Monday, 25 June 2018

Return to sea with Herman Melville

This time on a man-of-war—I’m reading White-Jacket
The structure is similar to Moby Dick—the book is broken up into lots of short chapters, which allows Melville to jump from 1 subject to another and to explore and expand on each topic till exhaustion. It is, I suppose, the form that works best for his capacious mind and his way of writing—his digressions as people say, his insistence on describing, detailing, elaborating on everything, on covering all aspects, on serving everything full and whole. 
My 1st impression is that, as in Moby Dick, I can see Melville’s rich, beautiful prose and humour, but the tone is different. Read Moby Dick and then White-Jacket, you’ll prefer a whaler to a man-of-war. The man-of-war, the Neversink, is a microcosm of the real world, a world of hierarchies, nonsensical laws, and injustices, a world of tyrants at the top and merciless thieves at the bottom. Life is harsh and cruel, one must constantly be on watch. 
Then I come to chapter 12, about the effect of duties and surroundings on a man’s temper, and here it is, the joy, the enthusiasm, the love of the sea that so much reminds me of Ishmael: 
“… Who were more liberal-hearted, lofty-minded, gayer, more jocund, elastic, adventurous, given to fun and frolic, than the top-men of the fore, main, and mizzen masts? The reason of their liberal-heartedness was, that they were daily called upon to expatiate themselves all over the rigging. The reason of their lofty-mindedness was, that they were high lifted above the petty tumults, carping cares, and paltrinesses of the decks below.
And I feel persuaded in my inmost soul, that it is to the fact of my having been a main-top-man; and especially my particular post being on the loftiest yard of the frigate, the main-royal-yard; that I am now enabled to give such a free, broad, off-hand, bird's-eye, and, more than all, impartial account of our man-of-war world; withholding nothing; inventing nothing; nor flattering, nor scandalising any; but meting out to all—commodore and messenger-boy alike—their precise descriptions and deserts.
The reason of the mirthfulness of these top-men was, that they always looked out upon the blue, boundless, dimpled, laughing, sunny sea.” 
That’s a lovely passage.

No comments:

Post a Comment