There’s a memorable scene in the Seventh Seal where, during a theatrical show, the Flagellants arrive in town burdened with heavy wooden crosses, dressed in rags, burning incense, and whipping themselves bloody. It seems almost over-the-top, but to know it really happened speaks a lot about human nature in the face of total devastation. Men are not always ennobled in crisis; men can turn animal, too.
Samurai films are my favorite genre pictures. Mainly what attracts me to them isn’t so much that I love Japanese history or ever wanted to be a samurai, it’s that I love how a good, proper samurai film teases out the action until the finale. Samurai films are about patience; the slow burn. Shots might linger on the rain, or cherry blossoms, or footprints in the snow, or the sounds of cicadas in the summer heat but the ‘action’ isn’t until after two hours of build up.
For me anticipation is what I love, perhaps more than the resolution itself. I love waiting for something to happen but I never really was that excited for the thing itself. I suppose I just like having something to look forward to. Expectation and imagination is, typically, far more interesting than reality.
A samurai would spend his entire life training for battle yet, like the samurai in Kurosawa’s ‘Seven Samurai’ not be victorious even once. There would be very little glory in a war; only the young and inexperienced would find it romantic while the old veterans would know there is never really any winning a war.
And that is what Moby Dick is for me: a samurai film set at sea where the warriors are all Nantucket whalers and the villain is a fish.
Melville, too, must have felt similar about anticipation as I do. His whole novel – though this is not a novel, it’s really an epic poem – is imagination and anticipation and beautiful images of the sea and of death and of the whaling life. Yet in the end it’s all so futile.
“Great God, where is the ship?”
One thing I hadn’t counted on about Moby Dick is how even though everyone who hasn’t read the novel is well aware of it and the events within, it’s not a book you can really know anything about without reading. This is a book, like Ulysses you have to experience. You have to live through this novel; it has to happen to you. This isn’t a story to be told in the normal sense – in fact the book is almost everything but a normal novel after we set sail – this is a book whose art is in forcing you to live the events of the book as if you are on that cursed ship.
Something that really struck me is that our narrator who is so famously introduced to us in one of the great first lines in a book – ‘Call me Ishmael’ – slowly ghosts away as the novel goes on. What starts as a book about Ishmael’s experience getting on the ship and learning about whaling (and the entire science of whales), he lets go of our hand and we begin floating about the Pequod like a disembodied spirit. We overhear everyone’s conversations, even their private mutterings, and the point of view expands out to be in all places at all times. It’s an unsettling sensation because Melville is physically enlisting each of us onto that ship as a shipmate and after our initial training we are forced to watch the events unfold to their conclusion.
I also had no idea that the novel is not really a novel – not in the traditional sense. Moby Dick is, basically, postmodern but from the 1850’s. I had expected a somewhat straightforward novel about the grappling with a whale, not 209,117 words of epic poetry. I had not expected the novel to still feel so fresh as it must have been when it was written nearing on 200 years ago.
One last thing that I have to confess is that I don’t believe Ahab was mad. Obsessed? yes, but not insane. He was a salty captain with 40 years of experience at sea and he knew what he was doing. I don’t even think he had a death wish, I just think he saw an opportunity to be truly great and flew at it with everything he had. He was already a great whaler (how else would he have lasted so long?) so he knew he could defeat that fish if he really tried. And I don’t see anything wrong with that, too. All those men knew what they were in for and if Starbuck was more of a man he might have stopped Ahab, but Ahab is the sort of person who winds up wither being great or being killed; he is no ordinary person.
He’s very American in that way – he’ll damn everything to get what he wants.
Overall and beyond all the great themes of the novel is just how damn well it’s written. There is nothing like this book. The language is so seductive, the imagery so vivid, everything on that ship and the sea so perfectly realized that there were times I had to pinch myself that this was real. Some of the writing is so good that it almost doesn’t even seem possible, as if it were written by some God.
Now that I’m done with the book I’m sad. I’ve now read Moby Dick and there are only so many great novels in the world worth throwing a harpoon at. But what a voyage getting there!