One more cruise with Melville

I’m currently re-reading Moby-Dick. Yes, I said re-reading. While Moby-Dick may be the most famous book no one has ever read, I confess to having read it at least twice. But it has been awhile, and I recently decided it was time for another whaling adventure.

Like most high schoolers, I read excerpts of Melville’s masterpiece–just enough to pass the quizzes. If I remember correctly, our curriculum avoided assigning the whole book to adolescents. A few years later, I, like most college students, used Cliff’s Notes to get through an American literature class that assigned the entire novel, although the summaries intrigued me enough that I did read the first hundred pages or so.

Later I took an upper level English course in American literature, and this time I read Moby-Dick all the way through. Being an English major, I felt guilty at having gone this far through my literature career without reading what many consider the best American novel. I loved parts of the novel, but remember finding other parts less interesting.  All that meglomanical stuff, for instance, didn’t make much sense to me. Wouldn’t Ahab at some point just get over it, I wondered? But (buzz kill alert, in case you haven’t read the book) he didn’t.

Finally, I took a course in graduate school on Hawthorne and Melville, and I not only re-read Moby-Dick, but I also read almost all of Melville’s published prose, including Mardi, Typee, and Pierre. Although most of them were more successful in their day than Moby-Dick, to the modern mind Moby-Dick stands head and shoulders above the other novels, which is why most people have never heard of them.

I have always remembered vividly a passage that struck my imagination from one of those early readings. It forever changed my appreciation of contrasts–not just of temperature, as the scene describes, but of all the contrasts life brings us.

Here is that passage describing Ishmael’s night in a tavern bed shared with a stranger, Queequeg, who later becomes his shipmate. (Note: It was common practice in those days for strangers to share lodging and bed):

We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors; indeed out of bedclothes too, seeing that there was no fire in the room. The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if, like Queequeg and me in the bed, the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.

Strange, but as I read this passage this trip through the novel, the scene that seemed to define the entire universe for me so effectively when I was barely 20 almost flew right by me. Apparently the lesson was so well absorbed that I hardly noticed it years later.

This time I was struck by a later passage that I barely noticed and clearly did not understand in my youth:

There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke.

That sort of idea was obviously beyond my imagination as a young man, who had barely known tribulation and could not imagine viewing death so calmly. Years later, I can’t help nodding as I read it.

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