Thursday, March 06, 2008

Melville biographer backs "Moby-Dick" official book effort.

Last year I chimed in on an effort by a group of Massachusetts fifth-graders to make Herman Melville's Moby-Dick the official book of the Commonwealth. The legislative effort to grant Moby-Dick its "official book" status is apparently moving forward, and SouthCoast citizens will have an opportunity to comment on Massachusetts House Bill No. 3964 in a public hearing to be held tomorrow from 9-2 at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. I used to enjoy attending hearings like this when I was a State House intern; after listening to policy experts and lobbyists weigh in on the merits of dry and abstract legislation, it was always entertaining to hear people talk about petitions to make Lenny Gomulka's "Say Hello to Someone from Massachusetts" the official state polka song or to make the spotted salamander the state amphibian. (For the record, the state polka bill passed into law, while the salamander bill died in committee.)

Anyhow, yesterday's New Bedford Standard-Times has an op-ed by Melville biographer Laurie Robertson-Lorant endorsing the petition to make Moby-Dick the official book of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Moby-Dick is one of my favorite books, and while I'll admit it isn't to everyone's taste, I do think that Melville's epic has a lot to offer dedicated readers who can make their way through the whole tome. In hopes of inspiring some kindred spirits out there to give Moby-Dick a try, I'll quote some of what Robertson-Lorant has to say about the novel:
Like Gilgamesh, the Kalevala and The Odyssey, the story of Ahab's mad quest for the white whale resonates with the power of timeless myth. Drawing on many sources, conscious and unconscious, historical and mythic, Moby-Dick combines Indian legends, frontier tall tales, Biblical allusions, Rabelaisian humor and Shakespearian tragedy with detailed descriptions of whaling, sea chanteys, homilies, philosophical meditations, supernatural prophecies and sexual innuendos.

. . .

In Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Melville opens "the floodgates of the wonder-world" of the English language to create a global vision of man drawn over the horizon by the silvery jets of whales awakening his imagination. As Ishmael learns to appreciate the beauty of the oceanic world and feel compassion for the whales Stubb and Flask mercilessly slaughter, Ahab's monomaniacal quest to destroy the white whale seems increasingly destructive and insane.

The world of Melville's epic is a world whose surface is naturalistic and quasi-scientific but whose depths are spiritual and poetic. From the magic of "the pool in the stream" Ishmael evokes in "Loomings" to the "mystical vibration" Ishmael feels when he realizes he is out of sight of land, Melville puts before us "the image of the ungraspable phantom of life." Melville's prose links the cosmic and the concrete, the physical and the metaphysical, the known and the unknown.

. . .

"To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme," Ishmael exclaims as he grapples with the greatest whaling story of all time. Like Moby-Dick, the founding story of Massachusetts has "a mighty theme." Once upon a time, the story goes, Massachusetts was the promised land. European immigrants came to the "New World Eden" to redeem Adam's fall. Boston was called the "City on a Hill" — a beacon of liberty for immigrants fleeing the corrupt Old World.

Moby-Dick tells every generation the story it needs to hear. Today, we are Ishmaels on a troubled sea. Like Ishmael at the helm, so mesmerized by the oil-rendering flames of the try-works that he almost sinks the ship, we need to change direction and rediscover the reverence the indigenous inhabitants of Massachusetts felt for the creatures of land and sea and air; otherwise, their beauty will be gone before our descendants can discover it.

Like Ishmael, who alone escaped to tell the story, we must learn to exhibit awe and humility toward the vast universe of which we are an infinitesimal part, or life on this planet will no longer be sustainable.
To read the rest, click here. Robertson-Lorant's environmentalist reading of Moby-Dick is new to me, but I suppose it's a reasonable interpretation of a story that may be read in many different ways. The only way to know whether or not you agree is to read the book for yourself. AMDG.


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