Listening to Moby Dick

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Waking in the dark of 5 a.m., I realize I’ve been dreaming of an auditorium where the show has stalled. Behind us rises row after row of viewers equally sitting in the dark. We’re waiting to hear “Moby Dick,” Herman Melville’s extravaganza of an 1851 whaling tale. Fittingly we’re on Nantucket, the island port from where the ship Pequod will set sail under its cracked and one-legged captain Ahab. And we are waiting to listen to the novel because just before going to sleep, that’s exactly what I was doing, my dream rising out of the dark intensity of Frank Muller’s voice narrating this intensely factual, yet wildly literary, damned yet eulogized voyage.

My earlier readings of the book had the unfortunate characteristic of being entirely silent, nose-to-the-page renderings in my own, rather subdued, inner feminine croon. I might be able to woo a class of undergraduates, but I can’t command the timbre, the thunder and lightening, the shades of masculine innuendo and invective demanded by Mody Dick. This is a whale of a book, as its most perceptive early reader, Nathaniel Hawthorne acknowledged.

It requires to be gruffed about, shuffled through New Bedford snow into the Spouter Inn, where the voice lowers to a whisper as Ishmael pauses before a strange canvas–is it the Black Sea in a snow storm, is it a whaler stove off Cape Horn, its masts about to impale the body of a “parmacetti” flying over it? With this first litany of this most questioning, most convoluted, inner and outer-voiced chronicle, Ishmael with Frank Muller’s musing, contemptuous, railing, soothing, begging voice, altogether Shakespearean in its rank and file, its ability to inhabit the cannibal Queequeg who becomes Ishmael’s bed partner and bosom friend, and even Mrs. Hussey, the owner of the Try Pots Inn where the two would-be mariners consume more chowders than a battalion of lubbers, even she who’s learned to refuse harpooneers their weapons as they go abed, having lost one counterpane already to a mistaken infliction caused by rolling over the sharp end in the night, even she and her chambermaid are given their flighty, sharp-eyed, penny-pinching due.

Mody Dick is usually foisted off on undergraduates, or even, heaven help them, high schoolers, who in fact may have the high jinks and rapscality, the thumb-nose to the proprieties, not to mention the gods which are the stuff of Ishmael’s rhetoric. But on the page, these high jinks sit there like so many thematic drawings, crowded against each other with no room to fill their lungs and tread the boards. Because that’s what this book is: an entire show-company of mid-nineteenth century American fascinations, and fears; its most inordinate motley crew, its commercial expansions and numberings cheek-by-jowl with its religious imprecations and pleadings.

The problem with it, read on the page, is density. Within a single “I” Melville packs all this. It’s through Ishmael’s rending that we encounter Father Maple’s sermon on Jonah, ditto Captains Bildad’s and Peleg’s cacophany of Quaker tract/damnation rant and commercial venture as the young man Ishmael signs on to the Pequod. The strategy works in the long run–as I remember enough of the book to know that Ishmael alone survives the dreadful encounter with the white whale Moby Dick and the sinking of the Pequod. But this single I, this single voice is huge: it contains oceans. It’s American individualism at its most outlandish, most extravagant and many-tongued, beating Walt Whitman hands down. It’s as if Shakespeare crammed the stories of Hamlet, MacBeth and Lear into one character and sat that youth in front of an audience as the funnel through which all the observation, storm and cantankerous madness poured over us.

We need an interpreter. We deserve and we get Frank Muller. I’m a great fan of books on tape, but this is a blend of intelligence and voice, text and vocal drama exceeding any other. Hasten thee to thy local library and put in a request. I started to listen last summer in Grand Marais, on Lake Superior, one of Minnesota’s own immensities. Now with mounds of snow up to our Saint Paul eyeballs it seemed a good time to start again. As Ishmael suggests, when the cuffings of the daily round put you in a mood to revolt, it is time to put to sea.

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