Thursday, May 24, 2007

Moby Dick

Brian Schwartz headshot by Brian Schwartz

Sometime around the year 1780, a Frenchman named Aimé Argand invented a new sort of lamp. Far brighter than candles, and more reliable, it was the lamp of choice for anyone who could afford one, and, though Argand himself never saw any of the profits -- his partner managed to steal both the patent and the money -- these lamps came to illuminate shops and houses around the world. Now the demand for oil to fuel these lamps was insatiable, and the only oil that would work was taken from the head and body of the sperm whale. And so, since there was money in it -- millions and millions of present-day dollars from every voyage -- boats set off to catch whales. Rugged wooden sailing ships, with a full three masted rigging but otherwise not much different from the dhows that plied the seas in the days of the Arabian Nights, or perhaps the Pharaohs. Four years worth of food and provisions they carried, for the ships might be gone four years out of sight of land. And what breed of men were these, who would sign on to such a voyage, and leave family, hearth and town for four years of being swept and tossed and blown who knows where on a rugged, unvarying ocean that, since the days of Caliph and Pharaoh had changed not at all?

Moby Dick

Shortly after 1850, everything changed. Kerosene lamps blazed, whale oil was unneeded. Steamboats and iron ships blithely cruised the waters. But, just before that happened, Herman Melville wrote a book about that vanished world. Now I don't know if people talk about the "Great American Novel" anymore, but a couple of decades back, it was every scribbler's secret dream to write it. More than a few people who should know say that the Greatest of all these Great American Novels is Moby Dick. Great it may be, and it's certainly American -- what other nation would field such enterprising cruises in search of a commodity that could be sold for profit? - but I'm not sure it's really a novel at all. In its secret soul it's more of an opera; or (as a few of its chapters are written) a play -- and if it is a play it's a sweeping Shakespearian drama; or more likely a symphony, a strange uplifting blend of Beethoven and Wagner and the ocean wind.

There's less character development than one would expect -- the question of just why these men decided to spend their years suspended on a wooden platform between infinite sky and a watery grave is, though often asked, never answered, and maybe it never could be answered any more than you could answer why the wind blows -- and there's pretty much no realistic dialogue at all. Oh the speeches of Ahab are lovely, and indeed they rival and perhaps surpass Shakespeare at his finest, but you can't imagine a real seaman uttering them. But of course these men aren't real seamen, anymore than the sighing of the wind, or notes in a symphony, or a flaming nova reaching its inexorable conclusion.

There's not much action either, though what there is is grand and bloody and majestic, as the sea and the whale rise up and claim their due, and when that happens, the writing becomes lean and sinewy, as fast and efficient as a lightning bolt. But fully nine-tenths of the book has no action at all. It is composed of long and elegant and surprising and often nonsensical essays on just about everything concerning whales except what you might want to know. There is nothing about the Argand lamp, it is mentioned only in passing how long a whale is, but there are chapters and chapters on why the whale is a fish and not a mammal, why the color white is sinister, how Jonah's whale could have moved so quickly between Jaffa and Iraq, etc etc etc. But, strangely enough, the effect of all of this is not to bore or baffle but, like a long crossing across a savage and monotonous landscape, ultimately to inspire awe and wonder, a sense of limitless magical

possibility, of, to use the first word in the book, "loomings", of vast and majestic forces, of motions, shufflings, grindings, sweepings, energy of the universe flickering like St Elmo's fire on the masthead, all this cornucopia of wonder that can't be seen from land. It's as if Melville is walking through a wild rambling museum or curiosities and saying "Look at this! Look at this! Ain't it grand?"

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