Moby Dick Resurfaces


MOBY-DICK, OR THE WHALE edited by Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle, Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1,043 pp. $89.95 cloth, $21.95 paper LEVIATHAN, pitiless jaw, maw of hell, demi-Gorgon: the words hurled at Moby Dick describe a murderous monster. But can that monster be a whale, the same creature whose plight in the thickening ice of the Alaskan Arctic last fall galvanized worldwide sympathy and initiated an international rescue effort?

As the professional edition of Melville's 1851 novel makes its appearance, after 23 years of patient emendation and research, one has to ask if the drama and symbolism of ``Moby-Dick'' are still accessible. Has humankind's felt relationship with whales so altered over time that the novel is now a remote cultural fixture, a kind of watery ``Canterbury Tales''?

Ironically, if ``Moby-Dick'' is poised on the edge of loss, it is a loss that originates in the novel's structure, which sutures a brawny, sailing yarn to a tale of cosmic struggle.

The familiar plot, Captain Ahab's battle with the White Whale, is played out on a scale vaster than the immense unshored ocean that is its symbol. Ahab roars like the early pharaohs of the ``Pyramid Texts,'' who strode among the stars, hunting and consuming the gods, absorbing their powers, in a quest for omnipotence. Ahab is Zeus at the time of the Titans, the ugly, lame Vulcan seething with revenge.

Everything about Ahab reverberates with allusions to myth and religion. When Ahab is finally presented to the readers, after more than 100 pages, he looks ``like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overruningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them.'' When Ahab is on deck, the novel surges with energy and the plot bolts forward. When Moby Dick surfaces in the novel's last moments, the language thins and flows with radiant urgency to the inevitable clash of these two larger-than-life figures.

But Ahab broods in his cabin for most of the book, while Moby Dick lurks in the far Pacific. For 500 pages, though the inevitable mythopoetic battle portends in every jot, ``Moby-Dick'' is about whaling. It is anchored in the minutiae and quotidian of whaling and in the science and lore of whales.

The chapter devoted to ``The Whiteness of the Whale'' mirrors the novel's larger scheme. Natural history and legend are intertwined to explain how whiteness, the ``colorless, all-color'' emblem of nothingness and everything, can strike greater panic in the human soul than redness, the color of blood. To read that chapter, indeed, to read the book, one has to allow the novel its abundant pantheism, the suspicion, never fully articulated, that ``all visible objects ... are but as pasteboard masks'' of some larger, reasoning force of nature. Without such sustaining sympathy on the part of readers, the novel may reduce to a wordy and overheated bill of lading.

At every turn, the ordinary threatens to overwhelm the extraordinary. What keeps these elements in balance is not so much Melville's plot, but his knowledge of his audience's reaction to whales and whaling. ``Moby-Dick'' depends on the widely shared mid-19th-century understanding of whaling as the site of a dangerous physical and moral experience. Whaling promised jeopardy and exhilaration, but it also entailed extremes of behavior, which encroached on divine law. Sailing far from human society and seldom putting into port, the whaling ship became an island whose shores were stained red with the gore of the creatures it slaughtered.

Whaling is whaling in ``Moby-Dick,'' but it is also errant individualism. Early in the novel, a preacher counsels that ``if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves.'' Ahab's so-called blasphemy is not to take the name of God in vain, but to challenge the domination of Old Corruption. Like the ancient pharaohs, Ahab would become immortal, forever freeing ``the soul that is glued inside the fleshy tabernacle.''

Today, when criticism of masterworks is sometimes read as an attack on the values of Western civilization, it is important to note, as the editors of this edition do in their extensive historical appendixes, that ``Moby-Dick'' received middling reviews. Many critics were annoyed by its peculiarly hybrid character, finding it difficult to classify the book as ``fact, fiction, or essay.'' What the editors call the canonization of ``Moby-Dick'' began only in the late 1880s, when its author was living in relative obscurity. The novel's popularity peaked in the 1920s, when readers searched out its strident humanism. It has been living a kind of perpetual half-life ever since, surviving even the condensed editions doled out to high school students.

The symbolic physical adventure recounted in ``Moby-Dick'' has passed from the ocean to outer space. Perhaps its closest parallel in our time is given in Tom Wolfe's ``The Right Stuff.'' Interestingly, both Ahab and the pilots of experimental aircraft speak of ``thrusting through the wall,'' of pushing the envelope of the known and the safe.

The survival of ``Moby-Dick'' is assured because its story, greatly reduced, like that of ``Don Quixote,'' has achieved a kind of proverbial stance in Western culture. However shaggy, the novel is replete with sexual innuendo, which guarantees its future in psychoanalytic literature. Moreover, people will continue to attempt to fathom the character of the novel's narrator, Ismael, whose ``damp, drizzly November'' of the soul is not unlike the rushing winter storm of Ahab.

Reading ``Moby-Dick'' this time, I was impressed that it was not a great work of the imagination, like ``Paradise Lost,'' but a great work of authenticity, whose power comes from the author's having been there, acutely and accurately observing. Could someone who had not visited the tropics write of the ``warmly cool, clear, ringing, perfumed, overflowing, redundant days ... [like] crystal goblets of Persian sherbet, heaped up?''

Perhaps the safest forecast for ``Moby-Dick'' is that its value, like the symbolic story it tells, will never be resolved. But there is also the indication that by being neither fact, fiction, nor essay, by confusing the intellectual compass, it may be rediscovered as a prescient, postmodern work.

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