Saturday, October 16, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Moby-Dick- Part 5

Above: Things from around my house that would unnerve Melville.
Kids! Can you find nouns around your house that would drive Melville to write three chapters on the unseen dread that invisibly infuses all of observable reality?

In this week's reading, Ishmael talked for a very long time about the whale and its whiteness.  He forged a mad, teetering link between the appearance of the whale and all that inspires fear in... well, him, but him projected on all of humankind.  In short, he decidedly casts in his lot with Ahab's obsessive mission.  Chapter 42 "The Whiteness of the Whale" is one of the key chapters to understanding the entire book.  Not that we were really having much difficulty with that in the first place. 

As a quick side note, this week I was struck by how American the book is in its obsessiveness.  That sort of behavior is the fulcrum of our society and, indeed, the impetus which keeps our economy from completely tumbling over.  It also struck me that Ishmael was the character bringing meaning to the table like the poor dupe that he is.  Ishmael goes on and on about the meaning of the whale hunt.  I get the impression that Ahab's "meaning" is much more simplistic and visceral.  He wants to kill the thing that bit his leg off.  Which rather puts me at a difficult impasse for the remainder of the reading.  This epiphany paints Ahab in my mind as a brute, much like Starbuck's accusation against him after his rabble rousing speech, who seeks human revenge on a dumb beast.  Ishmael, on the other hand, seems to see something which I'm not sure is really there.  Although the link between Ahab and the whale is physical.  Part of the man himself is literally part of the whale now and the ivory leg seems to indicate that part of a whale is part of Ahab himself as well.  Much like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner wearing the albatross (literally.  "Wearing the albatross" sure does sound like a euphemism, though, doesn't it?)

That plays neatly into my own judgement of the book itself thus far: that it is like taking a vacation to a place you've always wanted to visit and having a tour guide who you dislike personally.  Ishmael increasingly strikes me as what I would call "a borderline case."

Christopher pointed out the flipped Gnostic line, "Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright."  Sort of a Proto-Lovecraftian view of the universe.  Indeed, I think Lovecraft did it better and, to seize one of the very rare instances in life one gets to employ a phrase like this, I think Lovecraft was not nearly as heavy-handed.  

Of course, one of the points being set up on stage in this portion of our reading is one of the major themes of the work: To really know what's in the abyss, it is necessary to actually fall in.

We finish out this week's reading with an account of an actual whale hunt.  It is quite tense and riveting.  Ahab, we find, has hidden ringers on the ship who he trots out when the mast-sitter sings out.  I enjoyed this chapter quite a bit.  I felt Melville really captured the rush of hunting giant unseen things beneath you which could surface and kill you at any moment.

I made a decision next week to extend the reading an extra week for a number of reasons.  Foremost was the fact that the brisk schedule I'd married myself to was precluding any other reading from my life, which is unacceptable.  Second, the new schedule will have me finish in time for Christmas.  This appealed to me on a number of levels. 

1 comment:

  1. Lovecraft as less heavy-handed... that is brilliant! Lovecraft is another who's prose exudes purple blood at every orifice, but unlike Melville, I enjoy Lovecraft in relatively small doses, where I seem to enjoy Melville only in abstinence.

    Bloom suggests Ahab as a Prometheus waging an eternal battle with the gods, or whatever it is that Caspar the Whale represents and not exactly failing when he reaches his inevitable death.

    In closing, however, I would like to point out an extension of Melville's theme on the diabolical heart of white: