The Books: “Moby Dick” (Herman Melville)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

0679725253.jpgI’m going to have to do a couple excerpts on this one.

The book is dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne: “In token of my admiration for his genius this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne”. That moves me. They were dear friends and there were many dark years in Melville’s life, when his work was either not being published or being published and ignored when Hawthorne was one of Melville’s only champions. Melville opened his heart to Hawthorne, in letters – about what he was going through, what he was working on with Moby Dick – and, like a great artistic friend and mentor should, Hawthorne never said, “Don’t you think you need to scale it down a bit?” or “Who will want to read 20 consecutive chapters about the etymology of blubber?” No. Hawthorne basically just kept saying to his friend, “Keep going. It’s brilliant. Keep going.”

Michael Dorda wrote, in 2005, about this extraordinary friendship: “In Melville’s lifetime few recognized or even suspected the writer’s exceptional genius — but Nathaniel Hawthorne came close, and the two men established a long-lasting friendship. After their first encounters, the writer of Polynesian adventures went back to his romantic tale about “Whale Fishery” and, in Delbanco’s words, “tore it up from within.” Melville deepened and amplified his novel, enlarged it in every sense, with the obvious hope of joining what he called, in an essay on Hawthorne, that fraternity where “genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round.” With wonderful appropriateness, then, the author of The Scarlet Letter — which appeared in 1850 — became the dedicatee of the following year’s Moby-Dick.”

After Hawthorne read the entirety of the book, in draft form, he let Melville know that he was finished – and not just that he was finished, but that he thought it was a work of genius – and Melville responded, “A sense of unspeakable security is in me at this moment, on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.”

Wicked? Why? Well, as EM Forster notes (in an excerpt below), the world of Moby Dick is a godless one. Even the sermons said on the ship have nothing to do with Christ. The God here is the sea. And – with Ahab – the God is his own mad ambition. That is all he worships. And yes, it warps his soul, makes him go crazy. There is no redemption possible. Only oblivion. Which, of course, is what happens.

In this biographical sketch of Melville it is said:

Moby-Dick was misunderstood by those who read and reviewed it and it sold only some 3,000 copies during Melville’s lifetime. The book can be read as a thrilling sea story, an examination of the conflict between man and nature – the battle between Ahab and the whale is open to many interpretations. It is a pioneer novel but the prairie is now sea, or an allegory on the Gold Rush, but now the gold is a whale. Jorge Luis Borges has seen in the universe of Moby-Dick “a cosmos (a chaos) not only perceptibly malignant as the Gnostics had intuited, but also irrational, like the cosmos in the hexameters of Lucretius.” (from The Total Library, 1999) Clare Spark has connected in Hunting Captain Ahab (2001) different interpretations with changing political atmosphere – depending on the point of view Ahab has been seen as a Promethean hero or a forefather of the twentieth-century totalitarian dictators. The director John Huston questions in his film version (1956) which one, Ahab or the whale, is the real Monster.

It is not a book that can be easily classified. It still stands alone, so many years after publication. It’s an anomaly. It’s not a regular novel. The point of view switches. The book starts with the famous line “Call me Ishmael” (which I’ll get to in a minute) – which sets us up strongly in a first-person universe. But then there are events on the boat that Ishmael tells us of – that Ishmael was not a party to, was not present for – and then the long omniscent professor of marine-biology sections where the whale is broken down into its separate parts. There is no real plot, per se – although the over-riding thrust is, of course, Ahab’s pursuit of the whale. But when you stand Moby Dick next to the other great sweeping novels of the 19th century – Middlemarch, Jane Eyre, all of Dickens, all of Hawthorne, all of Austen – you can see how different Moby Dick is … it is almost like a voice directly from the future – from our post-modern future. Where the narrator is fluid, where the events are commented on – not only by the narrator but by an outside eye … where things are broken down and taken apart to be examined – and then put back together again. I still don’t think today’s authors have caught up to Melville, though. He still stands alone in what he accomplished in Moby Dick. It is a singular event, this book. A comet across the sky – that appears only once in a millennia.

I read Moby Dick in high school and despised it. I thought it was one of the most boring pointless things I had ever read. It was on our summer reading list, and I clearly remember forcing myself to read the damn thing, during the dog days of August … nearly crying from the psychological boredom. Whatever, man … Moby Dick, Captain Ahab, endless discourses on blubber … I was 16. I DIDN’T GET IT.

Cut to many many years later. 2001, to be exact. I read it in the spring of 2001. Around that time I decided to systematically go back and re-read all of the books I had been forced to read in high school (which, obviously, made me despise them at the time). I read The Scarlet Letter (excerpt here) and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (excerpt here) and many others. Moby Dick is such a massive book, and I had hated it so much when I first read it that I hesitated to put myself through it again.

And honestly – it blew the top of my head off. Every page. Every page.

I have rarely had such an exciting reading experience as that one. I didn’t want it to end. I underlined passages feverishly. I put exclamations points in the margins next to particularly amazing sentences. Honestly. It blew me away.

Re-reading Scarlet Letter, et al, was also really fun – and yes, I renewed my appreciation for those old books, and realized: “Ohhh, okay, yup. THAT’S why the dern thing is a classic” … but none of them flattened me as much as Moby Dick.

By a weird coincidence, my friend Kate was also re-reading Moby Dick at the same time – a fact we discovered during one of our phone conversations – and we both got SO excited – because, honestly, who in your real life wants to sit around talking about Moby Dick? Who will believe you unless they have read it themselves? So when she said, “I’m reading Moby Dick now …” I FREAKED OUT. I remember I was living in our ridiculous apartment on Willow at the time – where my room was the size of a closet – and speaking of which, I had no closet – and I had a fold-up bed which HAD to be folded up every day in order for me to have the room to walk to my damn door. Mkay? And I remember I sat perched on my fold-up bed, talking with Kate for a couple of hours about Moby Dick. We both got our copies of the book out, and read passages to each other, and talked about them. The chapter that freaked me out the most (and yes, I mean freaked out) was one called “The Whiteness of the Whale” – which I’ll get to later … and I hadn’t even mentioned it, and at one point Kate said, in a tone of hushed awe, “What about that chapter ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’??” This is one of the MANY reasons why Kate and I are such good friends.

The book, in high school, seemed so far from relevant … to my life … and also: there was nothing even remotely recognizable. At least in Scarlet Letter you deal with social issues and sexual issues – stuff I could latch onto as an adolescent … but Moby Dick? I’m supposed to give a hoo-hah about the spout-hole and what it means and why it’s important?

Also, except for the blowsy woman who serves Ishmael chowder in the 2nd or 3rd chapter, and the brief mention of Ahab’s new wife at home, there are NO women in this book. NONE. Now: I wasn’t a big girlie girlie book reader – Huck Finn was one of my favorite books growing up … but there are at least SOME girls in that book. Women are not completely banished to the sidelines. Not at all. But Moby Dick? This is a universe not just of men – but a conscious rejection of the female. If you look at the book in another light (as Camille Paglia does so brilliantly and so bizarrely in her chapter on it in Sexual Personae) – the whale could be seen as the “spirit” of female energy in the world. It is obvious that the great white whale is a male – but Paglia theorizes that something else might be going on there. Whaling boats were 100% male, they lived out on the ocean for 3 or 4 years at a time. There were no women. None. But nature? The earth? Aren’t these things often referred to as “she”? Paglia thinks that although there are no actual women human beings in Moby Dick, the female is not just present, but omnipresent. She is the sea, the waves, the fish, the storms … she is what cannot be controlled, no matter how hard the men try. This does make sense, in light of Melville’s off-screen life, and his issues with women. It’s a fascinating way to look at the book.

E.M. Forster said, in his wonderful published lecture, Aspects of the Novel:

Moby Dick is an easy book, as long as we read it as a yarn or an account of whaling interspersed with snatches of poetry. But as soon as we catch the song in it, it grows difficult and immensely important. Narrowed and hardened into words the spiritual theme of Moby Dick is as follows: a battle against evil conducted too long or in the wrong way. The White Whale is evil, and Captain Ahab is warped by constant pursuit until his knight-errantry turns into revenge. These are words — a symbol for the book if we want one — but they do not carry us much further than the acceptance of the book as a yarn — perhaps they carry us backwards, for they may mislead us into harmonizing the incidents, and so losing their roughness and richness. The idea of a contest we may retain: all action is a battle, the only happiness is peace. But contest between what? We get false if we say that it is between good and evil or between two unreconciled evils. The essential in Moby Dick, its prophetic song, flows athwart the action and the surface morality like an undercurrent. It lies outside words…we cannot catch the words of the song. There has been stress, with intervals: but no explicable solution, certainly no reaching back into universal pity and love; no ‘Gentlemen, I’ve had a good dream.’

The extraordinary nature of the book appears in two of its early incidents — the sermon about Jonah and the friendship with Queequeg.

The sermon has nothing to do with Christianity. It asks for endurance or loyalty without hope of reward. The preacher “kneeling in the pulpit’s bows, folded his large brown hands across his chest, uplifted his closed eyes, and offered a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea.” Then he works up and up and concludes on a note of joy that is far more terrifying than a menace…

Immediately after the sermon, Ishmael makes a passionate alliance with the cannibal Queequeg, and it looks for a moment that the book is to be a saga of blood-brotherhood. But human relationships mean little to Melville, and after a grotesque and violent entry, Queequeg is almost forgotten. Almost — not quite…

Moby Dick is full of meanings: its meaning is a different problem. It is wrong to turn the Delight or the coffin into symbols, because even if the symbolism is correct, it silences the book. Nothing can be stated about Moby Dick except that it is a contest. The rest is song.”

Brilliant. “The rest is song”. And yes, once you catch the tune of Moby Dick, once you stop looking for conventional pathways, and plot, the things we are used to … all you can hear is the song. I love his point about how if you try to pin down the symbolism – you “silence” the book. I think that is right on.

I’ll be doing a couple different excerpts – choosing them as I go. The book is so rich, so detailed, every page has a psychological gem on it … It’s an extraordinary accomplishment, and, like I mentioned before, still stands all by itself.

William Blake once wrote:

…and now we saw it, it was the head of Leviathan, his forehead was divided into streaks of green and purple like those on a tyger’s forehead. Soon we saw his mouth and red gills hang just above the raging foam tinging the black deep with beams of blood, advancing toward us with all the fury of a spiritual existence.

Ahab would have totally understood that.

This excerpt is from the first chapter: “Loomings”.

EXCERPT FROM Moby Dick by Herman Melville

No, when I go to sea, I go as a simple sailor, right before the mast, plumb down into the forecastle, aloft there to the royal mast-head. True, they rather order me about some, and make me jump from spar to spar, like a grasshopper in a May meadow. And at first, this sort of thing is unpleasant enough. It touches one’s sense of honor, particularly if you come of an old established family in the land, the van Rensselaers, or Randolphs, or Hardicanutes. And more than all, if just previous to putting your hand into the tar-pot, you have been lording it as a country schoolmaster, making the tallest boys stand in awe of you. The transition is a keen one, I assure you, from the schoolmaster to a sailor, and requires a strong decoction of Seneca and the Stoics to enable you to grin and bear it. But even this wears off in time.

What of it, if some old hunks of a sea-captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks? What does that indignity amount to, weighed, I mean, in the scales of the New Testament? Do you think the archangel Gabriel thinks anything the less of me, because I promptly and respectfully obey that old hunks in that particular instance? Who aint a slave? Tell me that. Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about – however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way – either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.

Again, I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of. On the contrary, passengers themselves must pay. And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid. The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But being paid, – what will compare with it? The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!

Finally, I always go to sea as a sailor, because of the wholesome exercise and pure air of the forecastle deck. For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim), so for the most part the Commodore on the quarter-deck gets his atmosphere at second hand from the sailors on the forecastle. He thinks he breathes it first; but not so. In much the same way do the commonalty lead their leaders in many other things, at the same time that the leaders little suspect it. But wherefore it was that after having repeatedly smelt the sea as a merchant sailor, I should now take it into my head to go on a whaling voyage; this the invisible police officer of the Fates, who has the constant surveillance of me, and secretly dogs me, and influences me in some unaccountable way – he can better answer than any one else. And, doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:

Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States

Whaling Voyage by one Ishmael


Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces – though I cannot tell why this was exactly; yet, now that I recall all the circumstances, I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment.

Chief among these motives was the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself. Such a portentous and mysterious monster roused all my curiosity. Then the wild and distant seas where he rolled his island bulk; the undeliverable, nameless perils of the whale; these, with all the attending marvels of a thousand Patagonian sights and sounds, helped to sway me to my wish. With other men, perhaps, such things would not have been inducements; but as for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts. Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it – would they let me – since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in.

By reason of these things, then, the whaling voyage was welcome; the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.

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21 Responses to The Books: “Moby Dick” (Herman Melville)

  1. The Books: “Moby Dick” (Herman Melville)

    Next book in my Daily Book Excerpt – on my adult fiction shelves: Oh, and a quick note: In my recent re-org, I decided to break up the Daily Book Excerpt archive into separate categories – because, after all, I…

  2. amelie says:

    yay for daily book categories! that — and all the other organization you’ve been doing here — makes me really excited!

  3. red says:

    It’s essential to have an outlet for my autistic sensibilities. I’m still not completely happy with it – because you still have to scroll through every single post to find what you want. I would prefer a list of book titles and links, but until I pay someone to do a big overhaul – this will have to do.

    I’m happy with it too – I’m doing a lot of writing offline, and referring to all this crap constantly and it’s been good to organize it. Glad you like.

  4. nightfly says:

    I had once referred to this book (maybe even in the comments here elsewhere) as “the world’s worst Masterpiece.” Parts of it frustrate me no end. You inspire me on books, however, so I shall have to give it a second chance now.

  5. Kerry says:

    I love Moby Dick! How about that great chapter about the nursery? The image of all those whales, all those mothers and babies, which chapter is that? And have you read In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick? So good! I read both books and Owen Chase’s account of the wreck of the whaleship Essex all right before a trip to Nantucket and it was so amazing and inspiring. And the whaling museum on Nantucket is great, too, especially after reading Moby Dick, because you understand how everything works. I just love that book. Have to read it again.

  6. red says:

    I certainly don’t think it’s “for” everyone. I can see why people would be frustrated, bored out of their minds, irritated. It really struck a deep chord in me, though – like, the deepest chord I think has ever been struck for me – while reading a book. The chapter “The Blanket”, for example, literally changed how I thought about some of my own personal flaws … I became more gentle with myself, I saw my flaws in a different light.

    Now that is a profound reading experience!

    But still, there are only a couple of people I can think of I would really recommend it to, just because – either you come to the book yourself and love it, or you come to it yourself and hate it … It seems very specific.

    It’s one of my favorite reading experiences ever. Not a perfect book, not my favorite book – but the experience of reading it (as though the first time) was one of my all-time favorites. It totally took over my brain.

  7. red says:

    Oops! My novel of a comment was in response to Nightfly.

  8. red says:

    Kerry – Yes!! The nursery chapter is incredible! What a vision!

    And the chapter where Pip goes mad after being out in the sea by himself for a while being picked up – has haunted me ever since.

    I have not been to the whaling museum although we did go on whaling trips in high school as field trips – which was always so so cool!!

    I have not read heart of the Sea although I own it – it’s one of those books I will definitely read someday!

    Then there’s that great and ikky line from Moby Dick – something like: “unctuous globs of spermiceti” – and how all the sailors who work with the spermiceti have hands as smooth as babies’ bottoms – but there’s something so disturbing about that image, because they are grown men – with these smoothed-out hands – it’s a bad job on the ship, as I can recall- nobody likes the sperm detail.

    I have to read it again!!

  9. jean says:

    Sheil – I must read it again. I had the exact same experience with it in high school – I remember having it at Narragansett beach while my friends (who probably did not even do summer reading) were in the water. I finally got the cliff notes – this did not go over well with dad. I was just laughing hysterically over your ‘endless discourses on blubber” comment…

  10. red says:

    “this did not go over well with dad”

    HAHAHA I did the Cliff Notes too for this one! We were just frolicking in the sand and having clamcakes and BITCHING about this stupid book with nary a girl in it. haha

  11. Kerry says:

    I used to do dramatic readings of the scenes between Ishmael and Queequeg like they were love scenes, it can be pretty hilarious. It used to drive a Melville-fan friend of mine insane, it made him really angry, but I mean, COME ON!! Because if you read “I turned in, and never slept better in my life” with the appropriate salacious subtext it can be pretty racy. Hahahaha.

  12. red says:

    hahahahaha The copy of my book is illustrated with woodcuts (I love it) – and there’s a great woodcut of the two of them lying in bed together, with Queequeg’s pigtails hanging over the side of the bed. HA!

    Look, you gotta have SOME romance in the book – besides Ahab’s obsessive love-hate relationship with the Leviathan!

  13. melissa says:

    See, now that you’ve inspired me, and nightfly, and whoever else to reread this thing (when I’m finished I’m sure I’ll have a better word for it – but its still a “thing” in my head) – I’m thinking we need a club. The Readers Of Sheila’s Blog Who Are Now Reading Whatever Book Sheila Inspired Us To Read This Week Bookclub. Or something.

    And, when is that Amazon button coming so I can give you your rightful kickback?

  14. red says:

    Melissa – I know, I know! I think I have to join Pay Pal and then join some affiliate program … bah. I get overwhelmed. I am in general overwhelmed – but yeah, I have to set up an Amazon button!!

    I jsut got an email last week that made me so happy – some guy had read a book from these excerpts – one of Elinor Lipman’s books that he said he would NEVER have picked up on his own (with its chick lit title and chick lit cover) and he absolutely loved it – that just made me feel so so good.

  15. Doug Puthoff says:

    I have to re-read it! I may not have “got it” the first time. Of course, I have to get past “War and Peace” first (I’m on Page 200 now.)

  16. red says:

    Doug – ha!!! Yes – only one HUGE 19th century book at a time! I’ve never read War & Peace but I’m gearing up – think I’ll read it this summer. Last year I read Middlemarch – another one I had never read and needed to gear up for (and oh my God, what a book) – but this year it is definitely War & Peace. I’m jealous that you’ve already started!!

  17. Campaspe says:

    I still remember John Huston’s memoirs, when he says “I’ve heard people say they have read Moby Dick as a child. This brands them instantly as liars.” He goes on to say that no one who isn’t at least in their late teens, and very mature, could possibly get the book. I completely agree. I tried to tackle it in my late teens and tossed it aside in frustration. Then I read it some years later as part of my delayed college career and like you, I was completely blown away. I read it in Kenneth Silverman’s class at NYU–he was such a great professor, I loved him to death–and he said, by the way, that on the evidence of the letters he believed Melville was actually in love with Hawthorne. Hawthorne was very handsome, I always thought.

    that’s all I have to say, except that my favorite passage is the shark massacre section.

    Your wonderful analysis brings this book back so vividly for me that I wonder if I shouldn’t read it again.

  18. red says:

    Campapse – I would love to read a dual biography of Melville & Hawthorne – their friendship, artistic connection, etc – I don’t know: does such a thing exist? I do know that Melville was tormented by women (and not in the usual way that straight men are tormented by women – ha!) – but something else was going on there for him. It’s an interesting theory about Hawthorne – makes a lot of sense.

    I just read a biography of Martin van Buren (I know, I’m insane) – and he also was really good friends with Hawthorne. Boy got around!!

  19. Jaquandor says:

    I’m reading Moby Dick right now, one chapter at a time. The first chapter was interesting, but the first sentence of the second chapter is what grabbed me in a big way. At one chapter a day it’ll take me about four or five months. I want it to last.

  20. Pingback: The Shed | Mitch Levenberg

  21. Sean says:

    Like you read Moby Dick years and years ago and most of it went over my head. It was somewhat bludgeoning. Anyway, I have just read again Infinite Jest . I do this when I’m bummed out because I’m in the middle of a writing block. Doesn’t fix it, but, you know… Anyway.
    I liked your observation about women, the female and Paglia’s analysis. I’ll re read that.
    Overall, I contest, Infinite Jest is juvenile and essentially horribly, bleakly humorous. The writer, Wallace, runs circles over and over around sex but never is ‘grown up’ about it. Like some brilliant man child, wanting to create something great but not mature enough, in life experience and spiritual development, to get at the heart of the human dynamic…just does not understand experientially; as to the opposite, intellectually, not able to imagine beyond the juvenile. And then Melville.
    So, then, is this what we have become? From Shakespeare to Melville to Pynchon – who clowns around but is still at least I think ‘grown up’ , to Wallace and his cast of grotesques trapped in adolescence, grief and un-defendable addiction? Irony too, that Infinite Jest is thought to begin where Hamlet ended.

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