Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Ishmael, we hardly knew ye

When it comes to an author showing his research in a piece of fiction, I've found I'm much more tolerant than most. Sure, I can spot where he veers off from the narrative to indulge in a bit of tangential hobby-horsery, but there are no straight roads in my foothills home county, and you just never know what a muddy, mountainy back road might lead you to discover (if you don't get stuck), so why bother getting out your mental X-Acto knife to excise it from the work?

Although I have been known to weary and to tell my sister to spare me from her back road "short cuts" and take me home already, and that's ultimately how I felt about Moby Dick.

Wouldn't it work much better if instead of being Moby Dick, or The Whale it had been Moby Dick and the Whale, with the whale essays carefully placed together, say, in an appendix in the back, where they'd not interrupt the narrative and the reader could turn to "Measurement of the Whales's Skeleton" or "The Fossil Whale" at her leisure on the nights when she has insomnia and nothing else she's tried will get her back to sleep. Let's read of Ahab's obsession with one whale before we turn to "whale author" Ishmael's obsession with all-things whales.

I'd keep the chapters that describe the hows of whaling where they are, but I'd insist the essay-style be dropped and the information be incorporated into the story a bit more. This is Ishmael's first whaling venture and all we really see of him once he boards the Pequod is in that strange sexualized scene where he's squeezing whale sperm with the other men. We don't know what he did for Queequeg during his illness or how he felt at the prospect of losing him. Are the tattoos that cover him from head to toe in his later life a homage to Queequeg or merely what you should expect to find on an intrepid whaler's body? He's transformed from the open-minded, thoughtful, compassionate man of the opening chapters into Emerson's transparent eyeball, who sees and relates to us what's in other men's souls, although not always the souls I've cause to care about.

All my whining aside, I enjoyed revisiting Moby Dick. It's sooo Shakespearean and I truly loved the descriptions of the living whales. The killing scene was gruesome, but it's important to realize our obsession with petroleum products has never been pretty. I'll be posting another slew of quotations from the book in a day or so. Perhaps they'll encourage someone else to attempt Melville.

Until then, here's a paragraph from "The Fossil Whale":

One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, thought it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor's quill! Give me Vesuvius' crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, thought many there be who have tried it.

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