Moby-Dick – how to say anything new about such a book? I can’t really. All I can say is why it’s a constant in my life – why, for me, it’s endlessly rich. I’ve been reading it again lately, for various reasons, as I have in the past.
My father recommended Moby-Dick to me when I was bored one day. I might have been fourteen at the time. I can see it in his hand, a small red Everyman edition, now mine; for him, a sort of escape he had saved for and bought as a teenager in an unhappy home. He stroked its cover as you do a precious thing and handed it to me and said ‘See what you think’ and, since I adored him, I took it away. But I couldn’t get any purchase on the text, I couldn’t shift from speed to depth, and when he wasn’t looking I slipped it back into place in the shelves. A while later, he asked what I had thought and I had to admit I hadn’t read it. He didn’t mind; he just smiled.
He died not long after, and part of that loss was that it kept (keeps) happening in new ways: he would never know his grandchildren or know that I had learned to love Moby-Dick, that it had been discovered by one of his grandsons, so that now I feel bookended by these beloved people, and when I talk to my son about Moby-Dick, I feel I am in some way also communicating with my father. I wish he knew.
Brutality doesn’t interest me, but masculine curiosity about it does, as does the mainly male admiration for this book. It’s as if they see something profound and elemental in an all-male world such as this, especially when violence is part of it.
Of course barbarity saturates Moby-Dick – it’s there in Ahab’s obsession, The Pequod’s ghastly purpose, the bloody work of the whalers. It’s strange, then, when a ghostly tenderness rises from its depths, as in one chapter that describes the whalers venturing into the ‘enchanted calm’ of a nursery within a vast whale herd, where the whale calves ‘like household dogs… came snuffling round’. Will the narrator Ishmael feel horror at the slaughter in the distance, soon to draw near, which he will be part of? He will not. Instead, the scene becomes a metaphor for ‘the tornadoed Atlantic’ of Ishmael’s being and the ‘eternal mildness of joy’ he knows is at its centre. What are we to make of this and the plan to kill the snuffling calves?
One of the things Melville is looking at, I think, is the nature of men, as also here:
‘I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs… A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine.’
Similar observations appear in war memoirs, including the fine work of Evan Wright (Generation Kill) and Sebastian Junger (War). The men of these books share a willingness to subjugate the self, a common foe, a drive to protect each other, and an unspoken sense that women are peripheral. Are these essentially male characteristics? I don’t know, but enough versions of these things play out in various spheres to make me wonder. Then there are the Captain Ahabs of this world, quite a few of them bestriding global stages. What is U.S. politics but Trump’s Pequod?
There’s an image in Moby-Dick in which Melville describes manning a ship’s masthead. It rises out of dreamy languor as if from a slow swell and falls back into it, effortlessly and without fanfare: ‘There you stand, a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts, while beneath you… swim the hugest monsters of the sea’. It amazes me every time: the way dimension erupts on the page, breaking its surface, pulling me in; the way the even beats of the sentence enact that stride. I am there walking those stilts. It’s what I strive for in writing and what I love in reading – to feel the world of the fiction encircling me, to feel it prickling at my back, or to see it, dizzyingly, below my feet.
Herman Melville v. Jonathan Franzen
I would not be the first person to note that Jonathan Franzen is confident (some would say overconfident) of his opinions. In the aftermath of writing Freedom, he observed with satisfaction that he was now ‘pressing language more completely into the service of providing transparent access’ to his stories. Nothing wrong with that, if that’s your aim. My issue is with his assumption that losing his ‘self-conscious preoccupation with language’ was ‘a good sign’ and, by implication, would be a good sign in writing generally.
The certainty of those words – ‘pressing language’ – strikes a chill. Where would that leave Moby-Dick’s exuberance, its weird digressions, non-fiction passages, surface textures, and aphoristic observations about the human condition? I prefer writing to have a bit of freedom. It is certainly true that less is sometimes more, but it could more often be observed that less is also sometimes less.
I sometimes feel that people are trying to talk me down from a ledge with Moby-Dick, as if I’ve gone soft on whaling (I haven’t) or let down the feminist cause (um, no). It’s true that it’s a difficult and uncompromising book and definitely not a page-turner; Melville didn’t care about convention in the writing and I don’t in the reading. I skip around freely, marvelling at its magnificence.
Why do I like Moby-Dick?
Because I can open it anywhere and find something that strikes me dumb with envy, as in the rolling cumulative heft of: ‘Alike, joy and sorrow, hope and fear, seemed ground to finest dust, and powdered, for the time, in the clamped mortar of Ahab’s iron soul.’ His writing makes me shiver.
Lucy Treloar is a writer, editor, and creative writing teacher. Her debut novel, Salt Creek (Pan Macmillan 2015), won the ABIA Matt Richell Award, the Indie Award for Best Debut Fiction, and the Dobbie Award and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the UK’s Walter Scott Prize, among others. Lucy’s writing has appeared in publications including Best Australian Short Stories, Sleepers, Overland, and The Age. In 2014, Lucy won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Pacific). Salt Creek will be published internationally in 2017.