Category Archives: Melville, Herman

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale: Read from April 19 to May 09, 2014

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!

page 594 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

“Oh God! that a man should be a thing for immortal souls to sieve through!”

All Delight behind them, Moby Dick is finally spotted and they do battle with him! He really is like a ghost from the deep rising up as if shot from hell for their troubles.

I don’t really find Ahab to be mad. He’s a successful whaling captain (40 years) who sees a chance at greatness, if for dubious reasons. He’s very alive and awake.

page 572 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

Harnessing the power of nature with the turned compass needle, converting a coffin into a life preserver to drag behind the ship, the image of a man first falling from the mast then into a soap of white bubbles and disappearing forever. The Rachael with her grieving captain and Ahab’s terrible reply. Pip gone mad, Ishmael as narrator a ghost now and hardly heard from as he drifts aboard the ship and into their minds.

page 533 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

It’s all doom and gloom on the poor Pequod. Queequeg getting measured for a coffin, old whale bones covered in moss, Ahab forging his own harpoon, the jolly Bachelor making her way (funny name for a ship) back home full of cargo in every hold and a captain as happy as Ahab is mad.

You can feel the whale now, feel it just over the horizon, waiting, maybe even watching. Death speeding to more death.


page 507 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

It’s sad how wrong Melville was about the sustainability of whale hunting. His view was so romantic, from an artistic point of view, that he assumed the whale to be nearly immortal and a theme greater than all of man’s endeavors. Yet at the same time he ships with a mad captain hell-bent on killing one whale who took a leg – imagine a thousand such investors all mad for the whole see of whales?! So very complex man

page 478 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

This book wouldn’t work at all if it wasn’t for how beautifully written it is because he teases out the white whale for so long that you feel just as insane to get to him as Ahab does.

And that’s the art here. While we SHOULD be reveling in the beautiful sea, the glory of the biology of the whale, the wonder of sailing, all we can think about is “get on with it, man! To the white whale and slay him already!”

page 456 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

I love his description of the herds of whales, especially the scene describing the newborn calf, its tail still folded from having been so long gestating. There is a beautiful tenderness to all this and it’s very human-like. The large males with their harems, the riotous young males like collegiate hooligans, the old, wise, lone men.

All that juxtaposed with Pip alone at sea, shapes moving below him; helpless.

page 407 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

Obsessed with something you cannot understand, a monster with no face, who presents only his backside to you in anger, a beast of pyramidical silence.

Though we get nearly nothing of Ahab, we feel this obsession through Ishmael’s scientific and philosophic wanderings. But what is Ahab pondering all this time?

Melville knows full well the mythic of the tale and links it to the great legends of old.

page 377 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

Here we get the, both true and pseudo, in which we learn every inch of the whale, every bone, every vertebrae, its eyes, small ears, and every other part. Yet this is a dead whale and we can learn nothing of its life. We can surmise all we want but even in pulling apart every atom of the monster we are no closer to understanding it than we are the bottom of a black hole.

How true this is for so many things.

page 347 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

“Speak, thou cast and venerable head,”

Now there’s an image, the mad captain speaking to the severed head of a whale asking it to give up its secrets.

That whole chapter (70) is stunning.

Fervent madness abounds with that Shaker, Gabriel.

There is much of sermons and beliefs, and Melville seems skeptical of it all. Perhaps listening to sharks feasting on whale carcass is enough to make man agnostic.

page 311 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

I wonder how much of the whaling industry you could replicate based solely from this book? Sort of like how much of Dublin could you recreate from Ulysses? Probably a good, fair amount.

I like how Ishmael has ideas for the improvement of whaling: give the harpooner less rowing to do so he can hit his mark better. He sounds like me complaining about how the giant corporation I work for SHOULD operate.

page 279 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

Ah, the description of Ahab in his cabin, the water still dripping off of him, his eyes fixed on the tattle-tale: madness! He’s like a thing come from the sea itself.

Sometimes I can barely comprehend his brilliant this novel is. I mean, it’s so far and away unlike anything I’ve ever experienced as to make it more than a novel, it’s like obsession itself materialized in ink and paper.

page 225 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale


There are numerous passages in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom where Lawrence goes into microscopic detail of the environment – the sand, the rocks, the water, the clouds, the vegetation – that it can be forgiven to skim over those parts and back to the action. But they are written for a reason: to give texture to the story. That desert is what the Arab’s fought for and these whales are what Ahab fights with.

page 178 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

I love, love how each chapter builds upon the previous and sets up the next. Everything he writes is like a symphony, each word is a perfect note that compliments the next. I can hardly comprehend how brilliant this is.

Ahab’s speech to the crew, though famous on its own (I’m looking at you Star Trek VI), is like nothing else; like the voice of God commanding Moses to flee Egypt.

The freedom of the crow’s nest.

page 138 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

Now that’s how you introduce a character!

I love his own romanticizing of whaling, how he talks about what oil is used to anoint kings as if to grease the machinery inside the royal head. And then he goes on to describe who makes up a whaling ship, how it’s run by white men but the harpooning all done by men from more exotic locales.

Sailing south from the cold to the warm seas. Beautiful and well written.

page 104 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

The religious currents of the book are, though obvious, quite fitting. The whole island having been founded by Quakers lends whaling to a very religious zeal of activity. The parallels to Jonah, the sermon, Queequeg’s Ramadan, are all in keeping with the theme that has since become “obvious”.

Yet to see the book play out, to actually read it and experience it is quite unlike just knowing what the book is about.

page 73 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

It’s impossible to not get lost in the language of the novel. This isn’t just a book, it’s something more like an epic poem. I can’t get over how beautifully written this is!

Interesting contrast between the sermon (great sermon, too) and Queequeg saving the man’s life. Who is really a sinful heathen? Race issues are more complex than you would think, too.

The chowder! Smells like childhood; my home New England

page 34 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

I’ve never read Moby Dick; now is the time to remedy that.

I never knew that, at least so far, the book is so funny. For some reason I always imagined the novel to be sort of dry and serious. But that’s not the case. The book is overflowing with energy and good doses of humor. The entire scene of Queequeg in the bedroom is very funny and also menacing. A strange combination to introduce the character.