Melville, as Stimulant and Soporific

by John Holbo on May 27, 2011

Ta-Nehisi Coates really likes Moby Dick, apparently the first paragraph in particular.

But not everyone feels the same. Reminds me of that great scene in Bone, vol. 5, when they are being attacked by the Stupid Rat Creatures …

I’m with Coates on this one, even though I’ve always been more of a Confidence-Man man, myself. Now, where where we?

Seriously, you should read The Confidence-Man. I should. I used to read it every year until the internet robbed me of my capacity to read long books. (Really should do something about that.)



zunguzungu 05.27.11 at 5:02 pm

Crooked Timber group reading of The Confidence Man!

Been meaning to get back to it myself, ever since I started reading it on a plane and realized I needed to give it my entire attention, and then subsequently never got around to it. I’m sure, as usual, that the internet is to blame.


R.Mutt 05.27.11 at 5:42 pm


Salient 05.27.11 at 7:15 pm

Call me Ishmael.

This is the sort of thing you get by Babelfish-translating “my name is Ishmael” into Spanish and then back again.

Some years ago — never mind how long precisely —

It was right about here when I realized Melville, a solid century before I was born, knew I was the kind of person who would impatiently interject and ask. Precognitive!

Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.

The spirit of the third sentence sort of contradicts the spirit of the second, no? “Bored and broke, I decided aww shucks, why not give sailing a try? Just like I have so many times before.”

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

This is starting to sound like an apologia for high seas piracy. (So “growing grim around the mouth” is Melville-speak for developing a blackbeard, right?)

This is my substitute for pistol and ball.

What is? Cannon? [editorial note: it turns out he was pointing at a harpoon.]

With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.

Quietly? Why quietly? …oh! …a pirate assassin!

There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Well, yes, surely everybody finds the notion of being a precognitive pirate assassin rather appealing. But you should give yourself more credit upfront for having realized that a precognitive pirate whale-assassin is an order of magnitude cooler. Nobody disputes that Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever was not nearly as cool as The Whale Goes Ballistic: Ecks and Sever vs. Moby Dick would have been. And they wouldn’t have even needed to change the tagline description! “Tasked with destroying each other, an FBI agent and a rogue DIA agent soon discover that there’s a much bigger enemy at work.”


Martin Bento 05.27.11 at 7:39 pm

Salient, are you just “taking the piss” on a masterpiece for “topple the idol” “down with authority” reasons, or do you think the things you wrote are actually, uh, salient?


Martin Bento 05.27.11 at 7:43 pm

Actually, I guess you’re just being funny.


Salient 05.27.11 at 8:16 pm

Actually, I guess you’re just being funny.

I’d go with that. Somewhat coincidentally, very little of what I said is factually false, so long as you allow a sufficiently expansive definition of what a “pirate” is. In the books where pirates were first introduced to me as a kid, the word was almost perfectly synonymous with sailor-who-goes-on-adventures (and the pirates get cooler adventures than most fairy-tale characters do). So given that datum, I suppose all of what I said could be taken plainly and literally without much loss, except the loss of the fun of being joyously silly.

I’ve dearly loved about eighty-five percent of Moby Dick since it was put in my hands at some absurdly early age, and all these years later it remains my favorite book about pirate whale-assassins and the soul-searchers who accompany them, which is praise that can only be taken as backhanded or faint by way of neglect or misinterpretation in the guise of studied seriousness. I can relate to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ emphatically emotive line-by-line response to the first paragraph in ways I can’t relate to that Bone character. (This may also be because I am distracted by how much the other Bone character looks like a hybrid of human and Shmoo.)


Doctor Slack 05.27.11 at 8:16 pm

Ta-Nehisi is of course correct. Moby Dick kicks as many kinds of ass, in absolute terms, as it is possible for a work of fiction to kick.


Walt 05.27.11 at 9:02 pm

I don’t see how anyone would find the opening of Moby Dick boring, unless they have no appetite for literary fiction or they hate sailors or something. It doesn’t get hard to read until you get to the interpolated chapters with whale trivia. Before that it’s well-written adventure fiction.


CharleyCarp 05.27.11 at 9:43 pm

There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke.


Doug K 05.27.11 at 10:05 pm

the John Huston movie of MD with Gregory Peck is free on It’s surprisingly good, though Queequeg is in a kind of blackface..

I have an excellent compact Everyman’s edition, lots of reading per ounce, which has accompanied me on several trips, at least once carried up a mountain to read in a cave. Lacking for whaling ships, that’s where I like to take my hypos..


nnyhav 05.27.11 at 11:44 pm


but yes, Confidence-Man by all means


Bloix 05.27.11 at 11:57 pm

Salient, is it really possible that you don’t understand that he goes to sea as an alternative to committing suicide?


John Holbo 05.28.11 at 12:30 am

“I don’t see how anyone would find the opening of Moby Dick boring, unless they have no appetite for literary fiction or they hate sailors or something.”

But by the same token, it’s a bit hard to see how the opening – alone – could be as awesome as all that, unless all you care about is guys named Ishmael, sailors, or something.

I like the cultural convention that Melville is either so good or so bad that you already know it by sentence one, or two at the latest.


John Holbo 05.28.11 at 12:31 am

A Crooked Timber book event on The Confidence-Man would indeed be a timely affair!


Doctor Slack 05.28.11 at 1:46 am

Maybe a Crooked Timber book event on Moby Dick is in order.


dr ngo 05.28.11 at 2:57 am

True story. Many years ago – never mind how long precisely – oh, OK, it was thirty. More or less. But I digress. I was required to attend a seminar by the man in charge of editing the complete/definitive/official works of Melville. Much of his work, he confessed, was in sorting out minute irregularities or inconsistencies between editions, of words or even punctuation. Yet this mattered, he opined. Suppose a stray comma had wandered into the first line of Moby Dick? he asked.

Call me, Ishmael


Stephen Lathrop 05.28.11 at 4:13 am

“I have seen and talked to Steelkilt since the death of Radney.”

After about the third reading of MD, that line was among the many out-of-the-way bits that struck me with untoward resonance. No explanation for it. It’s off the main stream of the narrative. I never saw it referred to critically. But there it was, kicking around in my mind. There was much in the book like that—obscure items that drew focus anyway.

Then, later, I found myself in the hall of graduate studies. I needed to use the facilities. Closing the stall door, there in front of me I beheld, on the inside of the door, “I have seen and talked with Steelkilt since the death of Radney.”


jeer9 05.28.11 at 4:53 am

One should always keep in mind that first word in the novel is etymology, not the famous phrase everyone knows. It is the greatest philosophical novel ever written, the most brilliant first paragraph, and awash with every type of humor imaginable.

“And I am convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings, such as Plato, Pyrrho, The Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the act of thinking deep thoughts. While composing a little treatise on Eternity, I had the curiosity to place a mirror before me; and ere long I saw reflected there, a curious involved worming and undulation in the atmosphere over my head. The invariable mixture of my hair , while plunged in deep thought, after six cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August noon; this seems an additional argument for the above supposition.”

His writing is only a soporific to those who don’t understand Melville’s theme: an exploration of man’s pursuit of truth through the flawed instrument of language, a quest in which metaphor becomes the harpoon that attempts to slay the unslayable beast. “Bartleby the Scrivener” is also obsessed with a character (metaphor) which will not act appropriately and appears utterly inscrutable to the unreliable lawyer/narrator. Given the novel’s woeful reception and its author’s linguistic obsession, it should come as no surprise that he spent most of his energy after this point on poetry. Now a truly difficult work, if that of a genius as well, is Tristram Shandy. Asked to read it a second time, my reply should be that of Bartleby: “I would prefer not to.”


Salient 05.28.11 at 5:30 am

it’s a bit hard to see how the opening – alone – could be as awesome as all that

I stand by my exegesis to the ends of the Earth! Or at least to the end of the sea.

Salient, is it really possible that you don’t understand that he goes to sea as an alternative to committing suicide?

Suicides don’t generally go around methodically doffing other people’s hats, but yes, I’m aware that’s what someone-who-is-not-eight-when-first-reading-it really ought to gather from “This is my substitute for pistol and ball.” And I insist that regardless of such naive misinterpretations Moby Dick is considerably more enjoyable to first read when too young for it, unlike, say, Hamlet.

But then see also CharleyCarp — depression is a strange animal. I personally interpret the pistol-and-ball statement as a bit of hyperbole, spoken drily with a bit of a wry/wistful half-smile and certainly not intended literally; it’s evocative and meant to indicate that he experienced acute malaise moreso than acute despair.

Now a truly difficult work, if that of a genius as well, is Tristram Shandy.

Aww, don’t scare people away from the rollicking shaggy glory that is Tristram Shandy. [E-book available online for free!] It isn’t really more difficult to read and follow than Gulliver’s Travels or whatnot, it’s just much more hilariously overwritten and digressive. It’s the sort of thing people read and thought “what. what is this. I don’t even.” because it was the freaking 1750s and they didn’t have the mental fortitude to handle something even a tenth as weird as Fight Club yet.

I was going to say “what Tristram Shandy really needs is for somebody like Sophia Coppola or Alfonso Cuarón to direct a sort of crazy film adaptation” but then I learned somebody brilliant already gave the task to Michael Winterbottom five years ago, so now I’m crossing my fingers for Netflix availability…


Ginger Yellow 05.28.11 at 11:04 am

The Winterbottom film is surprisingly good.


foolishmortal 05.28.11 at 11:49 am

Moby Dick 2010, however, is available on Netflix right now, and only I escaped to tell thee.


glen_david_gold 05.28.11 at 3:46 pm

>I used to read it every year until the internet robbed me of my capacity to read long books. (Really should do something about that.)

I suspect that’s a comment that’s both tongue-in-cheek and deadly accurate. For purely selfish reasons, I’m curious whether people will want to fix this problem, or whether attention span is the gall bladder of the 21st century.


bianca steele 05.29.11 at 1:02 am

and only I escaped to tell thee

For writing a line like that the book should be considered teh awsomest alone.

@16 Editing is important. My copy of Moby Dick is so poorly edited it repeats a chunk of 100 pages or so verbatim.


John Holbo 05.29.11 at 1:33 am


“and only I escaped to tell thee”


“And I only am escaped alone to tell thee”

And it’s not written by Melville. It’s a quote from the Book of Job – part of a larger work often considered teh awsomest, to be sure.


Belle Waring 05.29.11 at 11:44 am

Crooked Timber dual book event on The Confidence Man and Tristram Shandy! Which unreliable narrator will win the day? I would happily write an long essay, boring only to stupid rat creatures. Stupid, stupid rat creatures.


Salient 05.29.11 at 1:38 pm

Crooked Timber dual book event on The Confidence Man and Tristram Shandy!

Egads, it’s pleasantly surprising enough to suddenly discover Susanna Clarke or Glen David Gold will be making an appearance here, but getting agreement to post a riposte response from Lawrence Sterne would be the CT coup of the millennium. Still, if anybody could do it, it would be the folks that brought us Montagu Norman’s commentary on Alan Greenspan…


chris y 05.29.11 at 2:00 pm

If you went into bat for Melville and you locate the person who used to blog here to bat for Sterne, I would certainly get the popcorn on. Twelve rounds, three submissions or a knockout.


geo 05.29.11 at 4:29 pm

Here’s an astonishing, cosmically brilliant interpretation of Melville by a libertarian Marxist. Like no other literary criticism I’ve ever encountered:


rmd 05.30.11 at 9:06 am

I know that better judges than I like it better than I do, but . . . (a), it’s a close enough pastiche of third-rate nineteenth century humour and its feeble verbal mannerism, there’s not much to choose between it and the real thing (“watery part of the world”, “driving off the spleen”, “my hypos”); (b) then along with the would-be humorous stuff you get a bit of general purpose turgidity, to establish affinities with bad contemporary writing generally (“pistol and ball”, “philosophical flourish Cato”); ( c ) the most individual thing about it is Ishmael’s lameness and insincerity. Can anyone believe, on the strength of that paragraph, that he has it in him to “knock people’s hats off” or to do anything with “pistol and ball” but mope about in their vicinity? What he’s up for is posing (“a way I have”, “find myself”, “requires a strong moral principle . . . deliberately . . . methodically”, “I quietly take”).

[Walt: hate sailors or something]: Liking Ishmael, taking his “hypos” and his “spleen” to the “watery part”, is hating sailors. That’s not a sailor, that’s a Grub Street hack, posturing, badly. Ishmael’s a sailor like Lockwood’s a stern Byronic hero.

No reason a good writer can’t make good use of a feeble character, but Melville never did anything with Ishmael that did anything for me. The experience of reading MD’s not like watching Lockwood et al. from a suitably detached observation point on a moor, more like being snowed in for a fortnight with no one but Lockwood for company.


Doctor Slack 05.30.11 at 9:52 am

Meh. Ishmael’s perfectly serviceable in his role: a “salt” not entirely green, but greener than he imagines himself to be, and therefore a plausible viewpoint character for all the exposition of whaling and whalers et cetera that goes on. Comparing him Lockwood is fairly silly, which is probably why those other judges are better judges than you.


Joe 05.30.11 at 1:10 pm

My favorite Moby Dick quote is from sermon about Jonah and Whale early on in the book. It gives me shivers every time I read it:

This, shipmates, this is that other lesson; and woe to that pilot of the living God who slights it. Woe to him whom this world charms from Gospel duty! Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale! Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts not dishonor! Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation! Yea, woe to him who as the great Pilot Paul has it, while preaching to others is himself a castaway!

What I really like about this passage is how the preacher ends the sermon by admitting that there is no easy path to salvation, and that one must “court dishonor” and seek “to appall” rather than “to please” to be right with God. Something about the defiant, angry and uncompromising nature of the message really gets to me.


Jrosen 05.30.11 at 3:14 pm

I’m not much for novels, especially those of the last few years. But I’ve read Moby Dick at least 8 times and found it immensely satisfying every time. I once thought of Ahab as a hero; he is still up there as a powerful character in the same class as Milton’s Satan, and his soliloquys rank with some of Shakespeare’s — try reading the last speech aloud and see if you don’t break out in chills yourself.
The book is also a very wry commentary on the hypocrisy’s of Christian “civilization” (“better a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian”. Just compare father Mapples’ sermon on Jonah (absolute genius!) and the sermon to the sharks toward the end.

As for great paragraphs: how about the opening of ‘Tale of Two Cities” and the passage from “Heart of Darkness” that begins “I have wrestled with death….”. All the more amazing since Conrad was not a native-born English speaker.


Walt 05.30.11 at 3:38 pm

After only reading blog posts for 5 years, I managed to read 2666, so the damage the internet does to your ability to read long novels is not permanent.


A White Bear 05.30.11 at 4:14 pm

Aw thanks, chris y! I brought in my battered, 10-year-old copy of Tristram Shandy to the tattoo parlor next door to get the gesture [“Whist a man is free”] forever flourished across my left side, and the guys kept turning the volume over and over, saying, how many times have you read this book? There’s no cover, all the pages are full of circles and arrows, and the blank page has my portrait of a Victoria’s Secret model, done all in shades of eyeshadow. Oh dozens, and I’ll read it dozens of times more.

For those who haven’t read it, most of the tediousness of TS is that Sterne promises to tell you things you want to know–something like a plot, maybe?–and instead only tells you other things that you don’t want to know, and bids you imagine the rest. The blank page is a perfect example. How can he describe a sexy lady to you, not knowing what you find sexy? Here is a page for you to fill with your idea of sexiness and let that serve as the description of Widow Wadman. It’s surprisingly moving, too, in that, in a meditation about death and what we do with our fears and anxieties about death and loss and longing, Sterne seems to decide that life is best filled with pointless intellectual arguments and dick jokes punctuated by moments of extraordinary feelings about something stupid, which is pretty accurate, if you ask me.


Dick Mulliken 05.30.11 at 7:29 pm

Melville haunts. In his honor I just viewed Timon of Athens, (his favorite play after Lear) and re-read SHIPWRECK OF THE WHALESHIP ESSEX, the narrative that provided Melville with his core fact.
Nothing he wrote is ordinary. Works like THE ENCANTADAS and BENITO CERENO are sublime. I’ll bookend Coates’s beginning with the ending:
Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.


Cool Bev 05.30.11 at 11:36 pm

I particularly like the Penguin edition – the footnotes concentrate on explaining the dirty jokes. The editor says that he couldn’t cover all of the symbols,allusions, puns, etc, so he would stick to the smutty stuff. Said editor’s name is (snicker) Beaver.


Z 05.31.11 at 11:37 am

I have the rare privilege of having read Moby Dick free of any interference from the school system (this I mention because I was struck by how much the experience of the lectorat of CT seems to have been shaped by schools when The Great Gatsby was discussed her) and found it an amazing piece of literature, in part because it is at times boring (the same is true of quite a good deal of revered books, by the way). In this particular case, the explanation can be found in Moby Dick itself, of course.

“Why, thou monkey,” said a harpooneer to one of these lads, “we’ve been cruising now hard upon three years, and thou hast not raised a whale yet. Whales are scarce as hen’s teeth whenever thou art up here.” Perhaps they were; or perhaps there might have been shoals of them in the far horizon; but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Crammer’s sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.

There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!


Doctor Slack 06.01.11 at 12:55 am

I was going to say “what Tristram Shandy really needs is for somebody like Sophia Coppola or Alfonso Cuarón to direct a sort of crazy film adaptation” but then I learned somebody brilliant already gave the task to Michael Winterbottom five years ago

It’s very good, by the way. The film tries to tell the story of filming an adaptation of Tristram Shandy, but never quite gets round to it.


Henry (not the famous one) 06.01.11 at 10:44 am

No discussion of Moby Dick is complete without a mention of the Mad Magazine version, circa 1956 or so, that begins “Call me Fishmeal.”


Salient 06.03.11 at 1:11 am

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

…and the sun rose, having no alternative, on the nothing new.

(There are moments that never happened that stay with you forever.)

Suppose a stray comma had wandered into the first line of Moby Dick? he asked.

Call me, Ishmael

Stray a little further and you get something approaching pirate bible romance yaoi mashup fanfic.

Call, me Ishmael.

…which, come to think of it, opens up a wholly different sort of misinterpretation of “this is my substitute for pistol and ball.”

Comments on this entry are closed.