Saturday, January 19, 2013

Review: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

As it seems to be with well-accepted classic epics of literature, I felt guilty for not having read about Moby Dick, the white whale. My first foray into Melville began a couple of months ago when I delved into his initial work, Typee (to be reviewed later). I expected a very similar style from Melville with Moby-Dick, but was astounded by the differences in technique.  Typee was a good story with a simple re-telling of the facts, unencumbered by allusions but heavy with tangental information pertaining to the tribes of the Marquesas Islands.  Moby-Dick was tangental to the extreme.  There was one chapter dealing with objects that are the colour white, like the whale.  There were three chapters detailing certain paintings that Melville liked and disliked about whales.  All this is mixed up with the actual story of Captain Ahab's obsessive search for the mammal.   I found that, while the tangents were welcome in Typee, they were at times counter productive in Moby-Dick.  The obsessive detail over small points in the story, coupled with the lack of detail on what I considered to be more important to the character development or understanding of the inner workings of the ship, the Pequod, was shocking. 
The allusions in the work were in the hundreds, and I made quite a concerted effort to read most of them.  Many allusions did not stand up over the course of time and seemed superfluous.  Others showed the tremendous intelligence and bookish obsessiveness of Melville, and these allusions were a delight to me in many cases.  All this said, there are many that will disagree with this statement, but I believe Melville's editor dropped the ball on this work.  The work could have been a hundred pages shorter easily without stripping away character development or key aspects of the story.  In addition, I still feel that more time should have been spent in discussing how the boats were brought out to the whale and other hinted at but misunderstood components of whaling.
The initial scenes with Queequeg in the inn, the description of the impending death of Queequeg, the obsessions and ramifications of the obsessions of Ahab, all actions and interactions between Ahab and Parsee (the clairvoyant) as well as some great sea epiphanies by Ishmael... all these points were absolute marvels.  Melville was on the top of his game here and it was so beautiful and enthralling to read. 
Illustration by Rockwell Kent
There were some drawbacks other than what I previously mentioned.  I believe Melville continued to further the damage caused by whaling by making assumptions about their resiliency despite the continual whaling: “…we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality.” 381.  This is a true disservice and is one of the results of a desire to express opinions on subjects Melville himself knew nothing about.  It was quite evident that Melville knew nothing about the migratory patterns of whales - he simply states that they have a 'large playground'.  He states that whales can go hide in the arctic where people cannot follow them, not knowing the seasonality of such migrations... and the eventual ability of man to fish these waters.
Melville did not detail how many whales were in the ocean to determine if they were over fished.  He assumed that they weren't and that was that.  Granted, at the time whales were not being killed at the rates that eventually constituted the peak of the whaling industry, but if anything... Melville did not do the whales any justice by claiming that the species was immortal.  He had no idea about the long gestation periods of whales or their low reproductive rates.  He assumed incorrectly that more whales would take the place of the ones killed.  While most were ignorant about whales in those days, Melville did not need to make such bold statements backed without evidence... and I found this to be an extremely perturbing flaw in this work.  Melville's continual attack on bad research in regards to the authors of literature and illustrations of whales, I find laughable given his own statements presented as facts with little or no evidence.
All this said, Moby-Dick had some flashes of brilliance and I was glad to have experienced it.  It wasn't a page turner, it could have used better editing and less assumptions, but the humanity in the work was dripping, the spirituality of the quest and impending doom was haunting and tantalizing and I found that I enjoyed learning about the nuances of the characters.  A very solid work of literature, but in my opinion... falling short of the hype.

“But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do – remember that… And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.” 37

“You cannot hide the soul.” 43

“I have no objection to any person’s religion, be it what it may, so long as that person does not kill or insult any other person, because that other person don’t believe it also.  But when a man’s religion becomes really frantic; when it is a positive torment to him; and, in fine, makes this earth of ours an uncomfortable inn to lodge in; then I think it high time to take that individual aside and argue the point with him.” 73

“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.” 189

“…man is a money-making animal, which propensity too often interferes with his benevolence.” 342

“…we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality.” 381

“…the Parsee’s mystic watch was without intermission as his own; yet these two never seemed to speak – one man to the other – unless at long intervals some passing unmomentous matter made it necessary.  Though such a potent spell seemed secretly to join the twain; openly, and to the awe-struck crew, they seemed pole-like asunder.  If by day they chanced to speak one word; by night, dumb men were both, so far as concerned the slightest verbal interchange.  At times, for longest in his scuttle, the Parsee by the main-mast; but still fixedly gazing upon each other; as if the Parsee Ahab saw his forethrown shadow, in Ahab the Parsee his abandoned substance.” 438

“…Ahab never thinks; he only feels, feels, feel;, that’s tingling enough for mortal man! To think’s audacity.  God only has that right and privilege.  Thinking is, or ought to be, a coolness and a calmness; and our poor hearts throb, and our poor brains beat too much for that.” 460

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