Sunday, November 1, 2009

Autumn of Dick - Week Four Open Thread

We're reading chapters 33-42 of Moby Dick this week. I will post my thoughts in the comments thread sometime tomorrow evening, but in the meantime I wanted to let all of you take the lead this week.

4 comments:

8yearoldsdude said...

i have a bizarre theory, this incredibly boring section of the book, filled with endless digressions about cetology, and whales as symbols of power/class and the color white are actually meant to create the same feeling in the reader that the seamen experience at sea. they are bored. thier minds wander. they wish they were elsewhere. and hence when something actually happens (ahab whips the crew into a pagan frenzy about killing moby dick)it seems that much more intense because both reader and crew are slightly destabilized and and very bored anything resembling a purpose sounds great.

Wade Garrett said...

8yearoldsdude - I agree with your reading. Melville seems to want us to feel the boredom of all of those idle, quiet hours out at sea, so that Ahab's exhortations have that much more effect. Its effective - certainly moreso than if he had had Ishmael come out and say how bored he was, but that effectiveness is what made this week's reading such a hard slog.

Ellen said...

It figures that as soon as I fall behind the next installment features the chapter I had been dreading, the whiteness of the fucking whale. I have referred to this chapter hundreds of times since first reading Moby Dick, and at no time was that reference complimentary.

And after all that, it wasn't that bad. "Midnight, Forecastle" was more boring with a side order of unentertaining stereotype. When a footnote popped up to add to my edition's endnotes (which have been somewhat, but not very helpful) I thought "Ooh, how postmodern."

It made me wonder about Ishmael's background, though. His theory about the color white isn't revolutionary but he draws from such a wide range of references, even outside those expository sections, that he must have had some formal education before deciding to become a sailor -- or maybe he just has a photographic memory of the McGuffey readers. It wasn't enough that I stopped believing in him as a character, but his erudition didn't seem to be causing any friction with the rest of the crew.

Another thing I noticed in this section was how much Melville drew from Shakespeare -- from Ahab's speech exhorting the men to "strike through the mask" to three chapters which are for all intents and purposes soliloquies with their own stage directions.

Paul Smecker said...

isn't it more that people hadn't figured out how to write a proper modern novel yet? in some ways, the nineteenth century can be thought of as "people figuring out how to write a novel." this did not go well for everyone. for example, huck finn, which starts out as one of the best novels of the century, runs into the little issue of the fact that mark twain new nothing about indiana and ohio. therefore, he literally pulls down the fog, and has jim and huck MISS THE TURN. from there, the book descends into sheer implausibility, as jim descends FURTHER INTO THE SLAVE STATES, until the only thing left is to drop to the level of "tom sawyer", which involves, not coincidentally, tom sawyer himself. most disappointing deus ex machina since the end of the odyssey? probably.

dickens is also quite capable of writing himself into a corner, and pulling writing fiat to resolve it. killing off david copperfield's first wife when she effectively bottled up the novel? done. taking away magwich's money to turn pip onto the straight and narrow? you got it.

anyway, my point is those guys took shortcuts. melville says fuck it, i am writing through this if it kills me. this is an allegorical novel about a white fucking whale, and that whale represents satan. the sailors are a motley godless crew, and they behave like so. the narrator is a bipolar intellectual with an oft-repeated death wish who went to sea because he is clearly incapable of existing in mainstream society, and, by garn, i will let you know about all of his bipolar thoughts about the white whale. to me it seems like an extreme approach to the problem of writing a novel. take as a counterexample the first half of war and peace, which flies by, in spite of the fact that it covers and is fully involved in two major napoleonic campaigns and two major reform movements in russia. (of course, the brutal exposition/essay writing comes later.) tolstoy gives you just enough history to understand what the characters are going through, and would not devote more than 2 consecutive pages to exposition.

anyway, to me it was just that melville had no idea how to write the damn thing. it's interesting that ellen mentions shakespeare, who also has a habit of making things WAY too obvious for modern taste, usually in aside speeches directed to the audience. and 8yearold is right that it's not coincidence that the boring exposition happens once you get to sea. however i think it's more because melville knew he had to get the reader hooked before delivering the full brunt of his essay-writing, which melville appears to enjoy more than writing the rest of the novel. but that's for another day.