On Moby-Dick

‘“Moby-Dick” is not a novel. It’s barely a book at all. It’s more an act of transference, of ideas and evocations hung around the vast and unknowable shape of the whale, an extended musing on the strange meeting of human history and natural history. It is, above all, a sui-generis creation, one that came into the world as an unnatural, immaculate conception …

In an age of uncertain faith, then as now, “Moby-Dick” resembles a religious tract, an alternative testament. Little wonder that one of its early set-pieces is Father Mapple’s fire-and-brimstone sermon from the prow-shaped pulpit in the Seamen’s Bethel, New Bedford, or that Philbrick takes the title for his own first chapter, “The Gospels in This Century,” from Melville’s wry and rather Wildean remark on the unsalability of his work: “Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.” As he told Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have written a wicked book, and I feel as spotless as the lamb.”

When I finally began reading “Moby-Dick” (had I wasted my time before then?), I found I couldn’t put it down. I’d carry about with me a tiny, Oxford World Classics edition, anonymously bound in blue cloth, to be studied chapter by chapter, like the Bible or the Koran, as I sat on the Tube or on an airplane, or in the early hours of the morning. As Philbrick exhorts his readers, ” ‘Moby-Dick’ is a long book, and time is short. Even a sentence, a mere phrase will do.”

Much of the impact of Melville’s book on any fierce new convert is implicit in that sense of time travel. Sometimes I read it and I feel like I’m going backward, fast. It reads like something that was written before books were invented, yet it is utterly modern—pre-postmodern, perhaps. It is part of its own prediction, as if it and its characters had been there all along, and had only been waiting to be written. Just as in the real New Bedford’s Bethel a pulpit-prow had to be built, in the nineteen-sixties, because so many visitors expected to find one there; and, just as Melville wrote vividly of Nantucket, an island that he had yet to visit, much of “Moby-Dick” is conjured out of the air and the sea’.

– Philip Hoare, What “Moby-Dick” Means to Me


  1. ‘And whereas all the other things, whether beast or vessel, that enter into the dreadful gulf of this monster’s (whale’s) mouth, are immediately lost and swallowed up, the sea-gudgeon retires into it in great security, and there sleeps.’

    Montaigne – Apology for Raimond Sebond.
    From “Extracts” Moby Dick by Herman Melville.


  2. Good stuff! Half my living room shelves are full of Moby-Dick: Ahab’s obsessiveness is contagious.

    At some church event recently, there were wooden toys based on various bible stories – Noah’s ark, Solomon’s temple, Adam & Eve, etc. When my little boy Jamie saw the whale, he cried: “Look dad – it’s Moby Dick!” I was so proud.


  3. Finely observed.
    Thanks, Jason.

    There are two kinds of people in the world: those who ship on the Pequod and those who don’t. Pity the landlubbers.


  4. Well, Jason, you have almost made me want to have another go at Moby Dick. I’ve read a great chunk of it, way back, and I seem to remember trying to get into it again…but it IS a difficult read, and plainly my concentration levels aren’t what they were – still I do have a copy, so maybe I should make it my big book for 2011 (since time is running out!).


  5. Actually one of the great pages I do remember from Moby Dick was when Pequod (I think) fell into the sea and was surrounded by its unutterable vastness – no other being in sight. The picture still stays with me as one of those great terrifying moments.


  6. Have you read the book the article is based on? I wonder if it is worth reading. Know of any good introductions to Moby DIck (possibly with an eye towards faith)?
    I am just rereading it now, partially because the Art of Fielding contained so many blatant and hidden references to it. Have picked that up yet?


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