Some Melvillian tidbits

Yesterday was the 194th anniversary of Herman Melville’s birth, and to mark the occasion the Atlantic offered some excerpts from its archives–including two from W. Somerset Maugham–on what makes Moby-Dick great.

The New York Daily News has some suggestions on how to celebrate Melville’s birthday, including an ode to Moby-Dick from experimental musician Laurie Anderson.

Here’s a collection of links to free e-versions of some of Melville’s works.

And what homage to Melville would be complete without a cut from Mastodon’s Moby-Dick-inspired album Leviathan?

Abandoned classics

The book recommendations site Goodreads had an interesting feature on books readers start but don’t finish. Here are their top five “abandoned classics”:

1. Catch-22, Joseph Heller

I have it on my shelf but have never read it.

2. Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

Read it for the first time the fall before the first movie came out. Once they got out of the Shire I couldn’t put it down.

3. Ulysses, James Joyce

I’ve read parts of it, and been to live readings of parts of it on Bloomsday, but have never managed to plow through the whole thing. One of my best friends is a big Joyce fan and even read Finnegan’s Wake (shudder).

4. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville

Best book ever, obvs. I’ve read it twice (or two-and-a-half times if you count a rather halfhearted effort in college).

5. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

What’s this doing on here? I thought these were classics.

God and the White Whale

Brandon points to this interesting piece by Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul on Moby-Dick, which Sproul correctly notes is the greatest American novel.

Sproul argues for a Christian reading of Melville’s work–seeing Ahab as man in rebellion against God (symbolized by the White Whale).

Melville experts and scholars come to different conclusions about the meaning of the great white whale. Many see this brutish animal as evil because it had inflicted great personal damage on Ahab in an earlier encounter. Ahab lost his leg, which was replaced by the bone of a lesser whale. Some argue that Moby Dick is Melville’s symbol of the incarnation of evil itself. Certainly this is the view of the whale held by Captain Ahab himself. Ahab is driven by a monomaniacal hatred for this creature, this brute that left him permanently damaged both in body and soul. He cries out, “He heaps me,” indicating the depth of the hatred and fury he feels toward this beast. Some have accepted Ahab’s view that the whale is a monstrous evil as that of Melville himself. That the whale is not a symbol of evil but the symbol of God Himself. In this interpretation, Ahab’s pursuit of the whale is not a righteous pursuit of God but natural man’s futile attempt in his hatred of God to destroy the omnipotent deity.

While I think there’s something to this, I also think it’s a bit too pat–and maybe too comforting to Christian sensibilities.

The Whale certainly does symbolize transcendence, I think. Sproul points to the key chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” where the many facets and connotations of the property of whiteness evoke what we might, following Rudolph Otto, call the mysterium tremendum et fascians. I would go further and say that much of the book–such as the allegedly boring chapters on cetology, history, the details of whaling, etc.–are intended by Melville to create a mythology of sorts in which the whale (and by extension all of non-human nature) takes on a transcendent, larger-than-life quality.

However, I think Sproul overlooks another key theme–the inscrutability of the Whale (and, by implication, ultimate reality). One of the things that makes Melville seem so contemporary is what we might call his “perspectivalism.” There is no single privileged perspective that can give us a “true” picture of reality. This comes out perhaps most clearly in “The Doubloon” where the crew members inspect the symbols on a gold doubloon Ahab has nailed to the ship’s mast, each one finding in them a radically different meaning. Each character’s understanding of reality is as much a product of himself as it is of the world. We can also cite the early chapters in which Ishmael, through his relationship with the “savage” Queequeg, comes to a rather “relativistic” view of religious and cultural pluralism.

Indeed, this perspectivalism is inherent in the very structure of the novel–the shift from first- to third-person narrative, telling the story from the point of view of different characters, the mixing of genres (realistic novel, history, drama), and the general “unreliability” of Ishmael as a narrator. This structure destabilizes the reader by refusing to provide anything like the classic omniscient narrator to tell us how things really are.

We also see this in the treatment of Ahab. Sproul seems to want to read him as more classically villainous–as man in revolt against God. But Ahab is closer to a Shakespearean tragic figure–someone who is admirable in many ways, but who is set, almost in spite of himself, on a path that can only end in his own destruction. By contrast, the more conventionally pious Starbuck, while perhaps morally in the right, is too weak-willed to prevent Ahab from carrying out his quest for revenge.

If the White Whale is a symbol of ultimate reality for Melville, then it has to be said that he regarded that reality as deeply mysterious and ambiguous. The world can by turns appear beneficent, brutally cruel, and indifferent. And each character responds to that reality in a different way, none of them obviously “correct.” If we take Ishmael as Melville’s stand-in (a decidedly dicey proposition) we might, tentatively, characterize his response as something like “diffident awe.” But this is certainly far from Christian piety. You could well argue that the novel leaves us with a picture of reality as supremely indifferent to human affairs, with “the great shroud of the sea roll[ing] on as it rolled five thousand years ago” and Ishmael as “another orphan” on that sea.

Friday links

–Ta-Nehisi Coates on Moby-Dick.

–Amy-Jill Levine: “A Critique of Recent Christian Statements on Israel

–From Jeremy at Don’t Be Hasty: Why the church can’t take the place of the welfare state.

–A discussion of “summer spirituality” with Fr. James Martin, S.J., author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.

–A review of Keith Ward’s recent book More than Matter?

Lady Gaga: “Iron Maiden changed my life.”

–Grist’s David Roberts has been writing a series on “great places” as a reorienting focus for progressive politics: see the first installments here, here, and here. Also see this reflection from Ned Resnikoff.

–Four different demo versions of Metallica’s early tune “Hit the Lights” (with some, ahem, interesting vocal experimentation by a young James Hetfield).

Now that’s a book I’d like to read

Cover Author Working On Word-For-Word Remake Of ‘Moby-Dick’

LOS ANGELES—Cover author Gerald Putty told reporters Monday that he is about six months away from finishing a word-for-word rewrite of Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby-Dick, saying that his version will be “utterly true in every way” to the original. “When you cover a novel like this, you’re tempted to play with all kinds of things—sentence structure, meter, all the commas,” said Putty, adding that fans of the original will be pleased that he retained the same chapter numbers and titles. “I might alter the font a little, but other than that, this book will be a pretty faithful cover.” Putty confessed that he has run into a few problems because his spelling is not as good as Melville’s, but said he felt no shame falling short of one of the greatest writers of all time.

From The Onion, of course.

Friday links

–Augustinian and Pelagian software.

–A John Polkinghorne lecture on science and religion.

–Batman as plutocrat.

–Korn and Limp Bizkit: the soundtrack to nihilism.

–Martha Nussbaum on John Stuart Mill: between Bentham and Aristotle.

–The disconnect between the science and economics of climate change.

–Peter Berger, who describes himself as a political conservative and a theological liberal, has some reflections on same-sex marriage.

–The trailer for the X-Men prequel: “X-Men: First Class.”

–Toward an agenda for the left.

–B. R. Meyers’ moral crusade against foodie-ism.

–Noam Chomsky on how global warming became a “liberal hoax” (and a bunch of other stuff).

ADDED LATER: Sunken ship commanded by real-life ‘Moby Dick’ captain discovered. And here’s a link to the “Power Moby-Dick” website referred to in the article.

Some links for the weekend

– Peter Singer on balancing concern for the environment with efforts to lift people out of poverty.

– Kevin Drum on the difference between liberals and libertarians.

– Bob Herbert on Sargent Shriver: “one of America’s great good men.”

– Peter Berger’s blog at The American Interest. (Here’s a piece on recent developments in American Lutheranism.)

– A three-part article from Derek on communing the unbaptized:1|2|3.

– Bls says the church needs a program. (Or does it already have one?)

– How Moby-Dick navigates between fanaticism and nihilism. And a previous piece on a similar topic by the same author.

– A killer new song from the German tech-death band Obscura.

This will either be really terrible or kind of awesome (possibly both)

This is news to me:

2010: Moby Dick is an upcoming film adaptation of the 1851 novel Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. The film is an Asylum production, and stars Barry Bostwick as Captain Ahab.

The film takes place in the modern day, and follows Dr. Michelle Herman (Renée O’Connor), who has recently joined a submarine – the USS Pequod – commanded by Captain Ahab (Barry Bostwick), who is on an obsessive hunt throughout the seas for a giant whale.

Herman becomes anxious as Ahab’s insanity worsens throughout the voyage, and crescendos as the submarine finally crosses paths with the giant whale.

Spoiler alert!

This trailer for the 1956 John Huston/Gregory Peck film version of Moby-Dick gives an awful lot away.

Maybe they were assuming most people had read the book?

I haven’t seen it yet, but the New York Times liked it quite a bit.

Melville’s mythology

In his book, A Reader’s Guide to Herman Melville, James E. Miller, Jr. convincingly rebuts the oft-made complaint about all the “boring whale stuff” interspersed with the narrative of Moby-Dick. The point of all this material, Miller argues, is to elevate the tale of Ahab and his mad quest for revenge to mythic heights:

The cumulative effect of this bulk of material on the whale–its anatomy, its antiquity, its divinity and more–is to storm the imagination by sheer mass and magnitude. Out of his unlikely and disparate materials, by the ingenious strategy of alternately infiltrating, concentrating, and dispersing, Melville creates a mythic setting for his tale. When we reach the final pages of the novel, and see Moby Dick triumphant in the midst of the general catastrophe, we sense in him a lineage and a nature more than flesh, higher than fish; as we watch all the actors but one disappear beneath the waves, and are told that “the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago,” we sense a continuity and cosmic significance in the action that only Melville’s massive mythology of the whale could have inspired. (p. 102)

That seems exactly right to me.