Tag Archives: Moby Dick

Marginalia, no.254

Certain whaling captains may be able to deduct expenses paid in 2011 for Native Alaskan subsistence bowhead whale hunting activities.

~ Internal Revenue Service, Schedule A Instructions (2011)

We glimpse Ahab in the afterlife: an indigestible Jonah damned to inhabit an obscure deduction in the bowels of the Leviathanic federal tax code. “The lightning flashes through my skull; mine eye-balls ache and ache; my whole beaten brain seems as beheaded, and rolling on some stunning ground.” Ahab, brother, I feel thee now! All the subtle demonisms of Form 1040 be cursed!

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Marginalia, no.188

There is at least as great perfection in developing an empty theme as in sustaining a weighty one.

~ Montaigne, ‘Of Presumption’ (Essays II,17)

Cold comfort. The only book I ever really wanted to write was Moby Dick. Unfortunately, it’s been done. In the ‘Fossil Whale’ chapter, Melville staggers under the weight of his subject matter: “Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms!” No one, he says, could write a truly great book on the insubstantial flea. Becalmed in the doldrums of endless half-hearted revision, my own novel begins to taste like chalky hardtack, but I’m no nearer the whale. Some insect has just bitten my arm.

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Marginalia, no.133

…then over and over slowly revolved like a waning world.

~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick

The passage describes the death throes of a harpooned sperm whale.  I remembered it this past Saturday while sitting aboard my father-in-law’s boat, bobbing a few miles off the coast.  The dreadful revolutions I witnessed, however, weren’t those of the whales we sighted in the distance but those of my own stomach.  I managed to keep breakfast intact only by slow breathing and staring hard at the horizon, meanwhile providing comic relief for several sea otters that winked as we passed, and a half dozen Dall’s porpoises that circled the boat, chittering hilariously and gasping from their blowholes.  After seeing the headless, bloated carcass of a seal float by, I was sure I’d never eat again.  But no sooner were we back on terra firma than I recovered my appetite and took revenge on the ocean by consuming a generous slice of halibut cooked in a lemon, butter and caper sauce.  It was delicious.

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Marginalia, no.123

I look round to shake hands with Shem.

~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Shem, it turns out, had a firm handshake and was a little thicker in the chest and brow than expected.  The discovery that peoples of Eurasian ancestry trace a notable portion of their genetic inheritance to Neanderthals is no surprise to me, since I am one of those who accessorize their skulls with an occipital bun.  Ich bin ein Neanderthaler.

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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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Marginalia, no.93

What made Stubb such an easy-going, unfearing man, so cheerily trudging off with the burden of life in a world full of grave-peddlers, all bowed to the ground with their packs; what helped to bring about that almost impious good-humor of his; that thing must have been his pipe.

~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick

It was Ahab’s discarding of his pipe – his inability to take pleasure in it – that prefigured his doom.  Never trust a man with no observable vices.  The smoker, the drinker, the gambler are all seasoned to an easy, fraternal sympathy.  The abstinent, the strict, the grimly ascetic man is a monomaniac in embryo and no lover of mankind.

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