Thursday, August 5, 2010

Reading Moby Dick, 9: Call Me Done

Yes, I finished reading Moby Dick last night, which I believe meets my deadline to finish within the week, so sorry—though I was totally ready to award an all-expenses paid trip to Nantucket to one of you if I didn’t make my goal, I guess that won’t be happening.

I’m glad I didn’t read this book until later in life; I’m sure it would have been torture to encounter this in some American lit class in college, plowing through it in a couple weeks, all the while worrying about my suffering social life as I sat tucked in the library. Now, though, I would love to sit in on a class from someone who’s studied the book, since I’m sure I missed a ba-jillion things. I rather liked that my edition didn’t have any footnotes at all beyond the few that Melville included as that helped me feel immersed in the story, but, to be honest, I was never straight on or worried about logistical details like which rigging was which. The story and the ideas pulled me through and I tried not to get bogged down in wondering about details like how it was that no one died along the way in those three years (in such a dangerous profession) or how, honestly, one ship could store so much water for so many people without stopping anywhere to re-provision. It’s like they say in the workshops: you can make a reader believe anything if you’re good enough.

I read this book as a reader first, a writer second, and an English major third. I’ll do some reading now on what things “mean”—I’m sure there’s a boatload (haha) of PhD dissertations about the sexual symbolism, and I read D.H. Lawrence writing about the book and how the book represents “America,” an apt theory though it reminded me a bit of people saying the “Wizard of Oz” equals World War II. (Here’s Lawrence, definitely worth looking at; thanks to Jamie for the link). So there’s all that and of course, the overwhelming question: What does the white whale mean?

From my vantage point, I’d have to say that it means what you need it to mean to complete your dissertation. That’s the beauty and genius of the book: Moby Dick is first a whale. Obviously, Melville goes to a LOT of trouble to establish his credentials about whaling (he worked on a whaleship) and to convey his knowledge of whales. Indeed, in a book with so many favorite parts, all the whale stuff may be my most favorite. Yes, the ship has three masts, and masts are phallic symbols, and there may be some holy trinity stuff, and surely several other things I’m not thinking of, but also—honestly—a real ship has masts. It’s a ship before it’s a symbol. The characters are not exactly the way we write characters today, but even so, they were consistently drawn and vivid. They can represent many things, but I still think I’d recognize Queequeg if I saw him walking down the street.

The story comes first.

I’m reminded of two things:

1. One of my favorite passages from Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners, that I’m abbreviating shamefully:

“In good fiction, certain of the details will tend to accumulate meaning from the action of the story itself, and when this happens they become symbolic in the way they work. I once wrote a story called “Good Country People,” in which a lady Ph.D. has her wooden leg stolen by a Bible salesman whom she has tried to seduce. Now I’ll admit that, paraphrased in this way, the situation is simply a low joke. The average reader is pleased to observe anybody’s wooden leg being stolen. …

“If you want to say that the wooden leg is a symbol, you can say that. But it is a wooden leg first, and as a wooden leg it is absolutely necessary to the story. It has its place on the literal level of the story, but it operates in depth as well as on the surface. It increases the story in every direction, and this is essentially the way a story escapes being short.”

(You can read the whole passage here.)

2. This passage that I marked in Moby Dick, from the chapter where Ishmael is talking about all the terrible, misguided, and embarrassingly wrong pictures of whales that the public has seen:

“For all these reasons, then, any way you may look at it, you must needs conclude that the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last. True, one portrait may hit the mark much nearer than another, but none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness. So there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan.”

As always, there are mysteries beyond us, and boiling down Ahab’s quest and this book into some formula of meaning feels tiny to me. (This, surely, is why I ended up as a writer and not an English professor.)

I’m guessing this isn’t the last I’ll have to say on this magnificent book. It’s going straight to my “favorite book shelf.” The experience of reading it over a summer, while revising my own work, starting the process of each and finishing each at about the same time, has been incalculably affecting. I already miss this book, and there’s part of me that wants to go right back to page 1 and read it again.

Call me crazy.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.