Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
Down in the mouth myself the past months over matters personal and literary, I decided to follow Ishmael’s advice and took to the sea, vicariously at least, and reread Moby Dick, or rather Moby Dick; or the Whale—the full title of the original edition. It was a good break. I had a chance to leave behind the present noise and let myself drift in its sea of words, be carried by the slow, restless rhythms of musings that took me everywhere and nowhere. To read Moby Dick is to become aware of the immensity of things one cannot explain, that one may never understand, yet at the same time be reminded of humanity and culture. All three are related.
I also ran across two recent editions, both abridgments. Orion, a British publisher, released Moby Dick (Moby Dick: In Half the Time) a version that did just that, cut the novel in half, to make it accessible to those of us who just don’t have the time to read those big, old books. This edition prompted Damion Searls to take all the parts that were removed by Orion and present them together as a novel in their own right, ; or The Whale—the part of the title Orion cut—which appeared in its entirety in The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Summer 2009). The Orion edition does not name the editor (editors?) who made its cuts.
I have the Searls but not the Orion. It’s impossible for me to read either fresh since I have read the full version several times and would be able to fill in what is left out in both. I have, however, skimmed through ; or The Whale. It is a strange, wild book that intrigues me in many ways, for reasons I may never be able to sort out, which intrigues me as well.
The introduction to the Searls also gave an excerpt from Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker review of the Orion (“The Corrections,” October 22, 2007), which I also tracked down.
These passages are, by modern critical standards, “showy” and “digressive,” nervously intent to display stray learning and to make obscure allusion more powerful than inherent emotion… Melville’s story is intact and immediate; it’s just that the long bits about the technical details of whaling are gone, as are most of the mock-Shakespearean interludes, the philosophical meanderings, and the metaphysical huffing and puffing.
Gopnik is referring to the parts that were deleted. He is also voicing an esthetic, “modern critical standards,” and that is what I want to look at in this post.
Melville does spend an enormous amount of time detailing whales, whalers, whaling ships, and the history and practice of whaling—and so much more. He also densely packs his writing with a wide range of allusions that span centuries and cross cultures, East and West. Many day-to-day incidents are related in scenes that have no dramatic bearing on the essential plot, the course of events leading up to the fatal encounter with that huge, white fish. Allusions and other references are pared down; the introductory section “Extracts,” which contains excerpts from the Bible and literary writing that mention whales, was removed entirely. What Shakespeare did with language, apparently, should be left in the Bard’s grave. Not only is philosophy idle bluster, neither, apparently, is there much use for religion. Orion also removed the chapter on Father Mapple’s pulpit and, needless to say, we don’t get to see him climb it and hear him deliver his sermon—based on the book of Jonah, of course.
But what is essential to this novel—or to any novel? Some standard needs to be set, and one is suggested: emotion is what should drive a novel and not thought. Gopnik elaborates:
By the same token, the Orion Moby-Dick is not defaced; it is, by conventional contemporary standards of good editing and critical judgment, improved. The compact edition adheres to a specific idea of what a good novel ought to be: the contemporary aesthetic of the realist psychological novel.
Moby Dick does have many penetrating psychological observations, but these are only one part of his development of characters, of the ground beneath the plot. The main plot itself, the pursuit of the white whale, is determined by more than Ahab’s obsession and subsequent mental breakdown. Melville takes a position that people are more than a mixed bag of motives, traits, and pathologies, that our identities and behavior are defined not just by the interaction of these with those of other people, but also by whatever else exists in our cultures and whatever might lie beyond that.
I’m not sure what a realist novel is, however, though know I haven’t read one yet. Reality is a subjective matter that depends on who looks at what, how he or she looks, and why. Melville’s technical and historical excursions are what ground me in the “reality” of the book, and their bulk massively persuades me to accept it. But reality is only one effect in fiction. Mystery is another. Why are we so profoundly moved by an immense mammal that is largely comprised of that fragrant, oily stuff whalers refined to light America? Melville explores this question at length. We need to ask a similar question about his novel.
It is what a good editor, of the Maxwell Perkins variety, would do: cut out the self-indulgent stuff and present a clean story, inhabited by plausible characters—the “taut, spare driving” narrative beloved of Sunday reviewers…
There is nothing self-indulgent about Moby Dick. Ishmael, the narrator, is self-effacing and rarely speaks about himself. He always step backs, placing himself in the vast perspective of the subject matters of the novel. It is one of the least egotistical books I’ve read.
Self-indulgent, however, is a word I’ve often heard lately from readers and reviewers—and editors and agents. Pretentious is another. Again, I’m not sure what they mean, but these words seem to be applied to anything that taxes them in content or form, or slows them down, or stretches their frame of reference.
The subtraction does not turn a good work into hackwork; it turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound sane book. It still has its phallic reach and point, but lacks its flaccid, anxious self-consciousness.
If these editors have their say—and they have—this is my greatest regret about writing today, that we can’t have anxious, half-mad, much less fully mad, novels. For me it is enough cause to write one.
But the novel is an exploration of sanity, set against the serious madness of Ahab. Not mentioned in Gopnik’s comments is what buoys the narrative and helps keep madness in check, Melville’s generous democratic spirit and the expansive humor that infuse his book. Nor does Melville ever rest with certainty, or the appearance of certainty. He does not claim to have all the answers, or any of them. This, to me, is sanity, and Moby Dick is as sane as a novel can get.
Moby Dick is a ponderous book that promotes pondering. Is there a god or gods, thus a basis for religion? Is there any point to philosophy? Is our culture determined by anything other than our desires and their manifestations and perversions? I have no idea, but all of these are engaging esthetic propositions that give a novel depth and extension. Literature, however, I am certain exists, and Melville sustains a discussion about literature that has been going on for millennia and, I would argue, looks forward to its future.
Some of the writing, to be sure, is overblown, and many of his allusions strike me as odd and forced. And it is an odd book. The novel takes the point of view of Ishmael, yet often abandons it. In one chapter we see Ahab in his cabin, talking to himself; in another we hear a voice from another ship, the Delight, as the Pequod sails away. Several chapters are written like plays, with stage directions and characters’ lines. Sometimes the narrator steps back in time, sometimes forward, and sometimes steps out of it altogether as he writes chapters that take the form of entries in an encyclopedia.
None of which disturbs me. It is a novel that necessarily has to be hit or miss in its writing, given the magnitude yet elusiveness of its subject. A harpooner has to hurl several times before he hits his target. Not only does it grapple with life’s questions, it questions novels themselves, taking on the conflict between form and content, between containers and what they try to contain, between points of view and larger perspectives. It is a novel that debates the novel. I don’t have to adjust much to make the shifts work.
“Call me Ishmael”—is that actually the narrator’s name, or is he characterizing himself by this allusion, a kind of Ishmael about whom the angel said:
And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him. (Genesis 16:12)
A judgment Melville must have taken to heart, given his literary career. Or is Ishmael a pseudonym the narrator gives himself? We never hear his last name and are told almost nothing about Ishmael’s prior life except that he once sailed on a merchant ship. Is the young narrator, in fact, a budding novelist, who presents himself both as a character in the book as well as the Author? (The Author is Melville, writing from his experience as a sailor and writer, but not Melville, since Melville never sailed on the Pequod.) The dominant time of the novel is not that of the events on the Pequod but of the writing of the book itself, a time to which so many chapters return; the dominant voice is that of the mature writer. It is a novel of reflection and looking back, and the Author is an author who tests authorship.
I have no objection to judicious editing or to realist psychological novels. Both depend, however, upon a set of assumptions, which, like any other, need to be examined and considered against other possibilities. To decide these modern critical standards have priority is to make the mistake that form should determine content, and not the other way around.
If these are our only standards, what esthetic and cultural decisions have been made, with what effects? These editors suffer, I fear, from a modern condition known as sanity. Fiction has made progress, and we have discovered its true structure. There is no longer any need to experiment with the form. Novels must be terse, direct, and clean, where motives and actions are what count most, perhaps all that count. Action speaks louder than thought and should be decisive and quick. There is no room for doubt or hesitation, no reason to question ourselves or look for other contexts. Our references should come from the things that most catch our attention at the moment, that most thrill. We know all we need to know now and have no need for looking back.
And what if our ways of telling stories are telling us how to live? Once upon a time there was a passionate man of action who decided if we took out the bad guy—well, what? Peace and world order would be restored? Did our last president look at other texts or think past the dramatic climax to the story he wrote about Iraq?
An excerpt from ; or The Whale, Chapter 10 in its entirety:
A Bosom Friend
It may seem ridiculous, but
He made no advances whatever; appeared to have no desire to enlarge the circle of his acquaintances.
If there yet lurked any ice of indifference towards me in the pagan’s breast, soon thawed it out, and
More excerpts can be found here. Searls comments on ; or The Whale here, at The Quarterly Conversation. A translator, he also writes fiction and offers his manifesto for the New Aestheticism here, again at The Quarterly, which might be compared and contrasted with Gopnik’s esthetic. We’re trying to find our way now, once again. Excerpt:
Modest in aim, New Aestheticist art does not want to change the world—to bear witness, deconstruct, problematize. It does not batten onto greater social goals, the kind responsibly fundable with tax dollars. It wants merely to be beautiful.
It differs from the old Aestheticism, “art for art’s sake,” in that it no longer believes in Art as a sake either, as a holy cause. New Aestheticism is art for people’s sakes. It is not antisocial; it aims to please. It is elitist but not discriminatory, for it is open to any and all who care to love it.
Seamen had to take their turns standing at the mastheads, ever on the lookout for whales. But they didn’t have a crow’s nest as such, but rather had to stand and balance themselves on two thin spars—the t’ gallant crosstrees—with only two metal rings to cling to. Ishmael describes the temptations of his first watch:
… but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space… There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever.
Also deleted in the Orion.
I must confess I took a few lines out myself.
The picture of an American whaler, above, is by Currier and Ives.
— Gary Garvin
Gary Garvin lives in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English. He has written two novels, and his essays and short stories have appeared in Numéro Cinq, the minnesota review, New Novel Review, Confrontation, The New Review, The Santa Clara Review, The South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and another novel.