Thursday, December 22, 2011

In Pursuit of Leviathan

I have come in my old age to be dissatisfied with the flimsiness of the contemporary fantasy novel. Not all are superficial or insubstantial, I know, but still it is rare that I come across something I can sink really my teeth into. Perhaps I am over-critical; perhaps years of reading mathematics and metaphysics have merely wound my brain too tight, so that anything not taxing is positively boring. However this may be, whenever I stand in need of something that offers what I look for in fantasy but that satisfies my need for the rich and the sublime, I turn to the nineteenth century. And foremost among the works of gothic imagination that attract me as fantasies do is Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Sometimes I amuse myself by tring to pinpoint what it is in Moby-Dick that draws me as Dune or Titus Groan do. The "fantastic" material elements—the improbability of the adventure, the omens and soothsayers, the sentience of the whale—are all somewhat beside the point. The book itself is the doorway to a complete and self-contained world—the world of the primordial ocean—and the reader loses himself in it. The opening scenes in Bedford play the role of an induction, like the finding of the wardrobe or the arrival of the hippogriff. The sailors don’t merely move across the sea as across a backdrop: they become part of it, the lovers and foes coequal of Leviathan. The Pequod, too, that tiny island in the midst of the featureless face of the waters, lorded over by Ahab its sultan, is itself a character and a potent force, like Arrakis or Gormenghast Castle.
You may have seen many a quaint craft in your day, for aught I know;—square-toed luggers; mountainous Japanese junks; butter-box galliots, and what not; but take my word for it, you never saw such a rare old craft as this same rare old Pequod. She was a ship of the old school, rather small if anything; with an old-fashioned claw-footed look about her. Long seasoned and weather-stained in the typhoons and calms of all four oceans, her old hull's complexion was darkened like a French grenadier's, who has alike fought in Egypt and Siberia. Her venerable bows looked bearded. Her masts—cut somewhere on the coast of Japan, where her original ones were lost overboard in a gale—her masts stood stiffly up like the spines of the three old kings of Cologne. Her ancient decks were worn and wrinkled, like the pilgrim-worshipped flag-stone in Canterbury Cathedral where Becket bled. But to all these her old antiquities, were added new and marvellous features, pertaining to the wild business that for more than half a century she had followed… She was apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory. She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies. All round, her unpanelled, open bulwarks were garnished like one continuous jaw, with the long sharp teeth of the sperm whale, inserted there for pins, to fasten her old hempen thews and tendons to. Those thews ran not through base blocks of land wood, but deftly travelled over sheaves of sea-ivory. Scorning a turnstile wheel at her reverend helm, she sported there a tiller; and that tiller was in one mass, curiously carved from the long narrow lower jaw of her hereditary foe. The helmsman who steered by that tiller in a tempest, felt like the Tartar, when he holds back his fiery steed by clutching its jaw. A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.
In Moby-Dick Melville seeks to communicate the fiery vision of a nature pregnant with the utter absence of God. This vision is couched in the very language and imagery of the King James Bible. The affective structure of the work and its stylistic elements transform the gothic vision of nature into a living, breathing reality that can be touched and communed with. The sought-for whale is itself the personification of the brutal unconcern of the cosmos with aught that is human, and its very whiteness is a living force and symbol of impenetrable mystery.
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour; and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues—every stately or lovely emblazoning—the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colourless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge—pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear coloured and colouring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?
And so I delight in Moby-Dick as I do in few fantasies, but for the same reasons that I enjoy the greatest fantasies. I revel in its grotesqueries and "digressions." I wander in it like a lost soul in Faërie, wondering at all that I see, drinking in the sentences and symbols like heady wine.

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