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The Pale Usher
Moby Dick #1: Impressions of Herman Melville’s Transcendental Journey, Front Matter through Chapter II
© 2014 James LaFond
NOV/7/14
Preface
Many—yet merely a fraction—of us postmodern men have begun questioning our place in this society as a threat to not only our personal identity, but our very masculinity. With every passing day there seems to be a sign foisted upon us by the news media that 'being a man' is wrong. It might surprise those readers who do not already know that in the early 1800s, when the Modern World was still young and there were as yet undiscovered corners of the globe, that an American man, fed up with the haggling life of the businessman, of being 'clinched to a desk', set sail on what amounted to his vision quest—not dissimilar to the vision quest recently undertaken by another American man who would come to be known as Sitting Bull. This man went to sea as a whaler, deserted his cruel master, lived among the natives of Typee, escaped them, and knew a few more cruel masters before he returned home to tell his tale in the form of Typee, Moby Dick, and other short novels. Aside from a few writers no one cared. Modernity was just kicking off. Who was this man to judge the apogee of human achievement from the vantage of some painted savage?
This man was Herman Melville, and if the postmodern reader cares to pay attention, the old deserter had a thing or two to say about who we are and how we got here.
-James LaFond, Sunday, 12/7/2014, writing under a sky of cobalt blue hung with a lopsided pearl of a moon
Author's Notes
For this, my second adult reading of Moby Dick, the ‘great American novel’, I will summarize the text and record my impression of the subtext in stages according to the tempo of the tale. Moby Dick is a large work, with my copy coming in at 726 pages. Having written a novel of almost precisely this length and understanding experientially, that if done with attention to the subtext—unlike a modern mass market novel fluffed up with unrealistic plot twists and un-illuminating conversation—that an epic novel offers more meaning and texture than can be summarized in a single review, being as it is an exploration of the human condition.
The length of the work suggests that few of our current readers will brave it, and that Melville’s masterpiece might once again fall beneath the literary surface as it did in his lifetime. For that reason I will summarize the story for the reader—with the young reader particularly in mind—who remains curious of its course and meaning, but has a limited appetite, or lacks the free time [something that Melville advanced more than one opinion on through the eyes of Ishmael], for reading at this length.
I will endeavor to post Moby Dick regularly at about 1,000 words per an installment. I pose as no authority here and am simply reading this for my readers—some of whom have expressed an interest and a concordant lack of time—and my own growth as a writer. Melville has inspired my fiction and nonfiction, with his novelized account of his life among the people of Typee offering particular insight into my own perspective as a nonfiction author.
His tale of The Whale, as I recall it from an abridged children’s version of the book and the movie starring Gregory Peck, has ever haunted me when considering the fiction at my fingertips. Based on this rereading of the first 76 pages, and in light of the hundreds of reviews recently done, I expect to learn a lot from Herman Melville, and do not want to leave those readers who have not had the luxury of a reverse retirement out in the literary cold like Lazarus on the curbstone before the Spouter Inn.
New Bedford
The first 76 pages of Moby Dick exposes Ishmael as more of a perspective window than as a wrought character, a character who is about to develop before our eyes and in his own words. We know little of him. Unburdened of his identity and freed of wondering about his past by his very first sentence in which he dismisses himself with “Call me Ishmael,” we are free to share his haunting view of an early 19th Century whaling town. A sense for Ishmael grows on the reader through his worldview rather than his station in the temporal world. Ishmael offer’s the reluctant mystic’s view of the world of men, and questions Man’s God-given right to dominate and dispose of the natural order.
If you are reading Moby Dick, and have not read the Old Testament, some of the metaphors of the tale will be softened or blunted. In Melville’s time every reader read the Bible, usually multiple times, and commonly to the point of being able to recite passages from memory.
The Pale Usher
In the etymology section of the front matter the author has a Poe-like figure introduce the reader to the whale with three definitions and names in 13 languages. This is Melville speaking directly to us, not through the more passionate Ishmael, who is, I think, the avatar of his coming of age persona.
“The pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body and brain; I see him now…He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.”
From pages xii-xxiii extracts from books concerning whales from biblical passages to newspaper accounts of whaling are presented, which are of great interest to the researcher but do slow immersion into the narrative. If written today this collection would be in the end notes.
The Ungraspable Phantom of Life
Chapter 1: Loomings
Ishmael relates his periodic yearning to “see the watery part of the world,” and how it drew him to the sea. He laments the plight of men, “tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks,” and goes on to describe what drives men away from the known, particularly being drawn to the sea, as “…the image of the ungraspable phantom of life...”
He considers the orders to be taken on board amongst the hierarchy of the ship and wonders about Man’s un-free plight and writes, “Who ain’t a slave?” and finally decides during the course of his soul searching as to why he must take to the sea, “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.”
The Tepid Tears of Orphans
Chapter 2: The Carpet-Bag
Ishmael gathers his clothes and packs his carpet-bag and leaves Manhattan, arriving in New Bedford on a Saturday in December. He describes travel in a time when one waited for days or more for the ship to arrive. He goes on to describe how New Bedford is becoming the center of the whaling business, that he has slight funds, and must look for a place to stay, a place where merrymaking is not in evidence, as such inns will be overpriced.
At an inn called ‘The Trap’ he opens the door to be greeted by, “A hundred black faces turned in their rows to peer…the preacher’s text was of the blackness of darkness, and the weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there.” Shaken by his encounter with the 'negro' congregation and the 'Black Angel of Doom' on the pulpit, Ishmael heads back out into the cold night.
As Ishmael continues on through the cold wet winter night his walk through the streets of New Bedford takes on the tone of horror, “…the swinging sign had a poverty-stricken sort of creak to it…poor Lazarus there, chattering his teeth against the curbstone for his pillow…”
Melville hits a high note of despair in the next to the last paragraph, as his avatar Ishmael decided that the inn before which one man freezes to death in the street is just the sort of place he can afford.
“Now that Lazarus should lie stranded there on the curbstone before the door of Dives, this is more wonderful than that an iceberg should be moored to one of the Moluccas. Yet Dives himself, he too lives like a Czar in an ice-palace made of frozen sighs, and being a president of a temperance society, he only drinks the tepid tears of orphans.”
“But no more of this blubbering now, we are going a-whaling, and there is plenty of that yet to come.”
Ishmael has embarked on a journey dark.
'The Dark Heart of the Tale’
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‘A Higher Dimension of Life’
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triumph
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