Dick/Moby

Why read Amazon customer reviews of 19th-century literary masterpieces?  In order not to miss out, I suppose, on enlightened comments like this anonymous reader’s response to Moby Dick:

For readers of good fiction (Rushdie, Conrad, Steinbeck etc.) this outdated and outmoded novel is an arduous and pointless effort. There are many better books on sea adventure.

(Rushdie, Steinbeck… Really?)

People tend to feel strongly about Moby Dick one way or the other.  I keep a picture of Melville on the wall in my office where he rubs genial shoulders with Shakespeare and Cervantes.  Passersby who manage to recognize him will either burst into applause or pretend to vomit.  The book works like an incantation, conjuring up spirits from across the full angelicodemonic spectrum to possess readers with fierce adoration or hellfire spite.  To steal a phrase from the author, most responses “partake more of significant darkness than of explanatory light.”  For some it’s the One and Only Great American Novel, for others a messy, damnable abortion of a book.  Finding Melville’s humor inaccessible, persons forced to read it prematurely – in high school, say, or for an undergraduate survey course – are among the most painfully scarred.  On the other hand, it was his shame at not having read Moby Dick that launched Leonard Zelig on his troubled career.

It’s not that lovers of Moby Dick love it for reasons overlooked by detractors, or vice versa.  Those who love Moby Dick tend to love it for precisely the same reasons others hate it.  Some among the latter would split the book into two separate volumes: one for the rollicking whale story, the other for the lunatic metaphysical ravings.  But Moby Dick has a schizophrenic unity.  The pleasure and the pain of the book are one: it’s a churning tropic sea of prose that scorches and stings, or warms and refreshes, according to the flesh of the bather.

In 2007 Orion Books in the UK (Phoenix in the US) infamously printed an abridgment of the novel, Moby Dick in Half the Time.  The point was to strip it down to bare plot and make it accessible to the general reader. Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker quipped: “All Dick, no Moby.”  Last year Damion Searls jumped into the fray with the ironical publication of ;or, the Whale, another abridgment, this one made up only of those elements (punctuation, words, phrases, whole chapters) left out by Orion – which I suppose makes Searls’ version (forgive me) Dickless, by contrast.

Abridging Moby Dick for an imaginary ‘general reader’ – trimming out all digressions on symbology, cetology and the mechanics of cutting tackles and try-pots – is a terrible idea, of course.  But no matter how you slice it, it’s not going to be the “book on sea adventure” the Amazon reviewer was apparently hoping for.  Melville is only superficially concerned with superficialities and Moby Dick has less to do with front-and-center elements of plot and action than with Melville’s own restless quest for “the surrounding infinite of things.”

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