Articles

Moby Dick

In Books on August 20, 2010 by Vikas Tagged: , , , , ,

Moby Dick is a bout a weird guy named Ishmael (One wonders: is that his real name? He says “Call me Ishmael,” implying he has been called other things) who sets out on a whaling ship called the Pequod. Ishmael doesn’t do much, except offer endless exegeses on every aspect of whaling, as well as stultifying digressions on how the color white can be evil. Ishmael’s ramblings will soon have you pleading for the whale – or a squid or an eel or a berserk seagull – to eat Ishmael, and eat him quickly (but painfully) so the book will end.But leaving it aside..

The Pequod is commanded by Captain Ahab, the one-legged nut who is obsessed with finding the whale that ate his leg(I am being rude here, it is explained much more beautifully in the book). Ahab is an interesting character in the abstract. Profoundly, almost suicidal driven,a compelling character. However, in the context of the book’s thees and thous and utterly excessive verbiage, the sheen wears off mighty quick. There’s some other characters, notably Queequeg, the South Seas cannibal with whom Ishmael shares a bed, and a totally homoerotic night (a scene that has launched a thousand dissertations). Then there’s Starbuck, the first mate, and Stubb, the second mate. Or is it the other way around? I don’t really care. They all end up in the same place. Hint: think Jonah. (Melville really harps on this Biblical allusion).

“Call me Ishmael“. That’s how the book starts and from it follows a great story both in writing style and allegorical depiction. To be honest, I was little apprehensive about reading this book. I did not had myself accountable to read every word. But as Ishmael starts inlands and travels to Pequod and how the story unfolds whence the ill-omened sails of Pequod are set in, how we first see the world of whaling through his eyes, how he describes whales and whaling as splendid and on a much higher importance and how this should be the most respected professions of all. How whales are supposed to represent the peacefulness and destructive force of nature itself, and how Ahab’s monomaniac desire to kill Moby-Dick signifies of how the whale is like the ultimate goal of every human, and how people wonder what will happen after Ahab happens to hunt down Moby Dick, i.e. Where to now would Ahab say as there captain.I just could not disrespect this book, didn’t even read it in class too.

There was one passage I really liked, though. It occurs when Pip, the black cabin boy/court jester, who falls out of one of the longboats and is left in the ocean. He goes mad and, in a Shakespearian twist, also becomes a prophet:

The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmate’s called him mad.

I’m immensely fond of this passage and that chapter in general. I like the idea that Pip had gone to the border-world between life and death and, because he toed that line, saw through some of the mystery, to where the soul and God are one.


Within a novel of such depth, where the literal nearly always represents something(s) more, such a close eco-reading is perhaps uncalled for. This book is overflowing with humor (French translation scene, anyone?), epic struggle, unhealthy human obsession (What is best let alone, that accursed thing is not always what least allures), destiny, societal escapism, and good old-fashioned adventure. And never have I read a superior description of the sinusoidal curve of life; of our empty pursuits; of the fundamental patterns to which we subject ourselves (and are subjected):

Oh! my friends, but this is man-killing! (i.e. soul-killing) Yet this is life. For hardly have we mortals by long toilings extracted from the world’s vast bulk its small but valuable sperm; and then, with weary patience, cleansed ourselves from its defilements, and learned to live here in clean tabernacles of the soul; hardly is this done, when — There she blows! — the ghost is spouted up, and away we sail to fight some other world, and go through young life’s old routine again.

This is the best explanation of life I have encountered yet.

Now the best line in the book was when he ascribed contrast as necessity for us to feel anything.

“truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more.”

-Vikas

P.S:

Flatland is an awesome book, some people though may argue that it was sexist, but could anybody who thinks so help me and not mention it to me at least.


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