A couple years ago I finally ready Moby Dick after successfully managing to avoid it until I was over 50 years old. I’m glad I did because its value would have been lost to me as a younger reader.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed reading it even at the time of the reading. But at the time I realized I probably was enjoying it for the wrong reasons. I wasn’t reading literature.
I was reading a 19th century blogger.
I have only read the book once and I am not motivated to research for exact references to passages. This is not a book review. It is a review of my impressions that linger a couple years after the fact of the reading.
First of all, the organization and style of the book was odd. This is probably well known. I’ll add my two cents to suggest reading it as if each chapter were a stand alone blog posting. The guy was blogging.
Second of all, the science of whales was remarkably advanced by the early 19th century. After reading the book I was motivated to read a modern whale-advocacy book that described the science and the horrific atrocity of human’s massacre of whales. It was an interesting read because I kept looking for anything that Melville didn’t already address nearly 200 years earlier — both the science, the unfathomable lust for the kill.
This is not a criticism of modern science because it has filled in many details and distinguished more species of whales. Instead it is my appreciation and acknowledgement of the scientific skill of as far back as the 18th century when most of this knowledge was discovered.
In the 1700s, science was done by amateurs. By this I mean that it was done by people’s who income derived from something else and they did science as a hobby. I also mean they were largely untrained as scientists at least in terms of how we understand scientific training today. They certainly didn’t have the modern conveniences of electronic tracking devices, underwater cameras, and so on. Despite that, they managed to uncover a lot of solid information about a creature that spends most of its life underwater, out of sight, far from man’s natural habitat of land.
In the 18th century science was more integrated into everyday culture than it is today. At that time many people went about their work doing whatever they were being paid for while at the same preparing and organizing their observations for the sake of future social gathering to talk about they found. Those social gathers must have been pretty rigorous where the audience would challenge the observations on grounds of good science practice. It must have been much more than simple small talk about some experiences as a tourist. Perhaps because with a lack of alternative entertainment options, they would squeeze more out of their conversations with each other. There was a premium on excellent observations.
In that period of the founding of our nation, we had a common culture where everyone who had elementary education (who could read and do basic math) was invited into the scientific enterprise.
Then science was a participatory sport while today it is a spectator sport. Today science is like professional sports where the masses await the next event by their favorite celebrities or favorite team. This specialization in science is justified by the special skills required by science. The information in Moby Dick weakens that justification considerably.
Another unrelated observation ties to another of my blog themes and that concerns the acknowledgement of intelligence outside of humans. My impression is that acknowledging the human-like intelligence of whales was a huge motivation for writing Moby Dick. But I imagine that for most of the history of that book, this was not the primary message, at least in the way I understand it. I sensed that the author deliberately held back his enthusiasm by being suggestive as merely posing the vague possibility that the whales could be peers of humans. I imagine his personal thoughts were stronger than what he wrote. He wrote a book meant for entertainment but spend most of his time talking about the science.
In past posts, I wondered about intelligence tests that didn’t have a human bias. Some ways we can look at other phenomena and recognize and acknowledge intelligence even those phenomena that cannot or will not engage us in conversation. Moby Dick and the subsequent history of whaling suggests a new test.
Consider the science fiction of extra-terrestrial alien invasions. We acknowledge their intelligence because we recognized our conflict was war instead of just pest control. During Melville’s time, whaling was inefficient and it was specifically for a temporary market for whale products (oil in the case of sperm whales). However, later whaling got far more efficient and with less market motivation. Our use of technology for the battle against whales mirrored the technologies we used to slaughter each other in the two world wars. For a while, mankind had an outright declaration of war against cetaceans. Like extra-terrestrial invasions, the objective was complete annihilation.
This war against whales was largely unnoticed for a long time, but the ones on the front lines were fully engaged in their war as an absolutely necessary ordeal. Despite their advanced weaponry of explosive tip, cannon-fired harpoons, the modern whalers felt they were slightly outmatched by the enemy. They felt they were fighting a good fight.
Contributing to that motivation may have been something like an adolescent taunt of “this world is not big enough for the both of us”. We were jealous of finding a peer especially one that was so unlike humans in every way. Evidence that we found non-human intelligence is the fact that we tried to annihilate it.
Even though this obsession was at its most horrific in the 20th century, Melville described it perfectly with Ahab’s obsession.
When I read the book, I actually stopped at the end of the storm that Ahab disastrously lead the ship into. I really had a sense that the story was complete. The author could have appended a short epilogue and it would have been a great book to me (for reasons I’ll get to later). But instead he appended a short story, the story about a deranged man obsessed about revenge against a single whale. That deranged man represented all of humanity, that whale represented all of cetaceans. The results of the battle was the defeat of the man. So prescient.
All of the above is prologue to why I really liked the book. From the very start and until the end of the storm, I read a tale about being a worker. As I read the book I kept comparing notes about the narrator’s experience as a hired hand with modern experience. What was different, and what has not really changed.
The first thing that struck me was the narrator’s efforts to justify to the reader his reasons for signing up for the job in the first place. He offers numerous explanations about his interest in seeing the world (and not being deterred after being shown all he will see is open water), about the comfort of having a guaranteed meal and shelter for year or two, about the interest in learning something new.
Why the need to justify getting a job when in fact he hadn’t a coin of wealth? The book could have been considerably shortened by saying he just needed the money. He was justifying why he volunteered his services to participate in a labor market. Was it the case back then that this kind of choice was something that needed an explanation?
Today we take it for granted that unless you are independently wealthy you should be employed. In fact, employment is so much a badge of adulthood, even the independently wealthy claim some kind of employment just to not be left out. There is no need to explain why you decide to turn yourself in to employment. If anything, we demand an explanation for why someone would opt out of employment.
But this passage was talking to Melville’s intended market. This passage did not really add much to the story itself. Melville needed to convince the audience that a person could willfully and deliberately enter such a work arrangement. Poverty alone was not sufficient justification.
Another curious thing was after the ship first left port, he described being physically abused (though mildly) by receiving a kick for not being quick enough. He described his lack of freedom in terms of choosing a bunk-mate or when and what to eat. This is all in the front of the book. I don’t recall much mention about it later.
He felt a need to justify joining employment despite knowing what he was getting himself into, and even emphasized the point by throwing in a few details that proved his was right in his expectations of what he was entering.
For the duration of the voyage, he was a captive servant. Given how little he had to offer in terms of skill, his only benefit was probably physically demanding. The narrator doesn’t describe this demanding work during most of the work. He probably would have worked pretty hard.
By today’s terms, he would have been too busy or to exhausted to observe what he recounts. This is probably one of the criticisms of the book. The narrator is a fraud. I understand this was even more emphasized in the first printing of the book where the narrator drowns at sea and thus could not have written what was written. But later revisions fixed that by conveniently constructing a life preserver that bobbed up from the sinking ship.
That latter error probably permanently destroyed the narrator’s trustworthiness. But I’ll be charitable and say the initial ending probably was an anomaly. The narrator was a good observer despite being worked very hard.
This gets back to that earlier point that it seems that the population as a whole considered themselves to be scientific observers during their work. One can be worked very hard at some mindless and purely physical task and yet still be an observer: observing nature, observing physical sciences, observing people. These observations were motivated for their own sake (for the sake of science) instead of for advancing ones career.
The evidence of the documented science at the time hints heavily that people at that time were excellent amateur scientists who worked long and hard hours at tasks unrelated to their observations. Excluding the resurrection skills of the initial edition of the book, the narrator of Moby Dick may have been very typical. People were astute observers while they worked or even toiled.
Returning to the earlier point of needing to justify working in the first place, I’d say that people found the opportunity to observe as an additional motivation to work. Work was not just about their compensated or how they were treated on the job. Work was an opportunity to participate in a larger enterprise of scientific observation. Even captive servitude was a legitimate form of work for that opportunity.
Although I’m now writing about my recollections of reading a book several years ago, I remember getting this impression while I was reading the book. As I mentioned, to me that actual story of encountering the whale after the storm seemed unnecessary. Certainly the book would have been more obscure without that adventure. But the book would have been even more remarkable two centuries later if it had stopped at the end of the storm with the narrator’s reputation intact and the subsequent history of whaling and cetacean science available for comparison.
Despite all the details of whaling, the drama of the captain’s quest for revenge, and the final disastrous adventure, to me the book is most valuable as a window into the work culture of the early 19th or late 18th century. This work generally involved low compensation, long hours or even volunteered captive servitude, dangerous working conditions, and abusive foremen. People felt obligated to justify their participation in labor beyond the fact that they were penniless. Work offered a purpose. In their case, an opportunity to observe. And with those observations, they had an opportunity to contribute to science.
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