Why Does Moby Dick Matter?

Moby Dick has the slightly dusty reputation of a classic text, sometimes eulogised but rarely actually read. Caitlin Moran's perspective is I'm sure fairly typical: "Moby Dick makes me sad that I hadn't read it earlier in my life - I'd always thought it was basically some dull Hemingway-esque novel about fishing, and eschewed it on that basis." (How to Be Famous, Caitlin Moran) How can a long and meandering book about whaling published in 1851 have anything useful to say to a world defined by capitalism and overwhelmed by technology? How can a book with almost no female characters say anything of value to the 50% of the world's population that are almost entirely excluded from its pages?

I'm here to convince you that Moby Dick a genuinely eccentric and radical book, a story about the end of established ways of living and perspectives, and an exemplar in writing of how we could live differently. Funny, deviant, and gleaming with life. As Moran puts it:

Those long, bright pages are bursting with everything he knows—all that he has observed about waves, and wind, and men, and whale oil, and knives, and boats, and love, and fear. A burning desire to chronicle everything that he is, and knows, on the page, just to prove he existed. Just to prove you could be someone like Herman Melville, when everyone else in the world was not.

Moran goes on to imagine Melville, a man so apparently out of step with his own time, the "bearded clerk, who died without glory", existing in the twenty first century, going "to a bar with Queequeg" to drink cocktails, dance, talk about "theories of humanity" and listen to Astral Weeks (Van Morrison) which "they would have never heard and would think of as magic". It is certainly possible to think of Melville finding some sweet kinship with a song that ends "I'm nothing but a stranger in this world", and to agree that in certain ways (our relative and unequally distributed cultural and sexual freedom, for example) Melville might "love this world so much", and "have felt so at home here!".

And all you could do was imagine it, and write it in your books, and then hide inside those books, and come talk to me, a hundred years later. That is where you live. A book is a beautiful, paper mausoleum, or tomb, in which to store ideas… to keep the bones of your thoughts in one place, for all time. I just want to say—“Hello. We can hear you. The words survived.”

And this sense of Melville speaking to us across temporal and cultural divides, prenaturally aware of what was to come, is very much what I'm trying to express here. But I also need to emphasise the darker aspects of Melville's precognition - the sense in which the world in which we live in is the inevitable and terrible fulfillment of the world he lived in. And to suggest ways in which the "bones" of his thoughts littered in the "tomb" of Moby Dick are worth examining we try to work out what the hell to do next.

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