Book Reviews, New and Old

Moby-Dick and Pestilence

One of the rare (only?) positives of my (brash…idiotic?) decision to leave behind my career as a divorce lawyer to seek creative endeavors, is more time, which has also been borne of the Covid-19 situation.

I have been able to invest that time into my family–it seems I have spent more time with my children in the past few months than I did the entire year before that combined.

Another way I have been able to invest my time, is in reading. I have tried to take an omnivorous approach to my reading, spending time on both contemporary work (such as catching up on my literary journals, reading contemporary novels and short fiction collections such as Molly Reid’s wonderful The Rapture Index: A Suburban Bestiary,) and yes, catching up on some important works I am embarrassed to admit that I have never read. This lead to my reading War and Peace, which I have officially deemed (after 1,500 pages) as “ok.”

It has also lead to my reading of Melville’s classic, Moby-Dick. In college I took a course on Melville but apparently we read everything by Melville except Moby-Dick. I remember how distinct Bartleby, the Scrivener was, and how it made me feel both alive and odd. I remember stumbling through The Confidence Man like a drunk through some midnight city. I really enjoyed Typee, but I’m not sure if thirty-six year-old me would enjoy it to the same extent that nineteen year-old me did.

Over the years I knew that I had an imperative, of sorts, to read Moby-Dick, considered by many to be the finest American novel. I started Moby-Dick on at least three occasions, and always failed to tag along once the Pequod set sail. It’s not that I was bored, or that I disliked the book, it was just that the book felt dense and heavy in a way I couldn’t quite undertake while working as a divorce lawyer. Between reading case law, preparing for trials, and assisting clients, I felt that I didn’t quite have the stamina in me to read something like Moby-Dick. (This is a tough admission to make.) Also, I am not a “water” person. I am a backpacker and hiker, happiest on the land or in some forest. The idea of being on a boat makes me feel motion sickness. (I know this is not a good excuse, but what are we without our rationalizations?)

And make no mistake, like a whale, Moby-Dick the novel has always been a heavy lift. It was out of print within a decade or so of its release, having only sold a few hundred copies. It’s hard to imagine Moby-Dick being published at all today, with its absence of female characters, its absence (or near-absence) of a love story, its strange back-and-forth between chapters advancing its plot, what appear to be self-contained short story chapters mixed in (when they meet with other boats), and its many non-fiction sections about cetology, ranging from descriptions of various whale body parts to how to prepare a whale to eat.

Finally, there is the bizarre near-absence of dialogue throughout the work, and when there is dialogue, it is often bracketed like a play. For that matter, as others have written, Captain Ahab inexplicably rants and raves like some character fresh off a Shakesperian stage. (imagine Shakespeare’s Richard III but on a whale boat and you get close to the idea). (that’s perhaps also why Ahab is so awesome.)

And yet, it all coalesces into something magical. It it episodic, built from every angle like a collage, and by the end it will stimulate and madden you and leave you begging for more as though you are Ahab searching for that mystical whale. I’m not quite sure what alchemy Melville used to achieve this feet, as chapter-to-chapter the book often feels spartan, or languid; sometimes even underwhelming. Melville worked on Moby-Dick for approximately eighteen months and I believe this pacing is intentional, like the way great classical music uses pacing, repetition, and dynamics to stimulate the human brain toward sound.

In my admittedly scatological “review” of War and Peace, I described Moby-Dick as follows:

When I read Moby-Dick immediately following War and Peace I was struck by how modern the scope of the story felt. The dissonant vibe Melville conjures when he writes of the Jeroboam ship passing by the Pequod, carrying the mad “Gabriel” and a “malignant epidemic,” that could be spread (but is likely metaphorical in nature), the image of Ahab’s secret stowaway oarsman surrounding him like the four horsemen of the apocalypse on the first whale hunt, the building of a distinctive coffin for a character that then refuses to die (partially, it is hinted, because he so enjoyed the coffin), and the nature of the “monomaniac journey” itself, with its lesson about how we are all vulnerable to be led by frenzied leadership to take up causes that are dangerous, insane, or morally wrong (and all this nearly one hundred years before World War II).

Perhaps because of current world events, I keep coming back to the strange (and deliciously absurd) scene in Chapter 71 of Moby Dick, when the Pequod and the Jeroboam meet.

The Pequod and the Jeroboam

I would argue that the chapter when the Pequod meets the Jeroboam is the dividing line in Moby-Dick; the emotional, symbolic, and narrative turning point and figurative middle of the novel. To be sure, there is a heavy and almost mystical vibe in Moby-Dick, hovering over the protagonist as far back as Nantucket, and there can be little doubt that what contemporary reviewers (and fiction gurus) would call the “inciting incident” is the great chapter when Ahab first reveals his “monomaniac,” plans.

Yet, the desolation of their cause, the loneliness and indifference of the very ocean itself seems most clear in Chapter 71, which predates a similar vibe found midway through Heart of Darkness, (or Apocalypse Now to Philistines like me), when Marlow meets the Russians (or the French in the loose film adaptation). There is a distinct sense of dread, the recognition that there is no going back, and that the madness “of man,” is not just limited to the Pequod.

The Jeroboam is a fellow whale ship out of Nantucket, and certainly acts as a mirror to the Pequod.

Our narrator notes that the Jeroboam captain did not board, but instead, “waved his hand from his boat’s stern in token of that proceeding being entirely unnecessary.” We are further advised that there is “A malignant epidemic on board,” the Jeroboam.

In the Old Testament, Jeroboam was a King of the Tribe of Ephraim of Zereda. He is constantly at war with the House of Judah; he is granted a miracle but squanders it, and his son takes ill and dies. The captain of the Jeroboam is the character Mayhew, a variant of Matthew.

Melville notes that Mayhew and his crew are not infected at the time they first meet with the Pequod, and yet Mayhew refuses to board out of deference to the idea of quarantine. (showing a level of sophistication not demonstrated by many of our own governments in 2020.)

Back to the idea of “mirroring,” Melville writes that the two boats are kept “parallel” to one another. Perhaps true to the name of the boat, the key character of “Gabriel” is described as wearing a “cabalistic” coat.

The character of “Gabriel” is thought to be mad, and yet has taken control of the hearts and minds of the Jeroboam’s crew. This, of course, mirrors the Pequod, which is controlled by Ahab’s own fever of madness. Then there is this notable distinction; Ahab seems to represent nature itself, perhaps atheism, and yet “Gabriel” possesses the madness of a religious fervor. Melville was likely an agnostic, and a moderate, so perhaps the author is advising us of his centrist religious predilections here, showing that madness may lie at both the north and south poles of our potential belief systems.

(As an aside, I really enjoy this line, “With that cunning peculiar to craziness, he [Gabriel] assumed a steady, common sense exterior, and offered himself as a green-hand candidate for the Jeroboam’s whaling voyage.)”

“Gabriel” claims that he is the archangel Gabriel, which in time several of his shipmates come to believe. He “commands” that the captain (e.g., reason?) jump overboard. Melville grimly writes, “Since the epidemic had broken out, he [Gabriel] carried a higher hand than ever; declaring that the plague, as he called it, was at this sole command; nor should it be stayed but according to this good pleasure.”

I have admittedly not read any critical essays on Moby-Dick, and it’s been a long time since I was in college working on critical theory of literature, but as a reader it struck me that the pestilence is really a metaphor for madness, for mob rule, for the lack of reason (in leaders or in a populous). Notably, Captain Ahab (already mad), states he has “no fear” of the pestilence. “I fear not thy epidemic, man,” says Ahab. “Come on board.”

It is “Gabriel” who then warns Ahab, saying, “Think, think of the fevers, yellow and bilious! Beware of the horrible plague!” Ahab cares little of the plague, but remains invested only in the idea of gathering intel about the “white wale.” Gabriel then warns Ahab of his boat being sank by the whale, saying, “Think, think of thy whale-boat, stoven and sunk! Beware of the horrible tail!”

Melville writes of Gabriel and the ocean, “The crazy sea…seemed leagued with him.” Gabriel also claims that Moby-Dick is the “Shaker God reincarnated.”

The Jeroboam tells of a mate that was killed by Moby-Dick. “Gabriel,” refers to this mate as a “blasphemer,” and provides intonations of perdition for those that are blasphemous or non-believers. “Gabriel,” says, “Think, think of the blasphemer–dead, and down there!–beware of the blasphemer’s end!”

The chapter ends with the Pequod attempting to deliver mail to the Jeroboam from Nantucket, (the Jeroboam is further ahead), but the mail is from the dead mate’s wife. The piece of mail itself is “green” and “covered in mold,” looking as though, “Death itself might well have been the post-boy.”

“Keep it (the letter), thyself,” “Gabriel” says to Ahab, “thou art soon going that way” (death, hell?, the bottom of the ocean…)

We learn in this chapter that there are often worse things than disease, such as the death of reason. This too seems particularly relevant for our present world.

I’ll let Melville have the last word on Chapter 71,

“Many strange things were hinted in reference to this wild affair.”

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