Friday, September 3, 2010

Moby-Dick, chapter 1

Because I'll be enmeshed in the Harmony Fair this weekend, I'm opening Moby-Dick comments early so that you can (1) stop procrastinating and finish the chapter (come on; you can do it; it's short) and (2) have a few days to get your thoughts down on "paper" (i.e., the comment form). Please don't forget to comment, even if you hate what you've read or have no idea what's happening. I'm delighted to host this reading party, but I do not want to be the whip-cracker. I already do plenty of whip-cracking around the house.

So, to begin, I'll mention Ishmael's intriguing thoughts about the nature of work. What's your response?

Dinner tonight: fair hotdogs and elderly coffee.

For next week: Read chapter 1 of Dickens's Great Expectations. I hope to say more about that novel this weekend, but who knows what fair morass will have swallowed me?


מבול said...

Here is Wiki on the subject of hapax legomena.

Moby Dick is shown in a sidebar which says that 44% of the words occur but once. I find this hard to believe.

Ruth said...

I was struck by Ishmael's being lured by the sea. It does seem to be true for me that I am drawn to water when I am in need of renewal, peace, re- creation and serenity. I'm sure that has to do with being made of such a high percentage of water.

Teresa C. said...

In reading and re-reading "Etymology," "Extracts," and "Loomings" I was struck by the theatricality of this beginning set of pieces. If I were to stage them the stage would be dark and a cacophony composed of the extracts would rise out of that darkness then suddenly stop. After a pause, and still out of the darkness, would rise a solo voice: Call me Ishmael.
Ishmael's attitude toward work and his fellow man-on-land reminded me of Thoreau in Walden. Moby Dick was published three years before Walden yet is definitely part of the same "conversation" taking place in that time/place of which Walden was also a part. I love the way books can speak to each other.

Dawn Potter said...

Ruth: the "high percentage of water" idea is making my head spin. Teresa: I love that theatrical image, with the stark voice following. That makes so much sense to me. And I, too, am always struck by how much books talk to each other. It's one of the reasons I cling to my autodidact ways: because I love my own randomly linked reading list.

Al and Adam said...

I think the comparison with Thoreau at Walden is interesting; I was struck (upon rereading this passage with work in mind as Dawn suggested) by the perspective of our narrator as someone who can choose to go off and take up life as "a simple sailor" while apparently having "an established family in the land" and work as a school teacher to fall back on when his desire to spend time on the sea has waned. It does sound similar to Thoreau having the option to walk back into town (which isn't very far from Walden Pond) when he was tired of solitude and contemplation.

Anonymous said...

The "orchard thieves" really put us all in a bind, didn't they? There's that tension--our material success in life is measured by how much money we make and how comfortably we live our lives, but we can't have too much money or we will compromise our spiritual possibilities. Ishmael can relax into the drudgery of being a common sailor because he chooses it; the work has defined limits, his mind will be free to think as it will, and there is something to be said for honest, simple work.

Dawn Potter said...

I think the idea of the educated laborer--that is, the laborer by choice--is an interesting one, and it reminds me not only of Thoreau but of Whitman . . . as if this was a point in American history at which men were beginning to consciously negotiate this class divide. Yet, of course, the laborer who is still a laborer and who doesn't even imagine another life continued (and continues) to exist. So Ishmael exudes a sense of privilege alongside his permeable border-crossing status.( I'm starting to dislike my academic vocabulary here, but forgive me.)

Ruth said...

And so the Hippie was not even remotely new, going "back to the land" by choice as does Ismael or is his case, "back to the sea". I am loving reading both these books aloud, something I felt I didn't have time to do in HS!

Lucy Barber said...

One of the games Melville is playing here with Ishmael is about choice. Does the Ocean draw everyone or just ocean lovers? Did he go whale hunting because he likes it or as he/Melville write in retrospect: "He as narrator is also playing with notion of free will when he writes that “yet, now that I recall all the circumstances, I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment.” Watching this game of "free will" is part of the narrative of Moby Dick and, of course, one of the central questions of the time. It is, of course, easier to imagine free will when one chooses work, but then Melville seems to say that in fact it is the facts that make Ishmael take the job.

I think that is one of the things that both Melville and Dickens have in common is game playing with their readers -- we will have to watch what games we prefer and what theologies we like.

Thomas said...

What's striking to me, too, is the way that the narrator presents the yearning for the sea as universal: his examples pile up to show how everyone feels this way. And yet as Ishmael, the figure of the exile, the outcast, the one suffering from "hypos," he would seem to be set apart from all others. Are all of us Ishmaels, then, but only a few of us realize that potential and break from the bonds that tie us to our desks and benches? The differences do seem to come down to choice, as Lucy says, especially the choice to opt out of one's status and accept the leveled status of sailor. And yet there's still that captain to take orders from (and presumably pay wages -- I love the ambiguous glory in the perdition of payment!) -- so where does that leave us?
I'm loving this chance to take another crack at Melville, by the way -- this must be the third or fourth time I've begun the novel. I've always loved the language but never have made it through the entire bulk. Here's hoping I persevere as the new term begins!
P.S. Charlotte, I too love your image of the opening voices. But let's not forget the poor Sub Sub! Might the spotlight begin on him as he compiles this torrent of extracts and then fade into darkness as the voices take over?

Dawn Potter said...


Response: Not really sure I have much of one. (Which is disappointing, given that you used the word "intriguing".). He says he doesn't like work, but also doesn't seem phased by some of the different jobs of being a sailor that he mentions, and that sound, well, taxing. And he sees it as undemocratic and demeaning. But why the example of a schoolmaster lording it over boys? Seems an odd choice.

Like the line though about "everybody else is one way or another served in much the same way...the universal thump being passed around". Metaphysics--never thought of it that way. (Although I'm also not entirely sure what he means by that.)

There. I have no idea what others have said, so if I'm off the mark or empty and/or my brain doesn't seem engaged, my apologies. I'm hoping this discussion will improve how I think/respond to a novel.

And thanks again for hosting.