Book in Review: "Moby Dick"

After reading Herman Melville's renown classic "Moby Dick" for the first time, this book has become one of my favorites. Melville writes with incredible skill as sentences are saturated with adverbs and adjectives; colorful metaphors are laden throughout. And while many today might find such meandrous writing painstakingly laborious (Just get to the point, Melville), I found it rather refreshing. In an instant gratification age where media looks to provide entertainment at the expense of meaning, there is nothing like a book that requires some thinking to accompany it.

It is with such writing that Melville makes whaling seem a most desirable career path (never mind it is currently illegal by international law!). The serenity of standing aloft the mainmast, is so brilliantly described that I, someone who has no real desire for sea-crafting, found myself longing to quit my day job for the escape of the infinite space of the sea. The work required in the industry gives the reader much appreciation for such peril inviting, hard working men. Whaling was a historically risky venture, that for centuries provided oil for the world's lamps.

But Moby Dick, while it is many things, is at its heart is a story about humanity. And though Melville is quite a fan of humanity, this novel revolves around a representation of mankind gone wrong in the character of Ahab. It is a story of what happens when ambition is unchecked; it is a picture of what prideful, unrestrained defiance against a higher power looks like. Ahab is described as monomaniacal throughout the book, completely engrossed in this one obsession of enacting revenge on the whale that had previously left him maimed. He dreams of the whale. He forces his crew to engage in some sort of cultic ritual which they swear together to never rest until that whale is dead. Later on he forges a special harpoon for the whale, and each harpooner baptizes the spear with drops of their own blood. And while similar men would learn the lesson of what happens when you cross the white whale (stay away from it!), memory of the prior clash only further buries Ahab into his self-destructing pursuit. "What is best let alone, that accursed thing is not always what least allures."

But interestingly enough, Melville gives us a few glimpses of the human side of the madman. In what may be the climax of the book, the Quaker First Mate Starbuck, entreats the maniac to turn home before the first chase of the whale. "Oh my Captain! my Captain! noble soul! grand old heart, after all! why should any one give chase to that hated fish! Away with me! let us fly these deadly waters! let us home! Wife and child, too, are Starbuck's--wife and child of his brotherly, sisterly, playfellow youth; even as thine, sire the wife and child of thy, loving, longing, paternal old age...I think, sir, they have some such mild blue days, even as this, in Nantucket." It is here that Melville reveals a fraction of fleshy heart in the thoroughly calloused old man. Ahab responds: "They have, they have. I have seen them--some summer days in the morning. About this time--yes, it is his noon nap now--the boy vivaciously wakes; sits up in bed; an his mother tells him of me, of cannibal old me; how I am abroad upon the deep, but will yet come back to dance him again." Ahab in the deepest part of his heart, longs for his family--for his child. For the blue skies of Nantucket. Even in the midst of his madness, he wants to be free of it. Could hope remain for so deluded and craven a soul?

After further begging to turn back from Starbuck, Melville writes what might be the saddest portion of the book: "But Ahab's glance was averted; like a blighted fruit tree he shook, and cast his last, cindered apple to the soil." Ahab then blames fate, "some invisible power" that leaves him unable to abate his demonic pursuit of Moby Dick. This, this is what happens when mankind goes wrong, when mankind is in "too deep". Ahab, though in his heart of hearts he longs for freedom from his chains, he has too long fed the monster within. He cannot get out, and his long hardened heart is sure to bring doom to himself and his crew.

The story of Ahab is then a billboard sized warning sign to the rest of us. It is a warning that that screams in all caps the caution previously given to Ahab: BEWARE OF THYSELF. For the same arrogance, the same morbidness of "mortal greatness" is within us. And if we allow it, if we desensitize ourselves to our own desires long enough, we will also like Ahab, reap what we have sown.
***

"In pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed."

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