Reading Melville at Sea: The Project

The Project:

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My son, B, is 24 and Moby Dick is his favorite book.  Since he was about 12, he has carried a small, tattered copy of the novel in his back pocket everywhere.  He took it with him to college in Washington State and Virginia.  He lugged it through Qatar and Nepal.  He brought it to California, Idaho, and to Pennsylvania.  Although he has read the big book at least once straight through, he often opens it at random and takes whatever it offers him, reading out of curiosity, boredom, or love.  Had he had owned a similarly sized Lord of the Rings, it very likely would have served him as Melville’s novel has, in the ways a Bible may have served you: as an oracle, a source of comfort, inspiration, rage, or despair, a talisman, a pillow, a hammer, a protection for the heart in lieu of battle armor, or a handy object with which to beat yourself on the head or to hurl across the room.

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Sailing Vessel Sophia at Man-O-War, Abaco, Bahamas, where this project began.

Like the Odyssey, the Aeneid, The Fairie Queene, and Paradise Lost,  Moby Dick is an epic, a work of art that encompass the most treasured elements of the wisdom, history, science, and art of the culture in which it has flourished.  An epic features a remarkable hero who undertakes a journey on which he or she (okay, let’s just say we’re still waiting for her) performs valorous deeds that demonstrate or develop the wayfarer’s extra-ordinary nature.  There are certain stylistic elements that belong to all epics, such as an invocation to muses or deities, and the elaborate comparison called an “epic simile.”

Melville creates an epic simile in Moby Dick‘s first chapter.  The narrator, who has asked us to call him Ishmael—the name of Abraham’s outcast son with the slave woman Hagar, the child who wanders the wilderness—declares that his longing to go to sea is like the ocean reverie that fixes “thousands upon thousands of men,” like the instinct of all country-walkers to always head towards water, like the need of romantic artists to include a “magic stream” in every landscape, like the urge that draws people across vast distances to Niagara, and like the drive of the imprudent “poor poet of Tennessee” to Rockaway Beach instead of to a coat maker.   Ishmael compares his longing to go to sea to the veneration of the Persians and the Greeks for the ocean.  Finally, he insists that it is like the tormenting desire of Narcissus, the youth who drowned because he could not tear himself away from his own watery reflection.

Melville’s epic similes come in prose, not poetry, obviously, as Moby Dick is the first epic novel, still a relatively new form of literature when it appeared in the 19th century.  You might say that the novel as a form reached its mature, even its greatest, iteration in Melville’s epic, which not only encompasses all that has flowered in the civilizations before it, but also expresses what is great in its own time and place, the industrialized New World, the brash, young United States, in a marvelous bloom that future epics will emulate in turn.  As works of art go, it’s hard to imagine a better book that a young American could hit upon for a reference point and friend of spirit. 

As a mother, I am pleased with B’s choice of a book to guide or to drag along with him through life.  As a scholar and former university professor of epic poetry and the early novel in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century English literature, I am ashamed to confess that I have never read Moby Dick to the end.  I can therefore say little about what my son admires in the Great Book, arguably not just my nation’s, but modernity’s greatest expression.  You may object, pointing to Ulysses, the more recent epic also pattered on Homer’s lost sailor. You might argue that Joyce’s novel is the novel’s greatest iteration and an even more impressive epic, because more modern.  Perhaps my son’s Irish blood will drive him through that one soon.  I hope so. 

The point of this project, however, is to understand what it is about Ishmael’s story that has so tantalized my son, and so perhaps to fathom the inscrutable lad himself, in the hopes of being a better parent to him.  What in this book has fixated my son, a child of the internet and video games and the economic depression of the late 20th and early 21st century?  Why Melville and why Ishmael, who grasps after what Narcissus fell in love with, in Ishmael’s words: the “ungraspable phantom of life”? That unstable image, Ishmael asserts, is the one that “we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans.”  Do we all see this this, and is this the image of ourselves?  What does this have to do with my son’s love for Moby Dick?  Will I understand him better if I scrutinize this novel, this his personal Bible?

My project, then, deeply personal and utterly divorced from the politics that drove me from academia five years ago.  Having lately taken to sea myself, for reasons I cannot entirely explain, this project is also an effort “grin and bear”  my own transition “from schoolmaster to sailor,” a metamorphosis that Ishmael also finds difficult, or “keen.”  As an agnostic, which is nothing more than a non-committing atheist, I will keep my commentary on this Bible, Moby Dick,  as a sort of religious duty, covering one chapter every day.   Perhaps by doing so I will grasp something about my son that has so far eluded me.  If not, I hope I will at least reach towards a better understanding of my own relationship to him.  Ishmael implies that narcissistic desire, which drives him to sea, is universal,  the root of all journeys of exploration, all culture, all art. Like Ishmael, like Narcissus, in this effort I am searching for myself. But as Melville suggests, what we are chasing after may be no more or less than “one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.” 

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