By: John M.
Moby Dick, it’s the American Epic: a 600+ page monster considered one of the greatest works of our young nation’s literature. Last year, I spotted the leviathan lurking in the depths of my American Romanticism syllabus, and “proud as Lucifer,” I committed myself to reading it (mostly so that I might brag about the conquest to reinforce my fragile egoistic identity, but this is beside the point). In my near infinite wisdom and charity, I have decided to impart some fragment of my experience to you common folk who likely haven’t the time, personal discipline, or mental instability to read and comprehend Moby Dick.
Do beware of spoilers, but I mean, c’mon, even if I tell you they don’t get the whale, you’ve not had a taste of the Moby Dick experience.
“Call me Ishmael.” That’s the opening line of Moby Dick, or so popular culture might have you believe. This three-word sentence has been the subject of masses of academic articles and analyses, yet it’s ironically not the true start of the book. The line is actually prefaced by a page on the etymology of the word “whale” and four pages of quotes about whales taken from popular literature of Melville’s time. In other words, prefacing chapter one, there are just pages of fragmented quotes that vaguely mention whales. If you were expecting a well-rounded narrative experience, Moby Dick will undoubtedly confound you (and bore you out of your f-ing mind). There are so many chapters that are just about complete nonsense: cetology, the whaling industry, Nantucket, seamanship, and long-winded side tales completely unrelated to the main plot. I have been told that Moby Dick was intended by Melville as an “anatomy”, a niche genre of book where the author only vaguely employs narrative, nominally for the purpose of exploring various aspects of a certain body of knowledge. Melville chose whaling, and…it’s just so painful.
Before we dive into the plot, a word on Melville. The man was kinda insane. He was desperate to find some meaning or center to his life, and it apparently consumed him. His rocky friendship with the great American author Nathaniel Hawthorne is an amazing rabbit hole to explore, but most relevant to our purposes is Melville’s quote to Hawthorne about Moby Dick:
“I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as a lamb”
So, the plot…honestly, it wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for all the seemingly irrelevant interjections, which slow the story to a glacial pace. The book has 135 chapters of wildly varying lengths, and as I read, I started starring the chapters I found most relevant to the story or interesting enough that I might want to return to them one day. I starred 36 of them. 36 out of 135. I spent two months on this.
The two most important characters in the book are Ishmael, our perspective character (he’s also kind of the narrator but it’s not consistent), and Ahab, the captain of the Pequod, a forebodingly named Nantucket whaling ship (forebodingly named because the Pequod Tribe was massacred and scattered by English colonists). A depressed Ishmael signs up to join Ahab’s whaling expedition and deeply interrogates the culture and intricacies of whaling throughout the book. Not long into the voyage, the peg-legged Captain Ahab reveals to the crew that his mission is not to simply return home with whale oil, rather, he is hunting the white whale: Moby Dick. This beast is feared by whalers all around the world for its violent resistance to their pursuits, and the last time Ahab encountered it, it took his leg.
After a 594-page journey, they find the whale, chase it for three days, then it destroys the ship killing everyone except Ishmael. The end.
Now, the crucial thing to understand about this book if you read it is that it’s about whaling, but it’s not about whaling. You have to go to the “little lower layer.” As Ahab describes the whale, everything is a symbol; all of the visible objects are but masks, and in each “living act” and “undoubted deed”, “some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the moldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask”. Ahab is desperate to pierce the mask. He wants to know what is really going on here, and he has become absolutely convinced that Moby Dick is the key.
“All that maddens and torments…truth with a hint of malice…to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified and made practically assailable by Moby Dick” (Ch.41)
Now, this book contains Dantean layers of symbolism and metaphors to rival Shakespeare, but I would like to hone in on one specific layer and one specific metaphor for this article. The comically sexual language in this book is unavoidable. A very pent-up and dismembered man is desperate to, more than anything, stick his harpoon in the great white sperm whale, Moby DICK. There are even chapters called “The Nut” and “The Crotch,” which are both just terms about whales and whaling, but I mean, come on.
Quite late into my reading of the book, I was struggling to find the meaning of it all. Blitzing through the eclectic and disjointed chapters, I could appreciate the amazing language at times, but I wasn’t seeing the connections. Only in the last chapter before they encounter the whale, striving to pierce the profundity, did I latch on to something.
Chapter 132: “The Symphony.” It’s barely five pages long. Ahab is just vibing on the deck, staring at the horizon. It is here that Melville deploys his most powerful series of metaphors, simply to describe how the ocean meets the sky. He describes the lighthearted and heavenly air embracing the rough, troubled sea and all its hidden demons in the “fond, throbbing trust” with which a poor bride gives herself away to her husband. The reader, along with Ahab, is just stunned by a sudden moment of innocent (almost naive) faith and love in a swirling mass of dark comedy and desperate torment (for the characters and reader) that is the rest of this book. It won’t be long before the restless coals in Ahab’s eyes are kicked back up into an all-consuming fire which will have him dead in thirty pages, but here he lets fall a single tear and comes so close to trusting, to turning back to home and hearth.
Poor Ahab is plagued by a raw and almost perverted desperation for meaning; I can think of no more American—no more tragically human—an attribute. In the same sense, people do utterly absurd things for sex and relationships. So many are so hideously obsessed with this, driven practically mad by a desire for the physical, emotional, and spiritual unity that sex seems to complete. So many just want the pleasure, the status, the release. People are thinking about it all the time. They certainly talk about it all the time; it’s even wormed its way into our language. Some (kinda weird) people even see sex as influencing every human idea. I don’t read life that way though.
It’s not that everything is about sex, it’s that sex is about everything. It is an almost irreducible metaphor of the human experience; specifically the experience of that climax of perfect harmony with…another human being…someone you love…love itself? Creation, maybe? It’s all too easy to let the physical act of having sex become the object of your emotional longings when you’re actually yearning for a love so far beyond it. The physical act of sex is just the more comprehensibly attainable (well, theoretically attainable) goal we can pin our frustrations on.
I hope you understand that I’m now talking about something more than common base physical desire here (though horniness is a part of this). I’m talking about the core spiritual desire for completeness in our lives: what an ideal relationship is supposed to be. I’m telling you that you need to avoid the trap of Ahab: don’t lose the symphony for the whale.
Marriage is the symphony: a key movement of it, at least. Uniting yourself with another person in love is a way to bring harmonic unity to your life experience. You could call this reality a “truth with a hint of malice,” it certainly feels that way to me sometimes, but I think that deep deep down, we all have a need to love other people and to be loved in return. The pain here comes from the fact that the absolute fulfillment of this need is often found in a mutual commitment with another person. Building a truly loving relationship with someone is difficult. It is so difficult. Doing it right requires so much self-control, so much sacrifice, but hardest for me personally, it requires trust in both the nature of people and love itself.
Y’know, Ahab is clearly the reason this expedition ends so poorly, but reading the book, I always had this feeling that he wasn’t crazy not to trust. He does a lot of insane things, he doesn’t value the lives or advice of his crew, but questions like those that haunt him, haunt me too.
Why do we have to love? Why do we have to sacrifice? Why do we have these impulses that always leak out with distortion or violence the more we try to repress them? My best theory is not dissimilar to Ahab’s: perhaps these movements to love are the “reasoning thing” showing the moldings of its form from behind the “unreasoning mask.” Perhaps this potential for spiritual union on earth is the symbolic shape of some love in the next life?
Or maybe it’s not…maybe it’s all just shadows, a trick of the light. I’ve taken the symbolism a little far I think. I’m really not sure about any of this to be honest. I just wanted to make a Moby Dick pun and one connection led to another…and I wrote all this.
Still, I find it strange how few people question the concept of love itself, though nowadays I think there are a lot more people questioning the idea of marriage. Trying to assess why it exists in its most pure form, I would say that marriage is about that call to love someone in an absolute way. It is the institution that facilitates both a physical and spiritual connection between two people; a complete union of wills. This requires true faith in love and in your spouse, maybe more than most of us are capable of right now, but waking up everyday and making the choice to love someone, and letting new life come from that love, I mean, it’s not for everyone, but I’d be damned if it didn’t end up giving life a little joy—we’d all be. I think I’ll choose to love.
I might have stumbled into something really meaningful here, or perhaps this whole article is a load of ideological horse shit, I don’t know…I’ve never had sex before, if you were wondering (you definitely weren’t). I’m writing an article on Moby Dick for the Binghamton Review: I feel like that was kinda obvious. I hope you take some time this Valentine’s season to reflect on the meaning of love, and whether or not you feel a call to marriage; it’s a really touchy and complicated subject that I cannot do justice to in this article. Just start by trying to love people the way they are meant to be loved, and go from there. Happy Valentine’s Day.