Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851): Gloriously mad

The language is all-American apocalyptic high-style and it’s surprisingly funny, too

Herman Melville: probably ought to have stopped writing after this one, his work down here well done

Herman Melville: probably ought to have stopped writing after this one, his work down here well done

 

Borges suggested somewhere that all great literature eventually becomes children’s literature: in time, even sprawling narratives assume the compact shape of bedtime stories. Moby-Dick, a novel as hefty as its titular whale and roomy as the sea he swims in, could, with severe Gordon Lish-style editing, be pared down to novella or even – since we’re being sacrilegious – short-story length, if narrative were the true quarry. Some 500 pages in, its author-narrator, Ishmael, undergoes an attack of vertigo on realising that the tale of obsession he is telling – that of Captain Ahab’s hellbent quest for vengeance on the whale who tore off his leg – has itself become a pullulating, all-devouring monstrosity of obsession, with its “outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth and throughout the universe, not excluding its suburbs”.

In this mad moment of revelation (everything about the book is gloriously mad), form mirrors content as Moby-Dick becomes the insatiable Leviathan that will not cease until it has exhausted itself and its reader in a maniacal bid to categorise all things on heaven and earth; or, at least, all you might ever want to know, and much you would not, concerning cetology, whaling, seafaring and even – a nine-page chapter on this – the boundless metaphysical horror supposedly evoked by white, the colour of the dread whale.

The language is all-American apocalyptic high-style, like Cormac McCarthy channelling Shakespeare at his most hysterical (“I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened!”), and it’s surprisingly funny, too. Herman Melville probably ought to have stopped writing after this one, his work down here well done. Both in its epic story of monomaniacal pursuit, and the extravagant nature of its telling, Moby-Dick bears witness to mankind’s – and the most ambitious authors’ – propensity, if we can be Nietzschean about it, to wreck themselves against infinity.

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