November 22, 2009

i'll smoke no more

I am disappointed in myself that I ever let the prejudices of others hold my eye from Moby Dick. It really is a stranger book than anyone dared describe to me before, and far from boring. It may have been some disdain for the 19th century as a whole, but I let myself be swayed, and saw Melville as this place I would not go.

The religious (and areligious) atmosphere of the book is strange to me, born out of a New England milieu that my own ancestors never (to my knowledge) were a part of, and a later, romantic outgrowth from it. Trying to recapture the mental world which informs Moby Dick is likely impossible, a sobering realization for those of us who sometimes think of far more distant pasts as things next door. I have heard the novel called countless times a romantic novel, or a highlight of "American romanticism", but the novel has more to do with the end of romanticism than its birth or apex. The whale manages to both at once be the wild collapse of romanticism under pagan terror reborn (with the whale as both Lord Vishnu and that destructive Babylonian deep) and a subject for scientific classification. Ishmael may be a romantic, but the world in which he inhabits is not.

The allegories and symbols shift wildly, Melville never seems to rest within his book. In that way, he accomplished by craft what many modern author attempts through cynicism and artifice. All the more praise to him, and all the more damnation to them. The asides break not narrative, but serve to make the Pequod and crew more real this reader. With every discussion of whaling as science or industry, the stage for the drama becomes real again, only to collapse again under Leviathan's weight. This is all due to Melville's gifts as an author, the beginning of the friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg is touching it its realism, but he can also work well within the uncanny or the descriptive. The prose may read stilted at first to some readers, or needlessly difficult or allusive (I have used my iPhone far too many times to unwrap allusions to places and things once important, now gone), but it all fits as the novel grows.

I am in no way evaluating the book's moral content–for one, I am not finished–but rather its author's achievement. It has turned me from skeptic to friend quicker than I could have guessed.

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