Sunday, November 18, 2012

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

A book that most everyone has heard about, not many have read, and few have thoroughly enjoyed


“Call me Ishmael… who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth ever stands forth his own inexorable self…

“Captain Ahab stood upon his quarter-deck… he looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has over wasted all the limbs without consuming them…

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the moldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask…  Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond…

“Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form…

“Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the Milky Way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?

“And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all earthly hues—every stately or lovely emblazoning—the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, forever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge—pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like willful travelers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol…

“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 worthwhile disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible…

“And as for small difficulties and worrying, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and 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…

“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…

“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”
 
(1851)
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. Eds. Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1967.

2 comments:

  1. Oh, how I hated Moby Dick. I developed a theory that no one had actually managed to read it since Melville wrote it - not even Herman himself, thus explaining its great need for editing. I soaked my copy in water, stuck a pencil in it and froze it, brought it to school the last day of Junior year, and had "Miby Dick on a Stick" all day. Then it thawed and I kicked it around the hallway near the Reber Center until it was formless.
    Kw

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  2. Dear Kate,

    An enmity comparable to Ahab’s monomania, and from a librarian too!

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