Review: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Moby Dick is, of course, about a whale. More than that, Melville’s 1851 novel is about whales and what they mean. It starts, before the text proper, with an etymology of the word whale, variously “arched or vaulted”, or “to roll, to wallow”, which in themselves are so evocative of these creatures’ physicality and behaviour. Next come many pages of “extracts”, both these and the etymology unearthed by a poor, consumptive librarian. From Ancient Greece to 17th Century whalers via the Bible, these form a collage of whales in culture through time. But Melville, and his mouthpiece Ishmael, is just getting started.

The narrative starts conventionally enough. Ishmael departs Manhattan for the island of Nantucket off the coast of Maine. It’s December and he hopes to board a whaling voyage. We know next to nothing about him, where he has come from, what he does for a living. If he is anything, it is usually a merchant sailor, the whaling journey “a brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances”. In a pub in New Bedford with no spare rooms he’s forced to share a bed with the harpooner Queequeg, which leads to some very homosocial behaviour, if not actually queer. Tattooed, worshipping a wooden idol and selling shrunken heads on the street, Queequeg is the epitome of a noble savage, from the fictional South Pacific chiefdom of Rokovoko. “It’s only his outside,” Ishmael generously writes, “A man can be honest in any sort of skin”. Even as he condescends, Ishmael exalts Queequeg as a purer form of humanity.

Queequeg and Ishmael travel together to Nantucket, where they find work on the Pequod under the mysterious captain Ahab, who is convalescing on shore and exists as little more than a rumour until the ship is well on her way. We meet the three mates – Starbuck, Stubb and Flask – and their harpooners – Queequeg, Tashtego and Daggoo (Polynesian, Native American and Black respectively). At length we find out about Ahab’s obsession with the white sperm whale that took his leg and the Pequod’s masts in the whaling grounds off the coast of Japan. Various other whaling ships are encountered; the whale boats are lowered; a few whales are caught, as the Pequod makes her way down the Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean and through the Sunda Strait into, at last, the Pacific. There are several prophecies, made and fulfilled.

But because the voyage is so long, and day-to-day life largely repetitive, Ishmael in the retelling embarks on dozens of long meditations on whales and whaling. From the structure of a whaling crew, to the tools of killing whales, to whaling law, whale anatomy (including a memorable passage on whale penises, which a crew member called the mincer dons as a kind of smock while working), evolution, classification, whiteness (the colour, not the power structure) and behaviour, almost nothing is left unturned. The effect is one of exhaustiveness, the total knowledge of whales at the time, and it is exhausting. It conveys the length of time that the crew are at sea: many whaling voyages lasted several years without setting foot on land, and by the end I truly felt I had journeyed with them. The novel wonderfully captures the effect this must have on the crew’s sense of time and space. So much of the book do these take up that it is only at 98 per cent (I read this as an ebook) that the titular character finally reveals himself. Although I’m sure you can’t spoil a novel of this age, I won’t say any more except that the novel’s central plot is resolved swiftly and brutally in the remaining few pages, jarringly truncating the meandering thoughtfulness that comes before.

Moby Dick is a journey across the oceans, but it is also a journey into the masculine soul. What is our fascination with the sea, Ishmael wonders? It is what Narcissus found in his reflective pool, “we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the same image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to to it all.” Ishmael, perhaps one of the “romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men” he describes as lured to whaling boats, is periodically drawn to go to sea when he becomes fed up with life on land; whaling is his “substitute for pistol and ball”. He desires transcendence in “the magnanimity of the sea which will permit no records”. To be landed is to be entangled in the baggage of society, culture, economy, politics; a whale ship offers freedom.

But freedom is not quite what this crew finds. In escaping the tyranny of the land, they find themselves under the dictatorship of Ahab and his monomanical pursuit of the white whale. Ahab may be as unhappy as any other seafarer, but he is “impatient of all misery in others that is not mad”. That obsession leads to ruin is the obvious parable of the story, but there is so much else going on. What emerges is a kind of apocalyptic vision of Western society, inescapable except in watery death. I was reminded of Mark O’Connell’s writing on the American white male fantasy of escape, an idea he characterises as behind the current billionaire obsession with, not going a-whaling on the ocean, but leaving earth entirely.

There’s a terrible irony in reading Moby Dick today. Melville was writing at a time when it was possible to speak of “huge troops of whales” that “trouble the ocean til it boil” so ships must “proceed with a great deal of caution”. Speaking of whale fossils (the Basilosaurus found by enslaved Africans on a plantation in Alabama in 1842), Ishmael writes, “I am horror-struck at this antemosaic, unsourced existence of the whale, which, having been before all time, must needs exist after all humane ages are over”. He concludes that whale species are essentially immortal, even as he describes the gathering of sperm whales in protective super herds in response to whaling pressure. It is true that no whales have become extinct due to human pressure, but it was a close-run thing. To read Moby Dick is to become immersed in a lost world. The giant sperm whales that the crew hunt are described as growing to more than 80 feet (24 metres), and Moby himself 95 feet (29 metres), which is longer than most blue whales. The maximum size of sperm whales today is 52 feet (16 metres). Ishmael may be exaggerating but it is certainly true that we live in a smaller world. Rebecca Giggs in her book Fathoms wonders at the untold ecological impact of this global “defaunation”.

Do the whalers wrestle with the ethics of killing? Certainly they regret when they kill an ageing, one-finned sperm whale that they have to cut loose from the ship before it sinks them, a total waste. Ishmael is frank about what it means to kill a whale, essentially a drawn out process of bleeding to death. Equally, Ishmael points out that whalers cannot be held solely responsible. “For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes,” Ishmael writes of the old bull, “he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all”. It’s the same kind of argument of responsible consumerism abused by the fossil fuel industry, which doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t have merit, although Giggs shows that the commercial whaling industry long outlasted any economic imperatives.

Moby Dick is clearly a serious book, but I was surprised by the broad humour that is peppered throughout the novel. Ishmael is particularly sharp and salty when critiquing the efforts of various artists to portray whales. Of a whale portrait Frederick Cuvier, brother of the famous zoologist, Ishmael writes that it “is not a Sperm Whale, but a squash”. Less surprising is Melville’s rich evocations of the moods of the ocean, such as imagining of Ahab watching a positively Homeric sunset:

Yonder, by the ever-brimming goblet’s rim, the warm waves blush like wine. The gold brow plumbs the blue. The diver sun – slow dived from noon – goes down; my soul mounts up! she wearies with her endless hill.

In another extraordinary passage, Ishmael visits the lord of Tranque to view a whale skeleton installed in a wooded valley, like a ruin in a painting:

It was a wondrous sight. The wood was green as mosses of the Icy Glen; the trees stood high and haughty, feeling their living sap; the industrious earth beneath was as a weaver’s loom, with a gorgeous carpet on it, whereof the ground-vine tendrils formed the warp and woof, and the living flowers the figures…. Yet, as the ever-verdant warp and woof intermixed and hummed around him, the mighty idler seemed the sunning weaver; himself all woven over with the vines; every month assuming greener, fresher verdure; but himself a skeleton. Life folded Death; Death trellised Life.

“To produce a mighty book,” Ishmael writes, “you must choose a mighty theme”. Life and death; mind, body and soul; history and philosophy; society and culture – themes don’t come much mightier than those. A whale, it turns out, is the perfect vessel to explore the world.

Gay rating: 2/5 for Ishmael and Queequeg: bedfellows, “bosom-friends”, they ever enter a kind of a marriage “as man and wife”.

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