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Moby Dick

by Herman Melville; Paul Boehmer

  Audiobook on CD : CD audio : Fiction  |  Library ed

In Praise of Herbert's explication and Audio Books, ELC addendum   (2013-05-09)


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by vleighton

Original Review: January 22, 2013


  What could I possibly say about Moby Dick that has not been said a thousand times before, and better? It is: I think the audio version of the book is an excellent way to enjoy it. I listened to the Books on Tape version done by Paul Boehmer, but perhaps any good performance of the book will work.


  The critique of Moby Dick by the average reader is that it is too long and digressive. Yes, even the most minor topic in the novel weaves in thoughts about fate, faith, obedience, etc., but it just goes on too long. Audio solves the length problem by putting the listener in the position of letting the text wash past without taking as active a role. The lengthy digressions do not cause the rise in frustration they would if you had to put in the more intense labor of reading them yourself. See the last section of this review for my advice on under what circumstances I would recommend listening to the audio version.


  Another bit of advise: I would recommend reading the article of literary explication cited below before you even start reading the novel. This article fills in an important dimension of the underlying meaning that I found especially helpful. I only read this article after I listened to Moby-Dick, but if read before reading/listening to the novel, I think it would increase enjoyment rather than spoil the enjoyment. The citation is:

Herbert, T. Walter, "Calvinism and Cosmic Evil in Moby-Dick," Publications of the Modern Language Association of America  [ISSN: 0030-8129], Vol. 84, No. 6 (Oct., 1969), pp. 1613-1619.

Moby Dick

  As far as Moby Dick itself is concerned, it is a very male-focused tale. There are basically no female characters, and the very manly men struggle with backbreaking work as a close-knit team.  I think the literary success of the book comes from the fact the white whale can be interpreted in multiple ways, but there are clear overtones of fate, destiny, and a consciousness with a callous disregard for the will of man. Ahab, the ship captain, is willing to strive toward his goal despite the risk of ruin, an apocalyptic commitment as it were, while Starbuck, the first mate, represents rational risk-taking, a willfulness that values the continuation of the world, a non-apocalyptic value-system as it were. Ahab seems to act as though he has nothing to live for, whereas Starbuck seems to have something to live for.

  The Herbert essay argues that Melville was playing out in the tale a criticism of Calvinism that had been leveled by theologians. These critics argued that Calvin's God of predestination ends up being an evil god that causes the evil within men and then maliciously punishes them for the evil so caused. In this reading, Ahab knows that he is predestined for hell, but instead of being repentent like Jonah, he decides to be defiant. He is raging against the cosmic evil that has made him an unredeemable reprobate. As part of that critique of Calvinism, Melville also shows primitive religion in a positive light. From chapter 10, the narrator states that, with the start of his friendship with Queequeg, "I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it." Queequeg is an almost stereotypical noble savage. (Melville's lack of differentiation between idol-worship and Islam would be likely offensive to many Muslims, in must be said.)

  As a Quaker myself, I was a bit disappointed in the Quaker Starbuck. The uncompromising pacifism of Quakers can be itself radically apocalyptic (see Gwyn's book called *Apocalypse of the Word* for example), but Starbuck is the voice of worldly prudence that fails because it caves in to the radical violence of Ahab. Starbuck is one of the Melville's "feeble souls." Noteworthy, though, is the fact that Quakerism started as a rejection of Puritanism. If I use Herbert's explication, Starbuck represents a person who rejects Calvin's predestination. Even so, Melville seems to reject, along with Ahab, Starbuck's position.

  Over and over, the point being put forward is that all humans live precarious lives, but among 19th century whalemen, that precariousness was most plainly seen. It reminds me of the fact that many inmates on death row have religious conversions. The presence of death causes a reevaluation of life. One could argue that those who are serious about life have already realized that we are all on death row, and that those on death row committed their heinous acts because they were unaware of that part of the human condition. Being on death row forces the condemned to realize what others already knew. Likewise, the existential plight of whaling causes the narrator to ponder the human condition generally.

  My reaction to Ahab is summed up in the description of him as insane in his goals but coherent in his immediate actions to achieve those goals. Because he has command, he can force everyone else into his mad scheme. In that way, I saw an analogy with Adolph Hitler: Hitler was crazy in his priorities, but brilliant in his manipulation of the German nation in achieving those mad schemes. I have heard it said that Hitler was obsessed with Wagnerian opera and saw himself as a romantic hero in a Wagnerian tale. He was willing to bring on apocalyptic destruction of himself and those around him to achieve his monstrous goals. (One can infer from this that I disliked Ahab.)

  Likewise, Ahab is a romantic hero rejecting the petty concerns for returning to ones family and the investment of the ship owners in his blood-lust mad desire for revenge against the whale. Ahab rejects the request of the commander of the Rachel to look for his lost son, and in the end it is that concern for ones fellow man aboard the Rachel that saves the narrator of the story. Barbara Glenn in 1976 argued that Melville saw Moby-Dick as a romantic statement and was familiar with theories of the sublime from Burke.

  Melville's attempts at Shakespearean effects, like the prophecy of Ahab's death by hemp, don't work that well, but there is enough to like in the book that one can forgive the effects that fail.

Audio books

  I have discovered with other lengthy, potentially frustrating books that you can get through them more easily by listening to someone else reading them aloud. However, when you listen, less of the narrative seems to be committed to long-term memory. I would not recommend audio for a truly difficult text in which you have to puzzle over the meaning of individual sentences or struggle to piece the narrative together, because the audio prevents you from rereading the same sentence multiple times for comprehension. If you have to study a work closely and write a paper on it, audio alone would probably be bad.

  I have found that it is important to find the right activity to pair with listening to an audio book. If you are laying down and relaxing, the danger is that you might fall asleep. If you have it playing but are trying to do work that requires the language comprehension part of the brain, then story line is mostly blotted from comprehension. (I can successfully listen to radio news shows while doing repetitive work that requires some of the language center, like constructing an word processing document bibliography from a hand-written list of books, but that may be because I am not as concerned about following the news closely, or following the meaning of the written text closely.) 

  If however you listen while driving a car, walking, woodworking, washing dishes, or some other activity that uses non-language functions of the brain, then you can comprehend and enjoy the poetry of the words and narrative of the tale. Note that this class of activities is one that also allows good conversations if you are with other people. I have heard that using the non-language centers while listening actually helps the listening, so activities like doodling, knitting, etc. during a class lecture actually increase retention of the spoken word.

  And so, even in a review of Moby-Dick, the reader suffers digressions from the main plot-line.


  That having been said, Moby-Dick really does digress terribly, and I pity the poor literature student who is assigned it when her schedule is already overburdened. I was happy that I was listening to the audio version while driving, rather than trudging through each page in text. This book is, like Ahab perhaps, great, but maybe not good. Tackle it with audio if you have lots of time in your commute. It is a book that insists on putting the kitchen sink into the narrative, and it is not a surprise that it failed commercially when it first came out and was only rescued from obscurity in the mid-20th century, at a time when Joyce and Proust were normal parts of the canon. If I had had to read it and had not read the Herbert article, I might have given the book a two star rating.

Addendum May, 2013

Because I have been reading evolutionary literary criticism, it has occurred to me that I should be trying to apply it at every turn. So here is my attempt with Moby Dick.

Evolutionary Literary Criticism Explanation Boilerplate

For theory, I will be drawing primarily on the collection "The Literary Animal" (abbreviated below as TLA) edited by Gottschall, and Gottschall's own book, "The Storytelling Animal" (TSA). One problem with offering an evolutionary interpretation of the text is that there are three different versions of evolutionary literary criticism (ELC). The first (ELC1) simply observes that humans are fascinated by stories featuring survival, social status, and mating themes (boy loses girl, maiden guarded by dragon, boy hangs from cliff, etc.). In TLA, this line is promoted by McEwan, Nettle, Carroll, Nordlund, Fox, Gottschall himself, Kruger, and Salmon.

The second version (ELC2) is to emphasize that storytelling itself is an adaptation, and that humans are wired to enjoy and transmit stories. In TLA, this position is presented by Boyd and Sugiyama, and it is the thesis of Gottschall's own book, TSA. ELC2 also allows one to explore the degree to which the author intentionally (or perhaps unintentionally) tries to conform to or challenge the expectations of a genre. In other words, how good of a job did the author do telling the tale, and how was it received by the readers or listeners?

The third version (ELC3) is that stories have been a method of storing cultural information throughout human history, and as such, they preserve cultural entities and allow for cultural evolution. Stories here include religious texts and political histories. This position is argued by David Sloan Wilson's essay in TLA and by Gottschall in TSA to a limited degree. Wilson's position is partially related to version one, in that he says that human nature is not infinitely flexible, and texts that stray too far from evolutionarily interesting themes will fail to be embraced and retold. But Wilson's position also allows for a sort of historicism or ideological critique, in which the subtext of a narrative or of its reception might be to  support the current cultural status quo or to advocate for a different cultural state. So the cultural meaning of a text might be quite different from what the author had in mind when it was written. Culturally powerful elements may promote a story that justifies their own hegemony.

ELC3 should also encompass the use of a storytelling tradition to indicate group membership. Knowledge of a canon of stories, or the proper form of a storytelling genre, can act as the sign of worthiness for membership as much as any other demonstration of mastery of a behavior or belief system. Reading Joyce's Ulysses may not keep you riveted at the edge of your seat turning the pages (ELC2), and it may not recount the harrowing adventures of survival or the boy getting the girl (ELC1), but having read the book might indicate the membership of the reader within a social class. It indicates both the ability to perform the task and the value system of the group. To be knowledgable about the details of a large canon of stories, whether it is Proust's In Search of Lost Time or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you must first have the ability and free time to learn those details, and you must also have the inner motivation to learn them, a motivation often achieved by belonging to a group that considers them worth knowing. Establishing one's worthiness for membership in any group potentially allows one to share in the tangible benefits of the group (resources, social hierarchy, etc.), whether or not one is consciously aware of such benefits. For example, the shipwrecked Odysseus was treated as noble because he demonstrated mastery of a particular behavior—an aristocratic form of address.

Melville via ELC1

To begin, the world of the Pequod is a male world. There are almost no female characters in the entire book. So there is no reproductive dance of "boy gets girl, boy loses girl, ..." here. Instead, it is a macho world of slaying huge creatures that might kill the hunter. A major theme is the passion of a single-minded goal versus living the safe life. Starbuck only wants to take risks necessary to the profit of the whaling ship, and beyond that he wants to return to his wife and child. Ahab, on the other hand, is wrestling with his own view of God. Because this unjust and evil deity will condemn him to hell unfairly, he is obsessed with defeating it. He risks and loses all his worldly treasure and future, to say nothing of the lives of the men under him, to challenge the supernatural, to defy the universe.

This interpretation seems to be entirely opposite of a reasonable evolutionary strategy. Indeed, the unjust order of the world may be in part driven by the evolutionary need to survive (nature red in tooth and claw, to reference another 19th century writer, Tennyson). At another level, Ahab displays the attributes of a leader: having the courage to stand and fight. The fact that his opponent is undefeatable means that his otherwise admirable courage is tragic. He displays qualities that under typical evolutionary circumstances might bring great success (high status, high access to women, etc.), but in this context, it will come to naught.

This heroic courage in an all-male setting reminds me of the essay by Robin Fox in TLA. In that essay, Fox discusses the common epic theme of male-bonding, and how it is threatened by the male-female love bond. He argues that male-bonding in hunting and war is just as important to the survival of an early human group as the heterosexual bond, so a competition driven by natural selection exists between the two relationships. Moby Dick drips with male-bonding, sometimes literally. So the all-male focus does conform to some theory that resides within the scope of ELC1.

Melville via ELC2

ELC2 deals with the human need to experience narratives. It also allows one to critique the quality of a narrative. As to the first of these, Moby Dick is full of tales told. Many is the yarn spun throughout this book. In Nathaniel Philbrick's book The Heart of the Sea, he claimed that Melville had been inspired by the story of the sinking of the Essex by a sperm whale. Philbrick turned that real-life story into his own book, which unlike Moby Dick, was slim and captured the story without wasting a word. It is a story of the victim (the whale) turning on its hunters and nearly killing them all, except a miserable few who were left to tell the tale. The Essex is a riveting story of religion (many of the crew were Quakers), race (part of the crew was black), and survival (most of the crew starved to death, and only those who ate the dead survived).

As to the second point: Moby Dick is a huge book, and Melville wanted to pack into it the universe as seen through the lense of whaling. He thinks nothing of lengthy digressions. They are of some interest in their own right, but they lead away from the plot. And Moby Dick was a financial failure from which Melville did not recover. It only regained cultural relevance during the modernist era of literature from the 1920s onward, when the long, digressive book was more accepted by the literati, such as books by Proust and Joyce, and when there was a segment of society that celebrated authors who challenged their readers to master a difficult text.
Melville via ELC3

ELC3 deals with what cultural significance the narrative has in terms of group selection and cultural evolution. Moby Dick is a book that rails against traditional religion and cultural narrow-mindedness. The narrator is suffering from a sickness of the soul brought on by his cultural context which he can only relieve by going to sea. In chapter 10, it is the narrator's bonding with Queequeg, the noble savage from the south seas, that restores him. The book's plot is driven by Ahab's battle against his own self-judgment that the universe's creator is against him.

I am not an expert on Melville, but I understand that he was a writer of straightforward sailing adventure stories before he fell into the society of Nathaniel Hawthorne and other Boston intellectuals. They adhered to a version of Romanticism, where the lonely hero defies the world. Also, some of the ideas that later would culminate in such works as Frazer's Golden Bough were in the air, ideas about the relevance of the rituals of primitive people to modern man. And it was the later generation of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce that recognized the importance of Moby Dick as a precursor to their own school of literature and culture. Moby Dick is an "old testament" of 20th century modernism.

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