Ah, the great white whale…finally slayed.
All my life I’ve been a wordsmith, writing songs, stories, poems, essays, teaching English Composition, and working as a grant writer. My B.A. was in English/Creative Writing; my M.Ed. in English/education.
But, I have a couple of confessions to make. First off, I don’t think words are end all be all. There is Music. Art. Silence. Touch. Deep expression that lies beyond words. Secondly, although I’m a fairly vociferous reader with an academic background that required the classics, until recently, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, had escaped my grasp. I was just like Captain Ahab.
It was Bob Dylan who nudged me along. I was reading his Nobel Prize Lecture and he spoke with such passion about Moby Dick, and its influence on his work, that I had to take up the task – all 614 pages. Predictably, it is not an easy novel because you often have to sludge through pages and pages of detailed description and sometimes dense prose, to get to the good stuff. And Melville works in many layers throughout. But, as I drove on, the payback increased, reminding me of the intrinsic value of challenging yourself. Art that forces you to stay with it, engage, and commit, gives you a greater reward in the long haul. It requires presence. Just like relationships. Or anything.
When I finished, I felt a sense of accomplishment and sections of the book began to rise from my subconscious and resonate – repeatedly. Such as:
…Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar….”
Yeah man. Or, simply the line Dylan called attention to: “It is not down in any map; true places never are.”
I imagine this is a book I will go back to, returning to passages like these, digging deeper, gaining dividends over time, dependent on where I’m at in life at that moment. I can feel it. Harkening back to Bob, his best work (of which I have many favorites – say Desire or Highway 61 Revisited) means a completely different thing to me now than when I was a kid – both equally valid and strong. These things stand outside of time.
So, thanks Bob for the tip, and thanks Mr. Melville for taking 18 months out of your life into writing one for the ages. Melville’s masterpiece was out of print when he died in 1891, but just like the depth of its content, it continues to take on new life. And when you pick it up and bend a sail, you will fill the broadside with new meaning.
Doug Hoekstra, 2018
One thought on “Reading Moby Dick”
I actually spent the last seven or so months reading this about 4 or 5 times. Before that, I guess I’d read it about 3 times. Once in high school. I have been chewing on this book now for a while, and the more I read, the more I love it. And the more I notice, and attempt to understand. It’s a masterwork. The first true Great American Novel. Although one thought smacked me in the face: Ahab is not a traditional tragic figure. Most tragic figures have some innate part of them that brings about their ends. But Ahab was a pillar of his profession and community. But he was wounded, and that set him on his inevitable path. And, as the piece you quoted says, is that Ahab is a great man, but it makes the twisting of his mind more dangerous. And if you recall, Tashtego’s last act was to nail an eagle to the main mast. You may want to try getting the audiobook read by Frank Muller. I think it was 99 cents with the free ebook on Kindle and just listen. I think you’ll change your mind about Ishmael’s descriptions of whales, whaling, and his meditations more entrancing. Plus, it’s the best sea yarn I’ve ever heard told. Most of his descriptions are utterly barbaric. And the way the white men who lead these expeditions are no better or worse than the “savages” on the ship. And just so much more. So my personal monomaniacal quest after this book had lead to revelation, to questions, to revelations. To questions. I think I’ll let the book rest a bit now. But it will always be in and with me. A great and terrible tale. Now I’m reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich for the umpteenth time. Read fearlessly!