Thursday, April 1, 2010

Moby Dick - Smash or Trash?

I enjoy reading classic literature and have finally gotten around to Moby Dick. It’s taking awhile to read, partly because I have to concentrate harder to comprehend the style of English used at the time of its writing, and partly just because it’s a very long book in its own right.

Moby Dick is, without a doubt, a classic piece of literature. But, 159 years after its original publication, I have to wonder how well Herman Melville’s story would be received had he written it today.

My honest guess? He would not even be able to get it published. Certainly, at least, not without massive amounts of editing.

As a case in point, consider the below passage taken from Chapter 42. It’s just one piece of a much longer explanation that Ishmael is giving about the color white; how, while it is usually associated with cleanliness, good, purity, etc., it can also have a much more sinister and ominuos connotation (such as the pale white of death):

From Moby Dick, Chapter 42 – “The Whiteness of the Whale”:
“Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal preeminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title "Lord of the White Elephants" above all their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Caesarian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial color the same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; and though, besides, all this, whiteness has been even made significant of gladness, for among the Romans a white stone marked a joyful day; and though in other mortal sympathies and symbolizings, this same hue is made the emblem of many touching, noble things- the innocence of brides, the benignity of age; though among the Red Men of America the giving of the white belt of wampum was the deepest pledge of honor; though in many climes, whiteness typifies the majesty of Justice in the ermine of the Judge, and contributes to the daily state of kings and queens drawn by milk-white steeds; though even in the higher mysteries of the most august religions it has been made the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power; by the Persian fire worshippers, the white forked flame being held the holiest on the altar; and in the Greek mythologies, Great Jove himself being made incarnate in a snow-white bull; and though to the noble Iroquois, the midwinter sacrifice of the sacred White Dog was by far the holiest festival of their theology, that spotless, faithful creature being held the purest envoy they could send to the Great Spirit with the annual tidings of their own fidelity; and though directly from the Latin word for white, all Christian priests derive the name of one part of their sacred vesture, the alb or tunic, worn beneath the cassock; and though among the holy pomps of the Romish faith, white is specially employed in the celebration of the Passion of our Lord; though in the Vision of St. John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great-white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.”


Other than the obvious changes in grammar & language that make it almost incomprehensible to today’s reading public, two things drew my attention to this particular passage.

For one, it is a single sentence, 467 words long. Do you think you could have gotten away with that had you turned it in to your English teacher in high school? That single sentence is 1/3 the length of my entire senior term paper!

Secondly, did you notice the whopper of a politically incorrect statement buried inside the text: “and though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe”.

Whoa, Nellie! That dog ain’t gonna be hunting in 2010, now is it? In fact, “classic” though Moby Dick may be, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that particular statement didn’t one day make a quiet exit from the text entirely. (And maybe more telling is that I doubt anyone today would even notice if it did.)

Anyone who has ever attempted to put pen to paper with the intention of forming a novel can truly appreciate - and stand in awe - of the sheer craftsmanship that was required to carve out the 500 pages of Moby Dick. In today's world unfortunately, that, plus $1.50, will get you a cup of coffee at McDonald's.

Dear Mr. Melville,

I regret to inform you that your manuscript “Moby Dick” does not fit our needs at this time. The book is so endlessly complicated by details and reference information that the very action of the story becomes hopelessly bogged down, making the book, eventually, unreadable. It is so dry, airless, and lacking in pace, that whatever drama and excitement the novel might have contained is entirely dissipated by what seems to be nothing more than an immense amount of extraneous material.

Yours sincerely,

21st Century Editor


Catherine said...

I had a hard time getting through that book in college but as I love literary symbolism it was certainly good for that.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book that I've put into a special "Quotable Quotes" document on my computer that I still add to:

"There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody's expense but his own."

"...and Heaven have mercy on us all - Presbyterians and Pagans alike - for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending."

"I try all things, I achieve what I can"

Oh there are so many! Now that I don't HAVE to read it, I should return to it again. Melville's language is brilliant.

You would also very much like his novella BARTLEBY the SCRIVENER...much shorter and still relevant today.

Elani said...

I wasn't very impressed by Moby Dick. It is suppossed to be one of the greatest American novels, but it was just ok.

I do understand the language difference between then and now...they didn't have tv, so they had to be more descriptive =).

Seriously though, I have a hard time getting through some of the classics for that reason. Dickens, for example, usually has a lot of fluff in his novels also, but then again, he got paid by the word.

Blaine Staat said...

Interesting timing Elani; I finally finished Moby Dick last night and would tend to agree with you. Much different than I thought it would be (i.e., 80% or more soley devoted to an explanation of whaling).

Back in 1850, a thorough explanation of whaling would have been understandable due to the lack of other media that we have available today, but devoting so little of the book to the actual story itself makes it hard for me to consider it a novel in the classic sense (pun intended).

Kimberline said...

I've been missing your articles, Blaine. Hope to see more of your writing again, soon!