Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Whale

As I near thirty, I've decided that it's time to shed some of my literary antipathies, and because I found Thomas Hardy so unexpectedly wonderful, I next approached a novel of which I've always been very wary: Melville's Moby Dick. Notwithstanding years of AFD's avid endorsement, as well as more recent praise from HMS and AJS, Moby Dick and I had yet to make an acquaintance--Billy Budd proved to be a poor mutual friend--until I toted the text along with me to New Hampshire last month. I began reading the night we arrived, and within a paragraph Melville disarmed me by listing the Germanic etymology of the word "whale". For a crusty American author, he sure knows the way to an Anglo-Saxonist's heart!
Philological discourse aside, Ishmael's narrative captured my attention from the start; perhaps this can be traced to his immediate description of Manhattan, my current home, as "belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs", or perhaps it's because he self-reflects with such statements as "whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul" (could this be the American equivalent to Dante's "per una selva oscura"?). True, Melville intertwines natural history, Shakespearean characters, classical tragedy, swashbuckling action, and poetic imagery all into one impressive text, but I found myself most taken with the latter--beautiful and striking images that continue to stay with me days after I've finished the book. For example, Ishmael speaks of the Nantucketer "[who] out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to the rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales"; similarly, with regard to the relentless whale hunt, Ishmael states, "and as upon the invasion of their valleys, the frosty Swiss have retreated to their mountains; so, hunted from the savannas and glades of the middle seas, the whale-bone whales can at last resort to their Polar citadels, and diving under the ultimate glassy barriers and walls there, come up among icy fields and floes; and in a charmed circle of everlasting December, bid defiance to all pursuit from man".
Spermaceti Cavities?
Call it literary destiny or not, but my reading of Moby Dick coincided with my return to regular swimming, and in the last two weeks I've noticed the following strange phenomenon as I freestyle my way through the pool: I swim like a sperm whale. Laugh all you want, but it's true; on the day that I ate lunch late at work, and two hours later felt my full stomach roll side to side with each stroke, I could not deny the sense that I was a small, freckled cetacean out for a swim. Furthermore, the longer I considered this bizarre perception, the firmer it grew--soon my swim cap became a ridged cavity full of spermaceti, not a blond ponytail, and the children in the adjacent lane swimming with their flippers and snorkel masks along the pool's bottom became aggressive sharks out on the prowl (I swam especially fast that day).
The stomping grounds of the small, freckled cetacean
I wrote, with some concern, to AFD about my new aquatic identity, and he replied, "sometimes I wish I were a sperm whale"; then he suggested that I read Philip Hoare's new book, in particular the section in which Hoare swims with real sperm whales. I had already added the book to my list after reading the Times' review a few weeks ago, but I felt better knowing that I was not alone in my odd self-perception. I'm always a little wistful when I finish a rich, thick novel, and Moby Dick is no exception. Still, as with all great narratives, and just as the sperm whale ingests the colossal squid, I know that the story and its resonant images will remain within me for a long time to come.

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