Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Suspended in Moby-Dick

After a couple weeks of moving, traveling, and living without internet (except when we remember to take devices to restaurants), I’m back to blogging. But while exlibrismagnis has been suspended, my reading has continued. My schedule for the year brought me to two lengthy things just at the right time: for about three weeks now, I’ve been reading a little each day in Moby-Dick and in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.

Actually, saying my blogging has been suspended makes me think of something I read just yesterday morning in Moby-Dick. While a great whale head is suspended from the ship (I choose not to be embarrassed that after reading most of this book in the last several days, I can’t remember the proper terminology for the structure and machinery that hold up the prize), Melville suspends the action, like a character in a sci-fi movie walking through a paused scene in a hologram: “We must let it continue to hang there a while till we can get a chance to attend to it.” A couple of chapters later, a second whale’s head has balanced the first, hanging off the other side of the Pequod, while the narration describes it in present tense. “Here, now,” says Ishmael, “are two great whales, laying their heads together.” Again the action stops while he describes for the reader the anatomy of the heads of whales.

Plot really isn’t all that important to Melville in his magnum opus. Ishmael decides to go whaling and signs on to a ship. Captain Ahab shows up. They set sail, and Ahab announces that he’s going after the great white whale that gave him a peg leg. They catch some whales and have parleys with a few other ships. Then, in the last few chapters, they engage Moby-Dick. Those are the essentials. Along the way we get the histories of Nantucket and of whaling, a taxonomy of cetaceans, lessons in anatomy, descriptions of various kinds of rope, observations on religion and anthropology, and many other seemingly nonfictional essays. Melville justifies his rambling method by noting that “productive subjects” produce chapters and subchapters as a trunk produces branches and branches produce twigs. But surely the branches occupy the center of the author’s heart, not the trunk. When Ishmael is descibing the method of removing the oil from the whale’s head in expository prose and then says, “Tashtego mounts aloft” (again in present, the tense of demonstration; not the past tense of pseudo-history), it seems to me that the action of this character from the “novel” only serves as an example: a prop or visual aid for the lecture Melville really wants to give.

I suppose these explanatory digressions (granting Ishmael’s more standard implication that the fictional portions represent the main flow of the narrative and the nonfiction the digressions) form the basis of the general opinion that Moby-Dick is a dry, boring book. But I love the scarcity of plot. If I can compare the sublime with the ridiculous (you can decide which is which), Moby-Dick reminds me a lot of Napoleon Dynamite. Napoleon rides to school, buys a suit, talks with Pedro, draws pictures of animals, tries to travel in time, watches football videos with his uncle. None of this is plot; it could all happen in almost any order. If plot means a series of events one of which affects another, you could say that the dance contest near the end provides some plot. But with almost no dramatic drive, the other 90% of the film succeeds famously as fascinating, thoroughly entertaining character development.

On second thought, maybe I should concede the occasional importance of plot. If I had to identify an essential difference between Napoleon Dynamite and Moby-Dick, I’d say this: I can live without the dance contest, but I pretty much need Ahab to encounter the whale that one last time.

No comments:

Post a Comment