Water on the Brain

This week I’ve seen Moby-Dick everywhere I turn. (I’m way behind in the reading.)

• I forgot that I had a Captain Ahab t-shirt and found that at the bottom of the laundry pile.

• I picked up a book in the library because it had a cool cover (The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay) and it turns out to be a novel about a woman searching for a lost Melville manuscript.

• A lunch companion happens to be a specialist in 19th Century American fiction and he recounts the anecdote that Melville was so obscure upon his death that one of his obituaries referred to him (Melville) as “Sherman” Melville.

• The great whale seems to be stalking my salt shaker.

• I come across this tidbit about the original Infinite Jest manuscript: it began with quotes and definitions about addiction. Wallace cut this Moby-Dick-like opening and decided to let Hal summarize his findings: “The original sense of addiction involved being bound over, dedicated, either legally or spiritually. To devote one’s life, plunge in. I had researched this” (IJ 900).

So yes, the novel pervades. It feels as if its influence has never been greater. The canon wars seem powerless against Moby-Dick’s timeless postmodernism. I keep trying to pinpoint what makes Moby-Dick feel so accessible and relevant. Clearly, it’s a combination of things: a linear narrative, first-person narration, vivid characters, empathy, theory of everything, and others. Or maybe not. I don’t know.

The first 40 or so chapters, with all the scene-setting, describing the characters, their jobs, the specific rooms on the Pequod, in some way this all reminds me of parts of The Life Aquatic, with the cutaway ship visuals and the straightforward introductions of the crewmembers. I know the influence is going the other direction, but sometimes your memory does not move chronologically. However, once we’re past chapter 50 and we’re into the complexities of whaling, the details of the characters’ lives, and the interspersed calm days on the water, I find myself thinking of another relatively contemporary work: Stanley Crawford’s Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine. In a way, Stanley’s book is Moby-Dick‘s polar opposite: only 100 pages, narrated by a woman, a madman in search of nothing, two people alone on a massive ship. And yet, since I’ve read Crawford’s book lately, I see the source of his inspiration in new light (really, you should check out Unguentine). Jeff expertly shows how the narration of Moby-Dick is constructed, and thinking about Stanley Crawford’s novel and Wes Anderson’s film leads me to think that maybe Moby-Dick is (also) a novel about “the narrator” and narration.

I cannot let this week pass without quoting one of my favorite passages :

All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.