Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Herman Melville - Moby-Dick (1851)

It took me a while this time around, but I've finally finished Moby-Dick. This is my third time reading it, and I'm probably going to need a couple entries to deal with it.

Anyway, I am now six novels deep into my attempt to read all of Herman Melville's novels in the order they were written. The scourge of high school students everywhere, Moby-Dick is probably one of the most written about and discussed books in world literature (certainly US literature). It's certainly the novel upon which Melville's reputation largely rests. So let's start unpacking what I think about this monolith.

First things first. My issue with Moby-Dick has always been my uncertainty as to whether the thematic depth of the novel is truly the result of careful and ambitious craftsmanship on Melville's part, revealing his absolute genius; or is it that the book was never quite 'finished' and that this patchy product ends up opening a lot of tantalizing doors that ultimately lead nowhere and add up to nothing, creating a thematic hall of mirrors for the reader to painstakingly make sense of. I'm not saying the book has nothing to say or is devoid of a theme (I think it has a very clear theme). However, I believe there is a lot of 'junk' - for lack of a better word - Melville left lying around or included for no particularly good reason. These red herrings and dead-ends are, at minimum, annoying and, at worst, make you question whether the book - and Melville - really deserve the accolades they have received.

From Melville's statements at the time and his reactions to meeting Nathaniel Hawthorne, it's pretty clear he was trying to craft something deeper in Moby-Dick than he felt he had done in his two prior novels (Redburn and White-Jacket). Since his last overt attempt at something 'artistic' was a hideously pretentious mess (Mardi), no one should be blamed for approaching Moby-Dick with scepticism (regardless of the hype).

Moby-Dick starts off as Melville's most atmospheric work to date. The story of Ishmael, who seems very much like the main character in Redburn in terms of situation, seeks out a whaling ship and comes upon the Pequod. Everything about his arrival in town and what he does there is full of drear foreshadowing. Humor, as well as Melville's always bracing narratives about sailors and the sea, breaks up the mood at times, but you never get away from the sense that something mysterious and dark is lurking under the surface. There are paintings that vaguely display destruction at sea, eulogies for dead seamen, warnings from madmen, dark shadowy figures on the Pequod. The mood Melville weaves is a spellbinding additional layer to his traditional storytelling, and is so well done that you clearly feel you are in the presence of a great writer.

Part of this beginning includes the much discussed two-men-in-a-bed scene between Ishmael and Queequeg. While I'm the first to argue that Melville was at least bi, I think people make far too much of this scene. Sure it's homoerotic, but there are other passages in Melville's writing that far more convincingly suggest the direction of his sexuality and that he was trying to communicate under the radar to any reader who could pick up on gay code. Anyway, now that the elephant in the middle of that room is dealt with, let's move on. The main purpose of Queequeg, in my mind, is an extension of Melville's theme of civilization versus 'the natural man'. Since Queequeg is a non-character once the Pequod goes to sea, I think it's safe to say that's where he begins and ends. Again, this an example of Melville starting something and then going nowhere with it both in terms of characterization and theme. What was the point of developing Queequeg as a character in such detail only to completely ignore him for the remaining two-thirds to three-quarters of the book?

For all this, Moby-Dick initially moves pretty well. At the same time, you can pick up Melville's theme starting to take shape like an evil fog just at the edge of your field of vision. This heightens the dread to a sharp edge. However, about 24 chapters into Moby-Dick, the Pequod sails. At this point, Melville shifts tone, focus, drops his storyline, and even kicks his structure to the curb as he enters into dozens of chapters that may or may not have anything to do with anything.

He has several opinion pieces (e.g., C.24 'The Advocate'). Some of them are interesting, of course, but others (C.32 'Cetology') are excessive and stultifying drab. There's a few chapters introducing the remaining main characters: Starbuck, Daggoo, Stubb, Tashtego, Flask, and ultimately Ahab. But Melville only gets back to his story around C.36 ('The Quarter-Deck') with Ahab's ever famous speech of intent to hunt the White Whale because the whale took off his leg. It's clear Ahab hasn't got both oars in the water (like my nautical imagery?) but most of the crew goes along gleefully with his vendetta which is sealed with an almost demonic religious rite, of a consecration. It's a very powerful scene that deserves its hallowed place in literary history.

Then you kiss the story goodbye for the bulk of the book. There's loads of Melville's little vignettes of seafaring and his pompously penned airy-fairy musings on...whatever. Frustratingly, for the reader, some of these chapters contain little glimmers of symbolism, and you think "Okay he's got a point in here I guess." For example, at the end of C.35 ('The Mast-Head'), there is a dark warning to those who meditate too deeply on one idea, as it may lead to their destruction. This warning fits the tone of the early chapters and seems to build into the theme of seeking, which we know will take it's most complete shape in Ahab chasing his White Whale. But too often these passages lead nowhere. They do not connect to the thread of the story or theme in any way and, as a result, they strongly suggest Melville was either a very poor editor or was just not in control of his material (and possibly both).

It's not until nearly a hundred chapters go by (in the vicinity of C.119 'The Candles'), that the story comes back to the foreground and the dark majesty of the first 24 chapters is somewhat revived. The narrative flow is largely unbroken through what's left of the novel, but that means Moby-Dick contains an awfully large amount of dead space and poorly conceived passages to slog through. Even if I accept that this is a masterpiece with a amazingly complex theme, did Melville really require all those pages to convey what he wanted to say? Was there no way to integrate it into his story? As it stands, the structure of Moby-Dick amounts to 24 chapters of narrative, 100 chapters of various odds and ends, and the concluding chapters which complete the story begun in the first 24. Such a lack of integration is the sign of either a bad writer (which Melville really isn't) or a writer who just didn't take (or have) the time to polish his work.

Even when the narrative returns, I can't say that the writing measures up to Melville's start. And it isn't until the last page, that Ishmael returns as the narrator. I think we're supposed to assume he's the narrator throughout, but the voice of the character just isn't there, and we're really dealing with an omniscient third party narrator. There seems to be little point in this shift (although I'm sure a clever Melville groupie could concoct some brilliant intent behind it), and it kills the immediacy of the story.

Melville further errs by toying with playwriting devices. He introduces characters and settings at the beginning of several chapters, not in his text, but as bracketed comments you'd see in a screenplay. This reaches a head in C.40 ('Midnight, Forecastle'), which is completely laid out as a play, rather than as narrative. While this may have eased his ability to display the famed 'microcosm' of the Pequod's multi-racial/national crew, it would not have required much effort to get this across in narrative form. To me, this is two parts laziness and one part gimmick. Doesn't add up to brilliant writing at all.

In fact, I would have to say that this encapsulates my ultimate opinion about Moby-Dick. It's got some brilliant writing in it, and some tremendous themes (to those in another post), but it's terribly underwritten and contains too many ideas that Melville played with, didn't develop, and left half-baked in the novel. The result is a continual sense of being interrupted or having to suffer digressions or losing the thread of where Melville is going. As a writer, he's like a tour guide who is charged with taking you to see the Empire State Building, but who ends up taking you to seventeen uninteresting and wholly unrelated stops along the way. You start to wonder if you will ever get to the Empire State Building at all or whether the guide even knows where it is! In short, Moby-Dick is brilliant in places, but frightfully amateur in others (many others).

Some critics call this 'modern' and praise Melville as being ahead of his time stylistically. While I agree some modern writers intentionally create disjointed and convoluted prose to get their point across, the difference is that I find them to be in control of what they are doing and why. I do not get this from Melville at all; he just seems messy and unfocused. Maybe Melville was ahead of his time, but that doesn't excuse a lack of craft. Personally, I do not believe he was ahead of his time; I think he just didn't work hard enough honing Moby-Dick (despite the fact he apparently drove himself to drink over it). In many ways, after reading six of Melville's novels, my feeling is that he is a talented, but very lazy, writer. He's big on ideas, ambitious in vision, but he isn't up to the effort required to edit himself or hone his craft in order to create art out of his big ideas.

Melville's masterpiece received some good notices, but just as many poor ones. Few people in the reading public were interested one way or the other, and Melville was pretty much irrelevant and forgotten at this point in this career. Not counting, Billy Budd, which I have never yet read. Melville write three more novels after Moby-Dick and all of them were ignored and, when reviewed, ridiculed. I can relate to his public from the time as, despite my desire to read all his works, I have little interest in tackling these last three.

Maybe later in life I'll pick up where I left off.

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