Monday, November 14, 2016

`Intricate with Self-Generated Fault'

Never has imminent doom been so genteelly rendered:

“Like noiseless nautilus shells, their light prows sped through the sea; but only slowly they neared the foe. As they neared him, the ocean grew still more smooth; seemed drawing a carpet over its waves; seemed a moon-meadow, so serenely it spread.”

Behind us in Moby-Dick are 132 chapters, preceded by “Etymology” and “Extracts,” mere prelude to watery apocalypse. Our companion has been Ishmael, faithful narrator and humorous man, witness to madness, who spins an American yarn and lives to tell it. Moby-Dick is first an adventure story, worthy of Homer, not a metaphysical fable, a cetological field guide or an allegory of "American capitalism," as self-regarding critics have fancied it. “The Chase—First Day” continues:

“At length the breathless hunter came so nigh his seemingly unsuspecting prey, that his entire dazzling hump was distinctly visible, sliding along the sea as if an isolated thing, and continually wet in a revolving ring of finest, fleecy, greenish foam.”

Hunter and prey have mingled. Melville can’t resist a good metaphor, preferably two or three, postponing the story like any practiced teller. Melville/Ishmael is a master:

“A gentle joyousness – a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale. Not the white bull Jupiter swimming away with ravished Europa clinging to his graceful horns; his lovely, leering eyes sideways intent upon the maid; with smooth bewitching fleetness, rippling straight for the nuptial bower in Crete; not Jove, not that great majesty Supreme! did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam.”

In Helen Pinkerton’s “Lemuel Shaw’s Meditation” (Taken in Faith: Poems, 2002; A Journey of the Mind: Collected Poems 1945-2016, 2016), Melville’s father-in-law gets his turn. Shaw (1781-1861) was chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He opposed slavery but was compelled by law to order the return of fugitive slaves to their owners. Pinkerton’s poem is set in 1861, between Abraham Lincoln’s election as president and the start of the war on April 12. Shaw died March 31. The poem weaves Shaw’s affection for Melville and admiration for his books with slavery, Lincoln and the looming war. In Pinkerton’s monologue, Shaw has read Moby-Dick:

“To him this plot seemed one where the sublime,
Which his romantics readers sought, might rise
From genuine terror, superstitious dread,
Grounded in real sea-life, while his own aim—
A classical one, to show how human choice,
Intricate with self-generated fault,
Brings on a fatal, violent, conclusion—
Was met in the mad captain’s self-willed thrust
To carry out this cause at any risk
To those for whom he was responsible.
This story seemed almost to haunt his mind.
Listening to Melville, I, too, felt its power
Beyond the ordinary. And, then, he added,
Expanding on it, that the captain seemed
Bewitched by evil, like those deluded victims
Of witchcraft in West-African belief
To whom their fear of Obi power brings death;
Or like those other vexed men closer home,
The Salem Puritans, Mather and Sewall,
Who saw the Devil incarnate, evil itself
Embodied in their fellowmen, and hanged them—
Later, recanting, confessed they were deluded.”

After “The Chase—First Day,” two chapters and the epilogue remain. The English edition, published in October 1851, omitted the epilogue, thus baffling literal-minded readers. Melville published the first American edition of Moby-Dick on this date, Nov. 14, in 1851. It is the first work by a native of the still-young nation to take its place among the essential works of the world.

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