Melville and Moby Dick
For a couple months I have been reading Moby Dick, that great flood of many things coastal and New England and American: natural science, legend, adventure, prose poem, psychological novel, anthropological record, social commentary, religious and philosophical text. I think of Melville and his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne out in the Berkshires, writing away, packing the New England communities they knew–Salem and Nantucket and others–and the many thoughts they had in their heads into the great novels of their day.
The great white whale and its maniacal hunter, the wounded Ahab, drive the action. The story glides, splashes, rocks and sways over the oceans of the world, always directing the reader’s thoughts back to the whaling port of Nantucket.
Here are some lines I noted, for no particular reason other than that in content or composition they appealed to me.
I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote.
…the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.
Father Mapple…offered a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed to be kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea.
(On Queequeg) You cannot hide the soul. Through all his earthly tattooings, I thought I saw the traces of a simple honest heart, and in his large, deep eyes, fiery black and bold, there seemed tokens of a spirit that would dare a thousand devils….I’ll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.
Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.
…two thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer’s. For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperorer’s own empires; other seamen having but a right of way through it…
(on the whaling ship Pequod) Pequod you will no doubt remember, was the name of a celebrated tribe of Massachusetts Indians; now extinct as the ancient Medes….A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.
(on Captain Ahab) He’s a grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab; doesn’t speak much; but when he does speak, then you may well listen.
Heaven have mercy on us all–Presbyterians and Pagans alike–for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly needing mending.
…I have no objection to any person’s religion, be it what it may, so long as that person does n(ot kill or insult any other person, because that other person don’t believe it also. But when a man’s religion becomes really frantic; when it is a positive torment to him; and in fine makes the earth of ours an uncomfortable inn to lodge in; then I think it is high time to take that individual aside and argue the point with him.
…for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.
Old age is always wakeful; as if, the longer linked with life, the less man has to do with aught that looks like death.
(on chief mate Starbuck) …a staid, steadfast man, whose life for the most part was a telling pantomime of action, and not a tame chapter of sounds.
…socially, Ahab was inaccessible. Though nominally included in the census of Christendom, he was still an alien to it. He lived in the world, as the last of the Grisly Bears lived in Missouri.
He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his heart’s shell upon it.
It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.
Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form.
Silence reigned over the before tumultuous but now deserted deck. An intense copper calm, like a universal yellow lotus, was more and more unfolding its noiseless measureless leaves upon the sea.
Glad to have been at sea with Moby Dick and happy to be back on solid ground and free to turn to other things.