On Thursday, October 27th, I published a post in which I hoped to prepare us for the magnitude of Melville’s Moby-Dick, or the Whale. It is unlike any other novel we will encounter in this course. It is, like it’s titular beast, ubiquitous. Days ago I came across a review of a new book called Why Read Moby-Dick? (Viking Books 2011) at the New Yorker‘s Book Bench blog (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2011/11/what-moby-dick-means-to-me.html).
The reviewer, Philip Hoare, admits maintaining a distance from the novel for thirty years before finally attempting to conquer it, after which he found himself unable to put it down: “I’d carry about with me a tiny, Oxford World Classics edition, anonymously bound in blue cloth, to be studied chapter by chapter, like the Bible or the Koran, as I sat on the Tube or on an airplane, or in the early hours of the morning.”
What Hoare discovered was that Moby-Dick is something beyond, something that may even explode, the idea of the novel as a literary institution. “It’s barely a book at all. It’s more an act of transference, of ideas and evocations hung around the vast and unknowable shape of the whale, an extended musing on the strange meeting of human history and natural history. It is, above all, a sui-generis creation, one that came into the world as an unnatural, immaculate conception.”
Reading it, he says, is “a bit like being stoned.”
Calling Why Read Moby-Dick? “provocative,” Hoare praises the author, celebrated American writer Nathaniel Philbrick, for creating “a collection of elegant essays, an eclecticism that it shares with its subject…[which] seeks to make us look again at the paradoxes of what [Philbrick], like many others before him, acclaims as ‘the greatest American novel ever written’.”
Hoare concludes the review by focusing on one of Melville’s semi-prophetic tangential chapters: Chapter 105, “Does the Whale’s Magnitude Diminish? – Will he Perish?”
Hoare’s interest in ending the review with this question, this chapter, emphasizes Melville’s prescience, arguable his greatness, if only because his work taps into questions and anxieties that continue to haunt us figuratively and very literal:
“[Having] posed this question, Melville, a perennial contrarian, comes to a contrary conclusion, his summary is certainly predictive. Three hundred and sixty thousand blue whales died in the cetacean Armageddon of the twentieth century, reducing the world’s largest animal to a population of just a few thousand.
“Yet, in the wake of the moratorium on the hunting of great whales implemented by the International Whaling Commission, in 1986, whales appear to have recovered. Earlier this year, in the waters of the Indian Ocean off the tip of Sri Lanka, I saw dozens of blue whales, their thirty-foot blows as tall as houses. That vast biomass was an Edenic sight, a glimpse of the world before “Moby-Dick.” Blue whales now swim up the Irish Sea, and last month Captain Mark Dalomba was astonished to see one from the wheelhouse of his Dolphin Fleet whale-watch boat off Provincetown, on Cape Cod.”
Hoare’s focus on Moby-Dick‘s immediacy allows us to consider how else Melville demonstrated an uncanny ability for prescience through fiction. Consider his brilliant story “Bartleby the Scrivener: a Story of Wall Street,” (1853) about a quiet and hard-working human photo-copier in a Manhattan legal office who, as time passes, become less an employee and more of an occupier, until he only ever utters the words, “I would prefer not to.” Soon, Bartleby prefers not to do anything, including the work placed before him or remove himself from the office. He camps out at his desk, repeating his five word phrase like a monk, until his employer is forced to vacate the building and move his business to another. I won’t give away the ending. The story, in its entirety, is available on Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/11231/pg11231.html.
With the Occupy Wall Street movement in mind, “Bartleby the Scrivener” never felt so immediate and the words “I would prefer not to” never so loaded.
In my next post, Youtube videos!