A Close Read of Melville
What I like about writing is the complexity teased out and wrestled with in seemingly ordinary, everyday subjects. Mystery, discovery, and detail surrounds us if you can train your eye to see it.
I read Chapter 58 of “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville this morning titled “Brit.” It’s only 1000 words, or so, and takes the form of an essay rather than a continuation of the book’s plot. Melville makes comparisons between the natural world and the nature of man, you and me, everyone’s favorite subject, when you get down to it.
How, in those 1000 words, does he manage to weave insights of such magnitude, I wonder. Simple. He is a genius. But genius is just another word for discovery. That’s true. However construed, it’s fun and constructive to observe a master at close range. And where else but writing do we get to see into the mind of the great ones; get to look over their shoulder, discerning each thought, each insight and connective effort; every single line of code that conjures the greatest of master works is on display in the pages of epic books.
This is what I force my untrained eye to look for in the chapter’s opening line. It reads:
“Steering north-eastward from the Crozetts, we fell in with vast meadows of brit, the minute, yellow substance, upon which the Right Whale largely feeds.”
Here, in essence, is a sentence containing the subject of the entire following essay or chapter. Topically speaking, for Melville never stays topical, the passage include three things: the brit (seaweed substance), the whales that feed on the brit, and the ocean itself.
He takes these topics in order, going from big to small; namely food, animal, and environment. The unspoken topic is the audience, human awareness, in the book the protagonist and in us our understanding of the written word as the telepathy of Melville’s mind carried forward to 2018, if you believe Stephen King’s theory of the written word. Each topic is, in effect, swallowed by the other as the chapter proceeds.
First, Melville tells us what is physically happening to his observer on the boat. The boat and its crew, are headed along a deliberate direction when they chance upon a grove of seaweed. The purpose of the voyage is, of course, not the discovery of this seaweed. The stated purpose, as dictated by Captain Ahab, is to hunt and kill Moby Dick; the whale that bit off his leg.
But the end state of any journey, chosen freely, is rarely the stated endpoint itself; the value is in the experiences that arise along those chosen roads to practically nowhere; if we are open to them that is. And they carry meaning if we look. Melville looks. He sees, tells, and, in telling, discovers anew. A positive feedback loop of discovery naturally occurs. The lesson is to pick a path and stay on it. No path is boring when our senses are engaged and our minds open.
Then he tells us a certain type of whale, the Right-Whale, not the sperm whale which the Pequod hunts, when not hunting Moby Dick, of course, is seen feeding on this particular seaweed. So, what I see is a simple action describing the position of the observer. Then I see what the observer sees; whales feeding.
Melville then describes the right-whale, and the impression the feeding makes on the senses. He has not yet begun to do what is so incredible and which is why the book is so great—draw comparisons from this simple scene to universal truths; the kryptonite of emotion diving and surfacing, diving and surfacing, in every human heart. For this, finally, he turns to the sea itself, pointing out how odd it is that, though some comparison can be made between creatures of the land and those of the ocean, the sea is truly unique in its capacity to create and destroy.
The sea, he shows, is unknown and mysterious, pointing out the numberless worlds traversed, unseen, and unwittingly crossed over by Columbus himself, in route to finding and exploring the great, new world of America; all the while, the sea lay hidden and untouched by the science and genius of man, which Melville mocks, not to disparage us, but to show the limits of our ordered lives and, rather, the benefits of increasing humility, discovery, and wonder, as we proceed through life.
For the sea, he shows, is neither the totality of the creatures which inhabit it nor the humans who play upon it, but the thing that “dashes even the mightiest whales against the rocks, and leaves them there side by side with the split wrecks of ships.”
Observe how no politics could be construed in this line, noteworthy in our era politicizing everything. For, long after we, the sea, and everything in it disappears, if ever that should happen, the sea will still contain the forces carried in that line. Immutable truths are what this book is about.
Now, Melville is in full stride. It’s as though each chapter, at once begun on the physical plane of boats, water, men and fish, here seaweed, is just an opportunity for transition (segue) into greater and greater flights of fancy, like any journey, really. Have a sense of wonder and instill a sense of wonder in your children.
Melville spends the remainder of the essay (chapter), showing the connections we have, all the way down to our divided souls, chaos and order, with the natural world. So, here, he has shown his protagonist continuing along his chosen mission, tied as it has become with the will of a tyrant (Captain Ahab), but even that is a decision we all choose in the end, and this is a book about ends, the tyrant usually being our own self upon our very selves.
I picture Melville deep in thought now, sweating with excitement, in full stride, really enjoying himself, in full flow state as he writes this, discovering the universe in real time as his pen scratches across blank space, drawing from past experience as the impressions combine in his fertile brain.
He is marveling at the greater mystery of the thing holding the ordinary subjects along an ordinary passage, the great sea herself, the most tactile rendition of the universe held up on the earth’s surface, outside our very souls that is.
He wonders at the power and mystery of the ocean depths of which these whales are only messengers and people simple guests. He describes the awesome destructive power of sea. Finally, lest we become judgmental of that power of destruction, Melville points out our own similarities with this force, as we are mere microcosms of what we experience in nature.
By the end of the chapter he is able to write:
“For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!”
Melville, in 1000 words has taken us from “the minute, yellow substance,” to the “soul of man.” If you’re like me you’re a little bit curious about how he does this.