Or the Whale

mobydickIt is not a coincidence that I finished Moby Dick (FINALLY) on a day when I began my day reaching for my phone and reading this. (I don’t recommend reaching for the phone while still in bed, by the way, but it’s just how this day began). I read that Daily Beast article and thought, Melville.

I am not really a Dave Ramsey person (I have reasons), but many of my friends are and his ideas have done them good, as far as they witness.  I am not even sure there is any truth to this Daily Beast article, but the idea behind the story, like the idea I read behind Moby Dick, is just true, yo.

Never have I come across a book that drew such strong reactions from people. “You’re reading Moby Dick? My sister had to read that and she said it was torture,” was, in its essence, a common response when people realized what I was reading. Though I’d attempted to read it about four times, two of those times making it past the first 100 pages but then losing interest as soon as Melville started to describe the ship, I only just made it all the way through. It took me five months.*

I started it after I had to teach “Bartleby the Scrivener” to a literature class for college sophomores. I knew that the story was in some way a response to Melville’s experience with Moby Dick. I loved that story so much—its language, its mantra (“I’d prefer not to…” how true so much of the time!)—that I thought, okay, I’d better read Moby Dick now.

Again, I read this book slowly. Each chapter was like reading philosophy, not only because there is a ton of philosophy on its pages, but because the language is thick. I am not going to say I don’t understand it when people say they hate this book. It was the most difficult book I’ve ever read and the idea that high schools would assign it as summer reading material is just super crazy. But I will say that it’s sad to hear people say that they hate it, because this book is amazing. And important.

Not only is it difficult because of the language, which, at times, resembles Shakespeare in its depth and beauty; it’s difficult because of what it reveals about the impact of imperial power upon humans.

(The ship! The hearse! The second hearse!” cried Ahab from the boat; “its wood could only be American!”)

I am amazed at how well the book diagnoses the sickness of wealth and power; some call it “worldly ambition.” Of COURSE it would be unpopular; it brings the hardest truth about humanity into light: that this kind of (monomaniacal) power corrupts.   It is a sickness that all artists (and non-artists, like Dave Ramsey) battle all of the time. We want our work to bring us recognition, fame, glory—all the things that I believe Moby Dick represents. This empirical (significantly white) whale is what filmmakers call the MacGuffin. If we just have that thing, then all of our problems will go away (that book publication, that good review, that tour, that Pulitzer). Of course someone who reveals this uncomfortable truth in such a masterpiece would die poor and unpopular. Of course.

(“Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief.”)

As a writer, I often ask myself if it would be better to write like Melville or to be famous and loved but forgotten? Is it better to produce the masterpiece and live poorly? Is it better to have little light while living but to leave the world (in book form) a light that will never go out?

Regardless, Moby Dick demands a reevaluation of how we live and decide what is important. Why do we want what we want? Does this thirst overpower our ability to interact with others, to acknowledge other people at all? Reading Moby Dick is a complex journey into our own darkness.

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