Friday, January 30, 2009

Here's the first paragraph:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

I just love that opening from Moby Dick. I know those feelings, and believe that most men do. I had the excerpt posted up above the other day, and re-reading it reminded me how I've never actually read the whole thing. I have it saved for retirement, when I have the patient time to savor and fully digest every literary morsel, instead of glossing over it, tossing it aside, and claiming it as conquered like I would if I read it today -forgetting the page previous as I read on, and discarding any lasting memory of it as I closed the cover.

I know Moby Dick to be the only great work of American literature that will stand the test of time and last as only Shakespeare does (though some suggest that Huckleberry Finn comes pretty close.) The thing wasn't covered in any of my lit classes in college because the professors claimed it demanded 4 units all its own, as Shakespeare, Chaucer, and the Bible do. I also heard of the ongoing argument that the book falls flat with its seemingly endless descriptions of the minutiae of whaling, where some claimed that those passages are precisely what makes the book a great one. The thought of passing my time inhaling long-winded descriptions of sophisticated 19th century sailing techniques turned me off to ever reading it. I saw the movie in high school. I got the point. The white whale is God. Whatever.

When I lived at Dantean Point, Carey and I had a goldfish in a bowl. I forget the goldfish's name, but he was a reader. He read Moby Dick most of the time he was there, with the book propped up behind the bowl. (It took him a while to read it, as we would often forget to turn the page for him.) We read a lot, then, and Carey picked up the book a couple times and commented to me how great it was. "The white whale is God," I would mutter, which is like saying The Origin of the Species is about apes. Anyway, I picked up the book one day and decided to read the first and last pages, just for the helluvit, and I never forgot them.

Here's the end (spoiler alert):

It so chanced, that after the Parsee's disappearance, I was he whom the Fates ordained to take the place of Ahab's bowsman, when that bowsman assumed the vacant post; the same, who, when on the last day the three men were tossed from out the rocking boat, was dropped astern. So. floating on the margin of the ensuing scene, and in full sight of it, when the half-spent suction of the sunk ship reached me, I was then, but slowly, drawn towards the closing vortex. When I reached it, it had subsided to a creamy pool. Round and round, then, and ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another ixion I did revolve. till gaining that vital centre, the black bubble upward burst; and now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin like-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side. Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirge-like main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.

The ship sinks, and Ahab goes down with the white whale. Ishmael is saved afloat by the coffin that his friend Queequeg was building for himself. Round and round he floats in that vortex... What's the book about again? Man, I could analyze those two paragraphs all night, but there's not enough beer.

So, one day I'll get around to reading it. If my kids are forced to read it in high school, I'll read it with them. It's an important book, however long and hard. Sometimes you've gotta stick with something if you want to get the full benefit, which is what I remind myself as I scan old photographs into the computer or turn the soil in my garden boxes. I suspect Melville himself knew this, and thought long and hard about it when he famously deserted the whaling ship Acushnet in the Marquesas in July of 1842, and lived with cannibals for a month. Ten years later Moby Dick would be published. It would be considered a failure and Melville would die forty years after that, almost completely forgotten.

Many editions of the book were printed without that last page, incidentally, when the publisher botched it big time. That couldn't have helped.

I think I remember reading that Melville said we should, or do, all have some undying passion that we live to the end of our days for, as Ahab did, and it's something that one should both nurture and guard against. One might say that Moby Dick itself was Melville's Moby Dick, and that we all have a big Moby Dick that we might want to be wary of. Heh. But, like I said, not enough beer.

Have a fine weekend! (Don't rush it!)