A friend has encouraged me to re-read Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (or is it Moby Dick? Apparently this is a controversy.) I’m aware that for some being ‘urged’ to read, much less RE-read Moby-Dick would bear the aroma of an enemy’s nefarious scheming. But this is a genuine friend who himself re-read the book (or maybe he ‘reread’ it?) recently and found the labor rewarding. I’m a sucker for such urgings, and so I bit. (Yes, the fishing allusion is intentional.)
What made my initial reading, perhaps forty years ago, feel tedious was Melville’s repeated walks down seemingly inconsequential pathways. There are forays into the anatomy and classification of whales (which are, we discover, fish – ‘spouting fish with horizontal tails’), and into various aspects of life onboard a whaling ship, all of which seem unrelated to the basic plot of the book – one man’s monomaniacal pursuit of revenge. The latter we get – revenge movies are all the fad (see Tarantino, Quentin) – but the slow pace at which Melville gets us there is hard for many of us to fathom. (Look! Another Nautical Reference!)
This time through, I’m thinking the problem is not with Mr. Melville but with us. Told as it is through the eyes of the novice whaler Ishmael, this is a story to be told on a back porch or at a table in a pub. The storyteller knows what he knows from first hand (first-hand?) experience, and knows that his listeners cannot begin to grasp the nature of what he saw without knowing something of the realities of his world. And so over the span of hours, perhaps days, he slowly spins his tale, revealing the depths of his heart and mind wanting us, the hearers, to sense and smell the horrors he lived through.
I find that if I accept his terms and quit looking for those pieces of ‘action’ that advance the plot toward that inevitable moment when Captain Ahab finally engages the whale in mortal combat, then I can sit back, savor the atmosphere, reflect upon its meaning, and enjoy the tale-teller as much as the tale.
Modern man, of which I am one, is impatient and perhaps that reflects the immaturity of our age. To get to the end seems to be our passion, not to embrace the wisdom of the journey. And perhaps it is this latter that I really need to learn.
This, referring to “novice whaler Ishmael,” I had to read twice, wondering if it was an intentional play on words:
“he slowly spins his tail,”
I may need to hire a new copy editor. I pay the new one twice what I pay the current one…
Thanks for the spot. No play on words.