Sunday, October 10, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Moby-Dick part 4

If you would do me the kindness of forgiving the obviousness of the statement, we've hit choppier waters.  We begin this week's reading with Cetology, a chapter which I expected to dislike immensely.  However, largely thanks to Christopher's recommendation of the online annotation Power Moby-Dick as a very helpful tool in these chapters of encyclopedic information on whaling, I actually enjoyed this quite a bit.  I do feel that one needs visual aids in this chapter.  Ishmael inexplicably lapses into some strange "Folio" format in relaying the information he has to dispense on the topic of whales, but laying that aside, yes, I found it engaging to hear what passed for Cetological knowledge over 150 years ago.

We then have a series of chapters which go something like this:
A job description of a member of the crew, an account of a meal that the officers take together, an account of pole sitting and how Ishmael gets a bit moony up there, Ahab's inciting incident (150 pages in) of his impassioned speech, his nailing of a plot device to the mast, Starbuck's minor rebellion, a series of internal monologues where we seem to have dashed the established narrator altogether, and we finish with a script of what I think was a dance that turned into a brawl.  My uncertainty stems from Melville's insistence on slopping the 1840s sailor slang on as thick as possible.  It was difficult to follow and, I'm afraid, I wasn't terribly inspired to do the mental gymnastics that Melville was demanding over what I opined was superfluous material.  I seem to lack the capacity to muster the required interest in working out what he means by phrases like: "What hey there, lad!  Tear aside!  Hoist ye knickers!  'Gains the mizzen with the gargamel!"  And colloquialisms of that ilk in the parlance of either the Terpsichorean or the pugilistic.
I am told there is a very important and great chapter on the way.  I am looking forward to the celebrated Chapter 42.  Over the past few weeks I've read a great deal about how this book went from relative obscurity to a fair bet on a good deal of lists of great literature.  I am still not entirely certain I'm convinced.  In retrospect, I wonder if some of my brain didn't realize, back when I was laying out the schedule for this reading group, that I ought to save this book for the end of our list.  Because the inclination to jump ship at this point is fairly strong.  The last time I read this book was over a decade ago.  I have no memory of my reaction at that time, but I think I've decided that this will likely be my final journey through Melville.  The "hit" in his "hit-and-miss" record thus far strikes me as too few and far between.  I feel anxious to delve into my next reading project where thus far I've struck gold consistently with every title.  It's a bit like I'm sorting through mud in which I am told there are many diamonds, but within plain sight of the mud pile in which I root is a big pile of visible, clean, cut diamonds free for the taking. 

So... I'm sort of grumpy about Melville this week.  You?


  1. I've read through Chapter 42. It lays out the book's philosophical foundation, which I think can be summed up with this quote:

    "Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright."

    So, there we have it, creation by the demiurge. Cue discussions of gnosticism, the creation of the world as evil, etc., etc., ad nauseum.

    I promised to remain through Chapter 42. I'm still on the fence.

  2. Paul,

    Enjoying reading your observations. I attempted reading Moby Dick some years back after hearing a radio program on reading in which the speaker waxed eloquent on the great rewards of working through this book. When attempting myself, I failed to keep my interest up and unfortunately didn't see the read clear to the end. I was quite pleased some years later when attending a break-out session on teaching your students to read in which the instructor advised - "It's really OK if you don't like Moby Dick. You're not a failure." The permission to not get all into Moby Dick was well received with by myself and I found it be rather liberating.

  3. I feel like reading this book is not a waste of time in that it is providing me the proper credentials to write permission slips to people to not feel that they ever need to read this book.

  4. I'm chuckling in appreciation.

  5. Hehe... like the permission slips idea.

    I think I've settled with what I'm going to do. And as usual... it's rather non-committal. I'm going to continue to follow along with your posts and thoughts. I may skim what you're working on each week. But my real focus is going to be finishing off Quixote, which I put aside last week, and War & Peace which I put aside a few weeks ago in order to get my things in order. Quixote and War & Peace are both immensely pleasurable reads. Quixote is a delight, through and through. War and Peace is familiar, comfortable territory for me... a complex, long, thoughtful Russian novel. Though, I should add that the latter part of W&P contains essays by Tolstoy addressing various subjects. I expect I'll be rather more interested in his essays than in Melville's encyclopedic offerings.

    Melville had a story to tell. And it seems he told it. And several others to boot. In a parade of styles.

  6. I think that's a wise choice on your part. Inspired by your wise choice, I decided to make a wise choice of my own. I am adding a week to the reading schedule, pretty much by subtracting a chapter from the previously established reading schedule.

    I have two primary reasons for this decision. The first is that I've just completed my second library renewal on The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius which I am far more interested in and which should have only taken me about a week. As it was going I found that I was only getting about one day a week for that and six for Moby-Dick. I'm really anxious to move on to Francis Bacon and frustrated by the great white whale plopped down in the middle of my path. The second reason is that will mean I finish on Christmas week and I am hard pressed to think of a better gift I could give myself than being done with Melville. Cue laughing Muppet hecklers.

  7. "All I want for Christmas is to kill that whale, kill that whale, kill that whale."

    I know you recently read Inferno. I'm re-reading that in December/January if I can get caught up. I start Purgatorio the 2nd week of January if you're interested.