Moby-Dick – Herman Melville

Ahab, the Monomaniac Captain of the Pequod

Everyone knows Ahab and the hunt for Moby Dick, the white whale. You know the one that begins with: “Call me Ishmael.” I had heard of Moby-Dick, but didn’t have any plans to read it. There’s a lot of good books out there and the opportunity cost of reading one book is the book that doesn’t get read. But, after watching the Star Trek movie First Contact, I knew I had to read it.

In First Contact, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (played by all-star Patrick Stewart) fights the Borg. The Borg are an enemy cyborg race that is perhaps most famous for their cubic spaceship (which is pure genius–why are spaceships aerodynamic when there’s no air in space?). Now Picard has a personal beef with the Borg, who had, in a prior encounter, kidnapped him, violated him by implanting cybernetic devices throughout his body, and destroyed his individuality. In his dreams he is still haunted by the voices of the Borg hive communicating. In this way, he’s like Captain Ahab, who lost his leg in an earlier encounter with the white whale and wants revenge at all costs. In this dramatic scene–one of my faves–Lily (played by Alfre Woodard) remonstrates Picard for his maniacal pursuit of the Borg. Here it is, or, better yet, watch it on YouTube:

LILY. It’s so simple. The Borg hurt you and now you’re going to hurt them back.

PICARD: In my century, we don’t succumb to revenge. We have a more evolved sensibility. [note time travel: Lily is from the 21st century and Picard is from the 24th century]

LILY: Bullshit. I saw the look on your face when you shot those Borg on the holodeck. You were almost enjoying it!

PICARD: How dare you!

LILY: Oh c’mon captain, you’re not the first man to get a thrill from murdering someone, I see it all the time.

PICARD: GET OUT!

LILY: Of what? You’ll kill me like you killed Ensign Lynch?

PICARD. There was no way to save him.

LILY. You didn’t even try! Where was your evolved sensibility then?!?

PICARD. I don’t have time for this.

LILY. Oh, hey, sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt your little quest! Captain Ahab has to go hunt his whale.

PICARD. What?

LILY. You have books in the twenty-fourth century?

PICARD. This is not about revenge.

LILY. Liar!

PICARD. This is about saving the future of humanity!

LILY. Jean-Luc, BLOW UP THE DAMN SHIP!

PICARD. NO! … NOOOOO! [smashes display case with his phaser rifle] I will not sacrifice the Enterprise. We made too many compromises already, too many retreats. The invade our space, and we fall back. They assimilate entire worlds, and we fall back. Not again. The line must be drawn HERE. This far, NO further! And I will make them pay for what they’ve done.

LILY. [going over to display case] You broke your little ships. See you around, Ahab.

PICARD. [quoting Moby-Dick] …and he piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race. If his chest had been a cannon, he would have shot his heart upon it.

LILY. What?

PICARD. Moby Dick.

LILY. Actually, I never read it.

PICARD. [trace of a smile] Ahab spent years hunting the white whale that crippled him in the quest for vengeance. But in the end, it destroyed him and his ship.

LILY. I guess he didn’t know when to quit.

PICARD. [looks thoughtful, lays down phaser rifle and walks onto the bridge where all eyes await his command] Prepare to evacuate the Enterprise.

To me, the Melville quote doesn’t entirely work in a logical sense. Why would Ahab’s chest be a cannon? And if his chest is the cannon, why is the heart firing? Wouldn’t the chest be shooting itself? But in a greater sense, the line completely works. Like that song that sticks in your head, this line has haunted me for the last twenty years. It’s the sort of line I wish I could write, but never could. It was at that moment I thought: “I will read Moby Dick!”

Well flash forward twenty plus years. I recently finished Moby-Dick. But I never saw that quote. The closest line is: “He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.” They must have modernized the line a little bit, but at the sake of logic. The image of a chest as a mortar (an artillery piece with a large bore) and the heart as shell makes sense. But perhaps a lot of us have forgotten how these weapons work?–I had to look it up.

Tip for Readers Who Use Public Libraries

And by the way, a tip to assiduous readers who use the library. Often the library has a one measly copy of a classic title, such as Moby-Dick. The problem is, unless you can read at warp speed, you have to bring the book back before you’re done. Then you can’t get it back for months because other assiduous readers have also put holds on it. Well, often the library has two copies of a classic book: one regular edition and a second, large print edition. Everyone will put a hold on the regular edition, but hardly anyone ever puts a hold on the large print edition. And the large print edition is quite a bit friendlier on the eyes to boot!

Not All About Ahab

The book contains many wonderful “digressionary” chapters. There’s a chapter on the whaling industry. There’s a chapter on how passing ships hail one another. There’s multiple chapters on the whale’s anatomy. There’s a chapter on the whale’s diet. It’s amazing how important the whaling industry was in 1851 when Moby-Dick was published. From the spermaceti (the wax found in a whale’s head), they could manufacture candles, creams, and lamp oils. It also powered the Industrial Revolution by serving as a lubricant. In the 1800s, whaling was as important as the olive was to ancient Greek society (olives were also used for light/heat, consumption, and to make creams). The modern equivalent of the whaling industry today is the oil and gas industry. Maybe in a hundred years they will look back on the oil and gas industry like how we look back on the whaling industry? Who knows, it could happen in even less than a hundred years the way technology is advancing!

Because of all the digressionary chapters, I got a good history lesson in the whaling industry, whale anatomy, and also life in the 1800s. Did you know that the whaling ship was one place where race wasn’t an issue? Moby-Dick, remember, is set before the Civil War (1861-5). Everyone on the boat did their job and their value was in how well they did their job, not skin colour. I’m sure it’s out there, it would be interesting to read a book fact checking all of Melville’s theories on the whale’s anatomy, diet, how it swims, how old whales die, and so on.

I use to live in Providence, Rhode Island. From there it’s a 3-1/2 hour trip to Nantucket, the former whaling capital of the USA, and perhaps the world. Now Nantucket is a resort town. The permanent population of 10,000 is not all that different from what it was two hundred years ago. But mind you, it seems smaller because the population of the rest of the world has jumped from one billion in 1804 to about seven billion today. Living there, I got a sense that the communities there are a shadow of what they once were, though some of the more dilapidated parts have become inexpensive enough to spark reinvestment and renaissance.

Misquoting Moby Dick

Captain Picard isn’t the only one who misquotes Moby Dick. The Nobel Prize winning singer-songwriter Bob Dylan recently ran afoul of the quote police in, of all things, his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. What tipped off the quote police was the line: “Some men who receive injuries are led to God, others to bitterness.” It’s close to the actual lines in Moby Dick, but not quite close enough. It’s actually closer to the SparkNotes summary of the novel, you know that website that provides synopses to students writing last second essays!

But, if you have half an hour (I had one hour and watched it twice), watch Dylan’s Nobel acceptance speech on YouTube. He talks about how his songwriting is literature in the sense that three of his favourites–Moby-DickThe Odyssey, and All Quiet on the Western Front–are literature. To him, literature is like a collage. It doesn’t have to “mean anything.” But, as life on the road has taught him, it has to be able to entertain.

The takeaway: maybe only critics need literature to “mean something.” Funny how people will interpret things when their job depends on it! You know, I’ve been thinking about the art form of tragedy for a long time, thinking about Aeschylus’ plays, O’Neill’s plays, and Shakespeare’s plays. Trying to make them mean something. I came up with this idea of tragedy as “risk theatre.” But, is there something monomaniacal, something Ahab-like in what theorists and writers do as they try to chase after their white whale?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I will sail the seven seas to do Melpomene’s Work.

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