Just mentioning the title, Moby-Dick, can stir up as many ideas about it as there are people, which I suppose is appropriate so far as the novel is concerned with interpretations. But to root out one of the more negative ones, I think it important to address the idea that to read it is somehow an exclusionary or chauvinistic exercise-- an undertaking predominantly for the male elitist. Of this opinion, I’ve always had a sort of snarling, knee-jerk reaction, as I was unable to put into words what I intuitively felt. Though happily I’ve found there are other people who are more apt in expression and to whom one can search out and defer if your base sentiment is known. This is the case here, as critic Jane Mushabac so eloquently states of the relevance to women,
“[it] springs from Melville’s humor, his gift in portraying marginalized people… how they have lived at the bottom, dreamed of the top, survived by their wits, bucked their "betters, fought subservience, and lyricized a closeness to the feel of life free of the pretensions and distortions in the upper regions of power. It turns out one may find more of the traditional underdog female experience in Ishmael, more of survival humor, than in many a female character”
Indeed, she states, “all great art is androgynous.” And in pointing out the novel’s portrayal of marginalized people, Mushabac also helps breaks down the perception that readers must necessarily be apart of some highly-literate specialized class or pretentiously aspiring to it as though such a class exists. (It doesn’t.) As indicated, the novel’s content is thoroughly democratic, thoroughly accessible with a little work, and what’s more, it’s still thoroughly relevant. Need I say anything more than that the captain of the ship in pursuit of Moby-Dick sinks the whole enterprise with his monomaniacal ravings?
Then again, I suspect more than the content, popular apprehension is founded on the novel’s size. But, as few read the bible front to back in one sitting, so the case may be made for America’s secular bible, which-- supposing Moby-Dick to be-- is best read little at a time. Then, after a few times, if one’s experience is anything like mine, a curious thing happens… You feel subsumed, as though the space debris that is your everyday experience is continually being pulled into the orbit of the giant celestial body that is the novel’s symbolism. It really is powerful stuff. So, when I get to an artistic rendering of a scene like that below I become fascinated for days.
What can one say about the picture? In most college English departments, students are taught the value of interpreting a work through a specific lense. So if were to look at this picture through a formalist lens, I’d say the composition is such that the whale dominates the frame with a look of malice reflecting the volatility of the sea. Or, if I were to look at it through a Freudian lense, I could say the scene represents a repressed element of the psyche welling up from the vast depths of the subconscious to sink the fragile ego. Or if I was to interpret the painting through a feminist lense, I could ask my self-avowed feminist girlfriend for help, which I did and received a patently feminist reply: “I don’t have time for that right now. I’m doing my own work.”
The point is, when considered as a whole there’s no objective truth to be gained. We are cast adrift in sea of relativity-- a realization that the novel represents not only in metaphor but in motif. Melville attempts to scientifically classify the whale, but that falls apart. The sailors aboard the ship try to collectively pin down the meaning of a gold doubloon that the Captain nails to a main beam, but that too falls apart. And when Ishmael tries to interpret a painting (which stands for the novel itself) we are left with about the most stable approach to truth there is, which is to arrive at an individual conclusion, only after struggling with the alternatives. It’s possible, therefore, that Melville-- romantic as he’s been described-- recognizes the spark of divinity in each of us. But only a spark.
This brings me, then, to my own interpretation of the painting. In it, I see the men’s attempt to gather the whale’s spermaceti to fuel the lamps of 19th century America as a relatively fragile human enterprise compared to the terrific might of nature poised to obliterate the entire thing. And from that, I consider the lights that now fill each continent from coast to coast and the alternative source of fuel we’ve found--oil. And I wonder, if because of this we’ve not exacerbated our precarious position in relation to nature, especially considering climate change. And upon reaching this conclusion, I feel the sort of sublime awe and terror that I think Melville, through his art, would have been happy to inspire.
…But anyway, Moby-Dick is a wonderful book.