Friday 18 October 2013

Moby Dick

Moby Dick, or The Whale was published in Britain on 18th October 1851 when Herman Melville, the author was 32 years old.  IF you've only read the picture book version OR only seen Gregory Peck in the film ANDIF you are not totally spoiled for discourse by Twitter THEN you'll find much of interest in reading this great Victorian faction drama-documentary.  Melville had run away to sea 10 years earlier shipping on the whaler Acushnet before jumping ship 18 months later in favour of making love to a beautiful cannibal-girl on the Marquesas Islands.  He wrote up the tropical paradise part of his adventures as his first novel Typee.

Mais revenons nous a nos baleines. Apart from being a ripping yarn: "Call me Ishmael . . .Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirgelike main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan", Moby Dick is also an extraordinarily detailed (135 chapter, 360 page, 200,000 word) treatise on the theory and practice of whaling.

One particular part has lodged in my head since I read it with some difficulty of understanding as a 14 year old boy.  They used to say about pig-butchery that they used everything but the squeal, and 19th century whalers were like that about their 'fish'.  Because it was published in Victorian England, there are some rather elaborate circumlocutions, so that 14 year old boys and women (the poor delicate things) could only with difficulty figure out what-in-heck was going on.  I've made some editorial changes in the first line of Chapter 95 to help you, dear reader:

"Had you stepped on board the PEquod at a certaiN juncture of thIS post-mortemizing of the whale; and had you strolled forward nigh the windlass, pretty sure am I that you would have scanned with no small curiosity a very strange, enigmatical object, which you would have seen there, lying along lengthwise in the lee scuppers. Not the wondrous cistern in the whale's huge head; not the prodigy of his unhinged lower jaw; not the miracle of his symmetrical tail; none of these would so surprise you, as half a glimpse of that unaccountable cone,—longer than a Kentuckian is tall, nigh a foot in diameter at the base, and jet-black as Yojo, the ebony idol of Queequeg. And an idol, indeed, it is; or, rather, in old times, its likeness was. Such an idol as that found in the secret groves of Queen Maachah in Judea; and for worshipping which, King Asa, her son, did depose her, and destroyed the idol, and burnt it for an abomination at the brook Kedron, as darkly set forth in the 15th chapter of the First Book of Kings."
...and a certain something in the next paragraph requires elaborate circumcision:
"Look at the sailor, called the mincer, who now comes along, and assisted by two allies, heavily backs the grandissimus, as the mariners call it, and with bowed shoulders, staggers off with it as if he were a grenadier carrying a dead comrade from the field. Extending it upon the forecastle deck, he now proceeds cylindrically to remove its dark pelt, as an African hunter the pelt of a boa. This done he turns the pelt inside out, like a pantaloon leg; gives it a good stretching, so as almost to double its diameter; and at last hangs it, well spread, in the rigging, to dry. Ere long, it is taken down; when removing some three feet of it, towards the pointed extremity, and then cutting two slits for arm-holes at the other end, he lengthwise slips himself bodily into it. The mincer now stands before you invested in the full canonicals of his calling. Immemorial to all his order, this investiture alone will adequately protect him, while employed in the peculiar functions of his office."

You may forget the latest cool-sloganed tee-shirt, this is the butcher's apron fashion accessory everyone will want.  Moby Dick, indeed.  You couldn't make this up.

1 comment:

  1. eye opener indeed...not sure when I read it, maybe 17...but never got the meaning till today...ouch...bit of a filming challenge I would have thought