Detail, Perspective, and Religion: Thus the Leviathan

Moby-DickMoby-Dick by Herman Melville

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can’t imagine that any paltry review I should write would do justice to this Leviathan, over which so much ink has been spilled these many years. E’en so, I shall endeavor to offer my thoughts, though they be incomplete, and insufficient, and nigh forgotten.

I delighted in the style and progress of this book. I can see how many would find it distasteful, and others a source of ennui, and still more a drab and distraught description of a dreary occupation. But I reveled in the work, in the detail, in moments both of focus and of bleary-eyed dedication to the craft.

Yet now I wax poetical, and I digress. The book is a monstrosity, like its final subject, the Leviathan – but in the same way, as Melville describes that creature as noble, even divine, his masterpiece warrants the term. I only wish that I could get away with such writing – indeed, that I could come up with it at all. I enjoyed this book immensely.

On the other hand, it was not perfect. That selfsame style, which I so enjoyed, creates a lackluster performance in the moments of greatest stress. The chase, the hunt, and the battle are as afar-off, distant, and vague. We observe the most thrilling events as one might observe liquid pigmentation exsiccating. Don’t misunderstand: I loved the detail; but it lent itself to exceeding dullness, when things ought to be most exciting.

Furthermore, Melville tells the tale from the perspective of one Ishmael, a sailor who signs on with the Pequod, the ill-fated ship of Captain Ahab. We follow Ishmael, and his friend, Queequeg, for the majority of the book. Indeed, the book that purports to tell the tale of Ahab neglects to speak a word about the man for pages and pages on end. A huge swath of the book passes by without even a mention of the dreaded monomaniac.

To be fair, though, Melville mirrors this neglect at the other end. As we near the finish of this tome, perhaps around the hundredth chapter, we seem to have completely forgotten Ishmael and any sense of perspective. We hear from Starbuck, the first mate; we hear from Ahab, from Pip, from Fedallah, but nary a word from old Ishmael, our first and last narrator. Perhaps Melville meant it this way, so he could close with an epilogue where he details Ishmael’s escape in brief – but it seems more like Melville himself got caught up in the tale of Ahab and his monomania, completely forgetting the original perspective of his story. It seems, to me at least, a shortcoming.

There are other failings. Melville’s notions of nobility and divinity in the whale hint at a blasphemy that does not end there. While the author condemns the Satanism, the violent dedication of the villainous captain, he carries on – through Ishmael – an unpleasant trust in paganism and pantheism. Abandoning the Christian values he at times espouses, he embraces a universalist idea, that pagans and barbarians and Christians all worship, in earnest or in vain, to their own salvation or damnation. In short, his religious views are weak, and flagrantly oppose good moral sense and piety.

And yet, all told, the book is a boon and a delight. You may disagree; you are so allowed. It would not surprise me. But I am better for the reading.

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