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.Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
Well, I am now more chapters into Moby Dick than the number of chapters that are contained in many books, and have yet to meet the character whom I assume is the hero of the story, Captain Ahab. There has been plenty of foreshadowing of him, dire predictions and heroic proportions prophesied, but he remains an enigma. I believe the next chapter will unearth him, and Melville has me sufficiently intrigued.
But what then, you ask, if not reporting on the action of his hero, has Ishmael been doing all this time? 21 chapters! It’s a good question, and since this is my first time reading the book, I can only conjecture on Melville’s reasons for delay, but this is what I think:
You see, Ishmael has reported on everything he has seen since the moment he set foot in New Bedford. He has reported the feel of the town, of the taverns and inns, the pulpits and sermons, and the salty characters that populate this seaside town. In all of this, though they seem extraneous details, he has not neglected to lay out the groundwork for his theme, but has woven it into even the most everyday and common-place details. It is as if Ishmael, before he ever laid eyes on Ahab or The White Whale, was haunted by the theme of the novel: which, I think, is that of conquering forces greater than us, forces that reside in the unknowable depths of the ocean, forces that manifest themselves as beasts to be tamed and conquered.
Although the voyage at sea has yet to embark, all the imagery he uses points to the coming and inevitable conflict between man and beast, between the safe and the tempestuous, between the beautiful and the dangerous. Tombstones in the church reflect those who have fallen in the pursuit of leviathans, while the thriving town and marketplace are a testament to the life that can come out of killing a whale. There is a paradox here, and Ishmael is very well aware of it.
The oddest experience of reading this very detailed story is the awareness it seems to have awoken in myself. Indeed, every day I seem to notice something that brings me back to Moby Dick. Something either directly or indirectly related. For example, last night I watched the 2nd episode of The Waltons with my family, wherein John-Boy discusses Moby Dick with a circus clown. At the end of the episode, the clown gives John-Boy a copy of the book, which contained this image on the inside cover.
And this morning, the Microsoft-automatically-generated-image on my computer lock screen was of a killer whale. What is going on? Has Melville made me more aware of the relations in the world around me?
Melville, through Ishmael’s observations, has highlighted in many ways, particularly through his friend Queequeg, who is the savage that refuses to be Christianized and who seems more civilized to Ishmael than most Christians, the seeming truth inherent in the principal of the primal instinct. Ishmael wonders whether the forces of nature and the primal instincts are forces greater and more true than the stilted, narrow, and comfortable viewpoint of protestant America – he chooses Queequeg as his bosom friend, apparently embracing the ‘savage’, as Ishmael refers to him, as a more desirable companion than any other of the sailors surrounding him. In our world where most people we meet on a daily basis are self-professed atheists, or at least agnostic’s, this may not seem so strange to us; but Queequeg is more than simply not Christian – he is profoundly counter-cultural in many ways, especially in his embracing of cannibalism and slavery, which even our godless, modern sensibilities would balk at. No matter how you look at it, Ishmael‘s choice of Queequeg as a friend seems strange, and I am eager to see how this relationship plays out for the rest of the book. I can’t wait to see how the themes are enriched by the actual voyage that is about to take place, and I am eager to meet Captain Ahab!
Check in next week as we embark to the open seas with the much forwarned against and prophesied Captain Ahab!