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Page-turners
>> Ocean Reveries

PHOTO:  The Lakeside Press edition of Moby Dick (Chicago, 1930) is illustrated by Rockwell Kent.At 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."

"Such 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.

Also 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:

At midnight
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.

As 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."

But 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."

The 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: "…two 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."

"Two 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."

"What 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 the Bible."

Yet 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.


Found in the Translations

The Soul of the Republic

Travels with a Satirist

Ocean Reveries

The Genius of the Everyday

 


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