Y'all, can we talk about Moby Dick?

The book.

I’d never read it and picked it up a few weeks ago, just finished it today. (Kept texting my husband “70 pages to go and still no whale!” “40 pages and still no whale!” “NO WHALE AND 30 LEFT!” Whale shows up with 25 to go in my edition.)

And I really don’t know what to make of it, except that it’s quite a book. I mean… quite a book. I don’t even know if I liked it or not, but I also couldn’t have put it down.

I dunno, I suppose people probably call it “the first postmodern novel” or something, but can you really be a thing if you’re the only thing? Doesn’t that just make you a weirdo? People say “oh it’s about obsession” or “oh it’s about futility”, but I think those people haven’t read it recently, because if Melville wanted to write a book about Ahab’s obsession, the hunt for the whale, his opposition with Starbuck at the end, etc. then he could have done that. Probably would have sold buckets of them, at about a hundred pages.

But he didn’t write that book, he wrote a 600 page book about the nature of the whale, the meat of the whale, the classifications of the whale, the whiteness of the whale, the flensing of the whale, the dipping out of the spermaceti of the whale, etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc. He hardly did it by accident. So what do we make of it?

I read it for the first time myself a year or two ago. I assumed I had read it in school, but realized that that was not the case. So, at age fifty-nine, I had the treat of reading it for the first time.

I loved it. I know it has its flaws, but it’s a weird, brilliant novel.

One weirdness: it switches styles throughout. It starts as a straight narrative, then shifts to a whaling documentary, then it shifts to an “inner monologue” script style, then back to narrative again.

And I skipped the entire chapter which was the sermon given by the New Bedford preacher. The novel was getting a bit too preachy and I thought I’d just come back to it. I never did, and now I want to read the book again and include that chapter.

What was with the chapter about the guy talking crap to the black cook while eating a whale steak? He was kind of dick.

I loved the whaling documentary chapters. It made me look up some old grainy whaling films on youtube and it looked just like he described. Also fun is to make Google street view guy walk around old downtown New Bedford, Massachusetts.

And like I posted here during my reading: generations of American school kids must get the giggles when they read about “squeezing the sperm”.

Oh, the sermon is wonderful! I can’t believe you skipped that but read all about the Folio Whales!

One thing that did surprise me vastly was how funny the book could be. Usually a snarky dry sort of humor that I very much enjoyed.

The tonal shifts were whiplash (and surely on purpose? But to what purpose?) As I recall, it’s a whale chase, then a long discourse on the eating of whales, then that weird-ass Br’er Rabbit bit with Stubbs and the cook. WTF, Melville?

Throughout I felt the book was often about a profound cruelty, but then I couldn’t tell if my 21st century attitudes were unduly influencing me or not. But I think Melville was at least somewhat with me, just because every time a whale hunt is closely described there’s something sad or pathetic about it. An old decrepit whale, or the one where they end up in the middle of the whales freaking out and look down and see the baby whales?

I loved it. Melville switches from his highly symbolic Tale of the Obsessive Hunting of the White Whale to a general description of whaling to discourses on whale products to philosophical discussions about the meaning of whiteness. It’s all fabulously entertaining. I couldn’t really get into his other “South Sea” novels, despite my trying.

I’d been prepared for Melville’s expertise on the whale. Victor B. Schaeffer’s excellent book The Year of the Whale constantly referred to Melville’s book, and recommended it. Apparently when Moby Dick first came out, it was a flop. But time and literature teachers were kind to the book.

If kids get the giggles over “squeezing the sperm”, it’s a good thing they don’t really know what a “grandissimus” is

From Chapter 95 “The Cassock”

Melville is oblique in his references, but if the kids cross-referenced with 1 Kings 15, they’d know what he was talking about.

I also like the poetic feel of Melville’s descriptions. He certainly liked to invent an adverb by putting a “ly” on the end of a word. Forgive me for quoting a few paragraphs, but this is some fine writing:

I read it my freshman year in college and I really enjoyed it. I was smoking a lot of weed then tho. I did buy the Cliffs Notes like I did for all my books but I actually read the chapters then studied the notes after. I actually don’t remember why I enjoyed it so much. I do tend to like stories of isolation and struggling to fit in.

I did my final English paper that year comparing the book to the Radiohead song “Paranoid Android.” I was and am convinced that the song is about the book. Check it out :slight_smile:

Are we not all both fast-fish and free fish?

The chapter on the Whiteness of the Whale just… I mean… wow. That’s the heart of the thing, I think.

I read it my freshman year in college. I began it late one night, under the covers in my loft-bed, reading by flashlight so I wouldn’t bother my roommate. That reading of the first chapter remains, to this day, the height of my literary experience. It was spiritual. It was numinous. It spoke to me in a way no literature has spoken to me before or since.

The rest of the book was pretty good, too.

“Moby Dick” was Led Zeppelin’s worst song. And It’s probably Melville’s worst book. But I’ll never know, because I refuse to give it a chance.

“Bartleby the Scrivener” and “Billy Budd” were far, far shorter and STILL the most excruciating literary torture I’ve ever experienced. Melville will never get another split second of my time.

I had to read it in high school and remember being bored to tears by it. (At least with Tess of the D’Urbervilles, there was a movie out on VHS I could watch instead.) Wasn’t there a whole chapter that describes one of the ship’s ropes or lines in excruciating detail?

Yep, a whole chapter describing how to coil a harpoon rope into a barrel so that it would shoot out freely and without loops.

Later on, the reason for not having a loop in the line became a massive plot point, so the chapter was a setup for a later scene.

If you just finished it today…let it roll around in your head for a couple of weeks, then come back and keep this thread alive.

I never had to read it in school, so picked it up of my own volition before a two-week trip to Maine when I was 24 years old. (I recommend the Arion Press edition with the woodcut illustrations by the great Barry Moser.)

Not a week has gone by in the past thirty years that I have not thought about a scene in that novel. Now that you’ve ingested it, it’s with you for life.

I hate debates about “greatness in literature,” but there are VERY few books that affected me in this way.

Otherwise known as “Chekov’s Harpoon Rope Loop in a Barrel.”

I describe the book as “verbal collage”. Melville assembled a bunch of different writings, in different styles, into a single work.

However, a lot of it feels like he did it less out of a desire to create for his readers something which they will appreciate and enjoy as for him to sit back and cackle, show off his writing chops, prove his creativity, and to amuse himself doing it. And that’s much the same reason that I don’t like jazz. I have no desire to be the target for someone else to masturbate their creativity onto. They can just go home and do that on their own.

I won’t bother to recommend the novella “Benito Cerino,” IMHO Melville’s second most brilliant book.

You have to read it to the end to find out what the fuck was happening throughout the story. Then your brain explodes and you have to go BACK TO THE BEGINNING and READ IT AGAIN. And you will be reading an entirely different story.

“Benito Cerino” is like nothing else I’ve ever read. So was Moby-Dick.

Melville was a MONSTER of literature. He may not be my favorite author ever, but he has my total respect.

High school was too young to get anything out of it.

You could try the 1956 movie of Moby-Dick – directed by John Fucking Huston, screenplay by Ray Fucking Bradbury, starring Gregory Fucking Peck as Ahab – it’s a pretty good flick (cough).

I could watch the “Nailing of the Spanish Gold Ounce to the Mainmast” scene over and over.

You could strip out all the whale-blogging and have a tight novella about going to sea, Ahab, revenge, monomania, God, the Devil, and the meaninglessness of it all.

But complaining that you don’t get that novella when you read Moby Dick misses the point. That’s not what Moby Dick is.

Sage Rat:

You don’t like to watch talented persons/persons of genius showing you what they do best? Jesus, you are ONE tough audience.

“Paderewski? He was just showing off how good he could play the fucking piano. Screw that.”

“Gypsy Rose Lee? She was just showing off her amazing tits. Screw that.”

But the thing is, it’s a mess. I think there’s maybe the idea that all great things should be perfect? And this is not perfect, it’s a giant stewy slobbery drippy mess.

ETA - but it can be great and a mess, obviously.

By pure coincidence, I am currently reading “Cruise of the Cachalot” by Frank T. Bullen, a non-fiction (?) account of a seaman aboard a whaler.

(I think it’s non-fiction, but some of the adventures have a touch of sailorly exaggeration to them.)

(Speaking of adding “ly” to a noun to make an adjective…)

Anyway, fine read, and a good account of the details of whaling. It’s like Moby Dick without the angst and drama. (Or most of it…)