Monday, November 15, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Moby-Dick- Week 9

I knew, back when I was arbitrarily picking the week's reading schedule for this book, that there would most likely end up being weeks entirely comprised of Melville's sprawling chapters of dated encyclopedic material.  This was very nearly that week, but we were rescued at the last moment by a depressing whaling account (is there any other kind?)

I am not sure I could exposit on the chapters about the heads of sperm whales and right whales, even if I felt the desire to try.  You know, there was one Melvillian apologist I read recently who was trying to make the argument that these informational chapters are Melville attempting to create in the reader the sense of a long ocean voyage.  Not only does one get the information associated with the world of whaling, but one also gets the feel of being in a very boring, long boat ride (the apologist would not have used the word "boring" but that is, in essence, what he was attempting to communicate.)  I'm afraid I reject this hypothesis entirely.  I see no evidence to convict Melville of that level of sophistication.  Which is not a dig at Melville per se.  Art doesn't seem to have evolved to that point of self-awareness or infinite regress of self-commentary in the Pre-Joyce, Pre-Dadaist/Cubist, Pre-Stravinsky world.  It is a danger of the Modern that one can misuse it to interpret the past in ways that the past may not have even been able to understand.  I don't know about you, but this sort of hypothesis always feels a bit like someone walking over my grave.  In my own Modernist, excruciatingly self-aware brain, I catch myself wondering through what kind of filter the people 300 years in the future are going to use to mis-interpret our contemporary works.

What Melville is fairly consistently guilty of is finding the highest point of metaphorical saturation.  I feel we definitely have another example of this in the sinking whale corpse chapter. 

As a brief aside, I would point out another aspect of our narrative that strikes me as being a bit clunky.  Melville has chopped up the through line of the narrative so much that, at this long, middle section, it almost reads more like "The Pequod Tales," a collection of short stories about an established set of characters.  We are that far afloat at this point.  I think the apologist above may have had it in mind to salvage these sections with an argument along the lines of "there is no superfluous material in Moby-Dick."  Which is almost the polar opposite of the Moby-Dick I am reading.

But we were talking about a sinking whale corpse or, rather, a more literal one.  Melville sets the scene of meeting another, decidedly lesser vessel of whalers.  Stubb makes sure to include the slap-stick convention of putting a fine point of the high value of the thing about to be lost.  In a sort of Pre-Darwinian Darwinistic scene, the more intrepid Pequod team bags the whale.  However, the corpse sinks to the bottom of the sea.  Much like life or our dreams or something like that.  An exercise in futility, a great risk taken and lost, leaving me with the rather difficult task of maintaining my position that the book lacks self-awareness.

Next week, we read through Chapter XC which, in my text, brings us to page 370, rather magically 30 pages on the nose.  Which makes me very happy as that is do-able in a single afternoon and let's be get back to things I would much rather be reading at this point.


  1. I keep waiting for the post where you reveal the great apotheosis of Moby Dick, the chapter that makes every other chapter before it worthwhile. I'm thinking I shouldn't hold my breath. Nothing you've written dents my conviction that M.D. isn't for me and likely doesn't really merit the praise bestowed on it. It seems like it could have been done as a decent adventure novel. The metaphysical elements seem worthy of a crank (like myself), and the encyclopedic elements perhaps just rather lazy writing -- or that of an obsessive who couldn't tolerate not including every nifty thing he'd learned.

  2. For me, I think this is it, which makes me weep over the 200 remaining pages. I think that the book is like the promise of an extremely valuable whale which you struggle greatly to win, but then it sinks to the bottom of the ocean before you ever get the promise of greatness. I think I've shared similar thoughts before, but I don't think reading this book was worthwhile aside from laying to rest any suspicion that it might be. Also potentially giving me ammunition for fervent disagreements in my future with people who like the book.

  3. You're throwing in the towel??? What's up next? I'm trying to refocus by finishing Quixote (within 100 pages of being done -- great book, totally my fault that I've stalled), and getting back to Shakespeare (my "core" literature). I may put War and Peace off for a while. It's great, but if you are ready for Dante, Chaucer, or Milton I'll consider holding off on Tolstoy for a while. I know I won't ditch you with any of those three.

  4. Oh no. I'm still going to finish. I don't think it's a worthwhile book to read, but I'm within less than 200 pages of this 10 book project that I started well over a year ago. I'll finish. And then I'll spend the rest of my life fervently arguing with anyone who defends its place as a great book.

    When it comes up in conversation. I'm not actually going to spend the rest of my life doing that.

  5. Oh, okay. I misinterpreted "this is it." I took it for an, "I've had enough," and the weeping being disappointment that you were so close but still throwing in the towel. Now I understand that your weeping is because you still have 200 pages to go. I respect, but do not share, your determination. ;-)