Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Happy Birthday, Herman

Today is the birthday of Herman Melville, author of the 822-page whaling epic Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Though born into a well-to-do merchant's family in New York City, Melville was restless. He loved the sea, and as soon as he was old enough he sailed across the Atlantic as a cabin boy. When he was 21, his wanderlust still not satisfied, he took a berth on the Acushnet, a whaling ship bound for the South Seas. It was on that voyage that he learned the finer points of whaling, and first heard the tales of a legendary white whale, of extraordinary size and cunning, that had never been captured, and that had sent many good ships and men to the bottom of the sea.

When he returned to the States, he married and settled on a farm in Massachusetts. It was there he began to write. He published several books about his adventures in the South Seas, and these were generally well-received. He also began work on Moby-Dick.

Moby-Dick was published in 1851, to mixed reviews. Critics, perhaps expecting another "travel book,"  didn't seem to know what to do with a densely detailed, deeply philosophical, and daringly experimental masterpiece. The initial American printing of 3,000 copies was never sold out in his lifetime, and he made a total of $556.37 from the book.

Critical opinion turned against him, and later works were savaged. One reviewer in the New York Day Book, in a piece headlined "Herman Melville Crazy," wrote:   "A critical friend, who read Melville's last book, 'Ambiguities," between two steamboat accidents, told us that it appeared to be composed of the ravings and reveries of a madman. We were somewhat startled at the remark, but still more at learning, a few days after, that Melville was really supposed to be deranged, and that his friends were taking measures to place him under treatment. We hope one of the earliest precautions will be to keep him stringently secluded from pen and ink."

Melville continued to write, pursuing the white whale of his art, but, unable to make a living as a writer, he also took a job as a customs inspector in New York City.

At his death in 1891 at age 72, Melville had no idea that he would later be considered one of the first modernist writers and one of the great American authors. Nor did he know that Moby-Dick; or, The Whale would come to be considered by many the Great American Novel.

Maybe you've read it. If you haven't, I recommend it. I haven't dipped into it for years, since my days as an undergraduate English Major. But this seems to be a good time of year to spend some time with one of the greatest fishing epics of all time.

At its heart, it's a rip-roaring adventure yarn. Still, it's not easy to wade through; but flyfishers with miles of wading under their belts already know that sometimes the best fishing requires the most rigorous and risky wading. It's deep in spots, and there are eddies and backwaters that seem to suck you down; but there are the swift-flowing sections and deep pools where you can expect a sudden pull of recognition, and a long and satisfying struggle to land a deeper understanding of life and self.

At the least, if you fish you need to know Captain Ahab. It's the obsession of Ahab that drives the book. He lost a leg to the White Whale, and is now maniacal in his obsession to wreak revenge on the devil fish. He ends up hanging by his neck from the rope of his own harpoon embedded in the great whale, and Moby Dick sounds, dragging him to his death in the green depths. (After which Moby comes back up and destroys the whaling ship, the Pequod, and every member of the crew except one, Ishmael, who survives--by floating on a coffin--to tell the story.)

Of Ahab's obsession, Melville writes: "The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil; -- Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it."
Moby-DickCh. 41

I wouldn't say I'm as obsessed as Ahab. You probably aren't either. But this may yet be a cautionary tale for fanatical fly fishers. I feel a stirring inside when I read: "...all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them..." I could name a few of those agencies, I think, and the Agencies that seem to embody those agencies. I strongly suspect that one of the reasons I fish is to get away from those agencies.

But maybe we all need to do a little soul-searching. There may be a fine line between the simple pleasure we get from fooling a trout and that darker feeling that we need to catch fish in order to be fulfilled in some way. When the lake or stream ceases to be a refuge from the battle with malicious agencies, and instead becomes the battleground, we have crossed the line.

It's possible that some of the trends in our sport--headhunting, where one seeks out the biggest or "meanest" adversary to vanquish; or fantasy fishing, where one pays a steep fee to catch big fish in an artificially managed environment whether you have any skill, or experience, or appreciation at all--are signs that Old Ahab still lives in the hearts of men.

It's when the fish we seek become to us something other than what they are, when we project onto them something that comes out of our own brokenness, or emptiness, or hubris, or monomania, that Ahab has his revenge.

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