Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Moby-Dick - Herman Melville - book review

The epic novel "Moby-Dick" by Herman Melville, originally published in 1851, had intrigued me for a while, but my increased inclination to read it arose in curious fashion. I learned that whilst imprisoned in Germany, members of the Red Army Faction urban guerilla group had been fascinated by the novel, even being allocated the names of the characters as pseudonyms when communicating with each other. It seems that the group discerned some allegorical relevance in the book when appraising their own struggle. As I am generally very receptive these days for books containing such moral or political symbolism, I added "Moby- Dick" to my Kindle.

In essence, the novel follows the voyage of the whaling ship the Pequod, commanded by the enigmatic Captain Ahab, who embarks on a personal quest to find and destroy the eponymous white whale, which had on a previous occasion permanently deprived the skipper of one of his legs.  However, as I was soon to discover, "Moby-Dick" constitutes so much more than this basic tale.  Narrated by a crew member, Ishmael, the book has a formidable sweep and ambition.  Written in what might be described as a quasi-Shakespearean style, and periodically going off on tangents which on reflection are not tangents.

One of the charming things about "Moby-Dick" is its refusal to conform to one's expectations.  I had fondly imagined that the lion's share of the work would be comprised of feats of derring-do on the high seas, but No!  Much space is given over to the social, scientific and philosophical aspects of whaling, and there is also a lengthy preamble, laying the groundwork for the delights to follow.

The unusual language may take some getting used to, but equally it is instrumental in conveying the atmosphere of time and place. This may initially impel the reader to intense concentration, for fear of missing salient points, but for me this quickly diminished. The occasionally meandering nature of the novel adds richness and texture, and helps to evoke a flavour of the colourful characters who inhabited this world.

I must confess that the central story was not quite as momentous and stomach-churning as legend had led me to expect. The character of Ahab was not quite as crazed and irascible as I had anticipated either. Only in the closing chapters does the reckless, totally driven and volatile side of the captain's nature make itself fully visible.

As I continued to read "Moby-Dick", the theme of Ahab versus the whale was in danger of becoming incidental. I was much more interested in the subtexts, which explored themes of religion, class struggle, superstition, culture clashes, community and morality.

"Moby-Dick" is also one of those books which is susceptible to a myriad of interpretations. In it I detected a clash of philosophies, with more modern ideas of science, reason, and rationality coming into conflict with superstition, tradition and custom. This is perhaps unsurprising in view of the time when the book was published. Also, the relative virtues of "savagery" and civilization are touched on throughout, but Melville employs some guile in this respect, appearing to see good and deficiencies in both. Savage and primitive cultures had some noble and virtuous features, which "we" could learn from.

The relations between Ahab and his men begin forth some ideas and some thought processes which acquired much greater import and menace many decades after this work was composed. The mesmeric power of autocrats, the ability of men to manipulate their fellows, the propensity for humans to permit "loyalty" to over-ride reason, coupled with the corrosive effects of ambition, greed and self-interest.

Some of the most intriguing parts of the book are those which compare human sensibilities and characteristics to the whale's, through eyes, ears and so forth. The relation of whales to other sea dwelling creatures could be perceived as having parallels to the "pecking order" in the human social structures. I think the author may also have been hinting at ideological extremities in his appraisal of different types of whales.

The socio-political allusions become a little more strident after the halfway stage, and I thought that the analysis of the "rules of engagement" of whaling, and the explanation of the Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish scenarios was the most overt of these, and part of projecting whaling as a microcosm of, or mirror on, the human world.

The tension intensifies in the closing chapters, as Ahab closes in on his quarry, and the ending of the story is suitably apocalyptic and symbolic.  The captain (hoist with his own petard?) perishes, and our hero Ishmael is the sole survivor.

So can we discern one central meaning or moral in "Moby-Dick"?  I certainly didn't. Even the infamous white whale of the title is open to a multitude of interpretations. The characters in the novel appear to have had varying attitudes towards him, depending on their own mindset and needs, and I suspect that this will apply to the majority of readers. Does he represent the state, "the system", God, or does he symbolize more generally a focal point for all the base instincts and violent, irrational impulses of man?

However you seek to "intellectualize" or rationalize various aspects of this book, it is a stimulating and challenging read, so different from so much other literature, even of its own time...

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