moments in his first two classes on Herman Melville's Moby-Dick,
Mark Strand does a fair impression of Captain Peleg, the retired
Quaker whaler and part-owner of the Pequod to whom Ishmael
applies for a berth. Though tall and more nearly gaunt than stout,
the poet and Andrew MacLeish distinguished service professor in
the Committee on Social Thought has Peleg's weathered looks and
the eye-wrinkles that come with "always looking to windward."
eye-wrinkles," Melville wrote, "are very effectual in
a scowl," and Strand doesn't hesitate to scowl when faced
with the crowd of College and graduate students who've filled
the room to overflowing. Like Peleg, he displays bursts of energy,
humorous asides, and a tendency to blunt and curious requests
(Why do you want to read Moby-Dick? Have you ever seen
a whale? Do you care if there are whales or not? Why do you care?)
as he tries to decide who will stay the course. Faced with 40
students' steadfast professions of their desire to go a-whaling,
and on the Pequod at that, he gives way. Almost everyone
gets to stay to "eavesdrop" with him on each other's
readings of Melville's biggest-in size and in stature-novel.
like Peleg, the professor has, in a manner of speaking, hunted
whales. The summer he was eight years old, pink blankets of krill
covered the Nova Scotia beaches where he lived. Following the
shrimp-like creatures into St. Margaret's Bay, hungry whales tore
the nets of local fishermen. A late-afternoon voyage to view (and,
his fisherman uncle bragged, to shoot) some of the marauding whales
brought the boy and his shipmates nearer to sea and whales than
was comfortable. Years later, Strand tells the class, he'd written
a poem about the trip, which ended with a slow, late-night journey
back to shore:
when I went to bed,
I imagined the whales moving beneath me,
sliding over the weed-covered hills of the deep;
they knew where I was;
they were luring me
downward and downward
into the murmurous
waters of sleep.
he finishes reading the poem, he shrugs to the class, "If
that doesn't drive you out of this room
." But no one
leaves, and so he goes on to suggest background reading, including
the Bible (the story of Jonah and 1 Kings, chapters 18-21, "which
tells the story of Ahab and Elijah-Ahab, you know, is the husband
of Jezebel, who turned him into a worshipper of Bael") and
"some of the speeches in King Lear, the ones with
Lear and Edgar in dialogue." For the next class, the students
will read as much as they can of the chapters before the Pequod
sets sail, before Captain Ahab makes his entrance. At that point,
"about page 150," Strand says, "the book finally
becomes the book we're interested in."
he devotes the second class to the land-bound chapters, beginning
with the introduction that he says marks the start of a narrative
trend in American literature: "Call me Ishmael."
Biblical Ishmael was a wanderer at odds with his fellow man, but
Strand finds Melville's opening comic. With his "lighthearted
admission of the need to get away," Ishmael describes the
sea as a haven: "a place of escape, a place to calm your
soul, a place where you won't kill anyone." Then Strand reads
the chapter's final lines, foreshadowing the white whale: "
and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions
of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom,
like a snow hill in the air."
things are operating at the same time," Strand says of the
early chapters, "and I think they help each other."
Realism ("Ishmael is a kind of optimistic guy, despite his
depressions") is interspersed with foreboding elements of
the supernatural, including the tattered sailor Elijah, who warns
Ishmael away from Ahab and the whalebone-decorated Pequod
("This is a ship created by Gabriel Marquez"). When
the Pequod sets sail, Melville's language changes, Strand
says, and for a reason: "To travel by sea is an invitation
to the sublime."
is the sublime?" he asks, as if thinking out loud. "Is
it something horrific? Frightening? Compelling? With aspects of
beauty?" He pauses before answering: "The sublime is
unknowable, unimaginable." To describe the unknowable endlessness
of the sea, he says, Melville's language had to change to do "the
work that reportage can't do. It's poetry, it's Shakespeare, it's
Melville's reportage, his compilation of facts about Nantucket
and whaling and whales, is also intrinsic to the tale he was compelled
to tell. Moby-Dick's opening chapters are "a set-up,"
Mark Strand suggests as the class comes to its close. "They
make us optimistic about the voyage but cast a seed of doubt."-M.R.Y.
in the Translations
Soul of the Republic
with a Satirist
Genius of the Everyday