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Sunday, 24 April 2016

Moby Dick is a book about everything

1/ Speaking of whales alone, Melville writes about everything you need to know about whales: different species of whales; length, weight, head, tail, body, eyes, ears, mouth, spout-hole, penis, skin, blubber, flesh, case, junk, oil, spermaceti, ambergris, skeleton, fossil; sex life, family life; whales' food, whales as food, etc. The same goes for whaling: crew members (captain, chief mate, 2nd mate, 3rd mate, harpooners, carpenter, blacksmith...), structure of a whaling ship (forecastle, masthead, cabin, try-works, deck...), the Gam, different methods of capturing a whale, tools used in the capture (lance, harpoon...), etc.
2/ Moby Dick deals with everything: life, death, fate, God, nature, animals, friendship, love, hate, joy, sorrows, depression, loneliness, grief, loss, madness, sickness, work, enjoyment, struggle, quest, adventure, fear, tyranny...
3/ Besides the whaling industry and related industries, Melville touches on art, history, etymology, culture, mythology, religion, philosophy, epistemology, cetology, anatomy, biology, paleontology, physiognomy, phrenology, cookery, jurisprudence, etc.
4/ Moby Dick tries to be everything, and contains in it prose, songs, comedy, tragedy, theatre, Shakespearean soliloquies, philosophy, encyclopedia, a legal brief.... 
(Stretching the form of the novel by encompassing many genres, and shifting between the 1st person narrator and 3rd person narrator and the obliteration of narrator as it turns to theatre, with stage directions and such, Moby Dick was modernist before the modernists). 



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Do I make it sound like Moby Dick is a boring book? Such seriousness! Let's loosen up a bit and talk about things I'm sure nobody expects to find in Moby Dick
1/ Such hilariousness: 
"In cavalier attendance upon the school of females, you invariably see a male of full grown magnitude, but not old; who, upon any alarm, evinces his gallantry by falling in the rear and covering the flight of his ladies. In truth, this gentleman is a luxurious Ottoman, swimming about over the watery world, surroundingly accompanied by all the solaces and endearments of the harem.
[...]
But supposing the invader of domestic bliss to betake himself away at the first rush of the harem's lord, then is it very diverting to watch that lord. Gently he insinuates his vast bulk among them again and revels there awhile, still in tantalizing vicinity to young Lothario, like pious Solomon devoutly worshipping among his thousand concubines. Granting other whales to be in sight, the fishermen will seldom give chase to one of these Grand Turks; for these Grand Turks are too lavish of their strength, and hence their unctuousness is small. As for the sons and the daughters they beget, why, those sons and daughters must take care of themselves; at least, with only the maternal help. For like certain other omnivorous roving lovers that might be named, my Lord Whale has no taste for the nursery, however much for the bower; and so, being a great traveller, he leaves his anonymous babies all over the world; every baby an exotic. In good time, nevertheless, as the ardour of youth declines; as years and dumps increase; as reflection lends her solemn pauses; in short, as a general lassitude overtakes the sated Turk; then a love of ease and virtue supplants the love for maidens; our Ottoman enters upon the impotent, repentant, admonitory stage of life, forswears, disbands the harem, and grown to an exemplary, sulky old soul, goes about all alone among the meridians and parallels saying his prayers, and warning each young Leviathan from his amorous errors." 
From chapter 88 "Schools and Schoolmasters", 1 of the funniest chapters in Moby Dick
2/ The whale penis described as "that unaccountable cone,—longer than a Kentuckian is tall, nigh a foot in diameter at the base, and jet-black as Yojo, the ebony idol of Queequeg". 
3/ A bromance. I'm talking of course about Ishmael and Queequeg. 
4/ Sex jokes/ sexual innuendos. 
E.g.: among the ships that the Pequod encounters, the Virgin (Jungfrau) has no sperm (whales) and the Bachelor is full of sperm (whales). 
Or this image from chapter 89 "Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish": 

"... Erskine was on the other side; and he then supported it by saying, that though the gentleman had originally harpooned the lady, and had once had her fast, and only by reason of the great stress of her plunging viciousness, had at last abandoned her; yet abandon her he did, so that she became a loose-fish; and therefore when a subsequent gentleman re-harpooned her, the lady then became that subsequent gentleman's property, along with whatever harpoon might have been found sticking in her." 
Or this passage from the famous chapter 94 "A Squeeze of the Hand": 
"As I sat there at my ease, cross-legged on the deck; after the bitter exertion at the windlass; under a blue tranquil sky; the ship under indolent sail, and gliding so serenely along; as I bathed my hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, woven almost within the hour; as they richly broke to my fingers, and discharged all their opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine; as I snuffed up that uncontaminated aroma,—literally and truly, like the smell of spring violets; I declare to you, that for the time I lived as in a musky meadow; I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it; I almost began to credit the old Paracelsan superstition that sperm is of rare virtue in allaying the heat of anger; while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.
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 [...]
Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever!..." 
5/ A fart joke. Yes, you read that right. 
Right in chapter 1: 
"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)..." 
A fart joke so highbrow that you may completely miss it, unless you know that the maxim is "Avoid beans". 
You're welcome to add other outrageous bits to the list. 

1 comment:

  1. Mardi was Melville's first attempt at at Omnibook. It is similarly funny and surprising in places, but tedious in others, especially in the allegorical sections. There is also the problem that the story, to the extent that there is one, is ridiculous.

    Moby-Dick solves all of those problems.

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