One of Rockwell Kent's brilliant illustrations for Moby Dick

One of Rockwell Kent’s brilliant illustrations for Moby Dick

Because I am just getting started here, trying to figure things out and already frustrated because one bit of writing disappeared into internet ozone, rather than write a brand new post, I thought I might republish a post from a decade ago, from the Penguin Classics discussion board that is now, so very unfortunately, all but defunct.  This post is a response to a friend, Matthais, who had asked why Melville devoted so much space in Moby Dick to a discussion of cetology, the science of whales.  I thought about editting this, but decided to leave it as is, a period piece.  Enjoy, or not, as you would.

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07:31pm Apr 11, 2001

Matthais,

God! It’s been so very long since I read that book. Moby Dick! Almost twenty years – my god, but time passes much too quickly.

One of my strongest personal memories of reading is associated with Moby Dick. I was in the US Army at the time, and I had been out at Fort Bragg participating in one of those war games that peace time armies use to try to hone their skills and stay ahead of their imagined enemies. I worked the day shift in a big tent with large plywood tables set on wooden saw horses and covered with maps of some radical middle eastern nation that is, perhaps, best left unnamed. Every evening I would go back to another tent, also very large, with rows of cots in it. I would lay down on my cot and read Moby Dick while playing Van Morrison’s A Sense of Wonder on my walkman. It was the only tape I had.

During the last week of the exercise, the Challenger space shuttle went up in the air a few hundred yards and exploded. Everyone was mesmerized by the television – images of talking heads saying nothing, because at the first of such things, of course, we know nothing – and then the same taped image, again and again, a white plume rising and arcing like a whale’s spout and then exploding into four or five smaller white plumed arcs.

At the end of the exercise I climbed into the belly of a C130 with other members of my unit to fly back to Fort Campbell. The C130 is a big cargo plane – wide bodied, heavy – it drones and rumbles through the air. On each side of the long belly they had hung parachute harness. There was another row of parachute harness down the middle of the plane. I sat in that harness against the outer wall and listened to the loud moan of the beast. If I remember right, and I may well be off on this, but the memory is a strong one, I had come to the end of the novel. I read how Moby Dick tore apart the Pequod and how the ship sunk and how the bird came down to rest upon the mast top and all that other allegorical stuff with which the novel ends.

My skin tingled, not because of what I was reading particularly, not because this or that image had moved me, but because of the whole thing, because of all of it…

Here I sat in the belly of this great plane; the parachute harness wasn’t uncomfortable to sit in at all; my body was wrung out in that good way that comes from lots of honest exertion; the vibration of the plane passed through the parachute harness and into my bones; the engines of the plane filled my ears with noise, even though I was wearing ear plugs; and on top of all that, I was reading an extraordinary book – a large, encyclopedic book – a book so large it could have swallowed that plane and its contents whole – a book so small it fit into my hands…

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I think the only thing I can suggest to you, Matthias, is that the largeness of the book accounts for, well… the largeness of the book. The chapter on cetology is there because it could be, because Melville could frame it, because cetology is the largeness of the whale and the largeness of the book, all in one.

I think, in the long run, this book is less about the whale, than it is about the man – or rather it is about the man in the belly of the whale imagining the whale in the belly of the man. At the center of this book is Melville, and he is larger than the whale. But it is not even all of Melville, this largeness – it is only his mind and soul and heart – some of the fleshy bits are left out, others are reshaped into the phallus-whale and yet others into the stubby wooden leg of Ahab and yet others still are buggering the poor, little, black cabin boy. It is Melville himself that we keep seeing out of the corner of our eye like some phantom spout; it is Melville who runs beside us, who breaches now and then, who rumbles and moans – and, when all is said and done, it is Melville who swallows us whole along with the whale, the Pequod, Ahab and even Ishmael…

Your friend, mark

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