Rhapsody in Penguins II — Sixth Movement: Moby-Dick

(As with most books in this series, I haven’t read the whole book for four years now, so do pardon me if I don’t know what I’m talking about. I am, like a lot of my peers, a good literature student most of the time.)

Moby-Dick (1851)
by Herman Melville
notes by Tom Quirk

Ah, Moby-Dick. (exhales slowly and shakes head)

People who are in the enviable position of having read Moby-Dick will know that this is not a book you can write a thinkpiece on lightly. For a start, it is some 600-odd pages long, with its gargantuan contents spread out thinly between 135 chapters plus assorted oddities like a bunch of etymologies and extracts which only seem to drive home the words “THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT WHALES” incessantly. Then there is the narration. It twists and turns, at times poetic and allusive, at others completely unfathomable (I direct you to chapter 122, consisting of 36 words, a quarter of which are the same wonderful and expressive word, “um”).

This, therefore, is a sophisticated book, which is another way of saying that it is a very confusing book. “SACRILIEGE”, cry the hardcore fans of the book, and perhaps they are right. There is obviously more to Moby-Dick than meets the eye. Melville’s manipulation of language, with its frequent diversions contain traces of Melville’s supposed wisdom — the word supposed, says I, in a poor parody of his writing style, being but a neutral term.

It cannot be denied, though, that an undertone of confusion runs through the book, as befits the wild, chaotic and sometimes gloomy ocean that the Pequod sails on. Take the narrator, for example. He tells us that we should address him as “Ishmael” — the name of Abraham’s outcast son in the Book of Genesis — but why does he insist on this name? Why not, say, “John”, “Paul” or even “Ringo”? Anyway, he leads us down to the sea, to the whaler Pequod, where we hear of this figure called Ahab. Who is this Ahab? He sounds like an ominous figure, shrouded in mystery. He is so sinister that he sidelines Ishmael to become the main character, while the latter becomes this omniscient spectre that mashes together bits and pieces of life aboard the Pequod, and distracts us with long ponderous monologues on what he has observed. This book is where

millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming, dreaming, still.

Think of that: thousands of dreams, voices and thoughts colliding together, all struggling to make themselves heard. Perhaps this is why we can’t make head or tail of the world Melville shows us: it’s just sensory overload.

One thing is clear for the reader through all this chaos though: Ahab loves the thought of killing Moby Dick. Even when Ishmael is being all Romantic-poet about the ocean in the quote above, he goes on to mention how Ahab’s only interest in the sea is that it contains the whale he wants to stick his harpoon into, thinking about it even in his sleep (let’s hope Sigmund Freud never read “Moby-Dick”). And on a certain level, it’s understandable, because Moby Dick was the thing that turned his entire life upside down. Throughout the book, we can see just how concentrated Ahab is: even when he gams with other whaling ships, he seems out of focus, only perking up when news of the evil Moby Dick reaches his ears. Since Moby Dick was the cause of instability in Ahab’s life, perhaps only its murder, the vanquishing of the cause, can bring him peace of mind again. So he sees the White Whale as his ultimate goal, and is willing to go to extreme lengths and summon up boundless reserves of energy and hatred to go after it.

Now the follow-up question: does it do him any good? Throughout the book, he is seen tearing from place to place, dragging everyone along on his supposed “whaling voyage” while he keeps up his fanatical quest towards the hated Moby Dick. Just before the final chase, he and his first mate Starbuck (insert obligatory coffee joke here) discuss how much they miss their families. I was really surprised that there was that kind of depth hidden in the man, and it isn’t just me: for a while, it sounds like Ahab might just be dissuaded. So there ARE other ways of finding peace for Ahab, lots of better, safer things. A sense of family, a desire to settle down. But he follows his grudge, a grudge that is his and no one else’s — in the moment everyone goes over the edge, Starbuck makes a point of telling him that

“Not too late is it, even now, to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!”

Why? I’d guess that it’s a desperate scramble for direction, actually. As Ishmael has shown us, the world of the book isn’t that easy to comprehend. Ahab’s fixation on the whale gives him a way to strike a path through this strange and disorienting world. He has a clear goal: find the son-of-a-mangy-dog that gnawed his leg off, kill it, and sail back home. Because what sane man wouldn’t have that as his dream?

But at the same time, Ahab reminds us of his namesake’s selfishness and insecurity, a desire to straighten things out for himself and the world he populates no matter the cost or implications. As Herman Melville tells us:

In pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, sometime 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.

Ahab’s mystery is not so easy to catch (literally): the whale continues to dance out of reach, tantalising him with the promise of an easy target, but it’s a catch that only infuriates him more and more. And what would the man have gone on to do if the ending had been different, if he had caught and slain Moby Dick? All we can do is conjecture, but the man is so deep in his hatred that I somehow don’t think that even desecrating the corpse, or worse, would have brought him relief. He’d just have found another enemy to pursue. And with the determination Ahab has, there’s no way he’d have given up until he’d paid the ultimate price.

In closing, a little sidenote which has not much to do with Moby-Dick. My absolute favourite book in the entire universe is Brian Selznick’s 2007 semi-graphic novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”. There’s this part where the titular protagonist goes:

I like to imagine that the world is one big machine. You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need. So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.

We survive by finding our purpose in life, by finding the one thing that gives us the incentive to go forward. But this machine we call the world is so intricate. Just when you think you’ve found the one thing that seems to be your purpose, life flips on you and you suddenly realize how it doesn’t really bring you the relief you were looking for. Just as Moby Dick the whale staunchly refuses to come to heel under Ahab, seeking the White Whale for his peace of mind, our purpose constantly eludes us. In the meantime, all the world’s problems continue to crash in on you, struggling to make themselves heard like Ishmael says they do, and it’s hard not to think of it as the end of the world.

But perhaps we should all be a bit more like Ishmael. He may be a wandering character, just like his namesake, but you know what? The man doesn’t try to obsessively seek a direction that will bring him clarity, and comes out none the worse for it — in fact, he gets one step closer to the truth because of it. Like Ishmael, I spent five months wandering in Australia (coincidentally, with a plushy fish which I decided to call Moby), and what Melbourne (and Moby) taught me, more than anything, is that there is no point in trying to bring order into your life. It’ll always be this mess that you can never fix — or, as I put it in a certain drama script, “an explosion of colours and dreams” — but a mess that is too wonderful to not enjoy. So my personal thoughts on the truth is that in life, anything goes. We might as well accept our fates and hope that the purpose we seek will come to us in time, and in the meantime, try to embrace what life throws at us wholeheartedly.

Who knows, it might work out just fine for you and me. We can only dream.

And with that, we’ve reached the end of Series Two! Thank you so much, as ever, for reading all these thinkpieces! I realize that I never really got to publishing them round the schedule I promised, but you know… writing is hard, especially when you’re both Asperger’s and probably ADHD. I hope to come back in time next summer for a new series (EIGHT BOOKS LINED UP FOR NOW WOOHOO). Be sure to return to this page in late May, and until then, I hope you’ve enjoyed all my writings!

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