Review of Moby-Dick (1851)


Herman Melville (writer).

Read in 2017.

The sexism and racism are obvious. The homoeroticism and surreal sperm-squeezing romanticism are a lot more fun.

The novel isn’t stuffy, but the narration grated on me. The many chapters on cetology, though illustrative of the author’s time, are hopelessly outdated. Cuvier is mentioned several times, but never Darwin—who had not yet published his work—and never the words “mammal” or “ecology”. Even Aristotle knew that whales are mammals. Ishmael mentions “brit” as a substance, apparently not comprehending that it consists of living copepods. Similarly there is no mention of krill, plankton etc.

The concept of deep time was still emerging after Cuvier. Near the beginning the narrator muses that “The universe is finished; the copestone is on, and the chips were carted off a million years ago.” In the final sentence of the final chapter, however, “the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago”, which is more compatible with the exegetical, young-Earth-creationist idea that the planet is about 6000 years old.

The boastful way of presenting a largely obsolete body of knowledge, though tiresome, is part of the excellent characterization of Ishmael. The opening chapters, made up of his solitary thoughts, are the most interesting. His wry voice is compelling, but I feel as though Melville sets it aside too often to trumpet the symbolism: the ship/whale as the world, the whale as greatness etc.

Ishmael’s boastfulness contrasts effectively against his sense of guilt about hunting the beautiful creatures. Particularly in chapter 81, he is the voice of conscience, but clearly his actions are unaffected. In chapter 105 he denies that whales could be endangered through his industry, as they were. In 2013, lecturer Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote an article for Yale 360 about the problems of counting whales and other species. In the same year Moby-Dick was published, Klinkenborg noted, the oceanographer Matthew Maury published a global “Whale Chart” showing the distribution of whale species. Based on evidence gathered from whaling logs, the chart was later used to prove catastrophic harm to ocean ecosystems, done by whalers. Melville’s poor grasp on that reality, coupled with the Abrahamic revenge of nature in Moby-Dick, make the novel a fantasy. It seems to me that the most central passage is this one from chapter 55:

So there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him.

This association between truth and personal privation or danger underpins the whole book. It was destroyed by the refinement of photography. Without that association, there is no sense of epic adventure left in the work, and photography didn’t obviate the danger. Photos made whales beloved, not feared. The intellectual rewards of the novel are sufficient, but they aren’t ageing very well.

References here: John (ca. 90–110 CE), “The Doomsday Machine” (1967), “Obsession” (1967), Involution Ocean (1977), Bone (1991), Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), “Dera-chan of the Southern Island” (2014).

text fiction