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Call Me Ishmael!

“Call me Ishmael.”

Those immortal words begin Herman Melville’s epic novel, Moby Dick.

Those and many other passages from the novel have been running through my mind these past weeks. I’ve finished listening to an audiobook version (borrowed online through the Libby iPhone app) and am now reading e-book passages on Kindle. It was high time! Primarily through the pre-dawn hours, working in front of Mildrith the wood-fired oven.

I was meant to read Moby Dick in university but skimmed Cole’s Notes instead. One year, my reading list of English-language novels was so extensive that I realized I needed a survival strategy: Which books were essential? Which could I skip? They were all critical, but I was a slow reader and immensely lazy in those indolent student days.

Skipping Moby Dick was my loss

Moby Dick didn’t make the essentials list. It was long and ponderous, its characters were dour, and they spoke with lots of “thee’s and thou’s.” How could the economics of whaling, 19th-century philosophy and religion be of interest to a 20-year-old obsessed with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan?

But skipping Moby Dick was my loss. I’m ready for it now: It is just the kind of novel that could fuel an obsession for me.

People call Moby Dick the greatest unread novel in the English language! But those who make it through to the end find a profound study of human nature, the ocean, spirituality and language. It’s so deep-veined that I felt I’ve barely skimmed the surface and would need to re-read it a few times to grasp its magnificence.

Gregory Peck and Classics Illustrated

The story is well-known, thanks mainly to the 1950s film starring Gregory Peck and other versions simplified for different audiences, like Readers Digest and children’s books. I loved the Classics Illustrated comic series and any condensed and simplified plot lines of classic literature for kids. Instead of dusty tomes, Comics were the best way to get my interest. 1

But even then, the Moby Dick story left me cold.

Ishmael, the narrator of Moby Dick, tells the story of Ahab, captain of “The Pequod,” a whaling vessel that sails off the eastern seaboard in the mid-1800s. On an earlier voyage, the great whale bit Ahab’s leg off at the knee by a great white whale. He clops about the deck of the Pequod with his prosthetic leg made of whalebone.

“Hast seen the White Whale?”

The crew of the Pequod encounters sailors of other whaling ships. The white whale is all Ahab thinks to aks others he meets:

“Hast seen the White Whale?” Ahab inquires throughout the story. And, not getting the answer he wishes, he ends the conversation and turns his face toward the horizon.

Ahab is obsessed with revenge, though he’s likeable in his way and grudgingly admired by his crew. Some, such as Ishmael and the second mate, Stubb, are willing to follow Ahab into his titanic struggle. Others, like the first mate, Starbuck, plead with Ahab to give up his whale-revenge obsession.

What’s it about in the end?

Moby Dick audiobook narrated by Anthony Heald

Having offered a bare-bones description of the novel, I’m not sure I know what Moby Dick is about in the end. Yes, it’s the tale of Captain Ahab and his obsession with the whale. But the novel’s full of long digressions about whales, their behaviour (as they relate to each other and humans), their anatomy, the hunting of whales and the production of sperm oil, their mythic and symbolic natures, and their role in literature, the economics of whaling.

The novel feels like an academic treatise on whales, but it’s eminently readable. Melville keeps the story moving, often returning to the deck of the Pequod to fill in some aspect of the story. He may focus on a crew member to describe another part of whaling or life aboard the ship.

On one level, Moby Dick is about the commoditization of whales for oil, blubber, and profit. It’s also about the human blood-lust for whales, the “leviathans of the deep,” and the need to dominate nature.

Unknowable

But for all that, Ishmael confides (and Melville himself) that Moby Dick is, in the end, unknowable. Like the cosmos or God itself, whaling is a means to understand something more significant than humanity:

Dissect him 2how I may, then, I but go skin deep. I know him not, and never will. But if I know not even the tail of this whale, how understand his head? much more, how comprehend his face, when face he has none? Thou shalt see my back parts, my tail, he seems to say, but my face shall not be seen. But I cannot completely make out his back parts; and hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face.

It’s an odd feeling looking out on Boundary Pass to watch a pod of Orcas pass by or a pair of enormous Humpbacks. There is still something unknowable about whales, something profoundly beautiful about them, their grace, their speed. And there is still something disturbing and all-too-human about how the whale-watchers hound and crowd these regal animals. Rather than whaling ships chasing them, it’s a flotilla of whale watchers from Sidney or Victoria.

Grotesque

With whale populations on the decline, the whale-watchers seem grotesque as a group of blood-thirsty whalers heading into the middle of a pod, armed with iron harpoons intending to kill as many whales as possible.

Canada leads all nations in whale kills, primarily by northern indigenous communities. Belugas and narwhals, both of which are considered cetaceans (whales), are the main species. Other whale-hunting nations include Greenland and the Faroe Islands (Denmark), Norway, Japan and the U.S. 3

You can support whales locally by becoming involved in Pender Ocean Defenders (POD) or their Facebook page. The Southern Gulf Islands Whale Sighting Network (SGIWSN) is also beneficial as it monitors and gathers data on whales around the Southern Gulf Islands and the ancestral territory of the Coast Salish people.

More reading

For an interesting overview of the cultural impact of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, this Guardian article by Philip Hoare discusses how the novel’s influence is keenly felt in the current cultural moment of our own times.

Most importantly, you do not even need to READ Moby Dick! An audio version of the novel is freely available online (“The Moby-Dick Big Read”) with individual chapters read by a curated group of artists, writers, musicians, scientists and academics. Mary Oliver, Benedict Cumberbatch and Stephen Fry, among others. This same series is available as a podcast on Apple Podcasts so that you can listen to the novel in its entirety on the go.


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  1. I remember thrilling Classics Illustrated versions of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Gulliver’s Travels and The Three Musketeers

  2. i.e. the whale

  3. Source: Whaling on Wikipedia

2 thoughts on “Call Me Ishmael!

  1. I had read Moby Dick in my early twenties and didn’t really understand or appreciate it as much as I would today. So Thank you for your analysis and Monk’s notes a la Coles notes on the book. I may listen to the audio. Living on the coast as we do we have come to appreciate these beautiful mammals and are so fortunate to see them from shore when possible.
    Also wanted to mention how funny and brilliant the video on How the U.S. ruined bread.
    Thanks David for your insight and always interesting to read blog. I always look forward to it as much as I do your fantastic bread.

    1. Thanks, Anne! There is a history of whaling on the BC coast that I didn’t mention. I don’t think Melville much liked the industry, but he was fascinated with whales. Perhaps a writer ahead of his time!

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