Rolling in the Deep with Moby-Dick

This month at The Cultural Gutter is Switcheroo Month. Traditionally the editors write something outside of their usual domains. This time, though, we are faced with a domainless Gutter. And so this Switcheroo Month, we write about reputable art.

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“I shall ere long paint to you as well as one can without canvas, something like the true form of the book as it actually appears to the eye of the reader.” ~ Sorta Ishmael in Moby-Dick

It’s no Moby-Dick, but what is?” ~ NourbeSé Philip

I identified with the whale!” ~ Anita Skeen

Moby-Dick is my difficult boyfriend who nobody understands. Sure, he’s long-winded, exasperating and full of theories, but he’s different when you get to know him—he’s funny and surprisingly right on about colonialism, white supremacy and racism for 1851. Before I read Moby-Dick I had no answer for that question, “If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one book what would it be?” I considered the Mahābhārata*, which I read in various English translations for school, because at least it contained many different stories. But one book? I don’t know. Now, I’d say Moby-Dick.** Moby-Dick hijacked me while I was commuting to work and I came out of it with Stockholm Syndrome. Moby-Dick is, like its titular whale, a leviathan that readers wrestle. It is long, difficult, exasperating, unexpectedly hilarious and kinda gay.

Moby-Dick; Or, The Whale (1851) notoriously did not do well with readers in its time. Herman Melville had become a sensation at 26 with the publication of his first book, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846). It was his account of deserting a ship and living for a time with the people of Taipivai on Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands. He followed that book up with another autobiographical travelogue, Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847) and a straight up novel, Mardi, and the Voyage Thither (1849). And you can see Moby-Dick coming in all three books. Typee, Omoo and Mardi mix memoir, adventure novel and a sort of proto-ethnography. Moby-Dick mixes an adventure novel with natural history, philosophy, theology and a kind of social novel. As Upton Sinclair revealed the meat packing industry to the public in The Jungle (1905), so Melville discusses the not-so-fossil fuel industry of his time. The earlier books prefigure so much in Moby-Dick including mixing genres, the focus on the details of everyday life, the condemnation of Christian missionizing as well as his assertion of the equality of all people. But Melville’s readers expected fun adventures and Moby-Dick was not what they were looking for. I am not sure Moby-Dick is ever exactly what someone is looking for.

Breaching whale by Rockwell Kent (1930).

To be honest I don’t know why I picked up the book. Maybe it was the whale? I do like whales and I admired Rockwell Kent’s image of the whale on the cover of his illustrated edition before I ever read the book. (Subsequently, I still admire his illustrations of whales but do not admire his illustrations of Queequeg). Maybe it was my poetry teacher Anita Skeen’s comment that when she read Moby-Dick in grad school, she identified with the whale while the men around her identified with Ahab. I was much more likely to identify with the whale from what I had gathered of the story. I definitely did not find tales of hunting whales exciting. But I picked it up to read on a transatlantic flight. It was a good choice for a long flight. Much better, I think, than Atlas Shrugged, which the woman across the aisle from me read. (She was unhappy with the flight attendants and with a delay on the tarmac. I was not surprised). I would put down the book for long periods and then pick it up again. I finally finished Moby-Dick while riding the subway to work during 30 or 40 minute commutes. It took me about 3 years to finish. I was well past reading things I didn’t “like” unless it was for research or work. I am not sure why I persevered. I am no whaler or Ahab at heart. It was somewhere around Chapter 50, “The Town-Ho’s Story,” that I started to like the book. I am still not entirely sure that coming to love Moby-Dick wasn’t some form of Stockholm Syndrome or some kind of parasitic infection, like toxoplasmosis gondii, but it makes you love old, weird, complicated books rather than cats. But I’m far gone enough that I don’t care. I still actively dissuade a lot of people from reading it, in part, because Moby-Dick is not what it has been presented to us as. It is not a straightforward story of high seas adventure.

If you approach Moby-Dick looking for a story—especially a whaling adventure—you will find one. But that’s not all you will find. A restless and melancholy Ishmael (if that is his real name) signs on to the whaling ship Pequod. As he waits for the Pequod to sail, he shares a room with the Polynesian harpooneer and son of chief, Queequeg. Ishmael and Queequeg become “a cosy, loving pair” on their “hearts’ honeymoon” (Chapter 10). Once the Pequod sets sail, Ishmael hears much about their mysterious captain, Ahab, who remains cloistered below decks. When Ahab finally appears, he addresses the crew like a preacher or a demagogue on the deck and rallies them to his cause. His cause is not making money for the company. It’s avenging himself on the whale that had caused the loss of his leg—and more:

For it had not been very long prior to the Pequod’s sailing from Nantucket, that he had been found one night lying prone upon the ground, and insensible; by some unknown, and seemingly inexplicable, unimaginable casualty, his ivory limb having been so violently displaced, that it had stake-wise smitten, and all but pierced his groin; nor was it without extreme difficulty that the agonizing wound was entirely cured.

Nor, at the time, had it failed to enter his monomaniac mind, that all the anguish of that then present suffering was but the direct issue of former woe[.]

Chapter 106, “Ahab’s Leg.”

Ahab nails a gold coin to the mast and promises it to the one who first sights the whale. Ahab inflames the crew with his own madness and wrath. He gives them an enemy and they join him in pursuing it. Ahab projects all his existential rage on the whale he hunted and he tried to kill. Starbuck calls him out for wreaking vengeance on an animal, leading to Ahab’s most famous line: “to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” (Ch. 135)

You might recognize that line from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Ahab utters it after the Pequod is breached by Moby-Dick. But for me, there’s an earlier line that harrowed me more and that reveals Ahab most to me: “Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations.” (Ch. 36)

Ahab pursues the whale to his doom and that of the Pequod and its crew, save Ishmael who survives in a coffin built by his friend and sea husband, Queequeg, when Queequeg foresaw his own death.

Get ’em, Moby-Dick!

It might seem like I have spoiled the hell out of Moby-Dick. I haven’t because there is a lot more book than the story of Ahab’s attempted revenge and Ishmael’s hypos. That story is important. But it’s not everything and it supports so much more. Moby-Dick does not care about our expectations of what it is, what its story is, what a 19th Century novel is, maybe even what a novel is. This is part of why I’m not troubled by “unfaithful” adaptations of Moby-Dick. What would a faithful adaptation of Moby-Dick even be? John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956), Mike Barker’s  Moby Dick (2011), Ron Howards’ In The Heart of the Sea (2015), which tells a story Melville used in telling of his own, and the Classics Illustrated Moby-Dick comics (either 1947 or 1990)*** aren’t inherently more faithful than, say, the 1997-9 series Hakugei: Legend of the Moby Dick, the Ahab parts of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the Ahab parts of Star Trek: First Contact (1996) or the 2010 Moby Dick produced by Asylum pictures and starring Barry Bostwick. The more faithful adaptations might well be the more misleading ones and any adaptation of Moby-Dick is necessarily a partial one. The novel isn’t one thing; it is myriad, ineffable things.

And while I am rarely down for authorial intent, Melville is a especially slippery writer. Even when he is present or at least discernable, he feels like a devil on my shoulder. And I think, but do not know, that would make him happy. You can feel Melville, often laughing, watching with Ishmael, or reading with you. When I turn to look, he’s gone. Melville is always up to something. He is a cunning writer behind an irreverent narrator. And that is something I’ve come to love about his work along with his prose and downright smartassery. I didn’t expect Moby-Dick to be funny. That’s where I let my guard down, I think.

I also didn’t expect a book from 1851 to be as right on about racism, white supremacy and colonialism or how it denounces all three. I probably should have, after all, debates about all these things were raging in the United States at the time. And Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave came out the year before Typee‘s release. When I started Moby-Dick, I expected racist stereotypes and I found them. I did not expect the constant needling of missionizing and civilizing missions, the White Man’s Burden and Manifest Destiny culminating in a chapter called, “The Whiteness of the Whale,” in which Ishmael begins by discussing whiteness as enhancing beauty and purity and ends expounding on the horror of whiteness as absence of color and a form of annihilation, a color and symbol of existential dread predating existentialism. Melville has a lot to say about whiteness and blackness/darkness and it is best to assume that there is more to anything in Moby-Dick than appears on the surface. There is still so much in the book applicable to our times. He is not a specifically American character but Ahab speaks to a lot of what is going on in America now.

I did not expect the affirmation of a common humanity and Ishmael’s imperfect realization of his own biases let alone his figurative and literal embrace of his ship-husband Queequeg. I did not expect the denunciation of racism and ethnocentrism though the forms and understandings of them are again imperfect and not of our time. Before the book really had me in its grip, I was surprised by the Queerness of the book and Ishmael’s “marriage” to the harpooneer Queequeg. 

Melville tried in Typee and Omoo to share his experience with an audience that doubted him. Readers  developed an appetite for his travel books, even as they doubted their veracity. There is evidence that Melville deserted his ship just as he said and lived where he said he did. But Melville is also such a clever writer that I’m not surprised people would doubt him. I also think the experience he was trying to convey was difficult for his readers to comprehend and therefore believe. Melville tried to share his experience of working on whaling ships and living with people from all over the world—some of them Indigenous, some from places despised, denigrated and/or exotified by people from his world. He had a humanizing experience with a diverse group of people. He saw other people as people and he became human himself rather than separating himself from other humans. And he tried to express all of this radically democratic experience in the flawed, culture-bound and kyriarchic language of 19th Century travelogues and adventure novels.  Ishmael has this experience as well. He didn’t have quite the language to express this experience at the same time that he uses dehumanizing language to try to shock the bourgeoisie who have not had these experiences laying with “cannibals.” Ishmael lives among people who have been othered for him and wrestles with his own identity, what it means to be human. And he sometimes fails his friends while asserting the commonality of humankind, an assertion still more radical 170 years later than it should be. Melville tried to tell this story—or had to tell it—in the language he had and in the language of the 19th Century travelogue and adventure novels because he didn’t have the language for his experience of living  in community with so many people from so many places. He tried memoir, then adventure novel, and finally there is Moby-Dick breaching the waters, still trying and still conveying so many conflicting ideas and expressions.

What he gave his readers with Moby-Dick was a leviathan no one wanted to wrestle with at least until the 1920s. And it makes sense. It prefigures the Modern novel in its structure and existential preoccupations.

Now I wonder if I stuck with the book just to try to understand what I was reading—not the story, but what the book is. What it was doing. What Melville was doing. Moby-Dick was a constant revelation for me, whether in prose, humor or its presentation of what a novel could be. “Why so may quotes?” I asked in the beginning. “Why this use of book publishing conventions to delineate different kinds of whales?”  “What is going on with this discussion of whale processing?” And as I continued on in my journey through the book, I found joy in its audacity and its expansive prose. Moby-Dick is itself a leviathan you wrestle with. And pondering it now, I think that is why I stuck with the book when I have dropped so many others. Moby-Dick is its own mystery and I still struggle with it and us—America, humanity, the world and myself–in reading it.

I still don’t recommend Moby-Dick. I fear I have misled people into new expectations about it—that you will go in now thinking it is funnier or more socially radical than it is. Moby-Dick is all about foiling whatever expectations we bring to it. I love it, but it is a difficult love. And it is still a long, long read.

*I’m not talking about the Raymond Buck novelization of the Mahābhārata. I’m talking about the multi-volume Van Buitenen translation because if you haven’t read Bhīṣma’s full discourse on kingship delivered while Bhīṣma is lying on a bed of arrows in the middle of the final battle of the previous age shot by one of his students who was getting revenge because he treated her so badly in a previous life that she wished to be reborn as a man so she could kill him because long before Tolkien Bhīṣma had been granted a boon that no man could kill him OR you haven’t read about the 40,000 thumb-sized sages falling into a puddle and their resulting curses, it’s just not the same experience.

**I still don’t like that game though.

***Neat piece on representing whales and whale men and how that eventually made a hero out of Ahab for narrative sake here.

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Carol Borden is bringing back, “Tasks me.” And if it wasn’t clear, she’s on the whale’s side.

This essay was originally published by The Cultural Gutter on Apr. 15, 2021.

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