May 11, 2006 11:09 am

Not so many years ago, maybe five or ten, in an effort to improve myself, I spent many a dreary hour trying to read MOBY DICK by Melville. I strove and roiled and toiled through this leviathan of a book for about half the long journey, and then, overwearied by the prose and leaden pace, gave up, stopped battering at the waves of words, and let myself sink. The book was too long, too boring.

Well, I am rereading it now, and some weird alchemy of the brain has changed me (for I assume the book has not changed) and now the very things I thought most dull hook my attention most acutely.

What was I thinking? Shipmates, this book is deep and filled with joy and humor and a Chestertonian wildness and a witty American spirit I can think of in no other work of literature. It is at once playful and grand, for the author is playing with grand ideas.

The humor of the scenes with Queequeg, that noblest of noble savages, may be lost on moderns, especially when Ishmael, out of Christian charity, bows and worships his friend’s fantastic and grotesque idol. We are too caught up in talk of diversity to notice the humor here: Ishmael quotes the Golden Rule to excuse the idoltry. Likewise, modern folk who are driven mad by the glamorization of sodomy cannot interpret the scenes where Ishmael is bedding with Queequeg, where the author wryly talks about their being intimate as bridegroom and bride, as being wry. The humor in both cases requires recognising a contrast (Christian versus idolator; roommate versus maiden) that all our modern philosophy demands we ignore. The humor, for example, of Father Mapple’s sermon depends on exaggeration; men who have lost all sense of proportion, as modern men have done, cannot see the humor because they have no sense of the normal.

The grand idea being played with, as Queequeg soundly observes, is that there is evil in every meridian, in Nantuket as well as in Rokovoko; but also brotherhood beneath every skin.

It is simply a great book, worthy of its fame. Great books do not say new things, they say things everyone knows and should know (such as that there is evil in every meridian, and good under every skin), but these simple things everyone knows are also great things, and it is of the great and simple things great books concern themselves.

Here are some quotes, taken more or less at random:
Queequeg was a native of Rokovoko, an island far away to the West and South. It is not down on any map; true places never are …

You may have seen many a quaint craft in your day, for aught I know;- square-toed luggers; mountainous Japanese junks; butter-box galliots, and what not; but take my word for it, you never saw such a rare old craft as this same rare old Pequod. She was a ship of the old school, rather small if anything; with an old-fashioned claw-footed look about her. Long seasoned and weather-stained in the typhoons and calms of all four oceans, her old hull’s complexion was darkened like a French grenadier’s, who has alike fought in Egypt and Siberia. Her venerable bows looked bearded. Her masts- cut somewhere on the coast of Japan, where her original ones were lost overboard in a gale- her masts stood stiffly up like the spines of the three old kings of Cologne. Her ancient decks were worn and wrinkled, like the pilgrim-worshipped flag-stone in Canterbury Cathedral where Becket bled. But to all these her old antiquities, were added new and marvellous features, pertaining to the wild business that for more than half a century she had followed.

Old Captain Peleg, many years her chief-mate, before he commanded another vessel of his own, and now a retired seaman, and one of the principal owners of the Pequod,- this old Peleg, during the term of his chief-mateship, had built upon her original grotesqueness, and inlaid it, all over, with a quaintness both of material and device, unmatched by anything except it be Thorkill-Hake’s carved buckler or bedstead.

She was apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory. She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies. All round, her unpanelled, open bulwarks were garnished like one continuous jaw, with the long sharp teeth of the sperm whale, inserted there for pins, to fasten her old hempen thews and tendons to. Those thews ran not through base blocks of land wood, but deftly travelled over sheaves of sea-ivory. Scorning a turnstile wheel at her reverend helm, she sported there a tiller; and that tiller was in one mass, curiously carved from the long narrow lower jaw of her hereditary foe. The helmsman who steered that tiller in a tempest, felt like the Tartar, when he holds back his fiery steed by clutching its jaw. A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.

(COMMENT: I did not notice the first time I read this book that the ship is Covered with Bones! An eerie conceit, worthy of Poe.)


Yes, these eyes are windows, and this body of mine is the house. What a pity they didn’t stop up the chinks and the crannies though, and thrust in a little lint here and there. But it’s too late to make any improvements now. The universe is finished; the copestone is on, and the chips were carted off a million years ago. Poor Lazarus there, chattering his teeth against the curbstone for his pillow, and shaking off his tatters with his shiverings, he might plug up both ears with rags, and put a corn-cob into his mouth, and yet that would not keep out the tempestuous Euroclydon. Euroclydon! says old Dives, in his red silken wrapper- (he had a redder one afterwards) pooh, pooh! What a fine frosty night; how Orion glitters; what northern lights! Let them talk of their oriental summer climes of everlasting conservatories; give me the privilege of making my own summer with my own coals.

But what thinks Lazarus? Can he warm his blue hands by holding them up to the grand northern lights? Would not Lazarus rather be in Sumatra than here? Would he not far rather lay him down lengthwise along the line of the equator; yea, ye gods! go down to the fiery pit itself, in order to keep out this frost?

Now, that Lazarus should lie stranded there on the curbstone before the door of Dives, this is more wonderful than that an iceberg should be moored to one of the Moluccas. Yet Dives himself, he too lives like a Czar in an ice palace made of frozen sighs, and being a president of a temperance society, he only drinks the tepid tears of orphans.

(COMMENT: Dives is the name traditionally given to the rich man in hell in the parable of Lazarus. The redder wrapper he after enjoys are the hellfires; a temperance society is one which forbids the drinking of beer and spirits.)

For I was not prepared to see Father Mapple after gaining the height, slowly turn round, and stooping over the pulpit, deliberately drag up the ladder step by step, till the whole was deposited within, leaving him impregnable in his little Quebec.

(COMMENT: Quebec is the only remaining fortified city in North America.)
Yes, for replenished with the meat and wine of the word, to the faithful man of God, this pulpit, I see, is a self-containing stronghold- a lofty Ehrenbreitstein, with a perennial well of water within the walls.

(COMMENT: The fortress of EHRENBREITSTEIN, like Gibraltar, is one of the most important and imposing fortresses in Europe. It has never been captured.)

Finally, I always go to sea as a sailor, because of the wholesome exercise and pure air of the fore-castle deck. For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim), so for the most part the Commodore on the quarter-deck gets his atmosphere at second hand from the sailors on the forecastle.

(COMMENT: The maxim of Pythagoras is that one should not eat beans. Here is perhaps the most erudite fart-joke in all literature.)