Tuesday, 27 December 2005

A holiday indulgence

Since I’m now on holidays, I’m treating myself by re-reading my favourite novel—a novel that is, in my opinion, the best ever written. I’m talking about that magnificent mythic monster of a book, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851). My friend Kim Fabricius aptly describes this book as “the Church Dogmatics of American literature.” Or, if you prefer, it is the Paradise Lost of prose.

I might indulge myself by posting a few theological quotes from Moby-Dick over the next few days.

5 Comments:

kim fabricius said...

Indulge away, Ben! And a good time of year for it, as the imagery of food and drink, with which Melville first described his "wicked" book to Hawthorne, also pervades its early reviews.

As well as Barth and Milton, Shakespeare too, as you could also call Moby Dick the King Lear of the tragedy of American democracy and capitalism. And, of course, the pervasive influence on Melville's style of Shakespeare's language, its range and passion.

Critic Richard Brodhead writes of the "sheer indulgence in language" of Moby Dick, which "serves as the means by which it drives its insights into knowledge. Having half-said something, its urge is always to stop and say it again. And this process of rhetorical elaboration is, on page after page, how it finally manages to say what at first eluded its grasp." The Church Dogmatics or what?!

Chris T. said...

Moby Dick is a fantastic book. I'm a bit overeager to call things "the best [whatever] ever," so I usually restrict myself to calling it the greatest novel written in English in the 19th century. :-) But it is indeed a fine novel.

Sadly, my wife's brain turns off when you mention ships, sailing, or sailors, so I can't get her to read it!

kim fabricius said...

Chris T. -

My wife is just the same. And she goes through novels the way the Whale goes through ships!

I know they exist, but, personally, I have yet to meet a woman who likes Moby-Dick -or has even read it from cover-to-cover (though admittedly I live in the UK where American literature as such tends to get short shrift.) But there is no question that M-D is a man's book No woman sails the Pequod.

However, M-D is not a misogynist novel - just the opposite. So, Chris, you might intrigue your wife with recent feminist readings of M-D that contrast Ahab's (phallic) obsession with violent revenge with the maternal, non-competitive power of the ocean, and indeed the whale (see, e.g., chapters 86, "The Tail", and 87, "The Grand Armada".

Or perhaps your wife could work backwards. Based on a brief reference in M-D, Sena Jeter Naslund has written a novel entitled Ahab's Wife (1999). I haven't read it yet, but it got rave reviews. The only thing that might put your wife off is that it is as long as the original!

Alas, evangelism is never easy. Perhaps Mark 4:10-12 is a salient commentary?

Ben Myers said...

My wife, too, can't be persuaded to read it, even though she adores nineteenth-century novels -- she has read just about every other novel that was written in the nineteenth century....

Alas, poor Melville....

Steve Harris said...

Oh, I love MD. Before I discovered the Russians, it was my favorite book. And it's still the only BIG novel I've read 4 times. The whole chapter 37 ("Sunset"), just blows me away (and underscores kim's comments above:

"I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where'er I sail."

And what about that deadly scrimmage with the Spaniard before the altar in Santa?

But that's just scratching the surface of the sea. Michael Dirda from the Washington Post recently reviewed a recent bio on Melville. Here's a link:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/22/AR2005092200992.html

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