Thursday, August 06, 2015

Moby Dick, Melville

I finally finished my lengthy slog through the actual sea soaked tome in hardcover with some fine illustrations. It is a book that one has heard so much of, read in excerpt, heard quotes from, etc that it often seems that we all might have read it. The very symbol of obsession, vengeance and the scapegoat.
All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it.
 In the following scene from "First Contact", my far favorite of the Star Trek movies, Picard with the bearing and voice only a Shakespearean actor could muster embodies the fine line between total dedication to a worthy cause and obsession to the exclusion of reality. It is a bit long, but wait for it ... it is worth it.

That fine and often questionably discernible line might well be the gossamer thread on which hangs the destiny of all humanity. We must have motivation and meaning -- but obsession is too far.  I often feel that "progressivism" is the "Borg" of our time, relentlessly assimilating the individual, the sacred, the human, into a "collective" of bleating sheep controlled by "The Party". Ah, the White Whale!

Moby Dick is a long book, and to some degree it has to be in order to convince both the dogged intellectual and the common man that within it's pages you will understand vengeance, obsession and the scapegoat in one not very tidy package. I'll give you a hint -- you will not, and you will also not really enjoy much of it as an entertaining memorable tale. Like converting "Titanic" to "Boy meets girl on ship, they fall in love, ship sinks, boy dies", Moby Dick can be summarized as "Storyteller goes on ship, meets captain whose leg was  taken by white whale, captain chases whale, whale gets captain and whole ship except storyteller". But isn't a page-turner, it is an epic of sometimes tortured symbolism and metaphor.

Or perhaps one needs to be an obsessive to read it through -- and the white whale is the book itself ... or age, time, wisdom, life, love, God  ... "A Six Blade Knife" ... one of my favorite Dire Straits songs.

The book is rife with maritime and whaling terms as well as whale lore and biology circa mid 1850's. The conjecture about the earth being riddled with sub-sea passages which allow whales to dive in the Atlantic and come up in the Indian Ocean by taking a shortcut through one of these portals is amazingly similar to the modern science fiction conjecture of the "wormhole". While the prose often just seems obtuse and ponderous, there are a fair amount of beautiful and thought provoking allegorical allusions such as the following.
There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seems to speak of some hidden soul beneath; like those fabled undulations of the Ephesian sod over the buried Evangelist St. John. And meet it is, that over these sea-pastures, wide-rolling watery prairies and Potters’ Fields of all four continents, the waves should rise and fall, and ebb and flow unceasingly; for here, millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams,  somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming, dreaming, still; tossing like slumberers in their beds; the ever-rolling waves but made so by their restlessness.
You know the story of Moby Dick, you no doubt have at least nibbled the edges of obsession, vengeance and entertained a scapegoat or two in your life. My advice, which like all likely good advice is very hard to take, would be to read it while young -- there is a chance that the experience of "bearing with" Melville on this long voyage of a book would impart a level of wisdom beyond the years of say a "twenty-something". Otherwise, if one of your whales is an obsession to write, Moby Dick will certainly help you avoid Dr. Johnson's charge ; "Never trust a man who writes more than he reads"!

I have to leave with the the other quote of Star Trek fame ... this one not credited directly in the movie dialogue.

    Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee.
    There is a very good reason that vengeance is mine saith the Lord ... lest we be consumed! Deuteronomy 32:35
    To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste.

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