From Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits, by Jack Murnighan (Three Rivers Press, 2009). Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.
T he sea monster to end all sea monsters: a ten-ton, sixty-foot sperm whale, white as a baby’s butt and just as explosive. Plus a demented old salt, peg-legging himself out of the Old Testament to chase down the demon of the sea (and the soul), and only one sailor saved to tell the tale. What should be considered the greatest adventure novel ever written is often thought of as one of the most boring, unﬁnishable books you can imagine. But psst, come over here, I want to tell you a secret. Moby Dick, you know, that gigantic novel with all that boring whaling stuff in it, is funny, I mean really funny, as in one of the funniest books of all time. You’re probably thinking that I’ve been sniffing Elmer’s, but it’s actually true: Moby Dick is a laugh riot; people just don’t seem to be able to get past its whalelike bulk to realize it.
Moby Dick, funny? I know my tenth-grade teacher didn’t advertise the big kahuna as such; in fact, I pretty much only remember trying to decide whether the main theme was man vs. nature, man vs. the supernatural, or man vs. himself (it’s all three and more, of course, though I didn’t know it then). But twenty years later, reading it for the third time, it all clicked. Yes, the humor might be trapped in five hundred pages of what can seem
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like the Encyclopaedia Britannica of whaling, but trust me, it’s there, it was meant to be there, and once you get Melville’s sense of humor, Moby Dick becomes the classic it really is, and the best novel ever written by an American.
To save the whale, all it takes is to realize that Ishmael, the narrator, is an irreverent wiseacre, forever cracking jokes at the expense of landlubbers, society, religion, his fellow sailors, and himself. He’s a terrible shipmate, falls asleep on watch in the crow’s nest, is always about to tumble overboard, generally gets in the way of the killing of the whales, and is invariably more involved in his own ruminations than in the spume and storm around him. But as he himself tells us, echoing Cervantes, “A good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing . . . and the man that has anything bountifully laughable about him, be sure there is more in that man than you perhaps think.” So, then, with our Ishmael, the former schoolmaster turned loafer who “abominate[s] all respectable toils,” who can’t keep silver in his pocket (nor particularly cares to), who “has the problem of the universe” revolving in him but helps us along with ours, and who takes us with him on his little jaunt to “sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” He’s like Shakespeare’s clowns, equal part comedian and tragedian, philosopher and cutup, always ready with the barbed aside or incisive aphorism. About halfway through the book, he gives us a passing summary of his whole character:
There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing.... And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and
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limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke. There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy; and with it I now regarded this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object.
Ishmael, as it should happen, proves to be the genial, desperado philosopher extraordinaire. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find his equal anywhere in the history of literature. One tiny example should suffice. On the fourth page of the novel proper, having already told us that he’s a little down on his luck and light in the purse, he makes the stoical aside that “in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern”—sound philosophy from a hard-luck sailor. But then he qualifies his sobering truism by saying, “That is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim.” Subtle joke, easy to miss, for you’re probably thinking Pythagoras, who’s that? Oh, yeah, a-squared plus b-squared equals c-squared. But that’s not the Pythagorean maxim he’s talking about. What you need to know (and sadly this isn’t explained in most editions) is that there is a two-word fragment of Pythagoras’ writings that simply says: Avoid beans. This is the maxim Ishmael’s referring to, with all its wind-from-astern implications, thereby creating what might be the highest-brow fart joke ever told.
Now, from the very set-sail of the book, Ishmael wants to be our bosom mate. He begins by telling us that when he’s feeling a little testy, or when there’s “a damp, drizzly November in [his]
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soul,” instead of “pausing before coffin warehouses,” “methodically knocking people’s hats off,” or pulling a Cato and falling on his own sword, he realizes he’s had enough of life on land and decides to go to sea.
And so to sea we go. The sea, the big water, the great escape, the ultimate infinite for speculation, “the image of the ungrasp able phantom of life . . . the key to it all.” Don’t worry; Ishmael will tell you everything you need to know about the significance of the two-H, one-O molecule and everything that sails atop it or swims beneath it. And along the way we’ll meet Ahab, the monomaniacal monopod whose crazed lust for revenge on the alabaster fish who made a dish of his leg leads Ishmael and the crew of the Pequod around the world and back. We’ll meet Queequeg, the African harpooner (and Ishmael’s best friend and one-time bedmate); the rest of the United Nations of harpooners; the first mates Stubb, Flask, and Starbuck (long before he became a java magnate); and we will meet Moby himself, holy terror of the seven seas, half-monster, half-myth, a comprehensive allegory for all things desired, feared, pursued, or portentous for we wee little walking things called humans.
Long live the fish.
The Buzz: These days, sadly, the biggest buzz around Moby Dick, at least in college classrooms, is whether Ishmael and Queequeg get busy when they share a bed at the Spouter Inn (yes, there’s a joke here). Somehow trying to figure out if Melville was homoerotic (and just how much) has become more important than enjoying the best and funniest of all American novels. Lord save us. For more on this, see “What’s Sexy” on page 201.
What People Don’t Know (But Should): We all know that encyclopedias try to contain as much knowledge of as many things as possible, but there’s a special sort of encyclopedia called an
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anatomy that more or less tries to contain all knowledge of one thing. Moby Dick, then, is an anatomy of whaling. The reason Melville fans will often tell you that you can find the whole world in Moby Dick is because Melville, by compiling everything there is to know about whales, whaling, and whiteness, gave us a near infinity of analogies with which to understand the bulk of human experience. We arrive at the general by a complete understanding of the particular. Each entity in this world reflects the entirety of the universe of which it is part. And thus Melville helps us see that to know one thing truly is to know all things.
Best Line: Among the many, many that I love, I want to underscore this description, first of the whale’s head and probable thoughts, then of the rainbowed vapor surrounding it, which becomes a metaphor for intuitions of the infinite that can only emerge in the midst (and mist) of doubt—incredible!
How nobly it raises our conceit of the mighty, misty monster, to behold him solemnly sailing through a calm tropical sea; his vast, mild head overhung by a canopy of vapor, engendered by his incommunicable contemplations, and that vapor—as you will sometimes see it—glorified by a rainbow, as if Heaven itself had put its seal upon his thoughts. For, d’ye see, rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate vapor. And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray. And for this I thank God; for all have doubts; many deny; but doubts or denials, few along with them, have intuitions. Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.
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What’s Sexy: In my erstwhile-erotica-writer’s opinion, nothing very exciting takes place between Ishmael and his big harpooning buddy (no pun intended), despite all the to-do (see “The Buzz” on page 199). But in case you want to see for yourself, here’s the relevant passage (from Chapter IV, “The Counterpane”):
Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.. . . I could hardly tell it from the quilt, they so blended their hues together; and it was only by the sense of weight and pressure that I could tell that Queequeg was hugging me. My sensations were strange. Let me try to explain them. When I was a child, I well remember a somewhat similar circumstance that befell me; whether it was a reality or a dream, I never could entirely settle. The circumstance was this. I had been cutting up some caper or other—I think it was trying to crawl up the chimney, as I had seen a little sweep do a few days previous; and my stepmother who, somehow or other, was all the time whipping me, or sending me to bed supperless,—my mother dragged me by the legs out of the chimney and packed me off to bed.
Various camps of scholars are going to tell you that this “recollection” of “crawling up the chimney” and getting whipped by his mother and pulled out by his legs is chock-full of conscious or unconscious psychosexual implications. I will admit it comes at an eyebrow-raising moment, Ishmael having just spent the night with Queequeg. But still, who’s the harpooner and who’s the deckhand here? It seems to me that there’s some confusion about who’d be going up the chimney.
Now, for something not exactly sexy but certainly related— in a very large way—keep reading.
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Quirky Fact: In the chapter “The Cassock,” not only does Melville describe a whale’s penis as an “unaccountable cone, longer than a Kentuckian is tall, nigh a foot in diameter at the base, and jet-black,” but he then explains how a man called the “mincer” (whose job is to cut the blubber into chunks to boil down in the giant pots of the tryworks) cuts arm holes in the whale’s foreskin, turning it into a smock that he wears to protect himself from the flames!
What to Skip: The whiteness chapter (42) does seem to drag (though when taken, as it should be, with as many grains of salt as are in the Pacific, it’s a lot more enjoyable). However, the chapters that are most dispensable are 32 (but don’t miss the last paragraph) and 55 through 57, all of which contain the more gratuitous of Melville’s exhaustive facts on whaling.
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