The Books: ”Moby Dick” (Herman Melville)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

Moby Dick by Herman Melville – third excerpt.

0679725253.jpgWe’re deep into the journey now. Ishmael has methodically taken us through a bazillion chapters – telling us about the ship, and fishing, and the crew. Ahab has made only a couple of appearances. He’s not an omnipresent captain (like, say, Jack Aubrey seems to be) – he sits in his cabin, stewing over his charts, and even though he isn’t seen often – his presence is felt at all times. There’s something odd about this particular journey. It seems doomed. And sailors are some of the most superstitious people on earth. There’s that great (and creepy) story about one of the crew members showing up for work on The Andrea Gail (the ship made famous by Sebastien Junger’s The Perfect Storm) – and he gets out of the car, I think his girlfriend dropped him off at the dock – and he got out of the car, stared at the ship, got an incredibly bad feeling, and then said to himself, “Nope. I’m not doing THIS job” and drove away. He had no idea what the bad feeling was about – but, in general, sailors do trust those instincts. I’ve lived near fishing and fishermen all my life, and gut feelings like those are rarely ignored. So there’s a gut feeling on The Pequod that this trip is not like other trips. And what does one do when one is trapped on a whaling ship with a captain who could be mad? A pretty scary thought. He will put their lives at risk for his own personal quest, which has nothing to do with dragging home cases of spermiceti. It’s a personal thing. But none of this is spoken out loud. Because that, too, would be bad luck. It’s just a feeling, at first.

Here’s part of a haunting chapter called “The Spirit-Spout” – it’s one of those examples of Ishmael somehow describing a private moment of Captain Ahab. The first-person narrator goes away – and Melville doesn’t seem to worry too much about it. But there’s no way that Ishmael could get into Ahab’s brain like this – but again, those concerns are too small – for a book such as this one. It could be seen as a flaw, and I could go along with that – but sometimes it is the flaws that make a work truly great. Because art does not play by the rules. Human beings create it. It is not perfect. It lives and breathes (or at least, it should). Melville was not at all concerned with writing a ‘well-made’ novel (to paraphrase) – he was concerned with describing, in as obsessive a manner as possible, a spiritual experience, a poetic experience … and in doing so, he needed a fluid narrator. So whatever, his narrator is fluid. Melville was not obedient to a rule that he found no use for. I love that about this book. It would drive me crazy with a lesser artist – it would seem gimmicky, or too clever, or like a cop-out. But with Melville, once you are deep into this thing, you barely notice. I don’t “miss” Ishmael in chapters such as this one – it just seems that he has disappeared, momentarily – leaving us with another narrator. And that’s fine by me.


EXCERPT FROM Moby Dick by Herman Melville – third excerpt.

Days, weeks passed, and under easy sail, the ivory Pequod had slowly swept across four several cruising-grounds; that off the Azores; off the Cape de Verdes; on the Plate (so called), being off the mouth of the Rio de la Plata; and the Carrol Ground, an unstaked, watery locality, southerly from St. Helena.

It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude: on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea. Fedallah first descried this jet. For of these moonlight nights, it was his wont to mount to the main-mast head, and stand a look-out there, with the same precision as if it had been day. And yet, though herds of whales were seen by night, not one whaleman in a hundred would venture a lowering for them. You may think with what emotions, then, the seamen beheld this old Oriental perched aloft at such unusual hours; his turban and the moon, companions in one sky. But when, after spending his uniform interval there for several successive nights without uttering a single sound; when, after all this silence, his unearthly voice was heard announcing that silvery, moon-lit jet, every reclining mariner started to his feet as if some winged spirit had lighted in the rigging, and hailed the mortal crew. “There she blows!” Had the trump of judgment blown, they could not have quivered more; yet still they felt no terror; rather pleasure. for though it was a most unwonted hour, yet so impressive was the cry, and so deliriously exciting, that almost every soul on board instinctively desired a lowering.

Walking the deck with quick, side-lunging strides, Ahab commanded the t’gallant sails and royals to be set, and every stunsail spread. The best man in the ship must take the helm. Then, with every mast-head manned, the piled-up craft rolled down before the wind. The strange, upheaving, lifting tendency of the taffrail breeze filling the hollows of so many sails, made the buoyant, hovering deck to feel like air beneath the feet; while still she rushed along, as if two antagonistic influences were struggling in her – one to mount direct to heaven, the other to drive yawingly to some horizontal goal. And had you watched Ahab’s face that night, you would have thought that in him also two different things were warring. While his one live leg made lively echoes along the deck, every stroke of his dead limb sounded like a coffin-tap. On life and death this old man walked. But though the ship so swiftly sped, and though from every eye, like arrows, the eager glances shot, yet the silvery jet was no more seen that night. Every sailor swore he saw it once, but not a second time.

This midnight-spout had almost grown a forgotten thing, when, some days after, lo! at the same silent hour, it was again announced: again it was descried by all; but upon making sail to overtake it, once more it disappeared as if it had never been. And so it served us night after night, till no one heeded it but to wonder at it. Mysteriously jetted into the clear moonlight, or starlight, as the case might be; disappearing again for one whole day, or two days, or three; and somehow seeming at every distinct repetition to be advancing still further and further in our van, this solitary jet seemed for ever alluring us on.

Nor with the immemorial superstition of their race, and in accordance with the preternaturalness, as it seemed, which in many things invested the Pequod, were there wanting some of the seamen who swore that whenever and wherever descried; at however remote times, or in however far apart latitudes and longitudes, that unnearable spout was cast by one self-same whale; and that whale, Moby Dick. For a time, there reigned, too, a sense of peculiar dread at this flitting apparition, as if it were treacherously beckoning us on and on, in order that the monster might turn round upon us, and rend us at last in the remotest and most savage seas.

These temporary apprehensions, so vague but so awful, derived a wondrous potency from the contrasting serenity of the weather, in which, beneath all its blue blandness, some thought there lurked a devilish charm, as for days and days we voyaged along, through seas so wearily, lonesomely mild, that all space, in repugnance to our vengeful errand, seemed vacating itself of life before our urn-like prow.

But, at last, when turning to the eastward, the Cape winds began howling around us, and we rose and fell upon the long, troubled seas that are there; when the ivory-tusked Pequod sharply bowed to the blast, and gored the dark waves in her madness, till, like showers of silver chips, the foam-flakes flew over her bulwarks; then all this desolate vacuity of life went away, but gave place to sights more dismal than before.

Close to our bows, strange forms in the water darted hither and thither before us; while thick in our rear flew the inscrutable sea-ravens. And every morning, perched on our stays, rows of these birds were seen; and spite of our hootings, for a long time obstinately clung to the hemp, as though they deemed our ship some drifting, uninhabited craft; a thing appointed to desolation, and therefore fit roosting-place for their homeless selves. And heaved and heaved, still unrestingly heaved the black sea, as if its vast tides were a conscience; and the great mundane soul were in anguish and remorse for the long sin and suffering it had bred.

Cape of Good Hope, do they call ye? Rather Cape Tormentoto, as called of yore; for long allured by the perfidious silences that before had attended us, we found ourselves launched into this tormented sea, where guilty beings transformed into those fowls and these fish, seemed condemned to swim on everlastingly without any haven in store, or beat that black air without any horizon. But calm, snow-white, and unvarying; still directing its fountain of feathers to the sky; still beckoning us on from before, the solitary jet would at times be descried.

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