Sunday, October 05, 2008

Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick"

Moby-Dick is not a novel, but a Dramatic Poem. Its sources are Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, and the Bible. Its spirit is not realistic, but idealistic; it sees in the things of earth shadows of things in heaven, or, as Ahab puts it, “Not the smallest atom stirs or lives on matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.” Its strategies are self-consciously dramatic: dialogues that rival for color and comedy the exchanges between Lear and the Fool; soliloquies that aim for the grandeur of Hamlet; and action that extends its import, as in Homer, through extended metaphors. Where it pauses to catch its breath, it sees analogies everywhere, in the parts of the ship, in the members of the crew, in the stages of killing and boiling down a whale. Ahab, who sets out to kill the White Whale, discovers he is the White Whale, just as Ishmael, who sets out to tell the story of Ahab, finds out, in this obsessive narrative, he is Ahab.

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Chapter I Loomings—Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it—would they let me—since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place on lodges in.

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Chapter IX The Sermon—“Screwed at its axis against the side, a swinging lamp slightly oscillates in Jonah’s room; and the ship, heeling over towards the wharf with the weight of the last bales received, the lamp, flame and all, though in slight motion, still maintains a permanent obliquity with reference to the room; though, in truth, infallibly straight itself, it but made obvious the false, lying levels among which it hung. . . . ‘Oh! so my conscience hangs in me!” he groans, ‘straight upward, so it burns; but the chambers of my soul are all in crookedness!’

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Chapter XI Nightgown—. . . truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.

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Chapter XXVI Knights and Squires—But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike, that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy. His omnipresence, our divine equality!

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Chapter XXXII Cetalogy—But now I leave my cetological system standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the crane still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but draught—nay, but draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!

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Chapter XLI Moby Dick—So that here, in the real living experience of living men, the prodigies related in old times of the inland Strello mountain in Portugal (near whose top there was said to be a lake in which the wrck of ships floated up to the surface); and that still more wonderful story of the Arethusa fountain near Syracuse (whose waters were believed to have come from the Holy Lanf by an underground passage); these fabulous narrations are almost fully equaled by the realities of the whalemen.

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Chapter XLII The Whiteness of the Whale—Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright.

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Chapter LV Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales—The Hindoo whale referred to, occurs in a separate department of the wall, depicting the incarnation of Vishnu in the form of leviathan, learnedly known as the Matse Avatar. But though this sculpture is half man and half whale, so as only to give the tail of the latter, yet that small section of him is all wrong. It looks more like the tapering tail of an anaconda, than the broad palm of the true whale’s majestic flukes.

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Chapter LX The Line—All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turns of death, that mortals realize the silent subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.

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Chapter LXVIII The Blanket—It does seem to me, that herein [the whale’s blubber] we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale!

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Chapter LXX The Sphinx—“O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! not the smallest atom stirs or lives on matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.”

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Chapter LXXX The Nut—If you attentively regard almost any quadruped’s spine, you will be struck with the resemblance of its vertebrae to a strung necklace of dwarfed skulls, all bearing rudimental resemblance to the skull proper. It is a German conceit, that the vertebrae are absolutely undeveloped skulls.

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Chpater LXXXII The Honor and Glory of Whaling—That wondrous oriental story is now to be rehearsed from the Shaster, which gives us dread Vishnu, one of the three persons in the godhead of the Hindoos; gives us this divine Vishnu himself for our Lord;—Vishnu, who by the first of his ten earthly incarnations, has for ever set apart and sanctified the whale. When Brahm, or the God of gods, saith the Shaster, resolved to recreate the world after one of its periodical dissolutions, he gave birth to Vishnu, to preside over the work; but the Vedas, or mystical books, whose perusal would seem to have been indispensable to Vishnu before beginning the creation, and which therefore must have contained something in the shape of practical hints to young architects, these Vedas were lying at the bottom of the water; so Vishnu became incarnate in a whale, and sounding down in him to the uttermost depths, rescued the sacred volumes.

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Chapter XCIV A Squeeze of the Hand—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-labourers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. . . . Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humour or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all around; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness. Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm forever! . . . 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.

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Chapter CIV The Fossil Whale—Such, and so magnifying is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.

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Chapter CXXXI The Symphony—“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time, recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst no so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? . . .”

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Chapter CXXXIII The Chase—First Day—In an instant’s compass, great hearts sometimes condense to one deep pang, the sum total of those shallow pains kindly diffused through feebler men’s whole lives. And so, such hearts, though summary in each one suffering; still, if the gods decree it, in their life-time aggregate a whole age of woe, wholly made up of instantaneous intensities; for even in their pointless centres, these noble natures contain the entire circumferences of inferior souls.

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Chapter CXXXV The Chase—Third Day—“. . . Would now the wind but had a body; but all the things that most exasperate and outrage mortal man all these things are bodiless, but only bodiless as objects, not as agents. There’s a most special, a most cunning, oh, a most malicious difference!”

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Chapter CXXXV The Chase—Third Day—“Oh now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief.”

2 comments:

Pam Hart said...

One of my favorite books! Thanks for the synopsis.

Jee Leong Koh said...

It's also much funnier that I thought it would be.