A couple years ago I decided I’d try to read an entire book online while simultaneously creating an online copy of the book.
The point was supposed to be to demonstrate that serious online reading was possible if only proper care was made to format the text. The text I chose was Moby-Dick. The project didn’t work, but not for the reason you might have guessed. Instead of closely reading the book, I became obsessed with formatting — making sure every em-dash was correctly rendered, every quotation mark was curled in the right direction. The process of creating the online book became too distracting, and so I couldn’t read it properly.
But I’ve always wanted to read Moby-Dick, so for this trip I decided to bring it along in paper form. I finished it yesterday afternoon.
It is, of course, a masterpiece, but it’s a troubling book. In case you haven’t read the book, I’m going to put the rest of this post below the fold, because what troubles me most is the ending.
Even if you haven’t read Moby-Dick, you know that it’s about a maniacal sea-captain’s quest to kill the great white whale, Moby Dick. But, as any student of literature knows, what we really want to know about any great book is not what it’s about, but what it’s About. That’s what’s troubling me.
Almost as great as Ahab’s obsession with capturing the whale is our narrator Ishmael’s obsession with describing the whale. Ishmael describes every part of the whale’s body, even its penis, in meticulous detail. When he finds a whale skeleton on a remote tropical island, he tatoos its dimensions on his arm so he won’t forget them.
If whales are fascinating creatures, then the men who hunt them are also fascinating. Yet it seems that every whale hunter has flaws — they are vain, naive, overcautious, reckless, ignorant, overthoughtful, or all of the above. In some scenes, Melville has each whaler describe the same object, so we can contrast their characters.
This lengthy description of the whales, the whalers, their ships, and so on, continues for hundreds of pages. It’s not till halfway through the book that we experience our first whale-hunt, which is only briefly described. The climactic battle with Moby Dick takes only 27 pages at the end of the novel.
But the final confrontation with Moby Dick can hardly be called a battle. It’s a massacre, with the whale first toying with his pursuers, then destroying them. The men never have the chance. Ahab has circled the globe, effectively abandoned his wife and child, wasted 40 years of his life, for this?
This is why we slog through 600 pages? This sense of loss, of waste, of hopelessness, is probably at least partly what the book is About, but what I’m trying to grasp is the point of that evocation. Is Melville saying that most men waste away their lives in pursuit of unattainable obsessions?
Does the whale symbolize God? Is the whale-hunt Ahab’s Babel? Or is the point that there is no God. Maybe the whale is simply death — all-powerful, but ultimately meaningless.
If that’s the case, the book says little about the point of life, which I think is what makes it so profoundly troubling. It’s also possible, however, that I’m missing something. I still don’t think I’ve read the book under ideal circumstances — on airplanes, before I drift off to sleep, in noisy hotel rooms. I’m still on vacation, so I’m not even giving this blog post the thoughtful treatment it deserves.
One simple explanation of the book elevates the writer to quite an impressive stature. Ishmael, our narrator, is the sole survivor. Of course, he has to survive, or the story would never have been told. Is Melville saying that writing is the only way to achieve immortality? That seems to me just as vain and naive as Ahab’s pursuit of the whale. Of course, it worked for Melville, so maybe that is the point. Ishmael has his flaws, of course, and at times it’s quite clear that he’s unreliable. But despite their flaws, writers have the surest chance of living on through their words after they die. But that sounds rather trite for a work of this scope. Is that really the reason we write? I hope not, even as I find myself repeatedly succumbing to it.