Sunday, November 7, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Moby-Dick- Week 8

I found this to be one of the more interesting weeks of reading thus far.  We start with the grotesque scene of the whale steak.  The comparison of the ravaging sharks on the whale carcass and Stubb eating the steak on-board seemed a fairly concise argument for vegetarianism.  Once again, I question if Melville is horribly archaic in his views on race or if he is offering subtle commentary on views of race in his day.  Although in my less generous moments I would be tempted to remind you that Melville's track record on subtlety tends toward the scanty fare.  Ah, I'm mixing metaphors again.  Oh well.  I've buttered my bread and now I must lie in it.

Still, there is something horribly lonely and desperate behind the jocularity of the scene.  Perhaps I'm bringing my own baggage to the table (let's just do away with metaphorical consistency, shall we?)  but there was, for me, a dark, existential absurdity to the scene of the disgusting, carnivorous Stubb commanding the ancient black cook to "preach" to the sharks who were eating the whale, each other, themselves, their own innards eaten by them and coming back out of their gaping wounds upon swallowing.  It struck me as a ferocious microcosm of the human experience beyond anything I've read in more contemporary dark writers (and if there's one thing I know, it's dark writers).  This was one of the more excellent scenes in the book so far in my opinion.

We encounter the Jeroboam, a ship with a bizarre power dynamic at work.  I thought this was a fairly overt commentary on the sort of fiery "gifts" one like Melville would no doubt have encountered in the Second Great Awakening, which would have been going on in New England around the time of the composition of this book.  In essence, you have a group entirely perverted by and at the whim of a religious charlatan who gets people to do as he wishes by adding divine authority to his speech.  It's a dark view of religion... and, in my experience, not an inaccurate one.

We end this week with the acting out of the repulsive superstition of lashing the head of a sperm whale to one side of the ship and the head of a right whale to the other side (I'm sure there are nautical terms for each side.  I find myself blocking out nautical terms by this point in our reading) to prevent them from capsizing literally, if not morally.  If there were a theme to this week's arbitrary section of the book, I think it would be along the lines of the horrible things that human beings do, most of which are entirely unnecessary, much of which cause great suffering, all of which reveal our fragility and inherent madness in the face of an irrational, rudderless universe.

In short, I loved it this week!

In this next week, we shall read through Chapter LXXXIII which, in my text, will take us up to page 340.

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