September 24, 2009


Subaquatic homesick blues: Is Melville’s Moby-Dick the ultimate American novel? Even today, it haunts a nation’s thoughts and dreams (Greil Marcus, 24 September 2009, New Statesman)

Even without rereading the book, even with only a TV Guide sense of the tale, one is rereading the book when one chances on John Wayne's Tom Dunson in Red River on late-night TV, a movie made in 1948; or recalls Elvis Presley two decades later, facing an audience for the first time in years and against the blankness of that unknown hoisting a mike stand like a harpoon, thrusting it over the crowd, and shouting "Moby Dick!"; or watches a black boy, one "Woody", an early incarnation of Bob Dylan, pitched out of a boxcar by hobo thugs and into a river, only to see a right whale gliding towards him, in the 2007 film I'm Not There; or channel-switches into the 2008 episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent where the tormented police detective Bobby Goren comes face to face with the unmistakable handiwork of the escaped serial killer Nicole Wallace, once a literature professor whose speciality was Melville. She lectures in a flashback: "The descent into madness is usually preceded by obsession. What characterises Ahab's obsession? I always fancied it was man's unrelenting pursuit of his own potency." "I'm told she's your white whale," Goren's boss says to him - just before Goren receives a card postmarked Pittsfield, Massachusetts. When, early on in the book, Captain Peleg asks Ishmael, "Want to see what whaling is, eh? Have ye yet clapped eye on Captain Ahab?" and Ishmael answers, "Who is Captain Ahab, sir?" we're surprised he hasn't heard of him; we have.

Did Melville somehow know, or hope, that his country would always seek out the mysteries that, in his big book - the book that would for the rest of his life erase his name from the memories of his fellow citizens - he took down as if they were the plainest, most obvious facts, himself the sub-sub-librarian he so confidently laughed off? That letter from Hawthorne, the letter in which he showed Melville that he "understood the book", the letter that, unlike Melville's response to Hawthorne, does not survive - it could have been one of Poe's hoaxes, were he still around to forge it, a trick to keep the characters alive, running their histories through history yet unmade, unmaking history as they left it behind and continued
on their way.

What did Hawthorne say? No, Melville may not have kept letters, as Hawthorne did, but one can imagine a ceremony a little more to the point than taking out the trash. "Cool as an icicle," as Ishmael says of Queequeg sitting among the other sailors in the Spouter-Inn, his harpoon at hand, "reaching over the table with it, to the imminent jeopardy of many heads, and grappling the beefsteaks towards him. But that was certainly very coolly done by him, and every one knows that in most people's estimation, to do anything coolly is to do it genteelly." So how cool, how genteel of you, Herman, sitting in your writing room late at night, with no one to glimpse a single word as you burned the pages!

There was no better way to keep us reading; with its author more than a century dead, the book is the sea we swim in.

In the scene following the Epilogue doesn't Ishmael have to rally the Rachel to go after the fish?

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 24, 2009 7:35 AM
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