November 14 was the 162nd anniversary of the publication of Moby-Dick, that book about the white whale with the phallic name. Hipster literati dressed in whaling gear and came together in bookstores across America to share whaling lore. I saw a man walking down Franklin Avenue in Greenpoint carrying a harpoon. And the anniversary even inspired, in 2012, a Moby-Dick marathon reading that spanned three days and two bookstores in New York City. It's a day to honor a book about the one thing all of us know and love: sperm whales. Yes, sperm whales. On Moby-Dick day, you can open up and admit to loving large white cylinders filled with mammalian goo.
I've read Herman Melville's Moby-Dick three times, and I'm in the middle of reading it again. It's mindblowing, and it always seems contemporary, for many reasons. A few:
- Like Internet writing today, Moby-Dick isn't as much an original novel as a compilation of some great thinking that went before it. Melville combines various sources – quotes and references, some hidden and others overt – to make a kind of Wikipedia of whaling. If the novel were written today, it would be 70% hyperlinks. And the book actually starts with roughly five pages of straight up quotes, all relating to how crazy/mysterious whales are. It's the 19th century's precursor to Twitter.
- He writes in second person. Not all the time, but often enough to make it feel like some things on the Internet these days.
- There are sexual innuendos all over the fucking place. There is an entire chapter on sperm. As in the "sperm" inside a sperm whale's head (not actually sperm, but a spermish substance). Yes. The chapter details the way seamen (!) rub their hands in a sperm whale's head to scoop out the gooey white stuff inside, which they use to make oil lamps. The chapter is called "A Squeeze Of The Hand." Here's an excerpt:
Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.
- There's cool slang, which Melville took from whaling communities. Turning flukes (=going to bed). Spliced? That means married.
- The book doesn't read like a novel. It has 135 chapters, and most of them are no longer than a few pages. I'd say only 25% of the chapters deal primarily with plot; most of the chapters could work as standalone essays – they're pretty philosophical, and they use whaling as a metaphor for life, death, our existential peril, sex, ambition, etc.
And, for fun: Did you know that Moby Dick was based on a story about a violent whale named…wait for it…Mocha Dick! Yes. Mocha. Dick. Starbucks should sell a limited edition latte with that name to celebrate next year's anniversary of the novel's publication.
Caveat: There are no women in this book. Except maybe the whale itself (?). But its name is Moby-DICK, so who knows. But if you're looking for any kind of female/male dynamic, you're not going to get it. You will, though, get some hot homoeroticism.
For further reading, some of the best websites/blog posts on the freaky albino cetacean:
- There are a billion books about the book. Here's a review of one – Nathaniel Philbrick's Why Read Moby-Dick?
- Philip Hoare on newyorker.com. This is another review of Nathaniel Philbrick's Why Read Moby-Dick?, but it's got some great reflections on when Hoare read the book himself. He says, pretty accurately, that reading Moby-Dick is "a bit like being stoned," and it also "evokes an Asperger's air."
- Selections from one-star reviews of Moby-Dick on Amazon. Good stuff.
- OK. One of the best (hottest?) things about Melville is…he was in love with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Can you imagine those two writing each other flowery love letters – like, the floweries of the floweriest love letters in America — and then having sex amid piles of unfinished handwritten manuscripts in New England somewhere? Well, they did (probably). Here are Melville's letters to Hawthorne. More about Melville's homosexuality here. Here's an excerpt, from one of Herman's letters to Nate:
I should have a paper mill established at one end of the house, and so have an endless riband of foolscap rolling in upon my desk; and upon that endless riband I should write a thousand – a million – billion thoughts, all under the form of a letter to you. The divine magnet is on you, and my magnet responds. Which is the biggest? A foolish question – they are One.
Incredible. Why can't I have a relationship like this. ?????
And, lastly, here's one great quote from the book itself:
Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.
Consider all this; and then turn to the green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!
Holy shit, amirite?
This holiday season, if you haven't yet read it, do. Ride a barge to Nantucket, dive into the Atlantic Ocean, and swim with the sperm whales in the deep blue sea. Or maybe you could just read it under a blanket as it snows outside. Is there anything better? Really, is there? Isn't this the reason you're alive?!? HERE IS THE BOOK. Go.