John Lewis: Why Moby Dick?

Because, not to cheek my reader, it’s Great!

Moby Dick jpeg

Melville did perhaps the one thing most harmful to a writer, even more so than failing to achieve publication. His first novel was a huge commercial success, followed by several other successes. This set a high bar, but also the wrong one, which Melville through natural talent and vision, veered away from. It wasn’t the success that troubled him, it was the simplicity of storytelling which provided this success. In the long run, he was bound to follow his artistic sensibilities, which proved incompatible to prosperity.

Along came “Moby Dick” or “The Whale” as it was titled in England. Melville had just passed thirty years of age, and whereas the first several novels were adventurous, lushly exotic, and did not place too great a demand on the reader, Moby Dick fell flat. By tackling such an immensely heady and symbolic work, he broke trust with his readers. Following publication, Moby Dick sold poorly and was largely misunderstood or neglected by readers.

But what a story it turned out to be! Melville died much less a literary figure than he had been in his young adulthood — Moby Dick a failure, waiting full rediscovery in the 1920s, thirty years after the author’s passing.

For me, this is the great American novel. It reads almost biblically, in that the story is long, but broken into 150 mostly short chapters. Each chapter is a self-contained masterpiece, and can be read on its own. Like the bible, one can pick it up, randomly open the book, and enjoy these micro-universes on their own merit, tilling the prose for a chance elevation from the daily routine.

The prose drips with metaphor and symbolism. Each sentence is a miracle of craftsmanship; the cadence and rhythm a near breathless prescription of fluidity. And one can extract deep personal meaning from her reading… declaring, “This! This is what the story is about.”

An old trick is to hotbox characters within a trap setting. An ex-boyfriend and girlfriend get stuck on an elevator. The ship’s councillor and her unwilling patient get stuck on a small spacecraft. A competent but motley whaling crew is buttoned up with an insane, vengeance-minded captain with a partial body!

It’s the captain’s body which is important. Moby Dick is a story about many things; a startling avant-garde depiction of racial harmony, an adventure tale, revenge plot, religious commentary, eco-thriller (after all, it is the pursuit of oil), class screed, or even a story suggestive of homoerotic romance.

I find in it the deepest of spiritual matters; it speaks of blasphemy and illustrates the peril of abandoning free-will. Captain Ahab is a mono-maniac, whose sole purpose is to destroy the thing which destroyed him years ago. Ahab was almost killed by the white whale years prior to the telling of Moby Dick. Unbeknownst to the crew, the chartering company, and family back ashore, Ahab has a secret plan to hunt the beast which took his leg. This is a man who has relinquished the gift of free-will, and if the western religious tradition is to be believed, free-will is given him by God.

Ahab, a man of God, has rejected this. He blasphemes his maker by renouncing the most important of all divine bestowals. In his previous encounter with the white whale, Ahab loses his leg. He is made incomplete by the ocean’s carnage. And the ocean is a metaphor so pregnant it will yield itself forever to the service of large literary tales. But, the other physical scar, though often overlooked, is important. Years before the novel takes place, the whale’s daggered tooth cut Ahab along his entire body, producing a scar that twists up his abdomen and chest, and finishes above his face along the eye and forehead. Melville has done us a treat here, symbolically cutting Ahab in half. This is a man who is no longer a man. We all know about the missing leg, the madness in his cabin, the nailing of the doubloon to the mast, but it’s this scar which has rent the captain asunder. In that, he is no longer human according to the author. The looming byproduct is a monster who has forfeited the power of choice. Ahab becomes the supreme animal, transformed into a beast, for he will imperil his crew, his company, to the annihilating goal of vengeance. This is what it looks like for us to surrender the power of choice.

Or so I believe.

I love this story, because at each opportunity to discuss it with a fellow traveler, I find that it means something else entirely. We have the same list of ingredients, the same simple plot — captain leads crew to destruction in pursuit of vengeance — that it continues to astound me, and contemporary audiences, with the diverse fruit of meaningful experience.

John Lewis
Artist/Editor
The Almagre Review

4 thoughts on “John Lewis: Why Moby Dick?

  1. In a college literature course back in the 80s my professor asked the first day who had read ‘Moby Dick’. I was the only one who raised his hand. He then asked me unexpectedly “Why?” I said because it was awesome. Was weird that he did not agree but I’m still proud of that moment that I represented…

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  2. I liked reading your thoughts here. Very well done. It has been many years since I read Moby Dick. The one scene that always stuck with me was the quenching of the harpoon. Seemed a little satanic and scary to me if I remember correctly, but I was a child.

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