Tuesday, May 07, 2013

From hell's heart I stab at thee: Re-reading Moby Dick

I spent much of March and April returning to Moby Dick by Herman Melville. There are certain books that are likely to speak to the reader differently, depending on where your head is at the time. I first read Moby Dick during a quiet summer without much thought, liking it enough to stick with it, but gliding rather inattentively over long sections of description. The second time, I appreciated the humor of it and the meticulous build-up to the ultimate scene of the Pequod's destruction.

Where before I was but little interested in the natural history of the sperm whale or the detailed rendering of every aspect of the whaling industry and the men who partook in it, this time I found it to be fascinating reading. I am much more curious about the natural world than I used to be, so even after putting aside the story, I found myself looking up pictures of the sperm whale, its skeletal framework, and the random Wikipedia articles about ambergris. I also had the added spur of planning a trip to Boston at the same time, where I knew I would at least be in the same general region of New Bedford and the early scenes of the novel (the picture here is taken from Marblehead, near Salem, which is well north of New Bedford, where the Whaling Museum is located).

Reading the novel for the second time, I didn't need to rely on its reputation as an American classic, I felt it on my own -- original, vivid, and deeply convincing in its very American-ness. The Pequod is a melting pot of New England characters -- black, white, and native -- foreigners and adventurers, young and old. They are deeply religious, pagan, opportunistic, competent, brave, witty, foolhardy, naive, mad, obsessed...a microcosm of the contradictory and mystifying American "character."

Melville wrote a masterpiece -- a novel that he described in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, as a very "wicked book."  There are many things he could have meant by that word, "wicked." He subverts stereotypes about race and otherness, takes on religion and the idea of God, pokes fun, and weaves in an extraordinary amount of sexually-charged language and sly innuendo. No doubt, he awaited Hawthorne's response to it with a fair amount of trepidation. In his rambling, elated letter, Melville is grateful to his friend: "But, now and then as you read, you understood the pervading thought that impelled the book -- and that you praised. Was it not so? You were archangel enough to despise the imperfect body, and embrace the soul." Unfortunately, the letter from Hawthorne to Melville is lost to us.

For pure majesty of language, Melville is hard to match. I'll end with the excerpt from Chapter 42, "The Whiteness of the Whale":
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows- a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues- every stately or lovely emblazoning- the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge- pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?