A while back, we did a group read of Moby-Dick, and artist Matt Kish was kind enough not only to endure an interview about his project to illustrate each page of the book but also to contribute several posts about his process. His project went on to be turned into a gorgeous book, and now he’s moving on to other projects. As part of that move, he’s looking to get shed of the remaining unsold pieces of Moby-Dick artwork. If you’re into Moby-Dick or are familiar with Matt’s work and think you might like to own a piece of it (I’ve bought several, and they’re among my most prized possessions), now’s a good time to buy. If you haven’t run across the work before, you at least owe it to yourself to see it online.
Those who followed along for the Moby-Dick read last year will remember Matt Kish, the artist behind an art project with the book as its subject. Matt was kind enough to contribute a few fascinating posts to InfiniteZombies, in fact. So taken was I with the art when I first ran across it that I don’t think it’s any great surprise that the project turned into something big, and it was a pleasure to watch from the sidelines as it all unfolded (Matt kept his blog up to date throughout the process).
Today, nearly a month before I expected it, my copy of Moby-Dick in Pictures, the book his project turned into, arrived, and it is gorgeous. Although there is a paperback copy, I opted for the hard-back copy. It’s a few bricks worth of book and it comes sheathed in a lovely and sturdy box. Matt gives us a beauty of a foreword outlining the life of the project and then steps back and lets us look at the art. It’s mesmerizing to flip through the book, and I can’t wait to find the time to read Moby-Dick again with Matt’s complete series as a page-by-page companion.
If you’re a student or fan of Moby-Dick and ephemera, do yourself a favor and get your hands on a copy of this book.
Those of you who followed along with the Moby-Dick group read will remember Matt Kish, the artist behind the “Every Page of Moby-Dick” project who contributed a few fascinating posts here. Matt finished up the art project a month or so ago, and I’m really excited to pass along the news that his work is being collected in a book put out by Tin House (publisher of a really fantastic literary magazine too, by the way). Check out the Tin House page for the book, and if you’re inclined to purchase from Amazon, you can pre-order right here.
I started reading next week’s assignment last night and found myself coming back again and again to the question of why we read the super-hard books like Ulysses. I had Gaddis’s JR in mind as well, thanks to some comments on my post of yesterday about composition (and some notes I took for next week’s reading about mechanization, which was a concern of Gaddis’s). Both books proved challenges for me to get into. Gaddis’s book I actually made it through on my first attempt, but it took me about 1/3 of the book’s (long) length to figure out how to orient myself within the text. It’s the kind of book you have to learn to read as you’re reading it. I think Ulysses is the same sort of book, and I find that (so far) I’m having an easier time the further in I get. I’m getting oriented at last. (Which doesn’t mean I necessarily like what I’m reading, though episode ten is probably my favorite so far.) But back to my question.
Why do we read these things? I understand why we read something like Moby-Dick. For all its bad rap, it is not an especially difficult book. It’s ambitious and encyclopedic, sure, but the act of reading it isn’t terribly challenging. It is written in a familiar mode according (mostly) to rules and boundaries that make it simple enough to follow. If Moby-Dick is a hard book, it is hard by virtue of its content rather than of its form. Ulysses and JR are hard by virtue of their form more than their content (though they’re also so full of everything in more concrete ways than the way in which Moby-Dick is full of everything in the sort of philosophical abstract). Reading these books is like trying to pat your tummy and rub your head at the same time (without the sustained giggling).
So why do it? My theory is that writerly types are the most interested in these books. Maybe that’s true of most books, but I suspect it’s true more of these really technically hard books than of others. We read them to crack them open and try to understand why what works in them works (and why what doesn’t doesn’t). That theory is the basis of the straw poll I advertise in this post’s title.
Do you have an abortive novel stuck in a drawer somewhere, some poems on an editor’s desk awaiting a rejection slip? Do you count yourself a writerly type or more a readerly type? Is it a meaningful difference? Do you think that writerly types are likely to be more drawn to these really formally hard books than other readers are?
“The ‘elusiveness’ of Kafkaesque terror … is maybe the supersaturation of every possible line of allegorical reading (you can’t isolate what is everywhere).”
(I know Kafka’s a long stretch from Moby-Dick, but he’s not why I used the quotation; I aim to connect the extract and the point below.)
We finally meet the White Whale! And he’s just as vicious as we’ve been led to expect: rocketing up out of the depths of the ocean to chomp an occupied boat in half, swatting at other boats with his tail as if they were flies, pulling a remarkable Three Stooges maneuver with two harpoon lines to smash their boats against each other, single-headedly staving an entire ship so that its whole crew (but one) drowns in a maelstrom. But then, after three chapters of mayhem, there’s a short epilogue and the book is over. That’s it, nothing more to see.
It seems an odd kind of book whose title character only appears in the final pages to kill practically every other character and then vanish. It all happens quickly, but I agree with Paul that it doesn’t feel rushed. Instead it just feels very final, and brutal. Speaking for myself, there’s something about the mystery of Moby Dick and the compactness of his “on-screen” presence in the book that I find irresistibly suggestive. There’s too much weight placed on him through the course of the narration to be borne by that tiny role, so I find myself again saying it must mean something.
It’s not just me, though: Many of the characters, and I would imagine much of the criticism, look to Moby Dick as a symbol of something. For Ahab, he’s an agent or principal of supernatural malice, an implacable nemesis. Starbuck seems to think he is a devil and expresses concern that they’ll get dragged to Hell if they harpoon him. (I don’t know how literally he means it.) Ishmael goes everybody one better and devotes an entire chapter to projecting his own meanings onto the empty canvas of the whiteness of the whale.
As far as that whiteness goes, Melville practically invites us to write our own interpretations onto the blank page that is the whale’s skin. It’s certainly easy enough to grope toward reading Ahab and Moby Dick’s contest as humanity vs. nature, or humanity vs. the greater powers, or will vs. matter, or (at least poetically comprehensibly) even past vs. progress, and probably any number of other allegories. The resonance and capaciousness and complexity of Melville’s writing give us lots of pitons to rope a reading through, and seem to support a great variety of interpretations. The book brandishes an enormous amount of knowledge about whales, and brings to bear on the plot and its giant albino a huge range of human discourses, including economics, biology, anatomy, physiology, oceanography, literature, psychology, and theology. Of course we can make him mean something!
But this is where the quotation I began with enters the picture: allegorical supersaturation. Moby Dick can mean all those things, at least tolerably well; which is too many meanings. The confusion of every possible meaning that can be attached to him cancels out to a nullity—you can’t isolate any one of them, because the others all impinge too much upon it. Consider: After all we’ve read, outside of his great savagery we know nothing significant about Moby Dick except for a probabilistic idea of where he’s more and less likely to be at a given season. He’s visible from a mile or two out, and we know less about him than about the electron. To steal a phrase from Daniel, we still don’t know dick about Moby Dick. He spends the vast majority of the book hidden both figuratively and literally below the surface; for all the psychological effect he has on the characters (and, I admit, this reader) before he appears, he remains wholly unknowable. We can squeeze him into any interpretation we want, but it will teach us no more about the whale and we will have made the same mistake as Ahab and Starbuck and who knows who else: We will have ignored the irreducible fact of the whale in favor of converting him to an interpretive object.
That’s what I find the most compelling about Moby Dick. He comes out of nowhere, without warning (dare I say “like a thief in the night”?), does whatever he is going to do, then vanishes. There is no taming him or managing your encounters with him or even understanding him. He’s almost like a Lovecraftian monster in his assault on the idea that human beings can master or even comprehend the world. He is purely sublime, and although he will bear a great number of interpretations, none of them will encompass him. For someone as intellectual and Enlightenment-infatuated as I am, it’s an exhilarating thing to read such a stimulating book and then get my face slammed right up against the wall of human understanding. I look forward to it every time.
Moby-Dick is such a rich book with so much going on that I’ve left just tons of things by the wayside that I would love to have picked up and run with. Some things you might think about as you digest the book:
- The tension between land/grass/prairie and the sea. The book is just brimming with these contrasts. Does Melville draw this contrast so starkly (and almost systematically) merely for effect or is there some more significant reason for it?
- Moby-Dick is published in the decade prior to the Civil War with slavery as a backdrop. The fear of mutiny makes an appearance several times in the book (not least of all in one of the longest chapters, “The Town Ho’s Story”). Melville also wrote about conscription and mutiny in other works (Billy Budd comes to mind). To what extent and to what effect is Melville writing here about freedom of will and, by extension, about slavery?
- Was Melville gay? Lots of historians have suggested that he may have been (some even that he may have made a sort of pass at his good buddy Hawthorne, effecting something of an estrangement). How much of Moby-Dick is it reasonable to read with homosexuality as a focus?
- I’ve written already about the two Moby-Dicks, but I think it would be fascinating to trace the idea further and to see how much water that theory really holds.
- Is there any use in considering the almost total absence of women in Moby-Dick? Or do we just figure that whaling was a predominately male-run industry and move on to another topic? (Or do we suggest that, as women are largely absent from Melville’s work as a whole, he was perhaps uncomfortable writing about women? And if so, do we add this supposition to the gay question?)
- There are a lot of interesting — and potentially significant — names in Moby-Dick. George Stewart examines some of these in his article about the two Moby-Dicks in an effort to understand the different modes of composition (ie, does using particularly symbolically significant names suggest a higher style, and do significant names devoid of any traceable symbolism suggest a lower style, and the two styles a shift in mode of composition?). Stewart’s project aside, I think it’d be fun to do a detailed analysis of all the major names, their historical significance, and how they bear on the character (or ship) they’re attached to.
- In flipping through the edition of Moby-Dick I used during college (I used a different edition this time around), I found a bunch of places where I had marked poetic scansion, typically scanning roughly as iambic pentameter. This isn’t really a terribly uncommon meter even in natural, spoken English (a professor once cited the example “a footlong hot dog all the way to go”), but I still perk up when I’m reading along and find a line that just stops me in my tracks with its sudden unmissable meter. A careful examination of the meter of Moby-Dick would be painstaking but fascinating.
- Those who have done film or stage adaptations of Moby-Dick have mined it for drama. But I’ve never done a systematic survey of all of the book’s dramatic elements. Might be fun. (By the way, I had lined up an interview with a member of the Dallas opera’s production of Moby-Dick, but it seems to have fallen through.)
- If you’re like me, you finally wind up just getting tired of looking up all the references to historical or mythological people or events you don’t know much about (I’m looking at you, Xerxes). Powermobydick glosses most (if not all) of these, but I crave a proper and thorough index complete with discussion of the particular relevance of these references to the text.
- Melville writes a lot about darkness and light. No doubt some enterprising Master’s student has written a thesis on this.
- Hawthorne and Melville were good buddies during much of the composition of Moby-Dick. Their friendship has been considered at some length in various places, but I never made much of it here. And what about Transcendentalism (or anti-) as an influence on Moby-Dick?
- I have a bad habit of romanticizing the past. People sat around talking philosophy and reading all day long and were generally just a whole lot smarter and more widely-read than we are now, I tend to think. But consider this: Fewer than 2500 copies of Moby-Dick were sold in the three years following its publication in America, and over a period of 35 years, it sold 3,215 copies (roughly 27 copies a year). Did people merely loan books to one another a lot more than we do now, or was there really that little interest? I know Moby-Dick did not sell well, but was it vastly atypical? What kind of sales did Hawthorne (a very popular author) have, I wonder? Did he sell 5,000 or 10,000 or 100,000 copies of his popular books? What would the answers to some of these questions say about the true state of reading and of the intelligentsia of Melville’s time compared to now?
- Life after Moby-Dick for Melville was really sad. He was something of a drinker and wound up going on speaking tours at the events of which he mumbled through his speeches. Under the right circumstances in private life, he was an animated speaker, though. One of his sons committed suicide, and though Melville seems to have been affected by that, he was by some accounts not a terribly kind man to live with. The tenderness that appears through much of Moby-Dick makes this all hard to swallow. He died more or less forgotten.
- Delbanco writes of Melville as something of a precursor to the postmodern writers (I’ve touched on this before). It’s not something I had ever thought about prior to this read (having really encountered postmodern literature some time after my first few encounters with Moby-Dick). A survey of some of the ways in which he anticipates less conventional modes of writing has no doubt been done and would make an interesting read.
- Who is the hero of Moby-Dick? Matt Bucher asked a question along these lines at the beginning. Paul (either here or at his own blog) saw a glimmer of the heroic figure in Queequeg, and George Stewart suggests that Queequeg may have been a the hero in Melville’s early conception of the novel, but he fades into the background. Ishmael can hardly be called the hero, and Ahab — though possessed of the tragic elements of a tragic hero — probably lacks the heroic elements of a hero. Is there a main character or hero in Moby-Dick? Who? Why?
Thanks for reading along over the past few weeks. I’ve really enjoyed having an excuse to read the book (and related matter) with some care, and I’ve found a lot of the reactions to Moby-Dick (e.g., that it’s full of humor) to be very gratifying. I suspect there’ll be a few more straggling posts about Moby-Dick (I know that artist Matt Kish has a few more planned), but this post probably marks my last on the book. I’m mentally composing a post about my first beef with Ulysses already.
Jonah makes, by name, 85 appearances in Moby-Dick. There are no doubt other references that recall him obliquely without using his name. And of course some characters in Moby-Dick bear certain resemblances to Jonah, bringing the total reference count up yet further. In chapter 82, Melville puts Jonah together with the likes of St. George, Vishnu, Perseus, and Hercules, and suggests that as the Hebrew texts predated the Greek, so Jonah must be source material for the Hercules myth (if Hercules, why not also Perseus? Melville doesn’t answer). That first whaler (as Melville would have him) shows up by name in the extracts and eight chapters, generally at ten-to-twenty-chapter intervals. Ishmael aside, Jonah is probably the most consistent presence in the text from beginning to end.
Delbanco points to speculation that the chapter containing Father Mapple’s sermon (all about Jonah, recall) was a late addition to the text. If so, then such an addition would seem to suggest that Jonah serves a more important role in the text than merely that of a convenient Biblical reference. The lesson of Father Mapple’s sermon is fairly simple, if eloquently illuminated by that dramatic man. It is “a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah.” But that’s the story and not the lesson; the lesson is that willful disobedience of God’s command simply will not do. In addition to declining to obey God, Jonah had the gall to try to flee bodily from that omnipresent, omniscient deity.
Yet in the end, after his sojourn in the belly of the whale, Jonah repents of his hubris. So too, Mapple says, may people repent. “Sin not,” he says, “but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah.”
Now, let’s stand Jonah up for a moment next to Ahab. Both are prone to hubris. Both would meddle with a thing greater than themselves. They both sleep (surprisingly) through calamitous storms. Melville writes at more length than seems necessary about lamps in the cabins of both men. Shipmates come very near to ousting both, though each ultimately ousts himself (Ahab insisting that Starbuck stay aboard the ship; I see this as an echo of Jonah’s allowing himself to be cast away in order to spare the lives of the men he has shipped with). Melville highlights the Biblical detail of weeds wrapped around Jonah’s head, and he kills off Ahab by lashing him to Moby Dick by the hempen line. The ever-present contrast between land and ocean in Moby-Dick is present in the short book of Jonah as well.
But where Jonah flees the infinite, Ahab pursues it. As Jonah (in Father Mapple’s telling) sleeps in his cabin, the whale that will swallow him makes its way toward the ship, while Ahab, in his cabin, plots a course willfully in line with the course of the whale he pursues. Jonah flees his destiny, while Ahab strives to force his destiny.
Is this the lesson of Moby-Dick? That you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t? Melville surely writes a great deal about fate and predestination, not least of all at the end of the chapter entitled “The Symphony,” worth quoting at length:
What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where do murderers go, man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar? But it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the air smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow; they have been making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the mowers are sleeping among the new-mown hay. Sleeping? Aye, toil we how we may, we all sleep at last on the field. Sleep? Aye, and rust amid greenness; as last year’s scythes flung down, and left in the half-cut swaths
Note how the beginning of Ahab’s speech echoes the sense of part of Father Mapple’s sermon:
As with all sinners among men, the sin of [Jonah] was in his wilful disobedience of the command of God — never
mind now what that command was, or how conveyed — which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do — remember that — and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.
It is disobedience to yourself that’s hard. Ahab knows not what drives him so. Jonah knows what drives him but disobeys it so that he can be obedient to himself. Both men meet a whale; only the one who repents comes back alive.
It’s interesting to me that Father Mapple leaves off the second half of Jonah’s story. I suppose it’s not especially nautical. Having landed at last in Nineveh, Jonah goes to preach God’s wrath and promise of destruction to the inhabitants of that vile land. To his surprise, they repent. When God decides to spare them, Jonah goes a bit emo and declares that in a world in which God can repent of the evil he had promised, he (Jonah) would rather die than live. He then goes off to pout in the sun. God makes a plant grow to give him shade. Then God sends a worm to kill the plant so that Jonah is miserable again. Jonah once again wants to die. The lesson God seems to want to teach Jonah here is that just as he (Jonah) pitied a plant that grew overnight and was killed (I figured he was just angry because God took away his shade), so God pitied the people (and the cattle) of Nineveh.
Consider this brief passage, as Starbuck seems to be on the verge of convincing Ahab to turn the ship around in “The Symphony”:
But Ahab’s glance was averted; like a blighted fruit tree he shook, and cast his last, cindered apple to the soil.
Like Jonah’s tree, Ahab — on the cusp of a sort of redemption — is blighted at last. The long passage I quote above in which Ahab waxes philosophical on self-knowledge (ahem, apples) and fate immediately follows this simile, just one more entanglement with the story of Jonah.
Melville points out time after time that people are bound together as members in something like a joint-stock company. Even when you think you’re merely following your own nose, you’re so wrapped up within the warp and weave of the fabric of society that you can’t avoid either being touched or touching the lives of others. Trying to run from God? Maybe you’ll get your ship’s crew wrecked. Planning a monomaniacal chase and revenge killing of a storied and apparently malicious whale? Might want to think for a moment about how it’ll affect those who ship with you. Or: Want to enact Manifest Destiny by fighting a war with Mexico? Maybe you should consider the thousands who’ll die in the conquest. (Of the Mexican-American War, Emerson said “The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man who swallows the arsenic which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.” Melville, Delbanco tells us, harbored similar thoughts.) Or: Figuring on passing a law that would allow slave owners to hunt men down like prey and drag them home? Well, you get the point.