Friday, September 17, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Moby-Dick- Part 1

Reportedly, this is the real life Spouter-Inn painting.

Our reading begins with a long, strange list of quotations from great, pre-Melville works of human writing having to do with whales.  Or sentences that at least mention whales in passing.  They don't seem to need to be relevant (note the one from Hamlet is simply Polonius agreeing with Hamlet that a cloud is shaped like a whale.)  I assume the purpose of the list is not simply a overzealous devotion to the custom of epigrams.  I'm fairly certain it's there to gather the dark clouds that loom over the first chapter, to foreshadow the behemoth lurking below in the deeps.

I really liked the first chapter.  In fact, I made Laurie listen to me read a lot of it out loud.  Melville was a tremendous wordsmith.  He makes me feel ashamed to ever write again in his looming shadow.  He makes me want to crawl in an ice cave and drink the tepid tears of orphans.  

Anyway, on to the fruit of the looming: Ishmael seemed very dark and edgy as well as, as my friend Christopher pointed out, surprisingly well-read.  He lays out the dark time of the soul leading him to sea.  With but a few spare coins in his pocket, he finds his way to The Spouter-Inn where Melville sits down and flexes his descriptive powers for a while.

Ishmael either undergoes a sudden shift in character or the writing is a bit uneven here or I mistook his character from the earlier chapters.  Or I am way off base with my reaction.  He complains and becomes quite fussy over having to share a bunk with an unseen harpooner.  He even makes the inn-keeper shave his bench and then doesn't sleep on it after all (although I doubt anyone was upset over the bits of extra fuel on the fire.)  Granted, the cryptic bits of information dropped by the inn-keeper serve to inflame the situation.  It would seem that Melville is aiming toward a "judge not by appearances" message with manner of the introduction of Queequeg.  Still, I catch whiffs of a less enlightened age in this section.  However, Melville also makes sure to include, in The Street chapter, that New England born sailors are as strange in foreign ports as Queequeg is in New England.  Which was nice and showed at least an effort toward breaking from the ethnocentric shackles of his day. 
We end with a description of the church, the pulpit (oh, that pulpit!), and Father Mapple clears his throat to begin his famous sermon, which we will cover next week.

Next week, we will read through the His Mark chapter which, in my text, takes me up to page 92.  As I mentioned, we are going at a very leisurely pace.


  1. I'm not so sure the character of Ishmael has changed. He seems the mercurial sort from the start. Remember he's a learned schoolmaster that deals with his "spleen" by going to sea:

    Whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.

    He's definitely no sweetheart -- he seems driven by impulses, emotions, and a disarray of literature running through his head. And his reaction to Queequeg, given the time, isn't surprising. M.D. was published 10 years before the beginning of the American Civil-War, and Queequeg seems to me to be set in the mold of the Noble Savage.

    Curiously, in 1851, the year M.D. was published, Charles Dickens published a venomous essay entitled The Noble Savage criticizing and disavowing the primitivism of the 17th and 18th centuries. In it, he went so far as to write, "All the noble savage's wars with his fellow-savages (and he takes no pleasure in anything else) are wars of extermination –- which is the best thing I know of him, and the most comfortable to my mind when I look at him." He ends with greater civility saying that, "We have no greater justification for being cruel to the miserable object, than for being cruel to a WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE or an ISAAC NEWTON..."

    Race, and the conflict between European and Pacific Islander and African cultures were loaded topics of the day. In Queequeg Melville seems to be drawing on the variety of attitudes. As we'll see throughout the novel, Queequeg is portrayed sympathetically if, to our sensibilities, condescendingly.

    I still need to read chapters 7-8 -- for some reason I was thinking I had until tomorrow. I've got to catch up on my War & Peace reading today -- I spent too much time discussing the secret lives of tomahawks last night. ;-)

  2. Ah... an re-reading my comment I realized I dropped a thought. I started with, "I'm not so sure the character of Ishmael has changed," and I meant to follow that up by saying that I think the difference we see in tone and texture is due to Melville's handling of the technical demands of his story. It's an unevenness that can't be blamed on the characters, but on the writer.

    Quoting my what I'd written about it last night:

    The first 2 chapters (3?) lay the groundwork for the metaphysical themes of the novel, whereas the chapters introducing Queequeg and the town seem to lay the groundwork for the plotted action. In a perfect book both could be done without disruptive seams in the texture of the narrative.

  3. Sorry about that. I had actually planned to be posting it now but yesterday I pushed the "post" button instead of the "save" button. These late night hours and all that... But, yes, ideally I will be doing these posts late in the night between Friday and Saturday.

    As for Ishmael, I think initially I was little thrown by what I saw as a disconnect between the grizzled sailor who can turn down the position of Captain Ishmael and the guy wringing his hands over who this harpooner might be. But I think, again, you hit it right on the head and clicked it into focus for me with a one word description. "Mercurial." Precisely. I think that's the key to our narrator.

  4. Yeah, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Ishmael can't handle having to answer for anyone else -- that authority and responsibility are a burden for him.

    I'm curious as to your thoughts about the metaphysical fabric he's weaving. This is a book that wears its symbolism on its shirt sleeve -- probably one of the reasons it's so popular in high school, since its symbolism isn't exactly subtle.

  5. I'm glad you brought that up. Yes, I thought the Father Mapple sermon, aside from simply being a kind of awesome piece of writing, was a half-step away from the author completely breaking the fourth wall and writing "Just so you know, this book is filled with symbolism." As far as I can tell, aside from being a kind of awesome piece of writing, the sermon served no other function but delivering that hint to the reader.

    I'm afraid the current schedule structure of my life (and my incompetence to cope with same thus far) has prevented me from researching Melville himself as much as I normally would in a reading group. My memory seems to hold that he was only moderately successful in his own day, that Moby Dick was not a big seller, and now, to the contrary, people read Billy Budd and Moby Dick and nothing else by him today. I've heard from one professor I knew who had read that there's a good reason for that. I don't know about Melville's view of religion, except to say that the text seems to already reveal to me that he had a strikingly vivid one. And not a particularly cheery one.

    Yes, and "weaving a metaphysical fabric" is a fine ways of putting it. It would seem to me that he has an overwhelming, ominous sense of evil. He also seems to be nudging us towards humankind's capacity toward evil (I would mention as evidence the matter of the sermon, the worldview of Ishmael in Loomings, the attitudes surrounding Queequeg, and also the Inn, the painting, the vaguely sinister innkeeper, the unfortunate and Dickensian situation of those who can't afford the hale and hearty inns.) Or maybe I'm bringing that to the table. I think I'll have to revisit this at the end of the book. Regardless, he has infused the narrative with a sort of dark dread.

  6. I'm getting behind in all of my reading. I'm a day behind in 2 books. Bah. I've been obsessed with trying to turn lead into... well, not gold. How about pewter... maybe I achieved it... re-writing my essay offering a strategy for reading projects. A Lifetime Reading Habit: A Strategy For Reading It's at least far clearer than the draft I linked in the mailing list.

    Anyway, Melville died in obscurity according to all I've heard. I think I read that it wasn't until the next century that he began to get acclaim for Moby Dick.

    I'm not sure what I think of his writing so far. Uneven seeming. Maybe a bit "purple." And at times it strikes me as somewhat humorous -- but is that the intended effect?

    I remember the last time I attempted M.D. I was put off by the encyclopedic details about whales. It seemed obsessive and not clearly relatable to either plot or character. It seemed like extraneous filler. We'll see what I think this time if I can just catch up and not get behind.

  7. I just finished reading the sermon and mid-chapter something dawned on me. I've mentioned a few times now in various places that there's an ominous darkness, but that I'm also finding things humorous that I'm not sure are meant to be. What dawned on me, mid-sermon, was that Moby Dick is overtly stylized in the way of a grotesque romanticism. Well, that's not the first thing to dawn on me. The first thing was that I could see Moby Dick in my head as a stylized animation like The Cat Piano. I could see it done as a comic book, too -- it has all the overt, somewhat humorous stylizations of a dark comic. That's when I said to myself, "grotesque romanticism."