The Endless Depths of Moby-Dick Symbolism

The author of & Sons says the Herman Melville classic regularly brings him to tears.
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By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

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Doug McLean

A great herd of readers profess devotion to Herman Melville's classic Moby-Dick, but novelists especially seem to love saying they love it. On The Top Ten, a website that lists authors' favorite books, Moby-Dick is cited more often than not (and by writers as dissimilar as John Irving and Robert Coover, Bret Easton Ellis and Joyce Carol Oates). But perhaps they all love a different Moby-Dick. It's been called a whaling yarn, a theodicy, a Shakespeare-styled political tragedy, an anatomy, a queer confessional, an environmentalist epic; because this novel seems to hold all the world, all these readings are compatible and true.

David Gilbert, author of & Sons, is another Melville devotee -- and when he said he wanted to discuss Moby-Dick for this series, I felt sure he'd bring a new, original perspective to the book. He didn't disappoint. In his essay, Gilbert looks directly at the book's shape-shifting form and examines its ability to serve as a personal cipher. In his reading of the novel's magnificent 87th chapter, "The Grand Armada," Melville seems to choose this theme self-consciously: It's a comment, according to Gilbert, on how self-reflective we tend to be when we look out at the world.

In & Sons, Gilbert filters a Karamazovian family saga through the literary sensibility of Nabokov's Pale Fire. To tell the story of A.N. Dyer (a reclusive and enigmatic Great American Novelist) and his three sons, Gilbert employs handwritten notes, a novel-within-a-novel (titled Ampersand), and a deliciously unreliable narrator whose fannish devotion to the Dyer clan undercuts the truthfulness of his presentation of events. Gilbert's other books are Remote Feed and The Normals; his short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, and GQ.


David Gilbert: Let's make one thing clear: I have nothing specifically smart to say about Moby-Dick mainly because I can't pretend to understand Moby-Dick. The book is nearly impossible to place, to categorize, to hold without feeling the vertiginous swell of its creation. More than any other book, it fills me with awe and dread. I have read it twice, listened to it once. My first reading was in college and it was a struggle because I was in college and reading Moby-Dick was low on my list of college-worn priorities. But I finished. Or I pretended to. I skipped a fair amount. And then I told people I had read Moby-Dick. That seemed the point. I believe War and Peace was next. I was a big game hunter who only wanted heads to hang in my wood-paneled den. Proust was the equivalent of a bearskin rug.

Ten years later I regretted my ways, and I removed those spines from up high. And so began my second reading of Moby-Dick, and I was quickly embarrassed for that Junior back in college. You cannot read this book for speed. It is designed for the long haul, the chapters never too long, naps seemingly built into the text. It is, dare I say, a voyage. When in doubt, or simply in need of something, the something uncertain, a scratch like the scratch Ishmael feels in those opening lines, instead of the sea I will take to Moby-Dick and turn to a random page and read a few paragraphs out loud, my voice hauling forth the words like a net full of squirmy fish. It gets in your blood. It is your blood.

This chapter satisfies all versions of me, from the sighting of exotic land to the chase of dastardly pirates, but mostly it is the whales, the vast pod straight ahead, their spouting showing "like the thousand cheerful chimneys of some dense metropolis."

It is one of a few books that I have dreamed about -- and dreamed about often: Tashtego falling into the whale's head and Queequeg's heroics; Pip adrift and utterly changed, the strange presence of Fedallah. Moby-Dick is about everything, a bible written in scrimshaw, an adventure spun in allegory, a taxonomy tripping on acid. It seems to exist outside its own time, much like Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, the poetry of Emily Dickinson. It is so broad and so deep as to accept any interpretation while also staring back and mocking this man-made desire toward interpretation.

What does it mean? There are so many symbols as to render symbols meaningless. And yet, like Ahab, we insist on plucking the heart of its mystery. As Ishmael says, "And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher, except to sell by the cartload, as they do the hills about Boston, to fill up some morass in the Milky Way." Moby-Dick might as well be that enigmatic doubloon nailed to the main-mast, the prize for anyone who first grasps the white whale.

And maybe, when all is said and done, the book moves me on a more basic level, because I have always loved whales, ever since I was a boy and pushed aside the impossible math of dinosaurs -- 65 million years ago? -- my imagination frustrated by all those bones in need of flesh and skin, my soul crushed by the most awesome aspect of our world, already long gone. Instead I embraced the giants that did exist among us, and fellow mammals too, the blue whale, the right whale, the humpback whale -- Christ, I loved humpback whales -- my room littered with books and books on whales, whale posters on my wall -- the narwhal, the beluga -- and I joined Save the Whales and stuck their sticker on the back window of our Country Squire station wagon, and I fought against Iceland and Japan and their cruel whaling ways, my fight very local and mostly confined within two-thousand square feet on 73rd and Lexington, but I fought nevertheless -- though I never did like the killer whale -- and I cheered on Greenpeace and its Rainbow Warrior. Maybe in my early teens I tittered over the sperm whale and its shameful onanistic shadow, but I certainly did my time in front of the famous diorama at the Natural History Museum -- sperm whale versus giant squid -- my eyes keen to the cheap showmanship of poured fiberglass yet also sinking down into those ultraviolet spheres and imagining a secret world that glowed like velvet in black light. So Moby-Dick, in its baroque manner, speaks to me at ten years old as well as to me at forty-six.

And what do I hear most clearly?

Chapter 87: The Grand Armada. This chapter satisfies all versions of me, from the sighting of exotic land to the chase of dastardly pirates, but mostly it is the whales, the vast pod straight ahead, their spouting showing "like the thousand cheerful chimneys of some dense metropolis." It is full sail ahead, harpooners cheering the pursuit, Ahab slotted into his Ahab hole. And I am caught up in the action as well. After hours of just staying ahead, the whales slow down in what Ishmael describes as "the strange perplexity of inert irresolution." What a wonderful phrase. It is a mouthful, like much of the language of Moby-Dick, but somehow it nourishes me and seems to become a part of who I am.

We, the killers, seek meaning in the depths even as the depths look back and see in their murderers nothing but an inconsequential speck.

I know it makes no sense, or comes across as pretentious nonsense, but so often when reading this book I find myself on the verge of tears and I have no idea why. A lost world perhaps? A striving for connection? A certain secular religiosity. No matter, the whales are doomed. They form a circle, circles within circles, like a clockwork mechanism in fin and tale, and the smaller boats lower into the water and go about their true business, the killing of whales, darting the weaker ones, taking advantage of mammalian affinities and loyalties, maiming as many as possible. And it is within this shoal that Starbuck and Queequeg and Ishmael find their boat inadvertently pushed into the very innermost circle, what Ishmael compares to a valley lake, "the enchanted calm which they say lurks at the heart of every commotion," and it is this moment in Moby-Dick that I reflect on most often, that living wall of whales and the pastoral scenes glimpsed beneath.

All this violence, all this blood, and yet, for a moment, small tame cows and calves, "the women and children of this routed host," visit the side of the unexpected boat and accept pats and scratches from Queequeg and Starbuck. They are the innocent, the cherished, the ones being protected by the larger herd from "learning the precise cause of its stopping." And then Ishmael looks down into the water and

...far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes...for, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to be mother. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence; -- even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulfweed in their new-born sight.

A bit of Gulfweed, that's what they are -- what we are. It is that moment of calm and metaphysical understanding, the divide between the spirit and the body and the near constant human attempt to bring those polarities together, that plus the sentimentality of the scene, of these mothers and children, these whales, resigned yet not uncaring, making due with the cruelty of the distant stars, just slays me. We, the killers, seek meaning in the depths even as the depths look back and see in their murderers nothing but an inconsequential speck. And deeper still in this clear iris we spot the moments following birth where the line of umbilical apes the harpooner's hemp, and yet even deeper we spot actual Leviathan lovemaking (and where, like a precursor to David Foster Wallace, we are given a curious footnote, one of many). We, like Ishmael, nature's disinherited, peer into this wide end of a telescope and see the up-close secrets of the faraway world.

And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve around me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.

Or so pronounces Ishmael, once again insisting on that individualistic spyglass view, the small and large relating directly back to him. And do we believe him here? I certainly don't. And what is "eternal mildness" anyway? Ishmael, as befitting his name, is desperate for kinship wherever he can steal it. But I understand the impulse, the desire; I feel in my bones what he seeks in this watery world: something solid to grasp (even if it's just a metaphor).

And lest we luxuriate in this sweet view for long, Melville quickly turns the scene into arguably the most existentially brutal in the entire book, straight outta Cormac: an injured whale with a line of rope tangled around its tail, the end terminating in a razor-sharp cutting-spade, breaks free from one of the boats and begins to flail about the herd in terrible agony, sending this keen blade crashing into the water, wounding and murdering his fellow comrades. From extreme peace to extreme violence in three paragraphs and we can see, more clearly than ever, Ishmael's lofty pronouncements as arbitrary, a choosing of what to believe, what to pursue, that, like him, we are the makers of meaning in a world of endless meaning, all to fill up a morass known as the soul.

Oh, and how many whales did the Pequod take from the grand armada? One.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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