The novel Moby-Dick or, the Whale by Herman Melville has a 3.51 out of 5.00 stars on Goodreads.
As I re-read the text in 2020, I felt that, more than any other book I have read since perhaps Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson, any attempt to offer a numerical or star rating to the novel would be a futile exercise. Even attempting to peg onto rational grounds what the book is about is a difficult feat. Here is the summary provided by Goodreads:
So Melville wrote of his masterpiece, one of the greatest works of imagination in literary history. In part, Moby-Dick is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopaedia of whaling lore and legend, the book can be seen as part of its author’s lifelong meditation on America. Written with wonderfully redemptive humour, Moby-Dick is also a profound inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception.
Notice the abrupt change from situation to story. The context of the tale is told by Ishmael, and features climbing aboard the whaling vessel, The Pequod, with his trusted cannibal Queequeg. But even before that, the story abounds in philosophical musings on water, and Ishmael is only too glad to sit through a full sermon of Jonah. And no sooner does the voyage begin, we find the pleasant arc of character development necessary for a second act interrupted by classifications for whales, stories of mutiny of other vessels, an analysis of the color white, and Ahab’s blustering rebuke of Stubb’s stand.
“The author’s lifelong meditation on America” indeed. European novels attempt to bottle and make smaller, investigating the solitude and loneliness of the miniscule in a long history, from Huysmans to Hesse, from Against Nature to Steppenwolf. Even modern European greats, though they comment on the state of the world as any public intellectual is burning to do, Submission by Michel Houellebecq positions itself firmly from the vantage point of a horny liberal itching to placate Islamic ideals. The larger implications play out from an undisputed center, as François observes French politics from an armchair.
Similarly, Karl Ove Knausgaard, so uncomfortable with questions of validity, produces autofiction millions of words long. My Struggle is the conflict with individuality in a society that longs to create erasure, a rejection of being pigeon-holed, of being described or defined. Yet the perspective is resolutely embedded in his psyche alone. And though he might travel across space and time in each volume of his work we learn that, by and large, his account comes from a small office as he types away. That is not to say that his work is at all easy or comfortable. My Struggle is six volumes, culminating in millions of words where action can hardly be said to occur.
Now, one can easily debate what I have to say, for I have not read every European novel. But there is in my mind a very large chasm in presumption between the great works of American literature and those in Europe. The pretense for having something to say, and how much one is allowed to say, can include everything and the kitchen sink in big American novels. What makes Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 more compelling in European audiences is the anchoring of a high concept to a single human. But what makes Moby-Dick or Infinite Jest or The Recognitions particularly American features is in the size of the bite. Like our diets, the calorie intake of big novels in America feels particularly big, big for its own sake, big in the same way that “everything is bigger in Texas.” The stereotypical American with his big belt buckle, riding his horse on the great plains, consumed by the largesse of the Romantic promise. The audacity of printing and selling one large volume, when a smaller printing of a series is just as easy. It is the attempt to collate, to explain in entirety a big thing.
And unlike hot dogs and hamburgers and pizza, this is a legacy that I feel sets American fiction apart and creates a distinction that we can hold onto as authentically “American” though of course the farther back you go in time, or the wider you go in space, the less this seems true.
Which brings us back to that Goodreads synopsis, and back, hopelessly, to that 3.51 star rating.
Plumbing the depths of low-starred reviews is quite enjoyable for books you have read and loathed, but it is asymmetrically grating when it happens to be the book you love.
My god. Epic whale tale is right. Don’t read this book unless A) You’re super interested in whaling/fishing/sailing, B) You have an entire summer to read the damn thing, or C) You want to look smart in public. I know it’s one of the first American classic lit books, but I don’t care. Let it die with 1842, because let’s face it… fun wasn’t invented until 1920.Ashleigh, 1-star review
Possibly the only true statement is in the first sentence. The term “epic” may depend on its structure in verse, or in a history of the nation (“no” on the first count, a possible “yes” on the second). I doubt a person who is intensely interested in the act of historic whaling would find the granular details one needs unless a supplemental set of non-fiction lay beside them. Americans are known to eat and finish meals too quickly, hence the answer for B, while C is also a pragmatic response, again by Americans, against pretension, which is something we dropped along with the clergy. The rest descends into madness and a lust for revenge. “But I don’t care,” she decrees, and in a spat, upends time itself. “Let it die with 1842,” she says which, given that the book was published in 1851, is just as strange as to suggest that people were incapable of fun until the modern era, when I suppose fashion went mainstream.
Most of the low reviews on the book point to adjectives like boring, tedious, or a synonym of the two. Never mind the fact that our taste for entertainment may also be a weakness particular to our culture, the devil is the author who cannot keep our attention, not the other way around. Fascinating it is to imagine the person out there on the high seas of the internet, throwing their harpoon with all their might at the book that swallowed them, perhaps even took off a leg, and once the poor reader made it back landside, they are angrily deriding the experience as a lost cause.
For those who rebound from the shock that is Moby-Dick’s diatribes, none of them imagine that the book’s gift is in its democratic display of interpretations and allusions. One could argue that European novels “hold all the cards” as it were, while these gargantuan American tomes show rather than tell to such a higher degree that it becomes a feast for the imagination. Melville spends an entire chapter rhapsodizing on the color white. What if the multifaceted debate from Ishmael on whiteness is not pretense but humility?
Herman Melville causes such a vicious response in people online that he may have even predicted a response in the attempt itself. Revenge, the desire to have the pleas for respite overcorrect, to want blood, litters the book. Revenge is permeable and can infect a crew just as much as a captain. And it so happens that Captain Ahab feels revenge more than most:
Therefore, the tormented spirit that glared out of bodily eyes, when what seemed Ahab rushed from his room, was for the time but a vacated thing, a formless somnambulistic being, a ray of living light, to be sure, but without an object to colour, and therefore a blankness in itself. God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates.Herman Melville, Moby-Dick or, the Whale
Here the revenge is not reciprocated, cannot be reciprocated, for in the whale there is no such thing as revenge. Nature cannot abide a limit like revenge, for it sees no sides. It only sees survival and continuation, and it will kill whoever in order to paradoxically prolong life. Ahab’s revenge can only exist in the mind, and thus the same holds true for contemporary readers. Dashed onto the rocks of the literary world, these lowercase “r” readers have no intention of addressing their own insecurities. No. Like Ahab’s whalebone leg, they strap on paragraphs of the novel and use it against Melville. Like the whale, Melville lies deep under the surface, and has little care now for what people feel about his work. He is dead.
Perhaps this desire for revenge in the rejection of Melville’s novel says just as much about the American psyche as the book itself did of our country in 1851? It is difficult to collect America into one category, but perhaps this attempt to do so at all is a great place to start.
Those outside of America may be stunned to find most of our bookstores to be lined not with fiction, but with self-help books. We love the quest to better ourselves to such an extent that if we do not find explicit results in a 1:1 fashion from the product we buy, one can look for these examples of revenge in the reviews. Like the snake-oil salesmen of old, America is rife with swindlers and puffed-up wealthy businessman who think they arrived on top due to some skill or temperament, and the best follow-up from the wealthy is to prove the methodology. Never mind the fact that success and truth can be totally separate things.
If fiction is presenting a space in which truth can be told, Americans have a distinct problem with this formula. “Tell it to us straight,” goes the pragmatic American. So it would make sense that Moby-Dick, a book that cannot say one truth at a time, would be the recipient of such ire.
But revenge. That is something else entirely. It is straightforward, deadly, precise, and concrete. Particularly here in the South, revenge is a sign of strength, of honor, and has been the bane of a justice system that tries to take the fight to the courtroom. Revenge is explicit, and it requires a binary. The other must see revenge and acknowledge its act, otherwise, like Ahab, revenge feels little better a word to call it than madness.
It is with this distinction in mind that I have been thinking about the state of America in 2021.
In a post-election America, deep into the throes of a second wave of COVID-19, where community spread makes strangers of us all, and the steps it took to finally get Joe Biden into office turned out to be harrowing for the history of our nation. An embarrassing riot in Capitol Hill, 400,000 dead, a crumbling infrastructure, and false claims of a rigged election. And the situation is so polarizing that Donald Trump was satisfied with the COVID-19 response because of how much more it affected blue democratic states than red ones. The only response to the riot was in its comparison to the riots of the left earlier that year.
This writing does not seek to find a moral equivalence between these two sides. President Donald Trump’s erosion of democratic norms is beyond despicable. And for Republicans to follow suit! The pull of Trump’s rhetoric reminds us of the ship Jeroboam, featured in Moby-Dick carrying its own disease; and the sailor Gabriel, calling it the plague like now Trump does, partners his own strange relationship to it.
The consequence of all this was, that the archangel cared little or nothing for the captain and mates; and since the epidemic had broken out, he carried a higher hand than ever; declaring that the plague, as he called it, was at his sole command; nor should it be stayed but according to his good pleasure. The sailors, mostly poor devils, cringed, and some of them fawned before him; in obedience to his instructions, sometimes rendering him personal homage, as to a god. Such things may seem incredible; but, however wondrous, they are true. Nor is the history of fanatics half so striking in respect to the measureless self-deception of the fanatic himself, as his measureless power of deceiving and bedevilling so many others.
It is depressing to realize, as former president Barack Obama has, that so many people fell for a poor excuse of an autocrat. But the harder question to answer, how over 70 million people were willing to possibly vote their right to vote away, stirs within us for a later time. The easier question to answer concerns my own kind.
Democrats are apoplectic about not achieving the decisive victory they had hoped (whatever that victory was supposed to look like) after realizing that Republicans achieved what looked to be the best turnout from minority voters since the 1960s. In what felt to be Stockholm Syndrome, we again relied on the comfort of polls to confirm that Biden had a substantial lead.
And in certain ways, he did. An election for a second term has only been thwarted ten times in our nation’s history. To suspect that this was going to be an easy election was incorrect.
Yet to see the shocked faces of left-leaning media outlets zooming in and out of Maricopa County and wondering how important the legacy of John McCain was, of scrolling through Twitter posts of public intellectuals typing 280 character versions of “it should not have been this close” invites another reading. It is that same hunger, that kick-them-while-their-down feeling, that urgency to see the revenge as thorough. Is it safe to say that Democrats wanted the same face of reaction as Trump lost in the same way as they had from Hillary Clinton’s upset in 2016?
Those hopes for Joe Biden to invite a happy Thanksgiving, where family members could finally sit around the table and forget a history of personal politics, are dashed. It is not only the virus. It is the lingering decisions yet to be made about our democracy. Are there lessons that can be learned by the Democratic party over this election?
Certainly identity politics used as a cudgel is one such failure.
Here, Herman Melville offers aid again, addressing the cognitive biases we are learning to live with on a daily basis more than a century ago:
But it may be fancied, that from the naked skeleton of the stranded whale, accurate hints may be derived touching his true form. Not at all. For it is one of the more curious things about this Leviathan, that his skeleton gives very little idea of his general shape.
Much like the variance from the inside-out determines the appearance and personality of the whale, so too does the person. Our skeletons only tell us the kind of violence perpetrated on it in postmortem, the kind that makes for bland seasons of crime procedurals. In the history of the United States, measuring our skulls has a bad reputation. This focus solely on race, on the make-up of our bodies, is skull measuring of a different guise. I suppose it is inevitable that each generation must answer the question of our heritage, and because ours is so mixed, race continues to circulate as a sought after account. Barack Obama identified America’s place in the world in a similar context.
And so the world watches America – the only great power in history made up of people from every corner of the planet, comprising every race and faith and cultural practice – to see if our experiment in democracy can work.Barack Obama, A Promised Land
But if the Democratic party would take to actually reading the books they push to their families on Christmas Day, I suspect that the issue of identity politics would be a case open and closed.
Let us hope that some of those books be history. Whatever happened to Martin Luther King’s famous line about the “content of their character” rather than the “color of their skin”?
We should not be surprised when companies who rely on minority purchases, like that of Nike, made topical advertising campaigns. The rush to defend black people only when it was convenient reminded ordinary people of how good ideas and concepts can be quickly made predatory. Is it all that shocking that people come to the United States specifically to avoid legacy terms like race and ethnicity?
This is even the case for white people. In the television show Mad Men, in the season three episode “The Color Blue” Lane Pryce has traveled across the pond after the merger between advertising companies Sterling Cooper and Puttnam, Powell & Lowe. Pryce’s wife is homesick, but he, in a bigger surprise to himself, adores New York. In a taxi to attend a gala, the couple argues. “It’s not London, it’s not even England,” Rebecca Pryce says. “That’s true,” Lane says. “I’ve been here ten months and no-one’s ever asked me where I went to school.”
The pedigree of schooling does not last in the United States. Though meritocracy as a concept is a white whale of its own in our country, Lane feels the shrugging off of educational legacy as liberating.
This collating of the common American worker, regardless of skill or background, used to be the foundation for the Democratic party, where labor solidified itself. They did not chase after a stylized, hyperliterate (supposedly), socially-adjusted, and extremely vocal minority.
Make no mistake, I would claim myself to be a member of this cosmopolitan group. I live in a city, read far more than I need to, use those opinions to make myself appear more substantial to others, and I voted for Joe Biden because no force in heaven or hell would have compelled me to vote for Donald Trump, who once offered to use nuclear weapons to combat our hurricanes. But even I found myself embarrassed at the tumult of reaction over the election results. A reaction that seemed to place a personal burden on people voting, as if they were voting for ideology and personality rather than the issues at hand.
“It would be so easy to win elections,” Bill Maher said on his show on November 13th “if we would just drop this shit.”
That shit is revenge politics. It is cancelling university professors who specifically serve a community by speaking truth even and especially when its students and administrators order conformity. It is the witch hunts which lead to bizarre stories like Brett Favre “making people uncomfortable” by not clapping enough for Caitlyn Jenner at the ESPYs. It is akin to suggesting that you would like to hunt Moby-Dick, and seeing the white whale in all spaces.
Whales, Whales Everywhere
I do not write these words without a great degree of disappointment. The results of the 2020 election have proven that the party I have stood by has made out-group homogeneity bias and cross-race effect central tenets of our platform.
Ishmael knew when he saw the glint in Ahab’s eye that revenge only motors a man when we create a monster that has no bearing on reality. Unfortunately, in the political realm, no revenge lands on its target. Each party has been guilty of assuming that politics has personally wronged them, and the resulting revenge that has been unleashed has been done so to people who do not identify with the imagined subgroups that the American newsroom claim exist.
Readers who unleash their anger in a Goodreads review may feel vindicated by addressing “fundamental contradictions” in Melville’s magnum opus, but in doing so they signal to creative writing departments everywhere that “good” writing is simply “slick” writing, a style so austere and devoid of ambiguity as to neither estrange nor confront, the chief goals of what literature is designed to do. And perhaps many of those younger readers, so tolerant as to avoid the challenge of content they found disturbing or *gasp*, difficult, may become writers themselves, or literary agents…or editors.
I am choosing the easier fix in American politics: I may know what to do to bring the Democratic party back into its original support for labor and our working class, but I have less to say about the Republican party, who seems so far out of reach in its lies and deceit, as well as general disregard for the voters they represent, that I actively desire for conservatives to exile themselves and start anew. Captain Ahab sacrificed his whole crew, except Ishmael, in going after Moby-Dick, and he destroyed the Pequod, almost even destroying the story.
In any case, the sooner that American politics and culture can get out of the prospect of personally identifying with ideas, the sooner we can begin to read deeply the people and books in our life that define our democracy.