Moby Dick by Herman Melville
First Published 1851, many editions extant, I read the Oxford University Press edition 1963
As I enter the fifth decade of my life, I read once again what, for me, is the greatest book ever written. Having first discovered this book in my early twenties, not a year has passed without me delving into it, or indeed reading it from start-to-finish. There is, in this book, food for thought on almost every page.
This time, when I read it, I reflected on the Trump Presidency, environmental destruction, reality TV, the existance of God, as well as once again wondering not only at the amazing beast that is the whale, but at the bravery and skill of those people who sailed out to hunt it.
For at base, Moby Dick is a tale of human nature. Greed, fear, the lust for revenge, the failure to stand against tyranny, an investigation into what comprises sanity; it's all here. In whaling, Melville has chosen an activity that courts the disrespect of the Creator, with man tempting both the ocean and whales to bring him down. In Ahab, he has created a character driven by his will to power, his desire for revenge overriding his rational sense. The figure of the Parsee suggests at something beyond human ken that is driving the action as well - a figure of fate, which by the end of the book has consumed the whole crew.
Almost as important as the characters is the author's own interpolations into the text, with his descriptions of whaling becoming vehicles to comment on politics, philosophy, race-relations, religion, geography, and much else besides. Just as whalers were often becalmed in tropic waters, so too the reader as Melville diverts from the narrative to wax lyrical on brotherly love, or on the Danes' liking for cheese. There are some who might say such diversions are "boring", but they are a vital part of what makes this book a classic. They are the moments that allow the story of the Pequod to sink in to the reader's mind. They also allow the reader's mind to drift a little, which is another reason why Moby Dick repays re-reading. Each time the covers are opened something new pops out of the book, and into the mind of the reader.
The more one reads Moby Dick the more the death of the Pequod and those on her seems inevitable from the start, with the twists and turns of the narrative being - like the twists and turns of a harpooned whale - vain attempts to escape from the inevitable outcome of Ahab's monomania, and a reflection of the human wish to avoid facing death. Perhaps that is why the character of Ahab is so confronting: he not only chases death, he embraces it. He almost grabs the book from Melville and becomes the author, as by the end Melville is also under his thrall.
It is sobering to reflect that as well as being the downfall of Ahab, Moby Dick was also the downfall of Melville. The book was the book of his life, and the poor reception it received not only broke him financially, but in some ways broke his spirit. Melville knew it was a great work, but it took a lifetime for the rest of the World to catch up.
These are my musings on the leviathan of literature; for this attempt at harpooning it anyway. It will be interesting to see what I write next time.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell