Tuesday, January 15, 2008

For Hate's Sake I Spit My Last Breath At Thee

Moby Dick
by Herman Melville

It's always a bit of a gamble picking up a so called classic novel. There's every chance that it might turn out to be Dickens, or some other shite that has managed to coast into the canon under the cover of night and is kept there by the malice of some secretive cabal of English teachers. Fortunately Moby Dick is not one of those novels, and is in fact pretty fucking awesome.

The novel is recounted by a man who calls himself Ishmael, although after the first couple of chapters our narrator disappears from the story more or less altogether. Ishmael takes a job aboard a whaling ship which, much to his misfortune, is captained by the insane Ahab, a man who has developed a terrible obsession with the eponymous Moby Dick: the whale that attacked the last boat he captained and bit off his leg. And as anyone with a passing familiarity with the story knows, the voyage and Ahab's quest do not have a happy ending.

Moby Dick was not well received upon it's release in 1851 and it's easy to see why. The novel has a remarkably post modern sensibility for its time, and it makes every bit of sense that it did not become respected until after the World Wars. Melville's character Ishmael is obviously a stand in for himself, and having had much practical real world experience with whaling he spends a good half of the book detailing the technical particulars of life and work on board the whaler and the lives of the whales themselves. These constant digressions, which increase in frequency and length as the novel goes on, were maddening to the audience at the time of the books original release.

Melville also has a very post modern sense of irony and a fairly relativistic attitude. Ahab's whaler, the Pequod, is staffed by three harpooners of Pacific Island, Native American and African origin, and despite his use of a lot of terminology that we would regard as slightly racist nowadays, his sympathies clearly lie with these noble savages, especially in comparison to their twisted, obsessed civilised shipmates. His digressions upon why the whale should be classified as a fish, not a mammal, and why whaling will never have a noticeable impact on the population of the hunted animals may or may not be ironic, but are damn funny nonetheless. In fact, the constant, verbose, irrelevant tangents remind me of David Foster Wallace's epic (but fantastic) pile of bloviating digression Infinite Jest, a book so pomo that it threatens to collapse into a singularity of hipness under the weight of all its cynical irony and smirking self-referentiality.

Above all, Moby Dick, despite its length and formal nineteenth century language, is great fun to read. Melville's wit is very fine, both in straight up humour (I loved the cook's sermon to the sharks:
Dough you is all sharks, and by natur wery woracious, yet I zay to you, fellow-critters, dat dat woraciousness – 'top dat dam slappin' ob de tail! How you tink to hear, 'spose you keep up such a dam sleppin' and bitin' dare?”
Cook,” cried Stubb, collaring him, “I wont have that swearing. Talk to 'em gentlemanly.”
Once more the sermon proceeded.
Your woraciousness, fellow-critters, I don't blame ye so much for; dat is natur, and can't be helped; but to gobern dat wicked natur, dat is de pint. You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not'ing more dan de shark well goberned. Now. Look here, bred'ren, just try wonst to be cibil, a helping yourselbs from dat whale. Don't be tearin' de blubber out your neighbour's mout, I say. Is not one shark good right as toder to dat whale? And, by Gor, none on you has de right to dat whale; dat whale belong to some one else. I know some o' you has berry brig mout, brigger dan oders; but den de brig mouts soemtimes has de small bellies; so dat de brigness ob de mout is not to swaller wid, but to bite off de blubber for small fry ob sharks, dat can't get into de scrouge to help demselves.”
) and the quality of the writing in the more poetic and romantic parts. Also the story of Ahab's doomed quest is as iconic as they come and the allegorical meanings of his obsession with Moby Dick are a clamouring multitude. Among those suggested explicitly by Melville in the book: Moby Dick as God, Moby Dick as Satan, Moby Dick as the immense, uncaring universe and Moby Dick saying “Stop anthropomorphising me, I'm just a fucking whale!”.

With such great humour, poetry and insightful philosophy Moby Dick truly deserves its reputation as one of the great American novels. Well done Western canon of literature, you got it right this time at least.

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