It’s been 165 years. What more can be, needs to be said, that has not already been said about Moby-Dick? We could have stopped with Ezra Pound’s observation that Melville’s opus was “a whale of a book.”
While we scurry beneath the heels, knees, and elbows of our collapsing empire and try to take what small joys we can from friends and family in these last-gasp days of capitalism, our overwhelming feeling is that the modern condition is for man to be bludgeoned. By life, by work, by the media we consume, by superhero movies, by the envy and fear that gnaw at us as we make our choices and wonder at the wisdom of the hardscrabble paths we navigate.
I think about Moby-Dick obsessively, reflexively, every day. I was in downtown Los Angeles just before midnight last month walking through pockets of weed-smoking street people on my way into a Sunn O))) show at the Regent Theater. For 90 minutes once the band took the stage I was bludgeoned. While the world spun on outside that early Saturday morning I felt waves of drone rattle my ribcage and loosen the fillings in my teeth. As much as anything else, this concert was an endurance test. Largely tuneless, the onslaught of the “music” became the very point … we in the audience survived and in our survival found release from the unrelenting bludgeon of the world outside … which none of us of course will survive.
Moby-Dick is a bludgeon, a monstrosity, a force which cannot be conquered, an ear-splitting noise which will cast you aside as soon as look at you. It simply doesn’t care what you think or feel. And talking about the book is ridiculous, presumputous, redundant, requiring an audacity that brings to mind Mary McCarthy on the city of Venice:
“And no word can be spoken in this city that is not an echo of something said before.”
I began to feel my way into the book in a way that might be different; began to see a way to describe it that arose from my gut and might therefore be of some value: I would talk about Ahab and explore my own failures as a father.
Like Ahab, I was made a father again at 58. And, freshly fathered, I came to Ahab’s tragedy, a book called Moby-Dick, at 60. An old man reading an old man’s book, written, startlingly, by a young man. Melville was 30 years old when Moby-Dick was published. And yet it’s an old man’s book. A book written by a man at the end of his youth about an old man at the end of his life.
The book is a beast; about a beast, and a beast itself.
No, not about a beast, about an obsession, about hatred, about the extraction of sperm oil from the carcass of a whale, about lives lived on the sea, about the power of nature.
God, no, none … and all of those things.
For the book is a conundrum, full of full-stops, misdirections, changes of narrators, vacillations between forms (novel, encyclopedia, stage play), made-up words and “creative” punctuation.
In its final three chapters the book is the greatest action story ever composed. These are breathless pages; our hearts throb in our throats as we navigate their thrilling depths.
The book meanders: seems to double back in on itself, and then start again, abandoning characters mid-stream that you were thought you were meant to “follow.”
The book maddens and intoxicates: you sense Melville’s glee as he drags you through asides and misdirections that would founder a lesser book. His glee, because: he knows that he has written that most difficult of all books: a portrait of a man’s life at the moment he becomes aware that he has wasted his days and that he is lost.
Is this overly depressive? After all, few of us arrive at death’s shores feeling that we have wasted our days, that we have become lost down one or another of life’s tributaries, that we have gotten distracted by what ought to have remained unimportant. Or, is this feeling more universal, do we really understand fully, ever, how we ought to spend our days and what we should allow ourselves to become obsessed with?
Ahab strides onstage, after nearly 200 pages, as a cipher, a specter, a terrible black hole of a man. What has Ahab to teach us? What can we possibly learn from such a monster? How can we “relate” to him? Surely, few of us arrive at our end of days “a forty years’ fool”?
The book is several books and it is exactly what it is and it does not give a damn what you think.
The book is a slaughterhouse. You almost stop reading it for the violence and torture it wreaks upon its whales.
The book is both micro- and macroscopic.
The book is a tragedy. Its tragedy resides in its hero’s poignant self-awareness and last-minute brooding on the life not lived.
Christ had Gethsemane. Ahab has a clear azure morning, somewhere on the deck of the Pequod southwest of Hawaii and due north from Samoa. “From beneath his slouched hat Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that one wee drop.” For a moment, he forgets the terrible thing he must do: kill the whale or die trying. For a moment he allows “that glad, happy air, that winsome sky” to “at last stroke and caress him.” In a shocking admission to his first mate, Starbuck, Ahab reveals how he “has furiously, foamingly chased his prey” and become “more a demon than a man!—aye! Aye! what a forty years’ fool—fool—old fool, has old Ahab been.” The enormity of his life’s folly has dawned on Ahab … and Starbuck’s heart leaps: perhaps his captain can be turned from the wicked fate he bears down upon. And then just as quickly the moment has passed: “But Ahab’s glance was averted; like a blighted fruit tree he shook, and cast his last cindered apple to the soil.”
I am newly fathered, as an old man, by a son.
“I have seen them—some summer days in the morning. About this time—yes, it is his noon nap now—the boy vivaciously wakes; sits up in bed; and his mother tells him of me, of cannibal old me; how I am abroad upon the deep, but will yet come back to dance him again.”
Ahab, at 58, sets sail at the beginning of Moby Dick, having recently married a girl and fathered a child. At 58, I was newly fathered, and befuddled, and overwhelmed with love and wonder. I did not wander as I wondered; though I can imagine the pain that wracks Ahab’s heart as he reflects on the eve of his final chase on the boy (for he would be a boy by now, the voyage having taken three years) he has abandoned.
None of us intends to fail as a father. We begin, bleary-eyed and puked-on, with the best of intentions and some of us follow through admirably on the promise of those early days. Is it painful to think of yourself as a poor father? Like almost anything else, you get used to it.
I loved—and love—my children, but lacked the fortitude to be what they needed the most: a firm presence, a rock, something foundational who would have their back no matter what misfortunes befell us. I retreated, into work, into obsession, into the arms of other women, in a desperate search for love, for fulfillment, for me. I was absentee even when I was right there, building drill team sets and volunteering to teach P.E. to 4th graders. Something about me stood apart and in my egotism I set my children’s needs aside at moments that were more frequent than I care to remember.
Can I therefore relate to Ahab’s obsession, to his pursuit of The White Whale, to the exclusion of all else? And can I feel the poignance of his tragic realization that his days have been wasted in the service of a fate he could not possibly avoid? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.
How, then, approach this leviathan? Whence the nerve to say anything about it? It is. It abides. It sits and sprawls and soars and smothers. How say something, anything, about it? Why say something about it when what it is is so … inchoate.
Its prose is archaic by mid-19th century standards. Its prose weaves a dense matted web in which we initially find ourselves as lost and rudderless as Dante’s pilgrim at the beginning of the Inferno. But we pick and plod and eventually a path, dim and occasionally disappearing, reveals itself.
When we resist the thorny pull of the book’s archaisms, when we allow our eyes to rise from its pages and look about, the path fades and the book itself can sometimes hang by a thread in our consciousnesses. But that thread is stiff stuff and we move forward, feeling our way, not truly understanding (for when do we ever truly understand something) but inching, stumbling, making progress and working our way to, we think, the center of things.
And then we are jolted. Thrown out by Melville’s glee. And by his utter disregard for our following him. And must begin again.
But all meaningful things in life are impenetrable. Nothing of value ultimately reveal itself completely.
“Hast seen the White Whale?”
Whaling ships in Melville’s time could sail for three or four years before returning to their home ports. As a result, any encounter with another vessel while on the open ocean was to be cherished; as an opportunity for an exchange of news, correspondence, or the condition of the hunting grounds … or simply for the chance to talk to another group of humans toiling many thousands of miles from home. For Ahab, though, these encounters served one purpose:
Did the captains of the Samuel Enderby, the Rachel, the Delight have news of Moby Dick?
“Hast seen the White Whale?”
Not “have thou” or “have ye,” since those contain an extra word. Simply “hast.” Not a wasted syllable, nary a nod toward maritime convention. In one case, after having received news of Moby Dick’s recent whereabouts from the captain of the Delight, Ahab refused that captain’s desperate request for assistance in finding some missing crew members and ordered a course set for the whale’s last known location.
“Hast seen the White Whale?”
Ahab moves from a formidable inscrutability to a poignant—and tragic—transparency. As he becomes more revelatory the book takes on added depth and terror as it races toward its inevitable end. We want to believe: Ahab could change; he could. And by altering course save not only himself but his ship and crew. But he has lost the will to battle his fate, and, despite some final moments of heartbreaking longing and self-doubt, he plunges headlong into his ultimate three-days death-match with his nemesis, the White Whale.
“Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant. I act under orders.”
Moby-Dick is America’s greatest book. It is the only book an American has produced which is actually larger than our country. America itself fits easily inside Moby-Dick. And yet, the book is of course only tangentially even about America; it has bigger fish to fry. All of us to whom life’s secrets have yet to reveal themselves succumb to self-delusion. It is in our grasping, desperate natures to grab, to cling, and, finally, to delude ourselves. With obsessions that masquerade as wisdom, with stories that function as truth. Melville cracks that human weakness wide open, revealing the utter glory and despair that is at the core of a questing sole whose illusions are laid bare before him. For we are all Ahab, ultimately. Some of us may be more polite about it than others, less selfish-seeming, less bombastic, cruel, messianic … but we are all Ahab and Melville has fixed us for all eternity in America’s greatest contribution to the literature of the world.