Book Club: Moby Dick
A few members of the group requested that this article be given a pithy subtitle with a neat humpback whale pun, but sadly this cannot be done for several reasons. Firstly, the play on words was not good enough, but mainly this is because the members did not rally to Melville closely enough to warrant such favours, despite having been granted in excess of two months to read the book.
Several of their points deserve an airing: it is too long, with an infamous 150 pages of technical whaling jargon. Fortunately there are several rejoinders to this, one provided by the narrator, who cries: “Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint”. Predictably, this is the whale’s fault: “Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.”
The other was provided by the Book Club’s More Constructive Participants, who pointed out the usefulness of knowing what flensing is, at last. Removing blubber from the carcass of a whale (not the whale, of course) was an arduous process, but no longer shrouded in mystery, along with spermaceti (a misunderstood, much maligned and at one point in history, extremely useful substance).
Stubb (one of the caricatured crew members everyone took to) being “somewhat intemperately fond’ of a steak from the ‘small’ of the whale, and the proud owner of ‘epicurean lips’ was another highlight. He gobbles along with “thousands on thousands of sharks, swarming round the dead leviathan”, “Mingling their mumblings with his own mastications”. Melville then rapidly creates such a strong image of playful, canine sharks that veer from being deeply sinister:
“The few sleepers below in their bunks were often startled by the sharp slapping of their tails against the hull, within a few inches of the sleepers’ hearts. Peering over the side you could just see them (as before you heard them) wallowing in the sullen, black waters, and turning over on their backs as they scooped out huge globular pieces of the whale of the bigness of a human head.”
Before they are made to seem almost skittish: “Though amid all the smoking horror and diabolism of a sea-fight, sharks will be seen longingly gazing up to the ship’s decks, like hungry dogs round a table where red meat is being carved, ready to bolt down every killed man that is tossed to them; and though, while the valiant butchers over the deck-table are thus cannibally carving each other’s live meat with carving-knives all gilded and tasselled, the sharks, also, with their jewel-hilted mouths, are quarrelsomely carving away under the table at the dead meat; and …systematically trotting alongside, to be handy in case a parcel is to be carried anywhere.”
Herein lies Melville’s genius. Such were his technical accomplishments as an author that he could switch between styles: able to whip up the excitement of the first whale chase, to the tense boredom of waiting for a sail, a fin or even a gust at sea as they malinger on the “watery part of the world”. As Ahab sinks deeper into obsession (and to truly love this book, you must be able to appreciate a certain level of obsession), the novelty of heading to sea wears off in Ishmael and his enthusiasm turns to whining amateurism as a sailor, and everyone sinks into madness as time seems to slow down between key points in the narrative*. With the Pequod’s standoffish and competitive attitude with other ships, the crew understandably tire of each other. Of course the White Whale with all of his cunning proves elusive, and is the undoing of them all, bar Ishmael, who clings to his ‘husband’ Queequeg’s coffin until he is rescued and able to tell his story.
The intelligence of the White Whale himself is subsumed by the matter of his whiteness. This, Ishmael claims in Chapter 42 is “an abhorrent mildness, even more loathsome than terrific”. It is an absence of colour, a void into which one can fall or project upon unceasingly, and the chapter that Will Self read effectively in The Big Read of Moby Duck in the spring of 2011 exhibition at Peninsula Arts, the dedicated contemporary art space at Plymouth University. This is available online, and features chapters read by A L Kennedy and China Mieville, though full disclosure; David Cameron reads ‘The Pipe’. Perhaps a pun should feature here. This is a good place to start if this book is still in the maybe/never heap, as the myriad voices keep your mind on that pale gleam on the horizon.
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrik recounts the real voyage on which Moby Dick was based, which ended in a different kind of disaster.
Leviathan, or Whale by Philip Hoare. Essential for all whale lovers.
* We all agreed on Ishmael’s apex moment: “The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics.” Everyone appreciates that kind of dedication to sperm whales.
You can buy the book here.