrote a novel about making the movie.

Harry said...

What a pleasure to be among fellow appreciators of the Leviathan's tale! (Pun intended.)

Muffy, you rock for the link to my posts -- thank you.

Moreover, your post had me laughing out loud at every turn, especially at the constipation comment. I had a bit of a disagreement with my dauntingly well-read english major father over the ending. Your reading -- and yours, Eric -- completely vindicate me! And the son shall forever usurp the father! Yes! (Fists raised in mock triumph.) Ahem. But I digress.

Eric: I forgot about the Bradbury screenwriting credit! I always thought Peck (as much as I love him) was a bit mis-cast. Muffy, could the version you're referring to be the Patrick Stewart one? I'm considering checking this out from the library.

Eric Little said...

I had one more comment, which synchronicitously goes along with thinkulous's:

The ending always disappointed me too. I want to get a t-shirt that says:

"I sailed all this way and all I got was this sh*tty coffin?"
--Call Me Ishmael

Compare the ending of "V." Benny is still a yo-yo, Stencil is still questing--but his father is killed by a waterspout--an inversion of the whirlpool that destroys the Pequod. Pynchon has his allusive cake and eats it too.

Adam Thornton said...

I would have much preferred a corpse narration from the world's biggest swimming pool. In a book that was so intent on accuracy, the miraculous one-paragraph rescue was like something from a cartoon.

The "Blue Lagoon" lines will always be married in my mind, and they fit so well together!

I could see Melville having a few problems writing about women; in fact, except for Ishmael & Queequeg at the beginning of the book (and Ahab & Pip at the end), few of the characters ever seem to RELATE to each other. Instead they soliloquise and talk AT each other. This is not a book about relationships.

I'm pretty sure the movie I saw was the Gregory Peck one, but I'll need to go back and check. It certainly didn't have Patrick Stewart in it.

Adam Thornton said...

We're vindicated together! Tell your dad to write about it in his own darn blog. :)

After years of writing Bollywood film reviews, I find it way too easy to include crass jokes:


Adam Thornton said...

Why is it that I find it difficult to remember how ANY of Pynchon's books end? I've read "Gravity's Rainbow" at least four times, and right now I'm having trouble...I believe it was the countdown to the Schwartzgaerat (sp?), and then "...all together."?

Doesn't help that many believe the ending of "Gravity's Rainbow" is actually the brief movie theater bombing near the middle.