A long time ago my good mate Jamie gave me his copy of Moby Dick. The inside cover is inscribed by Jamie with the jocular but somewhat incongruent phrase ‘MELVILLE’S IN DA HOUSE!’ I appreciated the gesture at the time, but I didn’t start reading straight away. Or for a long time after that.
In fact the book has sat on my shelf for almost twenty years unread. I lived in eight different houses, two countries, and one caravan and still did not read it. I must have walked past it thousands of times, occasionally looking at the spine and saying ‘I’ll read it eventually.’ Since Jamie gave me Moby Dick I’ve read quite a few books, but never as many as I’d like. I remember picking it up a few times and reading Jamie’s words. I would recall what he said to me at the time: ‘It’s fucking awesome.’
As my attention span was slowly whittled away by watching three minute clips on youtube, I despaired of ever being able to read a book like Moby Dick. I can barely get through a repeat of Scrubs without getting bored these days. But I finally picked the book up off the shelf last year and started to read.
And I’m glad I did.
536 pages; 135 chapters; a whole bunch of whales. It’s okay to talk in numbers because the narrator of the novel, Ishmael, spends a lot of time enumerating. How many types of whales are there? How long is a whale’s jaw? How many references to whales are there in world mythology? And on and on it goes. No novel in the history of civilisation is as detailed as this book about its subject.
At times, it must be said, this book is boring. Whole chapters are devoted to describing different types of blubber. Endless paragraphs detail how one of the ship’s mates smokes his pipe. About an inch into the width of the book, I began to despair. I was reading about a page a week, and thought I would never make it to the end. I reached chapter 42, ‘The Whiteness of the Whale,’ which is an eight page meditation on the terror of the colour white, and thought to myself, ‘You’ve go to be fucking kidding me.’
And yes, the book is about whaling, and we all love whales. It’s not good to kill whales. I get that.
But the classics are called the classics for a reason, folks. It’s the prose. This book is rich beyond belief. This book is like listening to Yehudi Menuhin play the violin for eighty-seven hours. A line that you glaze over in a daze, when reread, will reveal a glimpse into an infinite vista. And a really great chapter, like 48 ‘The First Lowering’ may be the most exciting thing you’ve ever read. Melville brings the elemental ocean to life, makes inscrutable gods of the creatures of nature. His powers of description are just about unmatched by any author I’ve ever read.
Today I read chapter 107, ‘The Carpenter’, and the first line blew my mind.
Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, a grandeur, and a woe.
There’s a cracker like this on every page. This isn’t a fusty old Victorian book. This is Jack Kirby on acid. The vision, the splendour of the language is unending. Metaphors and symbols crowd the page. Moby Dick is about whaling, it’s about chasing an impossible dream, it’s about getting your arse kicked by nature and spoiling for a rematch and getting your arse kicked again, once and for all.
And it’s about the insignificance of humankind in the face of an unending, unknowable and powerful cosmos. That’s what the white whale is for me, a symbol of the eternal power of nature itself. But more importantly, Moby Dick asks the question where we fit in to this vastness. When Melville describes Queequeg’s coffin floating among the oceans of space and time, it’s clear that there is an essence and a beauty to being human, that we are not insignificant at all, that we are a part of it.
I understand now, that the book is indeed fucking awesome.
With everything that happens on the planet Earth at any given moment, it can be difficult to find consolation, but I think I may have found it at last. I hope I have, anyway. Having read Moby Dick, I realise I need to expand on Karl Marx’s thought, that I’m not just a citizen of the world. Only when I consider that I’m a citizen of something far greater, a citizen of the universe, is there peace. I’m completely insignificant, but I’m connected to everything.
A citizen of the universe? Yes, I have had my mind blown by a book, and am waxing verbose. But that is also the point of it. It’s hard to read a good book. I’m busy. I don’t have time. I would find it easier to watch AFL-X at the end of a long day. But I’m glad I finally got around to picking the book up off the shelf. The classics are the classics for a reason. Moby Dick is a Great Pyramid of thought. It is a pleasure to read a very very good book.
And yes, for another eighty-odd pages, Melville is indeed in da house