At times Moby Dick is a painfully boring book to read.
Often narrative takes a back seat to a broad range of topics treated in an expository mode.
Ishmael describes cabin customs, quarterdeck politics, and forecastle rituals. He provides a minor treatise on cetology and even a history of specksynders. Who doesn’t love a good specksynder? Ishmael offers a lengthy musing on the phrenology of the whale’s head; the sperm whale lacks a nose! And owing to an incorrigible metaphysical impulse, he interrogates the significance of being-in-the-world-without-a-nose with Germanic philosophical intensity. And he takes a firm stand on the ticklish matter of where whale skin ends and blubber begins, and whether a whale’s “mystical” spout is vapor or water or an intermingling of the two.
No matter how varied your interests are, you will at some point be bored to tears by the ceaselessly rocking waves of Melville’s expository prose. Your mind will go numb.
But more than any novel I can think of, boredom is absolutely central to the experience of reading Moby Dick.
Without boredom, you cannot be jolted out of the lethargy fast upon you and gasp at the glories of the novel. Its poetry, for instance, “A curious sight; these bashful bears, these timid warrior whalemen!” or “I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where’er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass.” Or its humor, “Queequeg is George Washington cannibalistically developed.” Or its insight, “And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher…”
But more important than poetry, humor, and insight is the realization born of boredom that Ishmael is the most obsessed mind in the novel. His head is cracked and sorely in need of mending. Queequeg and Ahab have nothing on him. The former clutches at a small black idol; the latter, a large white idol. Big deal. Only Ishmael has the whole visible and invisible world as the object of his obsession. And mostly the world in its invisible aspect, which pervades all Yojos and Pequods and Moby Dicks, and beyond. Ishmael is haunted by invisibility.
Next week I’ll try to spell this out in detail while avoiding Nabokov’s “moonshine of generalization.”
Good luck to me.