Monday, April 11, 2011

Review: Moby Dick, or the Whale

All hands on deck. It’s thunderstorms in February and the pelting hail of shared silence. It’s the deep rumble of thunder overhead that you feel in your feet. A little lightning to dance to huddled close together in the cellar. Maybe we should build an Ark someone said. A little Port later and we built a miniature one instead, and set it sail inside the vast empty sea inside the bottle. That was a good ship. But now, a sea change, an anchor, a drag on reality, a dragon in the sea, a hungry leviathan coming for you.

We all have our own white whale. It’s out there, under the surface of the sea of our lives, massive in every definition of the word. Could it be used to fuel your imaginative life? Could the oil drained from its corpse light your way? Chase down your white whale and “look him straight in the eye,” as Mastodon would say. Search those irises for evidence of enmity. Enlist the TSA if need be. I say make friends with your inner white whale, but, as Lorca said, “Beware!” This is not your father’s Fudgy the Whale.

Until this past winter break, all I’d known of Melville’s opus, Moby Dick (or, the Whale) was peripheral at best. As a Native New Englander, born and bred, this might seem like sacrilege, but I don’t know, I guess I just never got around to it. It seemed like a bit of antiquity, nothing more. I vaguely remembered that movie with Gregory Peck, and wondered why Atticus Finch was playing at Ahab; I’d known of Ahab of course, who doesn’t have at least a cursory knowledge of Ahab? Paranoia, personified, an ivory leg to walk on and a monomaniacal thirst for revenge. But even my experience of that movie was second hand. I had never seen the whole thing. I just knew about it. But I had read Green Shadows, White Whale, by Ray Bradbury, his travelogue of the trip he took to Ireland to write the screenplay for that failed film. There’s yet another layer of removal, of separation, between Melville and me. Strange that I had read the book about making a movie about the book that I hadn’t read. It was a bit like seeing your reflection repeated on to infinity, what the French call mis-en-abȋm. Still, all roads led to the whale. It’s funny how we come to books, sometimes.

So, shouldn’t I be getting to the point already? Here’s the weird part, I am. I feel like I’ve soaked in so much of this novel merely through living in New England that I wanted to contemplate this work, and the impact it’s had on me, and the area, from a cultural perspective. Even before I got into the words, before I cracked the cover, and before I’d felt that first break of the binding, like oars hitting the water, it was like I knew it inside and out, somehow. This, I believe, is a phenomenon worth exploring. Before I consider the source, I sometimes like to consider the connections. Sometimes, I like to trace my way back to the start from the finish. Sometimes I like to tinker with reverse engineering. And that got me thinking, what else did I know about Moby Dick, without knowing anything about Moby Dick? Well, there was that Mastodon Album Leviathan, with the chorus of Blood and Thunder that goes “White Whale, Holy Grail.” That bounced around the insides of my brain case like Queeqeg’s coffin in the open sea for quite a while, planting the seed.

There was also that summer that my family had set out on our boat, off the coast of Cape Cod, in search of whales. Out on the open ocean, some thirty miles out, enormous whale watching boats dwarfing our own little Pequod (a 25 foot miniature, anyway), dolphins splashing and jumping out ahead of us. I remember thinking, this is adventure. Into the quiet of the ocean we drifted. The whales were near; I could hear their presence before I could see them. They exhaled and heads turned 360’s, hands raised to blot out the sun, fingers pointing like English Pointers. More exhalations - their breath, palpable spurts of salt water spray. Still, from a distance, they were camouflaged, hidden by the sea. Mostly tails. I was in charge of the video camera and, as a whale approached, my hands began to shake. A baby humpback and still it dwarfed our little boat. It swam right up to us. It turned on its side and gave me a knowing look. It was sizing me up. I saw it see me. The tides turned in that moment, and I remember wondering, is this whale-watching, or people-watching? Who’s watching who? The camera shook. Easy there, Fellini. Then the whale dove under our boat, disappearing below. Still, I held my breath. It could’ve overturned us with a flip of its tail, but it didn’t. We had a moment of shared silence, that whale and I. A metaphorical precursor perhaps, to my first encounter with Melville’s whale. The white-green of the underside of the fins shone through the deeper blue of its hide and the water surrounding, and that was the last thing I remember seeing before it disappeared, that white-green glow of its face and fin.

That was an adventure; that was true “Mad Christmas.” The whale watching boats squawked at us over the radio, telling us to “stop disturbing the whales.” What they really meant was stop hogging the whales. But we didn’t choose that whale, it chose us. And I, in turn, chose this book for this quasi-review. Finally, a decade or so after that day, I got the book and it saved me during those long interminable January days when the blue was traded in for white; just like Queeqeg’s coffin saved Ishmael. Buoyant stuff; like Joe’s steamer trunks in Joe vs. the Volcano. Plus, I found, it was contemporary, kind of, but not really - they just found the Pequod, or an analogue, so that’s something, at least.

Look, people are sponges. We soak stuff up, that’s what we do. But sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes we need the real thing; we need the experience, downloaded direct to our hearts. We need to plug right in. So I did. And I found out that Moby Dick is an exhaustive, exhaustingly elegant book. Meticulously detailed, there’s a savage beauty in the way Melville frames Ishmael’s journey, soaked in brine and blood and madness. Gross and soggy as that may leave you once you’ve finished, it’s well worth the price of admission. It’s all encompassing in its scope and depth, and, of course, there’s that memorable opening line, “Call me Ishmael.” Call me enlightened.

It’s an undertaking, no doubt. It’s heavy on every detail of the whaling industry, things you never thought you’d care to know, and probably don’t. It’s exhaustive about the beast itself, chapters devoted to taxonomy, autonomy and philosophy. This is not hagiography here. Nor is it for the weak of heart. Humanity is stripped apart, like a carcass, with each piece separated, cleaned, and weighed out like so many crew members, histories and myths. The bas-relief quality of the chapters about the “high and mighty business of whaling” may stand back against the meatier, character driven ones and that might tempt you to skip ahead, but don’t do it. The devil’s in the details. The beauty is in the depth, and the journey is the thing, not the destination. The narrative, once it strays from Ishmael’s sympathetic point of view, does lose something, only to find it later, amidst the sea spray, blood and thunder and blubber. Haunting refrains will stick in you like rusty, tetanus inducing harpoons. You will find yourself pulled down, in that final death spiral, along with Ahab, freezing black waters covering over you like the biggest blanket the world has ever known. But then you’ll be done, but we’re just getting started, so let’s get on with it, as Ishmael says:

Now then, thought I, unconsciously rolling up the sleeves of my frock, here goes for a cool, collected dive at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost.”

So, I’m hoping that this kind of thinking is something that ya’ll do, too. Is it? If so, maybe you’d care to share? This is all about the experience, and, hopefully, the conversation. This doesn’t have to be just about Moby Dick. What books make your brain shake this way, if any? What we’re after with this post is chatter, talk, not chowder, not chalk. No schoolyard stuff here, just good honest cheer.

to be continued....

(thanks to José María Pérez Nuñez for the art - to see more, check out his homepage)

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