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Moby-Dick: General comments and extras 
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Post Moby-Dick: General comments and extras
I just heard/read this on NPR's website from their You Must Read This series. I love what Rebecca Stott has to say about Moby-Dick.

'Moby-Dick': Into the Wonder-World, Audaciously
by Rebecca Stott
June 13, 2007

I've been re-reading Moby-Dick for years since I first discovered it in my 20s, and I still don't know quite what it is. There's nothing like it in the history of literature, except perhaps Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, with its eccentric characters, plotless episodes, entangled digressions, puns, obsessions and tricks.

Yes, of course, many people know what Moby-Dick is about. It is a tale of the voyage of the Pequod and the obsessive, vengeful quest of its captain, Ahab, to kill the white whale Moby-Dick.

But what is it? It is a creature quite unto itself: a great library of learning contained within the belly of a whale, a key to all mythologies, a joke, a quest, a witch-hunt, a parable, a water eclogue and a warning against the dangers of monomania and what we might call fundamentalism. The book is a cauldron into which Melville, demented alchemist, tipped everything that fascinated him: whale lore, whale statistics, meditations on love, friendship, dreams, demonic possession, his own conversations with books by writers from Carlyle to Rousseau, Shakespeare to Goethe. He described it as "the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ship's cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it."

While I may have fallen for the eroticized audacity of Moby-Dick for the briny adrenaline rush of its quest, now it seems to provoke more philosophical questions — about, for instance, the nature of truth. For Moby-Dick refuses, bravely, both the idea of human perfectibility and the notion that truth can be either absolute or reachable. It is not for nothing that the first chapter, in which we meet Ishmael, Ahab's attendant shadow, is beautifully entitled "Loomings." Ishmael says, "the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and ... 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." (Read 'Loomings.')

In Moby-Dick truths are phantoms, not without existence, nor unimportant, but always insubstantial, always seen only as flashings-forth, glimpses, snow hills in the air. I try in my own stories to capture the elusiveness of truth by conjuring figures who exist in the interstices of history, who move between past and present, who can only ever be seen on the edges of vision. I keep the novel to hand when I am writing, and I reach for it whenever my nerve fails me — because Melville had nerve as well as mad genius, and his daring is evident on every page of Moby-Dick.

Moby-Dick is also, of course, a warning against the consequences of fundamentalism and monomania in any form, as Salman Rushdie has argued in a passionate essay against fundamentalism called "Is Nothing Sacred?" He calls Moby-Dick a very modern parable: "Ahab, gripped by his possession, perishes; Ishmael, a man without strong feeling or powerful affiliations, survives. The self-interested modern man is the sole survivor; those who worship the whale — for pursuit is a form of worship — perish by the whale." Some of today's warmongers and dictators might learn something about the dangers of a certain kind of messianic zeal from this marvelous book.



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Post Re: Moby-Dick: General comments and extras
One of the things I love about reading Moby-Dick is the nautical terms. For all of my knowing I've loved the ocean and the idea of being out to sea. Notice I've said idea. I have been out in the ocean in a boat and have done well, but I no longer romanticize life on a boat. For the longest time I loved the Dickens novel Dombey and Son (whch I read lying on the beach) for the descriptions of the nautical life.



Fri Apr 13, 2012 5:35 pm
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Post Re: Moby-Dick: General comments and extras
I can't recall the chapter in which Queequeg's hollowed-out tomahawk/pipe was discussed, but I speculated that the hole bored through the handle would be very narrow to make it possible to get a strong enough suck to light the tobacco. Last evening I went to lecture about the buffalo in eastern North America, and the speaker displayed just such an Indian tomahawk. It had a metal bowl on the business end, opposite the blade, and the hole in the end of the handle was no more than a few mm in diameter. So this wasn't just a fancy of Melville's.



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Post Re: Moby-Dick: General comments and extras
DWill wrote:
I can't recall the chapter in which Queequeg's hollowed-out tomahawk/pipe was discussed, but I speculated that the hole bored through the handle would be very narrow to make it possible to get a strong enough suck to light the tobacco. Last evening I went to lecture about the buffalo in eastern North America, and the speaker displayed just such an Indian tomahawk. It had a metal bowl on the business end, opposite the blade, and the hole in the end of the handle was no more than a few mm in diameter. So this wasn't just a fancy of Melville's.

It was one of the first few chapters that the pipe/tomahawk is introduced. I'd heard of such an item, but in association with American Indians. I remember wondering why a south sea native would have an American Indian item - never thinking that such a thing could have been made in more than one place in the world. Now that I am nearing the end of the book I see that there are many opportunities for swapping trinkets between many different ethnic groups as Melville presents the picture of life on a whaling vessel..



Sat Apr 14, 2012 8:19 am
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Post Re: Moby-Dick: General comments and extras
The language of this book is wonderful! One of my most favorite things is the name Ishmael calls Flask, "Little King Post."



Wed Apr 18, 2012 6:06 pm
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Post "Melville's quarrel with fiction"
I
The recent exchanges about what there is to say about Melville led me to attempt to do some work. so I found english.illinois.edu/-people-/emeritus/ ... arrel.htm# this article.
The main points I got from it :

The problem with trying to discuss Moby Dick is one of genre "we are able to interpret a work only if we can approximate it to a genre whose features we recognise".
His two early works he saw as journalism (with enhancements). In Mardi he went from traveller's tale to romance to philosophico-religious musings, in his search for absolute truth. This search became central, hence his lack of respect for fiction, because it is (by definition) not truth-telling. The fictional element of MD is for Melville only the packaging of the work's deeper intentions.

Quote:
Moby-Dick manages to be interpretable even while submitting itself to no single genre. It seems to contain not only all possible statements that may be made about the whale but also all possible literary and verbal modes in which such statements may be made. .... His voice, taking up all other voices in turn but resting in none of them, is analog yet opposite to the whale's whiteness: although it is the sum of all voices, as white is the sum of all colors, it leads to fullness rather than to absence. If there is a void at the center of the universe, there is no void at the center of Moby-Dick, where Ishmael's voice creates the illusion of divine plenitude.


---
I do recommend this rather long article - I've found it well worth reading and pondering about, and it's helped me make some sense of what Melville's enterprise was in MD.



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Post Re: Moby-Dick: General comments and extras
I came across "Leviathan," by W. S. Merwin, and thought it was a good Moby Dick extra. Merwin here channels his ancient Anglo-Saxon predecessors.


This is the black sea-brute bulling through wave-
wrack,
Ancient as ocean’s shifting hills, who in sea-toils
Travelling, who furrowing the salt acres
Heavily, his wake hoary behind him,
Shoulders spouting, the fist of his forehead 5
Over wastes gray-green crashing, among horses
unbroken
From bellowing fields, past bone-wreck of vessels,

Tide-ruin, wash of lost bodies bobbing
No longer sought for, and islands of ice gleaming
Who ravening the rank flood, wave-marshalling, 10
Overmastering the dark sea-marches, finds home
And harvest. Frightening to foolhardiest
Mariners, his size were difficult to describe:
The hulk of him is like hills heaving,
Dark, yet as crags of drift-ice, crowns cracking in 15
thunder,
Like land’s self by night black-looming, surf
churning and trailing
Along his shores’ rushing, shoal-water boding
About the dark of his jaws; and who should moor
at his edge
And far on afoot would find gates of no gardens,
But the hill of dark underfoot diving, 20
Closing overhead, the cold deep, and drowning.
He is called Leviathan, and named for rolling,
First created he was of all creatures,
He has held Jonah three days and nights,
He is that curling serpent that in ocean is, 25
Sea-fright he is, and the shadow under the earth.
Days there are, nonetheless, when he lies
Like an angel, although a lost angel
On the waste’s unease, no eye of man moving
Bird hovering, fish flashing, creature whatever 30
Who after him came to herit earth’s emptiness
Froth at flanks seething soothes to stillness,
Waits; with one eye he watches
Dark of night sinking last, with one eye dayrise
As at first over foaming pastures. He makes no cry 35
Though that light is a breath. The sea curling,
Star-climbed, wind-combed, cumbered with itself
still
As at first it was, is the hand not yet contented
Of the Creator. And he waits for the world to
begin.



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Post Re: Moby-Dick: General comments and extras
Thanks DWill, great poem. I wonder if poems and stories of this type served a practical purpose at one time ... to keep the sleepy/drunk watch man awake at night as he stares out of the roiling sea, sipping on his whisky or rum, and fearing the creatures below .. nothing like fear to keep a person awake and sharp. May have saved a ship or two from a nasty collision with a reef or rock and for the whalers, helped them spot a whale they might otherwise have missed ...



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Post Re: Moby-Dick: General comments and extras
Just to note, I found a superb book by Newton Arvin with the title Herman Melville. The chapter on Moby Dick is a corker. I will write up some comments on it.


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Post Re: Moby-Dick: General comments and extras
The wiki page on Newton Arvin quotes a review of his biography of Melville which says it
Quote:
is the wisest and most balanced single piece of writing on Melville I have seen. It is marked not only by a thoroughly convincing analysis of his creative power and its limitations, but, what is most sharply felt in the book, a wonderfully right feeling for the burning human values involved at every point in Melville's struggle with his own nature... . He is concerned with the man's evolution in a way that leaves an extraordinary impression of concentrated sympathetic awareness.


This wikipedia page is worth a read regarding Arvin's life. Truman Capote endowed a prize in his honor. Arvin apparently died the day I was born (although wiki gives two dates).

Arvin's essay on Moby Dick is fifty pages long, and very well worth a read if you happen to find it. I picked up my copy for $3 at the Lifeline bookfair - a real bargain for a work regarded as one of the greatest pieces of literary criticism ever. What I really like in it, apart from the careful discussion of Melville's unique use of language, is the effort to put Moby on the couch, and plumb his subconscious symbolism.

My own view is that Moby Dick represents virgin America, while Ahab represents the English settler community. Ultimately the natural power is greater than the strict efforts to control and tame it. Arvin provides a Freudian analysis of Moby Dick in terms of the Oedipus complex and whale as parental figure. I found that less convincing, but well worth a ponder.


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Post Re: Moby-Dick: General comments and extras
I listened to this book - went only halfway and thought it a dreadful bore.

Tonite, we watched the movie - verrrrrrrrrrrrrrry good - now I like the story better.

(Can I cheat? Can I put it down at Goodreads as having 'read'?)



Tue Sep 04, 2012 9:41 pm
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