Moby-Dick - a modern tragedy





Are we witnessing the American Götterdammerung? The United States is the ultimate land of optimistic promise, but it also gave birth to quintessentially pessimistic tragedy: Moby-Dick.

Nearly all monster stories depend for their success on Jack killing the Giant, Beowulf or St George slaying the Dragon, Harry Potter triumphing over the basilisk. That is their inner grammar, and the whole shape of the story leads towards it. Moby-Dick satisfyingly reverses the formula.

The monomaniacal Captain Ahab, who has had his leg bitten off by the white sperm-whale, goes in pursuit of Moby-Dick. He fills up his ship, the Pequod, with 30 extraordinary weirdoes, harpooners and sailors, not for an ordinary whaling expedition, but for a grand revenge quest.

And it ends, not with the death of the monster (if the whale is the monster?) but with the destruction of the ship, the death of Ahab and all the other sailors, save Ishmael, the narrator.

To this extent, it is in the grand Miltonic tradition. Milton was of the Devil's Party without knowing it, as Blake said; and although there has been a War in Heaven, the first two books of Paradise Lost show that Satan though vanquished, lives to fight another day. (What though the field be lost?) This is one of the templates over which Moby-Dick's story is laid.

Nothing in Ishmael's tone, as he begins his story, could possibly prepare the reader for what is to follow. His leisurely, discursive, often humorous manner has nothing in it of the sleeve-tugging urgency of the Ancient Mariner.

You know, from the moment he finds himself in New Bedford, with the heavily-tattooed Queequeg, the half-savage harpooner, that you are in for an extraordinary story, but he never lets on that it is going to be a story in which all the chief characters save himself will be killed by a whale.

You feel, with almost every sentence, that he has a story, a secret to unfold, but not that he is a tragedian. This is what, with such incomparable narrative brilliance, he holds back.

Ishmael, the narrator, gets a job aboard the Pequod under Captain Ahab, who has a peg-leg constructed from a whale-bone. The weird crew assembles. The ship sets sail.

And it seems as if Ishmael, as narrator, has all the time in the world to discourse, in Thomas Browne fashion, upon the different varieties of whale, upon natural history, geography - anything which takes his fancy.

Only about a third of the way through a long book does the character of Captain Ahab begin to emerge, his obsessive monomaniac hatred of one particular white sperm whale, and his need to sail round the world until he finds it.

"Here, then, was this grey-headed ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job's whale round the world…"

By now the novel has become something of a Leviathan itself, a sort of American anti-Bible. It is steeped in the Scriptures, as is most American public discourse even today, but it hints at a grand allegory. It seemed appropriate to be reading it during the recent tempests on Wall Street...



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