Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Reflections: Moby-Dick

On the surface, Moby Dick has all the elements that appeal to me - a whale as the primary character, an adventure in the sea, a literary classic, an allegory of good and evil, and the uncontrollable forces of Nature. No wonder I’d wanted to read this book for so long. I chose to ignore reviews that groaned it was a tedious read, and set out to conquer the book with the same ferocity as the sailors who hunted Moby Dick. But I have to resign and admit that this book was surely one of my most challenging reads. I nearly gave up on it on multiple occasions, but I guess it was the same ambition of wanting to conquer that which is beyond our reach, which drove me to labour through it.

Ishmael, the narrator is part of the crew aboard the Pequod, a whaling ship headed by the tyrannical captain Ahab. Ahab is obsessed with avenging the gargantuan white sperm-whale, Moby-Dick, which on a certain vicious encounter had bitten off Ahab’s leg. Armed with his ivory leg, and steely will, Ahab runs a tight ship in search of the elusive Moby-Dick. Ishmael narrates the slow and seductive spell the whale and its pursuit casts on the crew. Their ambition and greed lustfully increases till it takes over their mind and possesses them to the point where they are ready to abandon everything - at that point, the whale and the purpose itself is lost, but it’s the enticing sense of pursuing the unconquerable, and the thrill of wanting to control and vanquish something larger than life itself, which fuels the men. This is likened to our pursuit of all that is elusive and mystical in our lives. Our ambitions are always aimed at what cannot be controlled. It may seem like we are after bigger houses, luxurious cars and exotic vacations - but underneath all the materialism and greed, there is a constant quest towards grasping the unreachable, to better understand Life itself. The mundane aspects of life then dissolve. Perhaps that's the reason why we are running after the toughest chase - to escape the mundane and nagging issues of life.

The whale is transfigured as a demonic creature, and man’s battle with it is seen as a fight of good against evil. But the notions of good and evil, and who is on which side, quickly disappear as the fight thickens. Environmentalists today can easily argue that man is on the evil side. But the book doesn’t allow you to make that conclusion that easily.

The hunt for a monstrous, magnificent, immortal creature that seems to rule the seas was almost an impossible feat to accomplish in the late 19th century. Therefore, the whale itself was glorified and celebrated because of the mysteries it held to these men. The bulk of the book is a detailed repository of the biology of whales, the different religious and spiritual metaphors of whales in different cultures, their behavior and psychology, and the history of whaling, its beauty and mechanics. The book includes a wonderful encyclopedia of whales and whaling, all of which are wrapped in extremely lyrical and beautiful prose. But the prose is so beautiful, the lines are loaded with so many levels of metaphors, that it takes time (and effort) to parse through the paragraphs and swipe all the literary merit. The lack of a structured plot and the many hundreds of pages of whaling facts were what made this book a tiresome read. If the 600 odd pages were shrunk to about 300, this would have been my instant favorite.

I’m sure I didn’t glean all the information and the scores of subtle philosophical asides spattered through the book. There are so many levels of meaning stacked within each paragraph, that I gave up on unfurling it all. But a shallow reading doesn’t do justice to the book. I wold recommend reading this book with a friend or along a book-club to spark discussions and to truly appreciate the literary symbolism.

In my humble opinion, this book is just the literary giant of  Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea. Hemingway explores the same (or similar) discussions on man’s maniacal obsession and determination to test his limits and reach for the toughest rope. But I liked it better because of how he ended his discussion - highlighting the spirit of the adventure/ambition to be greater than the material conquest.

Moby-Dick is indeed a whale of a read, and definitely stands apart from all the books I’ve read so far!


Perception said...

I dont know how many times I have finished reading a book and wondered what to pick next and wandered to your blog. Now its become a norm, I read something when done come here scouting. And each time I find a treasure. Thanks for sharing such wonderful reviews.

Neeraja said...

Thanks Perception! It's really good to hear from you. Hope you're doing well and enjoying your mom's visit :)

Perception said...

Ma's left for India :(, the short vacation was over so soon. I miss her now. And guess what i do when I miss her, I vist all my blogging buddies sites, it cheers me up, makes me miss her less. Thanks for writing and caring.

Neeraja said...

Well, I'm glad you have started visiting your blog buddies! I hope you get the time to write more and share stories about your Ma to help you relive the moments you miss!