Call me the greatest American novel: Moby-Dick

Christopher Buckley in Salon:

Whalerct01-460x307Consider Ishmael’s new friend Queequeg, the extravagantly tattooed harpooneer, a prince of his forsaken South Sea island. The unlikely friendship between these two, begun accidentally in a shared bed at the Spouter Inn, is one of the great friendships in American, or any, literature. A few months ago at a pub in Chelsea, London, I looked up from my pint and saw chalked on the wall: “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” It’s from that chapter when they first meet; their friendship was nothing if not multicultural, a forerunner of the other great celebration of diversity that took place between Huck and Jim on the raft. Everyone in high school in my day read Herman Wouk’s novel “The Caine Mutiny.” The nutty captain in that book is, you’ll recall, named Captain Queeg. He takes after Captain Ahab, not the noble Queequeg. Consider, too, the chief mate of the Pequod, Starbuck. In a passage that never fails to bring tears to my eyes, the earnest Starbuck pleads with Ahab to abandon his blasphemous, vengeful quest for the white whale. It’s in that paragraph that we see Ahab’s mask slip, just long enough for a tear to roll down his scarred cheek and drop into the ocean. “… nor was there in all the vast Pacific more wealth than in that one drop.” Sorry. Where were we? Starbuck. Yes, well, I think you’ve heard that name, somewhere.

Lest I roll on like the sea 5,000 years ago, consider finally the great theme of the book: Man’s ontological struggle with God. As themes go, it’s the Big One. W.H. Auden wrote an amazing poem about Herman Melville. I’ll try quoting it from memory, too, but you’ll want to look up the whole poem for yourself. Trust me. It’s about how Melville could have played it safe and gone on writing popular adventure books in the style of “Typee” and “Omoo” …

… The storm that blew him past the Cape of Sensible Success that cries ‘This rock is Eden, shipwreck here,’
but deafened him with thunder and confused with lightning,
The maniac hero, hunting like a jewel the rare ambiguous monster
that had maimed his sex, hatred for hatred, ending in a scream.
The unexplained survivor, breaking off the nightmare.
All that was intricate and false, the truth was simple.

It’s a great poem, and a very good key to “Moby-Dick” and its author.

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