Upon returning from India this summer, I casually pulled Moby Dick from the shelf and started reading it aloud to no one in particular… Call me Ishmael….whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul …almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
I needed to ponder something other than a swollen Amex bill and outdoor bathrooms with spray hoses for your arse; the fresh images of starving children, pollution, and a million stray dogs marching behind crazed rickshaws. I didn’t hate India, really, but the trip managed to dent my psyche somehow. A place without green recycle cans and Target’s red button? Unimaginable, right?
It took a month to ingest The Whale. I hope you’ll forgive me for not having read it in one sitting, as I once overheard an honors student at UH claim about The Odyssey — he soon clarified, at the behest of my arm around his pretentious throat. The book is not only long, it’s complex in both the writing and the ideas presented. I struggle to imagine a normal teenager digesting the thing (since it’s often cited as a classic high school read). And even if read, understood? It riffs on the pain of a life unfulfilled, of having your hand twisted by fate, and how men find peace among horrors. Men, because there isn’t a single female character here…
Beyond the torrents of gothic prose, there are also perplexing sexual undertones which I’ll illuminate with this quote from chapter 95 about the Sperm Whale’s unique oil, spermaceti:
Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,- Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.
Melville, the satirist… Still, the language harkens (imitates?) Shakespeare and Homer and I was simply unable to resist reading swaths of it aloud, whether alone or in the company of my cat, who died before I finished. My dramatic renderings rivaled the worst that acting has to offer. Maybe this books-on-tape-without-the-tape thing seemed natural because Melville’s language is so bloody convoluted slash amazing; it was the only way to parse it. Moby Dick is not something you skim through.
Its truly daunting aspects were the endless chapters on Whales (cetology), chapters that live apart from the plot, but somehow complete the story. The chapter on whale-line may have been the driest of these. But even then, he managed to mix in some powerful metaphysics
All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.
Surprisingly, that white whale didn’t appear until chapter 133 (of 135). And Ahab’s famous chase? It all happens on the last 30 pages. Oh, but that’s just the creamy center after you eat your spinach. That spinach being the Cetology, Ishmael’s version at least, and it dominates the novel. Never mind that he calls whales fish or that he defends whale hunting by arguing that the whale, unlike buffalo, is impossible to eradicate — they always have the polar waters as refuge! I found myself frequently cross-referencing these chapters against Wikipedia. In most cases his coverage was not only accurate but fascinating. Beyond whale anatomy, were the nautical terms: halyards, kelson, aft, stern, bowspirit, gunwale, mizzen mast, jib boom, capstan, forecastle, and on and on. Assumed, not explained. Again, Wiki to the rescue.
I’m glad for both the India trip and Moby Dick and for hardships that we overcome and reflect on later with pride. As I do now.
Now, here’s something fun. The “Big Read” project: Moby Dick read chapter-by-chapter by various amazing actors (sorry, I was not included) and available for free. New chapters added daily (it started in Sept, so I assume it’ll take about 5 months to complete).
The beguiling Tilda Swinton kicks off Chapter One: http://www.mobydickbigread.com/chapter-1-loomings