Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Moby Dick

I just finished reading Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which I picked up for fifty cents at a local book sale. I doubt I would have bought it if it cost me more than a dollar, but I'm glad I did. Having found The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby largely pointless and distasteful, I haven't come to expect much from American literary classics. But Moby Dick surprised me. It's a bizarre book in many ways, but strangely compelling. Only about half of the book actually consists of narrative, and much of the rest is an exposition of every possible subject connected to 19th-century whaling, and the sperm whale in particular. Though these sections could become tiresome, Melville's writing is so grand and bombastic, while still beautiful, that I really enjoyed those expositions. They included everything from discussions of contemporary pictorial representations of whales to every detail of the actual hunting process and the anatomy of sperm whales. The narrative parts of the book are also a little strange in style, because Melville shifts from straight prose to Shakespearean soliloquies and from first-person to third-person accounts. And through both narrative and exposition run Melville's haunting commentary on life and metaphysics, a rather phantasmal philosophy that finds its expression in scattered sentences of rhapsodic beauty.

In summing up Moby Dick, I can do no better than the quote from D. H. Lawrence which appears on the back cover of my edition: "[Melville's] book commands a stillness in the soul, an awe....[It is] one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world." In short, it's the story of young Ishmael and the crew of the ship Pequod, as they are caught up in Captain Ahab's monomaniac obsession to find and kill Moby Dick, the white whale. One of the reasons that the book is so compelling is the sense that the narrative runs its course along a veiled allegory, and one is always kept guessing as to the meaning of the symbols. Melville wrestles with questions of fate and free choice, of community and reckless individualism, of nature and mankind, of good and evil, and a thousand other thoughts. His symbols seem to shift, as haunting metaphors that stand for a hundred different ideas throughout the course of the book. It is not a book that is friendly to orthodox religion, at least not to Calvinist Christianity (or Zoroastrianism, for that matter), but it still contains hints and traces of hope and faith. For me, the most compelling aspect of Moby Dick was its tale of the human condition--of Captain Ahab's inspiring mania, Starbuck's helpless and uncourageous virtue, Stubb's reckless jollity, Flask's pervasive mediocrity, Pip's wise insanity, Queequeg's winsome simplicity, and Ishmael's friendship and goodwill. The story becomes a fascinating drama, as all the characters reflect on their quest from their various perspectives and manners of living. All in all, the final chapters take on the distinct flavor of a Shakespearean tragedy. The tale becomes an epic, a myth, with symbols that tantalize the mind while never fully disclosing their secrets. I found it a hauntingly beautiful book, and, unlike any other American classic I've ever read, I intend to come back and read it again sometime during my life.

One thing that caught my interest, though, was the endless variety of opinions and interpretations regarding Moby Dick. The edition that I bought, a Bantam Classic paperback, helpfully includes an introduction, a biographical note on Melville, some of Melville's letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne, as well as four contemporary reviews and six modern ones. The contemporary reviews were largely negative, uncertain of what to do with this bizarre, bombastic book. Most of these reviewers recognized an allegorical element, but wasted no words on speculating what the allegory was about. The modern critics, however, make it their chief occupation to discern all the deeper meanings of the various symbols, and ironically, mostly come up with different answers. Some think it's a parable of man versus nature, others of choice versus fate, others of good and evil, and others think that the secret key lies in Zoroastrian doctrine. A few are more honest and submit that the answer could be "all of the above". It leads one to wonder if perhaps the postmoderns have it right, that the "true" meaning of a text lies more with the reader's interpretation than the author's intent.

Though I'm by no means a literary critic, I'm going to add my two cents. It's clear that Melville had a grand idea underlying the narrative, because he makes reference to it in a response to Hawthorne. Hawthorne had just read the book and had given his interpretation in a letter, to which Melville replied in glowing joy that his friend had understood his intention. Unfortunately, Hawthorne's letter is lost to us, so we can't simply go to it and read what that intention was. But from all appearances, it was a theme that would have been a bit daring and offensive to his contemporary readership, so he disguised it in half-hidden symbols. My best guess would place that theme as one of good and evil, with Melville suggesting that the two are somehow intertwined, and that our current attempts to explain their relationship--including our religious attempts--fall short. This would fit well with Melville's own life experience, and in an oft-quoted passage from that letter to Hawthorne, he writes: "I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb."

However, while I would acknowledge several powerfully present themes in Moby Dick, I would shy away from calling it an allegory. Even Melville, in response to Hawthorne's wife, acknowledged that he only had a vague sense that certain facets of his book could be taken allegorically. But an allegory exists to illuminate its meanings, so if Moby Dick is an allegory, it is a poor and obtuse one, since critics even now can't agree on its meanings. I would say, rather, that it is an epic myth, layered with a hundred possible parables. Its symbols are mythical in that they don't possess single, direct applications. Rather, they have merely hints and haunting feelings about them, enriching the storyline with their mystery. I doubt that Melville could give an exposition of what each symbol stands for, because he didn't really know. He only had feelings for what they could mean, and layered those meanings over and over again. As D.H. Lawrence says of Melville's greatest symbol, the white whale, "Of course he is a symbol. Of what? I doubt if even Melville knew exactly." And there, perhaps, is Melville's greatest genius.

At the same time, there are countless worthy applications of the story, and I think this is where I diverge from the postmodern school of literary criticism. While the "meaning" of a text ought to be rooted in the author's intent, which in this case is a bit difficult to nail down, the reader's application, even if unintended by the author (but remaining true to the story and its characters), is perfectly legitimate. Thus C. S. Lewis once used the tale of Oedipus Rex to illustrate the relationship between predestination and free choice (in his collection of essays, Of Other Worlds). And thus we could take Moby Dick as a warning against proud individualism or abuses of nature; we could take it as a tragedy of the fixation on a single goal or of the forces within ourselves that seem to steal away our power to choose. It is richly infused with the possibility of many such morals, which makes it a book well worth reading.

In Charles Walcutt's introduction to Moby Dick, he says that "its thesis cannot be simply, or even clearly stated. It has to be 'rendered'." So below I've made my best attempt at a rendering, using the voices of four major characters. This poem is called "The Fates' Lieutenant," from a quote by Captain Ahab.

Ishmael:

I sing a ship on an endless sea,

And once I sailed there;

Where water touches flaming sky

And hope meets dark despair;

There, where Nature’s soft indiff’rence

Turns to fatal trick,

There my wild comrades and I

Made hunt for Moby Dick.


Stubb:

What’s life, but a good drink

And a hearty laugh?

Do your duty,

Face the storm,

And throw your steel dart

Into the raging beast.

Such fierce pleasure!

True, you may die,

But if you live,

It will afford you chance

For another drink,

Another laugh,

And another day to throw your dart.

Fate shall have its hour,

And none can turn its path.

Better to play with the grand tune,

Even try a whimsical harmony,

Before surrendering your mug.

So who knows?

Tomorrow we may be dead,

Sitting outside the gates of Paradise,

Laughing hard, and quaffing ale

With good old St. Peter.


Ishmael:

Frivolity will fade in time

Unless it’s tied to love;

Our Stubb has laughed alone at Fate,

And lonely went above.

We need each other, comrades all,

To know, and to be known;

For in that patient, kindly love,

Immortals we are shown.


Starbuck:

Bound by duty,

Bound by virtue,

Bound by reason,

I alone was free.

Let thy cause be true,

And moderate in passion,

For with excess comes pale obsession,

Then the madness of having

One cause alone,

One reason to live.

We are men who exist

In webs of love and need,

Duty and freedom,

Choice and fate,

And if we hold too tightly

To one over the other,

We shall surely perish.

So perished I,

Apart from wife, from family,

Surrendered to Ahab’s mad pursuit,

When reason and moderation

All called with single voice

That we should turn our sails

From against the wrath of God.

Toy not with mysteries

Beyond your power to control,

Or not even virtue

Shall prove your savior then.


Ishmael:

A man may walk in highest truth,

Yet fail his fellow men;

Virtue ever needs its courage

When it dares to stand again.

Virtue in heart is one man’s gain;

But in his speech and hands

It has strength to turn a fated ship

Back to the living lands.


Ahab:

Hast seen the white whale?

I must find him,

Must defy the grave

Until I pierce his heart,

Brimming with the malice

Of a thousand worlds

That live in low injustice.

Against the earth,

Against the gods,

I raise my final shout.

If Fate shall be my master,

And evil haunt the paths of good,

Then I shall stand here,

Violent and unafraid,

To take all its bloody blows

Upon my naked back.

The power of this beast

Flies beyond the mocking gods;

Chaos streams within his wake

To whelm a sleeping world.

I am the pawn of destiny,

Born in night to rise in day,

To defy the flame and darkness both—

One to be worshipped,

One to be feared,

But both, in the clarity of storm,

Show themselves in one another’s breath.

And I am caught between,

Defiant and unbowed.

I will play this role laid out for me,

With my bloodied dart in hand,

And cry with every breath I have

That Moby Dick must die.


Ishmael:

Is the world for us, or against?

Is Fate a maliced mind?

If God is good and man depraved,

Why do they intertwine?

Such are the questions of my heart,

Born of Ahab’s daring sin,

And if answers live upon this earth,

You will find them in the wind.

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