dark and troubling things

Herman Melville’s MOBY-DICK, ch. 1-21


im reading MOBY-DICK in one week.

This is the kind of madness grad school electives do.

This reading set took me to where Ishmael and Queequeg board the Pequod after another encounter with Elijah the prophet. And i already feel like im going to be converted into a Melville-ite. i really, really like the book so far; i like how weird it is. i dont like the edition i bought. These old Bantam books have such tiny and hard-to-read print. But this cover is lovely. Better than that image you see on the newer Penguin editions — too spectacle-driven. The empty churning sea-scape, the sickly green color. i love the desolation of it, and i think it’s closer to the tone. It’s beautiful in a way, and has something subtly unhinged about it. Which is that elusive quality i like so much about these Romantic novels (to think, SCARLET LETTER, this book, and UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, three great novels in as many years, and Emily Dickinson composing in her room all the while, American Renaissance indeed).

i like the whole mess of quotes about whales at the very beginning, “supplied by a sub-sub librarian.” i know those three words is the great opening line in literature, yet this front matter really lays down the weirdness and comedy that runs through. The squib about this sub-sub’s quote collecting is so deprecating; was Melville laughing at himself and the obsession that possessed him to write this novel in the strange mixture of forms that it is, in such a short period of time? Not to mention the “Etymology” section that comes before the “Extracts,” supplied by a “consumptive usher to a grammar school,” who gets his own little paragraph. He’s the first character we meet really. Such a weird novel, man. But i see what they mean by encyclopedic narrative.

Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.

The opening meditations are lovely. There’s a creepiness about the ocean, and its expanding philosophical implications, that Ishmael captures. What we see in the sea is our own projections, or transference.

i refuse to read any Cliffsnotes or whatever bc im sure they will insist that all this business about Queequeg and Ishmael sleeping together is not gay, and i want it to be gay. Just look how cuddly they get, and how Ishmael sardonically uses the term “honeymoon.” And there’s a paragraph in which he reminisces of being sent to bed early without dinner as punishment for climbing up a chimney.  Sometimes a chimney is just a chimney, i hear you say. But i dont give a damn.

im charmed by Father Mapple and his sermon. My imagination is contaminated by Orson Welles in the John Huston film. i love his incessant sea-faring metaphors. The verses of Jonah are but the strands that make up the “cable” of the scriptures. Now that im more serious about writing stuff, being in a writing program and all, ive been trying to think about structure, particularly how paragraphs have a self-contained aspect to them; as if a book unfolded like a fractal, repeating its large pattern in smaller units. But i like the cable image more.

So far we’ve seen repeated instances of a man’s worth — a long passage about negotiating Ishmael’s pay — and tons of macabre things and death, and religion, and humor — especially the chapter about Nantucket. Not to mention the story of Queequeg himself, and the Pequod being named after an extinguished Indian people — all these references to the US’s foundational crimes.

i love how a novel like this was possible in 1855, and how the country fell apart shortly after, given how frankly it represents this social world. im tickled by how the public had no idea what the fuck to make of this, and how un-pleased they’d be if they could. It’s a really unpleasant gaze on this society. It’d be too impolitic for reviewers today to declare an author insane and have them committed in all seriousness, but that kind of transgression is something we could all aspire to.


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