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'Moby-Dick': Into the Wonder-World, Audaciously

I've been re-reading Moby-Dick for years since I first discovered it in my 20s, and I still don't know quite what it is. There's nothing like it in the history of literature, except perhaps Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, with its eccentric characters, plotless episodes, entangled digressions, puns, obsessions and tricks.

Yes, of course, many people know what Moby-Dick is about. It is a tale of the voyage of the Pequod and the obsessive, vengeful quest of its captain, Ahab, to kill the white whale Moby-Dick.

But what is it? It is a creature quite unto itself: a great library of learning contained within the belly of a whale, a key to all mythologies, a joke, a quest, a witch-hunt, a parable, a water eclogue and a warning against the dangers of monomania and what we might call fundamentalism. The book is a cauldron into which Melville, demented alchemist, tipped everything that fascinated him: whale lore, whale statistics, meditations on love, friendship, dreams, demonic possession, his own conversations with books by writers from Carlyle to Rousseau, Shakespeare to Goethe. He described it as "the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ship's cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it."

While I may have fallen for the eroticized audacity of Moby-Dick for the briny adrenaline rush of its quest, now it seems to provoke more philosophical questions — about, for instance, the nature of truth. For Moby-Dick refuses, bravely, both the idea of human perfectibility and the notion that truth can be either absolute or reachable. It is not for nothing that the first chapter, in which we meet Ishmael, Ahab's attendant shadow, is beautifully entitled "Loomings." Ishmael says, "the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and ... there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air." (Read 'Loomings.')

In Moby-Dick truths are phantoms, not without existence, nor unimportant, but always insubstantial, always seen only as flashings-forth, glimpses, snow hills in the air. I try in my own stories to capture the elusiveness of truth by conjuring figures who exist in the interstices of history, who move between past and present, who can only ever be seen on the edges of vision. I keep the novel to hand when I am writing, and I reach for it whenever my nerve fails me — because Melville had nerve as well as mad genius, and his daring is evident on every page of Moby-Dick.

Moby-Dick is also, of course, a warning against the consequences of fundamentalism and monomania in any form, as Salman Rushdie has argued in a passionate essay against fundamentalism called "Is Nothing Sacred?" He calls Moby-Dick a very modern parable: "Ahab, gripped by his possession, perishes; Ishmael, a man without strong feeling or powerful affiliations, survives. The self-interested modern man is the sole survivor; those who worship the whale — for pursuit is a form of worship — perish by the whale." Some of today's warmongers and dictators might learn something about the dangers of a certain kind of messianic zeal from this marvelous book.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

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