What's your white whale?
Moby dick, by herman melville, is one of the greatest american contributions to world literature. although it is often labeled as a novel, and indeed it does begin as one, the book is sui generis, and contains multiple digressions in the plot that make moby dick a thoroughly distinct work. notorious for its difficulty, and infamous for its many chapter's describing the mechanics and history of whaling, melville's book is now regarded as a classic par excellence. what are we to make of this book? it is one of the strangest that i've ever encountered, and i reckon myself pretty well versed in strange books. for one, this is the most overt effort to write a 'classic' that i've come across. melville knows what he's going for, and he self-conciously pulls out every trick in his bag. the book is firmly grounded in the western canon, making references to shakespeare, locke, milton, kant, plato, the bible, goethe, and coleridge, among others. it is also meticulously researched, with virtually whole bibliographies on whaling and whale-stories contained within. it seems that melville's white whale was greatness, and he pursued it with a madman's ire, lashing out at it with every harpoon in his armory. in fact, moby dick was not well-received during his lifetime, and so perhaps melville even shared in ahab's fate. in the book, ishmael uses everything on board the ship to serve as a metaphor for something else, until, in the end, the ship is as riddled with metaphors as with the rigs, ropes, and lines that cross her hull. meaning is ever-elusive, and one thing can stand for ten others. the best example of this is, obviously, moby dick, who can take on almost infinite meanings. is he nature, punishing the whalers for their slaughter of his kinsmen? is he melville's struggle with greatness? with god? or is moby dick simply fate? or, is moby dick a pre-freudian psychological device? the object of ahab's displaced fears, hopes, and anger? is moby dick a phallic symbol (his name is straightforward enough)? a ram-shaped whale, filled with white spermaceti! i hate to be coarse, but the work asks these questions, and a thousand more. melville also gives us a consummate tragic character, captain ahab, who seems to be a composite of nearly every other tragic figure that came before: achilles, orestes, king lear, hamlet, faust, and satan from paradise lost. added to that, melville blends with ishmael several times during the narrative, becoming both part of the story as well as the author. he makes no attempt to hide the process of creation, giving moby dick a strickingly modernist feel at times. but is moby dick a perfect work? not a soul would argue that. some chapters on whaling are indeed excessive, melville's prose, while often brilliant, has a tendency to become labyrinthine and over-precise during his technical explanations. the storyline itself is actually quite short, and is told in the first and last 10% of the book, the middle 80% consisting of a monumentously ambitious literary experiment (some of which he could have spared us). but i regard these flaws as i do the scar that runs the length of ahab's body: the flaw that makes perfection. the entire work itself becomes some sort of allegory for ahab's character: monomaniacal, brilliant, flawed, and over-extended. blast you, melville, you're a genius after all.