A Couple of Thoughts on Melville


Last night I was struggling through some writing, and as I often do when I hit a rough patch, I went looking for some assistance. Sometimes I'll play music, or watch a scene I like from a movie, or look at a painting or a picture. Sometimes I even watch music videos

But just often I'll reread an author I admire. Yesterday, I settled on one of my favorite passages from Moby Dick, and spent some time thinking about these particular lines:

Nor was it his unwonted magnitude, nor his remarkable hue, nor yet his deformed lower jaw, that so much invested the whale with natural terror, as that unexampled, intelligent malignity which, according to specific accounts, he had over and over again evinced in his assaults. More than all, his treacherous retreats struck more of dismay than perhaps aught else. For, when swimming before his exulting pursuers, with every apparent symptom of alarm, he had several times been known to turn around suddenly, and, bearing down upon them, either stave their boats to splinters, or drive them back in consternation to their ship. 

Already several fatalities had attended his chase. But though similar disasters, however little bruited ashore, were by no means unusual in the fishery; yet, in most instances, such seemed the White Whale's infernal aforethought of ferocity, that every dismembering or death that he caused, was not wholly regarded as having been inflicted by an unintelligent agent. 

Judge, then, to what pitches of inflamed, distracted fury the minds of his more desperate hunters were impelled, when amid the chips of chewed boats, and the sinking limbs of torn comrades, they swam out of the white curds of the whale's direful wrath into the serene, exasperating sunlight, that smiled on, as if at a birth or a bridal.

The first thought, here, is the irony Melville invokes. What drives the whalers crazy is the very fact that the whale, a creature which they have defined as prey, refuses to remain in that assigned box. And so the tactics of Moby Dick, who is essentially fighting for his life, are dubbed "treacherous," his will to claim, protect and direct his own life an "intelligent malignity."

There's an echo of this same kind of irony in the great Robert Hayden who, in relating the facts of Cinque's revolt, wears the mask of Cinque's captors:

But for the storm that flung up barriers 
of wind and wave, The Amistad, señores, 
would have reached the port of Príncipe in two, 
three days at most; but for the storm we should 
have been prepared for what befell. 
Swift as a puma's leap it came. There was 
that interval of moonless calm filled only 
with the water's and the rigging's usual sounds, 
then sudden movement, blows and snarling cries 
and they had fallen on us with machete 
and marlinspike. It was as though the very 
air, the night itself were striking us. 
Exhausted by the rigors of the storm, 
we were no match for them. Our men went down 
before the murderous Africans. Our loyal 
Celestino ran from below with gun 
and lantern and I saw, before the cane- 
knife's wounding flash, Cinquez, 
that surly brute who calls himself a prince, 
directing, urging on the ghastly work.

Now, Cinque has been sold into slavery. He's lost the right to his body, something which we all claim as sacred. And yet, like Moby Dick, his efforts to reclaim that body, to safeguard his life are portrayed as unnatural. The "very air, the night itself" attacks the slavers. The resisting Africans are "murderous," and Cinque isn't someone fighting to reclaim the right to protect his person, but a "surly brute" who deigns to call himself "a prince."

The second thought stems from the tools with which Melville drives that irony--particularly those winding, back-bending, indirect, Jane Austen-like sentences. There was a piece in the Times a couple of weeks ago on form and content. I've come to believe that form is content, that the very structure of sentences carry an almost visual sort of information. 

So in Austen case, her indirect, almost passive, sentences help portray a world of indirection, of ritual, where people so often say less, and more, then they mean. It's a world where you can't just come out and say, "You've become arrogant," instead you must say, "The distinction was, perhaps, felt too strongly," It's a world where the illusion of politeness, even with one's enemies, is held as principal. 

Melville's sentences are equally indirect, but more obscuring, and from that obscurement, I get the feeling of confusion that must have attended the pursuers of Moby Dick. This sentence, in particular, is gloriously all over the place:

But though similar disasters, however little bruited ashore, were by no means unusual in the fishery; yet, in most instances, such seemed the White Whale's infernal aforethought of ferocity, that every dismembering or death that he caused, was not wholly regarded as having been inflicted by an unintelligent agent. 

The commas, the semicolons, the stops and starts, the double negatives, the qualifiers all add up to a kind of hedged chaos. It's puts me in the mind of a great Bomb Squad track ("Louder Than A Bomb," "Rebel Without A Pause," or "Welcome To The Terrordome.") But in that chaos, in that lack of clear, explicit direction, I feel that I am in the mind of the whalers, I am as whirled about as they are.

The sentences becomes physical. And yeah, pretty farking awesome.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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