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Reading  Moby-­Dick Melville  wasn't  a  privileged  genius  of  some  kind.  He  was  the  son  of  a  bankrupted  father  who  died  when he  was  young.  When  he  was  your  age,  he  boarded  a  whaling  ship;;  he  sailed  round  the  world.  He jumped  ship  in  the  Marquesas;;  he  lived  among  the  cannibals;;  he  didn't  go  to  college. Melville  was  not  appreciated  during  his  lifetime.  His  books  never  sold  well,  and  he  died  poor  and forgotten  and  wasn't  vindicated  for  having  accomplished  something  remarkable  until  generations  later. Moby-­Dick  is  not  a  “normal”  book.  It's  a  human  creation,  and  like  the  humans  who  write  books, Moby-­Dick  is  flawed  and  messy.  It  is  also  rich  and  outrageous,  funny,  and  deadly  serious.  It  is  large  and mysterious;;  Moby-­Dick  is  a  whale  of  a  book. Our  narrator,  Ishmael,  sometimes  rambles  on  about philosophical  ideas,  but  he  tells  fart  jokes  too,  and he  accepts  that  the  world  is  a  joke  (see  Chapter  49: The  Hyena).  He  is  a  self-­described  slacker,  but  he works  hard  at  menial  tasks  and  doesn't  complain about  not  having  money.  In  the  words  of  a  fellow teacher,  he  is  "confessional,  witty,  self-­mocking, skeptical,  ironic,  irreverent,  democratic,  and curious."  He  is  no  better  and  no  worse  than  most  of us. Ishmael  likes  to  talk,  and  he  talks  (or  writes)  a  lot. Sometimes  he  works  himself  up  to  saying  some pretty  worthwhile  stuff.  But  there  are  more questions  than  answers  in  Moby-­Dick.  There  are more  questions  than  answers  in  life.  I  don't  much trust  narrators  who  offer  plain  and  simple  answers. I'm  more  comfortable  with  those  who  plainly  recognize  their  faults,  like  Ishmael,  who  tells  us  that  he  is flawed  and  that  Moby-­Dick  is  far  from  perfect:  it  isn't  even  finished.  "I  promise  nothing  complete," promises  Ishmael.  "God  keep  me  from  completing  anything,"  he  prays.  "This  whole  book,"  he  happily admits,  "is  but  a  draft"  (Ch.  32).  And  of  the  leviathan  that  rushes  beneath  his  every  page:  "Dissect  him now  I  may,  then,  I  but  go  skin  deep,"  writes  Ishmael,  who  "know[s]  him  not,  and  never  will"  (Ch.  86). Moby-­Dick  is  full  of  binary  oppositions  that  Melville/Ishmael  constantly  breaks  down.  The  land  chapters deconstruct  the  Christian/Pagan  or  Civilized/Cannibal  binary.  The  sea  chapters  deconstruct  a human/extra-­human  binary.  Melville's  ruminations  about  the  extra-­human  world  function  as


commentaries  on  human  society.  See,  for  example,  Fleece's  sermon  to  the  sharks.  Apply  what  you already  know  from  the  landlocked  chapters  to  the  chapters  on  the  open  sea.  And  know  that  Melville was  deeply  saddened  by  the  savage  slaying  of  whales  -­  the  mass  slaughter  of  majestic,  mysterious creatures. As  you  continue  reading  Moby-­Dick,  look  for  more  examples  of  Melville  shattering  binary  oppositions that  you  know  to  be  reductive,  but  uncritically  cling  to,  especially  when  you  feel  threatened  or  confused, or  when  you  find  yourself  in  an  unfamiliar  place  or  among  unfamiliar  people.  Deconstructing  binaries  is  a writerly  and  readerly  act,  a  creative  act  of  resistance.  Resist  the  safe  assurances  of  dogma.  Force yourself  to  keep  asking  questions  even  if  this  pains  you. Most  readers  want  to  know  what  Moby-­Dick  is  about.  You  could  simply  say  that  Moby-­Dick  is  about revenge.  You  could  say  the  same  of  Shakespeare's  Hamlet,  "but  this  is  not  the  half,"  as  Ishmael  writes before  he  insists  we  "look  again"  (98).  Moby-­Dick  is  a  book  that  teaches  us  to  read  the  world  around us  and  to  be  self-­critical  about  the  pictures  we  draw  and  the  stories  we  tell  about  what  that  world means.  Ishmael  is  our  mentor  and  our  guide  in  this  ongoing  creative  process.  He  is  always  surveying  his world,  and  he  looks  for  meaning  in  all  he  surveys.  He  struggles  to  say  anything  definite,  just  as  we struggle  with  Moby-­Dick.  Recall  his  attempts  to  "read"  the  painting  at  the  Spouter  Inn  and  to  draw  some shadow  of  meaning  from  New  Bedford,  the  sea,  the  Pequod,  Queequeg,  Peleg  and  Bildad,  Bulkington, whiteness,  and  whales.  All  meaning  is  contingent  upon  human  interpretation,  and  no  reader  ever  arrives at  the  big  meaning  of  Moby-­Dick  because  asking  what  this  book  means  is  like  asking  what  life  means. You  want  to  know,  but  you  don't  want  anyone  to  tell  you,  and  no  one  can.  You  will  fail  at  knowing,  but it's  the  wanting  that  matters. Why  do  you  think  you  know  what  you  think  you  know  about  Ishmael?  His  metaphysical  musings  point back  to  questions,  not  answers.  Do  yours?  What  do  your  assumptions  as  a  reader  say  about  you  as  a person  –  not  as  a  student  –  as  a  person?  Are  you  half  as  curious  as  Ishmael?  Are  you  as  funny,  as flexible,  as  hard-­working,  or  as  easy  going?  Is  there  any  reason  you  cannot  learn  to  be  as  human,  even more  human,  than  Ishmael?  Who  are  you?  Who  do  you  want  to  be? If  you  ask  yourself  "What  do  I  want  of  Moby-­Dick?"  You’re  asking,  "What  do  I  want  of  life?"  These are  the  same  question. Read  your  world,  and  if  you  ever  think  you  know  what  all  the  things  mean,  open  your  life  again  and  start from  the  beginning. Anthony  Fassi December  2013


Reading Moby-Dick