Call me a space cadet. While Chris was in surgery having his knee and femur replaced, I had been waiting and reading for two hours before the irony of my book choice hit me like the tail of an enraged whale. That's right, my friends, Moby Dick was my book of choice. I read it for the first time a few years ago, honestly because it's one of those books you're supposed to read. I expected to slog my way through it, painfully, but loved it. Why?
The characters, even the minor players, are vivid, unforgettable and rendered with a kind of awe of humanity in both its awesome and awful aspects. Melville has a deep respect for human dignity but also for truth. Nothing is glossed over Pollyanna style, but no one (with one notable exception*) is just bad or shallow or cruel. Here are a few...
Pious skinflint and owner of the ship, Bildad
"For a pious man, especially for a Quaker, he was certainly rather hard-hearted, to say the least. He never used to swear, though, at his men, they said; but somehow he got an inordinate quantity of cruel, unmitigated hard work out of them."
Relentless, majestic maniac, Captain Ahab
The more profane but also more empathetic owner, Peleg's assessment of Ahab...
I know Captain Ahab well; I’ve sailed with him as mate years ago; know what he is—a good man—not a pious, good man, like Bildad, but a swearing good man—something like me—only there’s a good deal more of him.
But be all this as it may, certain it is, that with the mad secret of his unabated rage bolted up and keyed in him, Ahab had purposely sailed upon the present voyage with the one only and all-engrossing object of hunting the White Whale... He was intent on an audacious, immitigable, and supernatural revenge.
You cannot hide the soul. Through all his unearthly tattooings, I thought I saw the traces of a simple honest heart; and in his large, deep eyes, fiery black and bold, there seemed tokens of a spirit that would dare a thousand devils. And besides all this, there was a certain lofty bearing about the Pagan, which even his uncouthness could not altogether maim. He looked like a man who had never cringed and never had had a creditor... Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.
Noble, reverent Starbuck**
A staid, steadfast man, whose life for the most part was a telling pantomime of action, and not a tame chapter of sounds. Yet, for all his hardy sobriety and fortitude, there were certain qualities in him which at times affected, and in some cases seemed well nigh to overbalance all the rest. Uncommonly conscientious for a seaman, and endued with a deep natural reverence, the wild watery loneliness of his life did therefore strongly incline him to superstition; but to that sort of superstition, which in some organization seems rather to spring, somehow, from intelligence than from ignorance.
Starbuck, after an argument with Ahab...
“Thou hast outraged, not insulted me, sir; but for that I ask thee not to beware of Starbuck; thou wouldst but laugh; but let Ahab beware of Ahab; beware of thyself, old man.”
After Ahab has been rebuffed by Moby Dick twice, once even losing his artificial leg in the chase...
“Great God! but for one single instant show thyself,” cried Starbuck; “never, never wilt thou capture him, old man—In Jesus’ name no more of this, that’s worse than devil’s madness. Two days chased; twice stove to splinters; thy very leg once more snatched from under thee; thy evil shadow gone—all good angels mobbing thee with warnings:—what more wouldst thou have?—Shall we keep chasing this murderous fish till he swamps the last man? Shall we be dragged by him to the bottom of the sea? Shall we be towed by him to the infernal world? Oh, oh,—Impiety and blasphemy to hunt him more!”
The language is beautiful - perfect for those of us who drift to melodrama. Given my current life circumstances, here is a particularly timely quote. Ishmael describes rowing a whaleboat out for the chase. The men sit among coils and coils of rope attached to harpoons which may be hurled from the boat at any time.
Thus the whale-line folds the whole boat in its complicated coils, twisting and writhing around it in almost every direction... at any unknown instant the harpoon may be darted, and all these horrible contortions be put in play like ringed lightnings; he cannot be thus circumstanced without a shudder that makes the very marrow in his bones to quiver in him like a shaken jelly. Yet habit—strange thing! what cannot habit accomplish?—Gayer sallies, more merry mirth, better jokes, and brighter repartees, you never heard over your mahogany, than you will hear over the half-inch white cedar of the whaleboat, when thus hung in hangman’s nooses; and, like the six burghers of Calais before King Edward, the six men composing the crew pull into the jaws of death, with a halter around every neck, as you may say...
All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, everpresent perils of life.
This, my friends, is some of what it feels like to battle cancer. It's grueling, terrifying and may end horribly, but humans, God love us, grow accustomed to almost anything.
So, in the wake of my ironic reading selection, I'm praying for the dauntless courage of Queequeg, the clear-eyed faith of Starbuck and the stamina of Ishmael and remembering that...
But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is a sure delight
* In my humble opinion, only the efficient, apathetic Carpenter is thoroughly evil and that's because he's devoid of love and empathy.
** I wonder, but obviously not enough to google it, if this is where Starbucks gets its name.