photo & text by nacrowe
i read HERMAN MELVILLE's MOBY DICK (HARPER & BROTHERS, 1851) back when i was an undergrad at RUTGERS UNIVERSITY. i was an english major and learned that junior year that because of my GPA i was eligible to purse an honors track, which meant more work. and a lot of it. so the context of my reading this book was in a specialized class meant to "prepare" you for writing a senior thesis, of which you had a year to research and write. what the class in reality was meant to do was wean out anyone the department deemed ineligible to purse the track further. it was intense.
and this book is INTENSE and ALL-ENCOMPASSING. the plot of the book is pretty simple and uninteresting, famously dealing with a captain seeking a SPERM WHALE somewhere off the coast of NEW ENGLAND. again, not that interesting. the power of the book lies in its almost encyclopedic presentation of the vast myriads of ways that relationship can be understood. MELVILLE essentially explores ad nauseam all the various CULTURAL, ECONOMIC, RELIGIOUS, EMOTIONAL, POLITICAL, METAPHYSICAL, and ALLEGORICAL understandings surrounding the figure of the WHALE. at least from a late 19th century coastal NEW ENGLAND perspective. this includes everything from CHRISTIAN RELIGIOUS ICONOGRAPHY to the ECONOMICS of SPERM OIL PRODUCTION and beyond. literally anything and everything you would ever want to know about SPERM WHALES and its impact on AMERICAN society in the mid-19th century is presented at some point in MOBY DICK.
so the task of the reader in essence is in attempting to understand and balance all of the CULTURAL, EMOTIONAL, ECONOMIC, RELIGIOUS, POLITICAL, METAPHYSICAL and ALLEGORICAL implications of the situation when CAPTAIN AHAB seeks out his obsession. i remember when i was teaching at STUYVESANT HIGH SCHOOL there was another teacher that taught this book and i would often sit in on those classes, just hanging out in the back listening attentively while taking notes. listening to these students fight over the meaning of CAPTAIN AHAB's obsession was ENTHRALLING, because depending on which section you cited, there were arguments and counterarguments aplenty. there was no one definitive answer, just an overabundance of information to sift through and consider. it felt similar to when i took a class on the OLD TESTAMENT in college in which everyone argued over the meaning of scripture. it felt like a never ending stream of beautifully considered, compelling CONTRADICTIONS.
so that is why i still love this book despite its notoriety for being overly OPAQUE and annoyingly MULTI-DIMENSIONAL. thinking about the MOBY DICK seemingly always makes me consider how our individual experience in life is but one LIMITED PERSPECTIVE of many and even attempting to draw meaning from such on its own is a truly COMPLEX, and somewhat FUTILE, endeavor. who knows why we make the choices we do and what the specific interior COGNITIVE and PYSCHOLOGICAL machinations that cause such. we are all ultimately prisoners to our own SOLIPSISTIC individual experience of reality.
i remember doing well in that class almost two decades ago. but in the end why, you may ask, did CAPTAIN AHAB chase that WHALE? i still don't know.
it's funny. there's a lot about writer ERNEST HEMINGWAY that i don't like or identify with; his killing of animals for sport, macho sense of white privilege, womanizing, etc. that being said he was of his time for better or worse.
but for my money for a 30 period from the 1920s through to the 1950s he was one of the most adventurous both in terms of his wanderlust and his editing. yes i said it. when i think of what i like about HEMINGWAY, its his ability to showcase complex psychology using concise declarative sentences with minimal superfluous decorations like fancy adjectives and obscure references. in essence, the opposite of my writing style.
i am aware that this style came about from his time as a journalist both stateside and abroad as a war correspondent for the KANSAS CITY STAR during the spanish civil war of the 1930s. he is a case study in economy. to say the most with the least. its not minimal in the sense of a WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS poem where he is playing with the form itself, for HEMINGWAY i believe he was more interested in the conveying a thought like a straight line to the heart. in a way its kind of a similar ethos to punk rock, three chords and the truth except with him its a subject, verb, object and a typewriter.
i've read and taught HERMAN MELVILLE's MOBY DICK (1851) in my prior life as a secondary english teacher. what's intellectually stimulating about it is its breadth of knowledge about nearly every aspect of whaling in northeast america in the late 18th century. it's encyclopedic. the exercise in reading that book, beside its volume, is trying to surmise which religious, cultural, economic, political allusion to attach to a given part of the narrative. several times the actual plot works on several of these levels simultaneously, which gives the book depth. so basically MOBY DICK is both massive in terms of its breadth and depth.
HEMINGWAY isn't interested in that with THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA (1952). to me the plot is more of a rorschach test where you can enjoy it for whatever you want it to be. the biblical story of job, sure. a treatise on the hardships related to aging, absolutely. an expression of HEMINGWAY'S depleted vitality and interest in life, maybe. to me HEMINGWAY presents something to project onto, as apart to MELVILLE where it feels more like an endurance test, like a marathon. love them both, but i feel the superior trick is to view the reader as an equal partner in the creation of meaning through the written word.
this was HEMINGWAY's calling card and gift as a writer. respecting his reader.