Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Do I even need to discuss the plot behind Moby-Dick by Herman Melville? Is there anyone who doesn’t know about Ishmael’s observing Captain Ahab’s overwhelming obsession to bring down the white whale? Does anyone (both the large number who haven’t read it but still know it and the somewhat fewer who actually have read it) not recognize the opening line: “Call me Ishmael?” I really feel this is one book that really doesn’t need a whole lot of discussion.

But, let’s talk about whaling a bit:

In connection with this appellative of “Whalebone whales,” it is of great importance to mention, that however such a nomenclature may be convenient in facilitating allusions to some kind of whales, yet it is in vain to attempt a clear classification of the Leviathan, founded upon either his baleen, or hump, or fin, or teeth; notwithstanding that those marked parts or features very obviously seem better adapted to afford the basis for a regular system of Cetology than any other detached bodily distinctions, which the whale, in his kinds, presents. How then? The baleen, hump, back-fin, and teeth; these are things whose peculiarities are indiscriminately dispersed among all sorts of whales, without any regard to what may be the nature of their structure in other and more essential particulars. Thus, the sperm whale and the humpbacked whale, each has a hump; but there the similitude ceases. Then, this same humpbacked whale and the Greenland whale, each of these has baleen; but there again the similitude ceases. And it is just the same with the other parts above mentioned. In various sorts of whales, they form such irregular combinations; or, in the case of any one of them detached, such an irregular isolation; as utterly to defy all general methodization formed upon such a basis. On this rock every one of the whale-naturalists has split.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for 3rd for Paul Auster, 2nd for Russell Banks, 5th for John Banville, 8th for Andrea Barrett, 7th for Bebe Moore Campbell, 4th for Michael Chabon, 4th for David Anthony Durham, 4th for Jim Harrison, 8th for Adam Haslett, 3rd for John Irving, 7th for Norman Mailer, 9th for Bobbie Ann Mason, 1st for Patrick McGrath, 9th for Joyce Carol Oates, favorite at age 25 for Richard Powers, 7th for Francine Prose, 10th for Ian Rankin, and 9th for Louis D. Rubin Jr.)

Vivid portrayal of the slipperiness of good and evil, depiction of all consuming vengeance, the arrogance of man, the indifferent power of nature, a detailed portrait of whaling, there are so many functions going on in Moby-Dick. Everyone seems to know of it. Of those who have actually read it, the camps are fiercely divided. Some adore it, some hate it, and some hate it so much that they despise that others adore it and insist it shouldn’t be considered a classic.

But, let’s take a minute to talk about whaling:

In one of those southern whalesmen, on a long three or four years’ voyage, as often happens, the sum of the various hours you spend at the mast-head would amount to several entire months. And it is much to be deplored that the place to which you devote so considerable a portion of the whole term of your natural life, should be so sadly destitute of anything approaching to a cosy inhabitiveness, or adapted to breed a comfortable localness of feeling, such as pertains to a bed, a hammock, a hearse, a sentry box, a pulpit, a coach, or any other of those small and snug contrivances in which men temporarily isolate themselves. Your most usual point of perch is the head of the t’ gallant-mast, where you stand upon two thin parallel sticks (almost peculiar to whalemen) called the t’ gallant cross-trees. Here, tossed about by the sea, the beginner feels about as cosy as he would standing on a bull’s horns. To be sure, in cold weather you may carry your house aloft with you, in the shape of a watch-coat; but properly speaking the thickest watch-coat is no more of a house than the unclad body; for as the soul is glued inside of its fleshy tabernacle, and cannot freely move about in it, nor even move out of it, without running great risk of perishing (like an ignorant pilgrim crossing the snowy Alps in winter); so a watch-coat is not so much of a house as it is a mere envelope, or additional skin encasing you. You cannot put a shelf or chest of drawers in your body, and no more can you make a convenient closet of your watch-coat.

Personally, I do look up to Moby-Dick quite a bit. The action parts are layered and gripping. I see all kinds of things in them and am on the edge of my seat. The whaling parts do make the book a real slog to get through, but I see functions those perform as well. The picture it gives of that way of live, the long time building up just to tear down in a single moment, I can see it…though I can also understand why so many get so angry about this book.

But, let’s talk about whaling just a bit more:

I know of only four published outlines of the great Sperm Whale; Colnett’s, Huggins’s, Frederick Cuvier’s, and Beale’s. In the previous chapter Colnett and Cuvier have been referred to. Huggins’s is far better than theirs; but, by great odds, Beale’s is the best. All Beale’s drawings of this whale are good, excepting the middle figure in the picture of three whales in various attitudes, capping his second chapter. His frontispiece, boats attacking Sperm Whales, though no doubt calculated to excite the civil scepticism of some parlor men, is admirably correct and life-like in its general effect. Some of the Sperm Whale drawings in J. Ross Browne are pretty correct in contour; but they are wretchedly engraved. That is not his fault though.

I mean, Melville does take a while to get around to things. He has a marvelous story and wonderfully developed characters, but it is a long walk to get there. Everything is so meticulously laid out. Still, I think there is something in that. He spends so long making everything so concretely there, then he smashes it all in one quick second. Personally, I’m still a fan and I still respect the hell out of Moby-Dick.

Note: before this went live, I came across a Simpsons’ quote I just had to pointlessly add:

Homer: What kind of example would I be if I didn’t take revenge on things?
Lisa: Dad, you can’t take revenge on animals. That’s the whole point of Moby Dick.
Homer: Lisa, the point of Moby Dick is, “Be yourself.”

Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools

Loving “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” as much as I do, I’ve been waiting anxiously for years to read Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools. Nothing was stopping me, mind you. I just hadn’t gotten around to it yet. I guess I hoped it was a novel-length work with the same kind of magic as “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” That probably wasn’t fair. In any event, though I liked the book and found it extremely well written, I just didn’t find that magic I was looking.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Patrick McGrath and 4th for Annie Proulx.)

Ship of Fools details the voyage of a motley assortment of people who are citizens different countries and members of different socioeconomic classes from Mexico to Germany shortly before the beginnings of the Second World War. However, for me, it seemed to mainly be a scathing indictment of humanity and our hopes.

I mean, everybody thinks they are better than everyone else. Of course, they aren’t. For example, an American artist named David Scott looks down on just about everyone:

He glanced at Mrs. Treadwell, whose attention had wandered. They were coming into the crowd entering the dining room, and she nodded lightly in several directions – to Freytag, who nodded back without smiling; to the young Cuban pair with their two children; to the bride and groom, who did smile; to the purser, who beamed at her with his broadest smirk; to anybody and everybody, David noticed, without appearing really to see anyone. She behaved in fact like Jenny, except that Jenny was looking for something, a response of some kind, almost any kind at all, always either a little too hard or too soft, with no standards that he could understand or believe in. An intense resentment against Jenny rose in him when he saw her at work trying to undermine him, to break down by any means his whole life of resistance to life itself – to whatever environment or human society he found himself in.

But, he’s just a grumpy and empty young man. He picks apart others, even the girl he supposedly loves (Jenny), but has no reason to feel superior beyond being able to intellectually negate whatever good qualities those people might have.

Really, though this novel is packed with an amazing amount of different characters of all kinds of different classes (German divorcees and widows, Swiss hotel keeper, Spanish dancers, a Jewish merchant of Catholic religious paraphernalia, deported laborers, Cuban medical students, a Swedish communist, and so on), they all come off pretty bad. They all look on everyone else as inferior to them, and then promptly display some horrifying trait.

For example, a number of the German passengers actually advocate getting rid of the Jews and the handicapped, even by extermination and sterilization, foreshadowing the horrors coming in the Second World War:


            “Every day I learn new things about him. Just to think he is a publisher. I had not known that!”

            “How fascinating,” murmured Mrs. Treadwell, from the depths of her pillow.

            “Yes, in Berlin. It is a new weekly devoted to the garment trade, but it has literary and intellectual features besides. One of these is called the New World of Tomorrow, and he engages the very best writers to contribute, all on one topic, to be examined from every point of view. The idea is this: if we can find some means to drive all Jews out of Germany, our national greatness will then assert itself and tomorrow we shall have a free world. Is that not marvelous?”

            Mrs. Treadwell deliberately kept silence.

And, though the Jewish merchant of Catholic paraphernalia is not so extreme in suggesting avenues for his hate, mostly trying to avoid people, he doesn’t seem to regard all these ‘goys’ as even people. He may not be as bad, but I don’t think that necessarily makes him better.

No, Porter seems to treat all of the people on the boat equally. They all have some nice features here and there, but they all are rotten. Every human is a wretched little thing that thinks it is better than everyone else.

To take this further than just the inherently flawed nature of humanity, Porter also has this voyage represent a hope for salvation for each of these flawed characters. The Swiss hotel keeper hopes to go back to Europe to open a hotel where business won’t be as corrupt as Mexico. A German oil company man hopes to retrieve his Jewish wife from the growing danger to Jews in Germany and take her somewhere where she (and thereby he) won’t be persecuted. Everyone hopes for something life-changing out of this voyage. However, we can guess from Porter’s treatment of her characters that these hopes aren’t going to be realized.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not denigrating Ship of Fools in any way. Though depressing, the indictment presented certainly seems accurate. Further, I cannot deny that this is an amazing book in the vast number of different characters that are all vividly and individually portrayed, the intricacy of the political situation represented, and the emotion connection the prose forms with the reader. It is really a marvelously and skillfully executed novel. However, it just didn’t have the same magic for me as “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” I didn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped I would.