Saturday, April 10, 2010

Whale Genie

I just finished reading Moby Dick. It was a good book but it was hard to read through. Melville has some absolutely brilliant insights and he's fantastic at creating metaphors. Every object discussed in the book has some symbolic meaning that he spends pages explaining to you but he actually sucks at writing a coherent narrative. The story itself has a strange flow and will be interrupted at odd points for chapters like the one where the narrator, Ishmael, will describe the inadequacy of the whale illustrations he's seen or some other minor aside. These chapters bog down the more interesting portions of the book.

But to be fair the main story, Ahab chasing the white whale, Moby Dick, to get revenge for the whale taking his leg, is secondary to Melville as Ishmael theorizing about nearly all aspects of western civilization and using everything on a whaling ship and in the ocean as metaphors to solidify his theories. Ayn Rand pulls this same trick, philosophy masquerading as a novel. Ayn Rand is much more narrow minded though; Melville's philosophy is much more nuanced and deeper.

Both writers are attempting the same thing, to create a mythology that explains American values, but the difference is Rand is a true believer in those values and Melville is weary of them and can see the harmful side effects they cause.

Anyway Moby Dick is great mythology, but still it comes off as cobbled together. One thing that bothered me was Ishmael basically disappears two-thirds of the way through and is replaced by a generic third person narrator. Melville realized this himself and included an epilogue where Ishmael explains he fell off a whaling boat and was able to view all the action from his position floating in the sea as if he was omniscient. It was a cheap literary bandaid to explain the narration shift.

But still that's forgivable when you have passages like this one. In this one Ishmael is squeezing chunks of spermaceti, which is sperm whale oil.

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such and abounding affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

There's this freedom in performing repetitive sensual labor. It's meditative. I think it's the reason why some men like mowing their lawns. Most Americans will scoff at the idea of sitting in the lotus position with their eyes closed for twenty minutes to obtain peace of mind; instead they'll breakout their gas powered lawn mowers and push it in straight lines for an hour or two. Here's how it continues.

Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! For now, sincy by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally. In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti

Melville's right. We have simple drives but in today's world they manifest themselves in bizarre and complex ways. The wisest of us recognize this and satisfy these drives in simple ways. The unwise have affairs with transexuals, buy private jets, and start wars to get their jollies! What a fantastically efficient way to make these points too.

In summation... it's a worthwhile read. It'll take some perseverance though. It won't be all sunshine and lollipops.

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