Retrospection usually leads to insight, or realizations that the present deprives us of. We see patterns in behavior, common threads of logical reasoning of the events in our past, all in all it shows us the bigger picture, distant and therefore abstract. Rarely however, it makes us aware of the power of the present, the here and now person that we really are, the present that exposes the true existential nature of our being. No rhyme or reason explains certain things of the past, of our past. And often, for our own sake we tend to leave these anomalies unexplained, unreasoned, unacknowledged. Until it starts to bother us.
One such instance is my reading of the book ‘Moby Dick’. Unlike the momentary, or at least short-lived nature of strange behavior, reading a book takes time, way too much time when you read by taking notes, pausing to highlight a piece of text, imagine, or when you try to give a shape to the scene or a conversation. But with this particular book, the pace is forced upon you, as if the author desired the book to be read with much effort, and not finished. It took me months to finish it, and I did, to my own surprise. But there were many days, or rather nights when I almost gave up, cursing the author, the writing style, the recurring digressions and the incessant drag.
‘The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them’ – Chap 41.
It was not an easy read, not entertaining in the way classics usually are, but for some reason, I knew I couldn’t do an Ulysses on this. Ulysses is the book I have tried to read at least three times and wasn’t able to go beyond five pages. So I read, and read, as they say. Even after I was done with Moby Dick, I minced no words in telling my friends that it wasn’t worth the time I spent on it, and that I won’t recommend this book to anyone, not even one who enjoyed Wuthering Heights.
But does it mean that I didn’t like it?
Even now, I can’t answer that truthfully. I am not sure. For some time after finishing, I thought maybe it’s better to leave it at that, leave it in the cabinet of the unexplained and unreasoned and move on. But Ahab, the ship, the sea, the soliloquies, the whales, and the novel style of writing kept coming back, as if I almost wished there were a few more chapters. I knew I had to write about this book, not as a review but as a closure on the strangeness of my undertaking and the toiling that just went on and on. This consciousness of madness, and the futility in any attempt to get over is an overwhelming feeling that only a higher level of madness can comprehend.
‘They think me mad—Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that’s only calm to comprehend itself! The prophecy was that I should be dismembered; and—Aye! I lost this leg. I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer. Now, then, be the prophet and the fulfiller one.’ – Chap 37
So yes, in retrospect, it seems as if I was in the grip of the central theme of this book. If there was a central theme that is. The curious thing about the best in literature is how they make you realize that the cost of acquiring a conviction doesn’t ever justify the comfort or the authority that comes with it. Monomania seeped into me, and once you are caught in its debilitating grip there is no escape. I was obsessed with finishing the book like Ahab was with killing the great white whale. If Ahab had his missing leg to justify his madness, I had my Ulysses.
‘What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab?’ – Chap 132
But the book is not about monomania, it is, even to the most untrained eyes – about many more things, a fact that is made evident from the beginning chapters. People who look for narrative are going to be disappointed, especially after being charmed by the beginning, and not just the celebrated opening line. At first you start to think that the author is rambling, straying into a space because he knows what he is doing, and it might be relevant to the ultimate narrative, and it’s already too late when it hits you that narrative was never the real purpose. Melville makes it very obvious that this is a clever book, full of allegorical constructs, theology and philosophy written in a way that feels mundane. It is because he makes the heavy subjects so relatable, so down to earth that you tend to overlook, and keep searching for the narrative.
The writing style is distracting, and makes reading more arduous than what the incongruous content of the many small chapters would have warranted. The long sentences, use of semicolon; and the hyphen; the endless digressions exacerbate the issue of the author relapsing into another essay – on whales and whaling. But once you get into the groove, you start seeing the greatness it is trying to achieve, as you can see in the excerpt below.
‘but lulled into such an opium- like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent- minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half- seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly- discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space;’ – Chap 35
All the chapters on whales, their types, physiology, color achieve nothing in terms of creating a clear picture of the whale. All they highlight is how difficult it is to correctly assess the enormity and the significance of the species. But the pursuit goes on, or the lack of it, as we are made to dive into yet another attempt, and yet another chapter. For Ahab, it translates to defining the ultimate purpose of life, for what we ultimately desire is difficult to describe, it’s as unassailable as the task of achieving the goal. A perfect life, a flawless philosophy, a definitive theory of God, a meaning to the world, none of which can ever be clearly defined. All this makes you wonder, if in a way, we all spend the lifetime chasing our own great white whales.
But this is one of the many such thoughts that visit you during the course of reading the book. Melville gives more than just hints on the interpretative nature of the text. The religious topics come with biblical language and characters, philosophical ramblings employ natural phenomena and human nature, poetics are overtly presented, even in the most unpoetic of the contexts.
‘Other poets have warbled the praises of the soft eye of the antelope, and the lovely plumage of the bird that never alights; less celestial, I celebrate a tail.’ – Chap 86
‘The sky looks lacquered; clouds there are none; the horizon floats; and this nakedness of unrelieved radiance is as the insufferable splendors of God’s throne.’ – Chap 118
‘when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude;’ – Chap 51
Now that I see the list of highlights and notes on my Kindle, I realize how leisurely I have gone about reading this book. Even reading the notes, one can see how Melville uses the alternative chapters on the materialistic topics, like whales, whaling and history, following it with chapters on human nature in the form of ruminations by the characters, expositions on morals, and rationality. Even intertwining the poetic prose with lacklustre; run on sentences describing the ordinary is striking. This book is full of analogies, the contrast between nature and the world juxtaposed with soul, and thoughts, is beautifully presented.
‘O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies; not the smallest atom stirs or lives on matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.’ – Chap 70
The amount of research Melville must have done to write this book must be as lengthy as this book has turned out to be. He seems to be the type of author who goes deep into a subject, including its peripheries. The reason why he stopped where he did can only be due to the lack of available resources. But it is evident that he didn’t let any of it go waste, all the hours spent on research didn’t just participate in creating the backdrop of the story as sensible writers do. Instead, all of the research have been made part of the novel, and in a way that the reader starts seeing a purpose, and the relevance in the grand scheme of the novel. It is a rambling, but an unabashed and put-to-good-use kind of rambling that is unparalleled in other works of fiction that I have read.
‘God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!’ – Chap 32
Maybe there in lies it’s charm, maybe this is what kept me going on. In retrospect, it seems like madness to read this tedious, digressive, rambling of so many chapters, but it is a madness fueled by things a reader longs for, when reading a book. I still won’t recommend this book to anyone, but I am sure whoever reads it wouldn’t find it a waste of time and effort, at least not after the madness of reaching the end and killing your white whale of the never-ending book fades away. In retrospect, it was a strangely fulfilling experience.
‘rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate vapor. And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray. And for this I thank God; for all have doubts; many deny; but doubts or denials, few along with them, have intuitions. Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.’ – Chap 85
Links to posts during my ‘reading the Mody Dick’ days:
Lightning strikes in Moby Dick and South Carolina
Whale meat tastes like nationalism
Link to my review of ‘Wuthering Heights’: