Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Leviathan, or The Whale

High on the list of books I must read this decade, certainly much higher than any number of gloomy Russians or periphrastic Frenchmen, is Melville's Moby Dick. It was James Wood's essay, unpromisingly titled "The All and the If: God and Metaphor in Melville" that got me hooked on this shaggy mammal story. The way Woods tell it, Melville is second only to Shakespeare in his awesome attempt to encircle a world with a mad effusion of words. I've tried before, only to be done in by the awesome tedium of that chapter-long sermon which, I'm ashamed to say, occurs before our heroes have even left the land.

Clearly I'm just going to have to skip the damn thing, having just read Philip Hoare' quite wonderful Leviathan, or the Whale. The book, an intoxicating hybrid, mixes W.G. Sebald's gloomy peregrinations and gnomic musings with a bloody history of whaling. Hoare, depressed by the murk of London and the death of his mother, travels to New England and meditates upon the obscure biology of the sperm whale, describing how a great American industry was founded upon the wholesale slaughter of this fabulous beast. We see just how uniquely dangerous the life of a whaling Nantucketer really was, as they rowed in their tiny boats to the Whale's blind side, hoping to harpoon it before it panicked and stove in their puny vessel. We also follow the feckless Herman Melville, the new enfant terrible of American letters who's hoping to write a great adventure novel but who instead meets Nathaniel Hawthorne and is gripped by the transcendental fever that would elevate Moby Dick from the merely picturesque into a new American mythic.

We've killed hundreds of thousands of sperm whales in the last three centuries. Whale oil has been used in surprising ways, even lubricating the moving parts of the Voyager satellite. Here's a video where the balance is, however fleetingly, redressed:

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