Hello Joshua. And welcome home. Also, I swear this picture I’ve inserted of Three’s Company will make sense by the end.
I’m stoked that we decided to read this together. I’ve never read a book along with someone else, other than school. And I happen to miss school. And I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but I haven’t been reading much these days. 😉 Because, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned, I’ve been playing a lot of … video games. And I happen to miss books. AND while I did play the Moby Dick Facebook game where you got points for reading the book, it only contained the first chapter. So this should be a much more comprehensive experience.
Moby Dick has been on my list of must-read classics for a long time. I wanted to tackle it, almost like the great whale itself (but I don’t know what that means because I haven’t even gotten that far. No spoilers from you!) Literature and whales. We dissect all the materials and bits that from the outside look elegant with amazing cover art. We make use of its parts and try to ingest it or use it to enlighten ourselves (oil lamp…for the mind? Is this metaphor going too far?) All joking aside, even as a reader I feel the impulse to conquer a piece of literature sometimes, to arm myself with some new knowledge. Like if I read this book, I’ll be better equipped in my life than I was before reading it.
So how to break down all that weighty stuff? Well, let’s just start at the beginning. Melville starts with that compiled list of quotes and allusions to whales. One that stuck with me is the opening sentence from Hobbe’s Leviathan and goes: “Leviathan, called a Commonwealth or State ( in Latin, Civitas) which is but an artificial man.” A lot of the prior quotes Melville uses describe and allude to the whale as the leviathan, a Biblical monster. Leviathan = whale = state? Too easy? Probably.
Anyways, from the little I get in the Wikipedia article, Hobbe’s was a hardcore materialist and rationalist who thought that morality was a sham. The idea of the greater good and societies that operate under the greater good have nothing to do with goodness at all. There is no summum bonum, or greatest good, and any society that operates with that in mind will ultimately collapse and fall into civil war and because, most importantly, people are not good. But the opposite, summum malum, greatest evil or our fear of violent death, does exist. Convenient, don’t you think, and a bit pessimistic? Not only does it exist, but it’s exactly the kind of thing a society could and should be built around.
I’m not quite sure how that might connect yet, but what do you think? (No spoilers! I’m not as far as you!)
All lofty thoughts and talk of Literature aside – with a capital L, dammit! – I’m really enjoying the book as a fantasy, or more accurately, a ghost story. The entire book feels haunted.
I’ve been trying to get through Infinite Jest, and I love it, I do, all 280 pages and 90 or so footnotes I’ve read so far. But even though David Foster Wallace (you have to say his whole name, don’t you?) has crafted an immensely complex book both thematically and linguistically that also goes down easy, the content feels a bit close to home right now. (Or maybe I’m just making excuses). And yes, Moby Dick is doing all that boring shit, too, like exercising my mind and getting me to think and reflect and yada yada schma schma, but it’s escapist for me, too. “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote,” Ishmael says at the beginning.
Speaking of Ishmael, what a great narrator. I don’t know whether I trust him 7 chapters in, but man, there’s something so alluring about him, even admirable. On the one hand, he’s observant and seemingly self-aware. He’s also, from all clues so far, a vagrant, which perhaps makes me, a member of the State and Commonwealth identity, a little bit nervous. In the beginning, he talks about going to the sea, and on the one hand it could be seen as an escape (a la my reading of the book), away from the State and the streets and other members of the commonwealth. But there’s also an intention to make himself feel right again. The sea is a tonic for everything perverted and misaligned in his spirit and soul and society. Why the hell wouldn’t we want to get away from all this, right, Josh Cole?
“It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet….then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
I left out the bit it takes every ounce of moral strength to not go out in the street and go “methodically knocking people’s hats off.” He’s like Dostoevsky’s underground man, but ennobled by the ocean. Then he says, “If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.” Do you think that’s true? And why might that matter?
That moment when he talks about how a man cannot abide with having another man sleep in bed with him because he wants to feel suited up in his own skin says a lot about the struggle in this man to be more, for lack of a better term, morally upright and humane(probably two terms Hobbes would find disagreeable). On the one hand, there’s no room for him. But he doesn’t want to share a bed either. And that scene where Queequeg’s introduced is so funny, almost like a Three’s Company episode. (Super weird find: a YouTube search for “Three’s Company Jack’s Gay Moments” brings up an audio book version of Moby Dick. Weird, right?! And looked up gay Jack moments because the first Queequeg scene is mildly and comically homoerotic.)
Anyways, back to Queequeg, “the savage” uses a harpoon to shave. Bad. Ass.
And this scene, too, is another moment where I really start to admire Ishmael. There’s a moment of empathy after the landlord comes in during the ruckus. Remember, after Ishmael decides it’s more important to get a bed, even if he has to share it, he is told that Queequeg will probably not be coming back for the night. So Ishmael gets into bed alone, but Queequeg shows up after all. The landlord comes in to smooth things over after a really tense misunderstood moment, and Queequeg offers Ishmael half of the bed, pulling aside the cover.
“He really did this in not only a civil but a really kind and charitable way. I stood looking at him a moment. For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself – the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”
After that moment, Ishmael has absolute respect for this man. It’s astonishing to him that the man can be so cool and act with such civility and (my words, not Ishmael’s) grace and dignity. I don’t know if you ever read Brave New World, but there’s a savage in that, too, who ends up being more human than so-called civilized people.
What do you think Hobbes might say about these guys?
Anyways, that seems like enough for the first letter to you. I hope it didn’t sound too academic and that it wasn’t too looooooooooooooooong. It’s nice having someone to talk to about literature as you’re reading it, the really important, weighty, and beautiful stuff of life. Oh shit. This was supposed to be escapist.
Anyways (again), can’t wait to hear what you have to say. And remember, no spoilers! I haven’t even met Ahab yet. I’ll get to chapter 25 by this weekend, at which point you’ll probably be done with the book. This might be difficult, but let’s see what happens.
Oh…and it’s good to have you home.
P.S. Does the picture make sense now? Please don’t hate me for this final picture. I just had to.