On Moby-Dick


Today, I learned from Maine Public Radio Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz, is the anniversary of the publication of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.  If you call it the birthday of the book, it’s 160 years old now.

I have a strange and bizarre relationship with Moby-Dick.  I tell students that it’s a book that everyone should have read–it needs to be part of the background of everyone who reads books in the English language, and perhaps in all languages, as it has grown, since

Herman Melville

its publication, into a niche in the culture.  I think of Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws, also a weird part of the culture, and how so much of that film depends on that monstrous tome, and that monstrous whale.  However, even though I tell people they should have read it, I know that there are times when it’s incredibly hard going.  I love the book.  And I hate the book.

I read the book first in as an undergrad in college, and, as it was a particularly hard year, both personally and academically, I did not enjoy it.  The best part was the discussion in class of phallic symbolism, when the professor, a sprightly young woman from the deep south, stared out at our early morning blank faces, and suddenly cried out, “For God’s sake, it’s called Moby DICK !”  Still, there were set pieces that stuck in my memory:  Queequeg building his coffin, for instance, and the story of Rachel and her children.  Who can get away from the opening line?  “Call me Ishmael”–really.  I knew that line for years before I ever cracked the book.  And the that bit near the end?  How I alone survived?  Talk about setting us all up, and then snapping things closed when the Rachel finds “another orphan.”  There’s greatness in this book, undeniably:  years of readers and commentary have proven it so.  But there is so much to get through to find that greatness.

At the same time, I owe Herman Melville and Moby-Dick an enormous debt.  In my final semester at Bowdoin, I was taking a physics class for non-science majors, in order to fulfill some distribution requirements.  I did well with names, dates, and discoveries, but when, on exams, I was asked to solve problems using the formulae certain physicists had devised, I could not get my head around them and failed miserably at that task.  I spent the semester sitting in the front row, hoping the professor’s words would have an easier time getting into my head:  it didn’t help.  All it got me was lashings of teasing from the professor, who would look at the piles of books from my lit classes and make fun of me and them.  However, he had an unfathomable grading system for his class.  Bowdoin at the time had a four-point grading scale (Fail, Pass, Honors and High Honors); if, at the end of the semester, a student had a P or F, the student left with that grade…but if the student had an H or HH, she had to write a paper on a subject of the professor’s choice, or have the grade dropped to a P.  Now, I know fully well that at the end of the semester, there was absolutely no way I had anything better than a Pass grade (more than likely it was worse), but the professor informed me that I had to write the paper, and his chosen topic for me was C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.

Walt Whitman (of course)

This was wanton cruelty.  Anyone familiar with Snow’s piece knows that in it, he advocates that everyone, including those who, like me, have strengths in the humanities, should be made to study math and science; but on the flip side, no mathematicians or scientists need study the humanities.  I know that the professor chose this deliberately, to riase my ire.  So I did what any good English major would do:  I wrote a ten-page essay, entitled “The Whiteness of the Whale,” after the chapter in Moby-Dick, in which Melville displays his knowledge of whale anatomy.  I focused on that chapter, in attempt to show how science and art could co-exist; but I also slammed the metaphorical door shut with Walt Whitman’s poem “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer,” a magnificent poem about how personal experience of the world (in this case the stars) can outweigh a clinical dissection by a scientist.  The end result was an Honors grade in that physics class, indicating that the professor seemed to appreciate my response so his snarkiness.  I owe that grade–and that personal bit of satisfaction–in large part to Moby-Dick.  However ambivalent I might feel about the novel, I will be eternally grateful to Melville for it.

Twenty years later I read Moby-Dick again, to see if time had changed my reading of it.  Strangely, for me, the book remained the same, but I was the one who had changed.  I found myself weighing the different parts–the chapters advancing plot, the chapters where Melville poured out his prodigious knowledge of whales and the whaling industry.  His construction made more sense to me, as I’d become a meta-reader, and since there were no surprises, I was able to consider the book as a whole, while thinking about its separate parts.  It was still tough going.  But being older, and hopefully a bit wiser, I was more open to traveling the hard road with Melville.

Postscript:

In talking to my friend and co-worker Dan about Moby-Dick, I realized that I carry two images with me of the story, but both from movies.  The first is of the penultimate scene in the Gregory Peck film, where Captain Ahab is last seen, lashed to the side of the whale with the harpoon lines, his arm free and indicating–what?  The second is from Jaws, of Richard Dreyfus and company singing “Show Me the Way to Go Home” before the shark attacks; but oddly, it’s not the men’s voices I hear when I envision that–it’s the Andrews Sisters.  Culturally, I think I’m a bit confused.

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