Sunday, February 28, 2010

Me v. Moby: Part Two

8:50 a.m. We’re back. The tenth chapter is entitled “A Bosom Friend.” I’m hoping for Peter-Scolari-and-Tom-Hanks-styled hijinks (No, I didn’t remember Peter Scolari’s name. I had to Google it.)

9:00 a.m. Melville writes Quee fantastically. It would be easy to turn Quee into a series of clichés (either the benign outsider like Balki in Perfect Strangers or the hyper-aggressive savage.) Instead, Melville strikes his pitch in the middle, “neither caterpillar, nor butterfly.”

More importantly, Quee is interesting. Some authors spend so much time making their characters politically correct that they forget to make them engaging.

Quee would be an impressive accomplishment if a white American man wrote him now; but Melville did it back in 1851, when blacks counted as three-fifths of people and “savage” was a sociological term.

And how did he do it? By writing Quee as honestly as he could.

9:28 a.m. I just read Melville’s love letters to Nantucket and the sea, and you can tell his affection for the subject is genuine. Forget writing what you know. Write what you love.

9:34 a.m. And Melville just dedicated an entire chapter to soup.

9:38 a.m. Melville’s description of the Pequod: “She was a ship of the old school, rather small if anything.” Apparently, the phrase “old school” is older than I realize.

9:50 a.m. Melville seems to be making a subtle point about religion. First, he criticizes the capriciousness of Christian kindness, then he good-naturedly encourages Quee’s faith in Yogo, and, finally, he offers this chestnut during his description of Captain Bildad:

“He had long since come to the sage and sensible conclusion that a man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world quite another.”

10:03 a.m. Captain Peleg’s assessment of Captain Ahab: “Not a pious good man… but a swearing good man.” That’s as good an epitaph as any.

10:05 a.m. Melville has a knack for characterization. Captains Bildad and Peleg are fully formed in a single scene.

I have finished the 16th chapter and this seems an appropriate time to summarize: Ishmael and Quee agree to sail together. They go to Nantucket to find a whaling boat. They eat chowder. Yogo, Quee’s god, decides Ishmael should pick the vessel. Ishmael picks the Pequod because it’s old school. He meets the ship’s idiosyncratic owners, Captains Peleg and Bildad. They hire him.

Also, Peleg has this to say about the Pequod’s captain, Ahab: “Stricken, blasted, if he be, Ahab has his humanities!”

That statement has great rhythm. (Read it aloud.) But is that what you want to hear about your new boss? I suppose it’s better than not having your humanity, but still…

10:20 a.m. “We good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things, and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals, pagans and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits on these subjects … Heaven have mercy on us all—Presbyterians and Pagans alike—for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”

So Melville comes from the Curtis Mayfield school of religion. If there’s a hell below, we’re all going to go.

10:25 a.m. “Betty, go get Snarles the Painter, and tell him to paint me a sign, with—‘No suicides permitted here, and no smoking in the parlor’—might as well kill both birds at once.”

All hotels should have that sign.

11:10 a.m. Ishmael and Quee have set out into the Atlantic.

Let’s summarize: Bildad and Peleg meet Quee and hire him. An old sailor named Elijah, who is referred to as the prophet, drops ominous hints that not all is right with Ahab and the ship. (In case you missed all the other sepulchral hints, Elijah makes it clear that the Pequod is fated for doom.) With that in mind, Ishmael and Quee begin their voyage.

People often describe Moby Dick as a story of obsession. But, to this point, the primary themes have been religion and prejudice. I’m sure obsession will come up once Ahab gets some pagetime, but it hasn’t yet.

Not that it’s a problem. Authors don’t worry about themes. They introduce and abandon themes as they serve the story. Authors worry about character, setting and plot. It’s shut-in bloggers and literary critics who worry about theme.

With that, I’ll be taking another break. My wife has asked me to shovel the driveway.

-Jason Lea,

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