Claremont Insider: Call Him Ishmael

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Call Him Ishmael

David Allen has come back to tell the tale. Allen is reading, and enjoying, the Herman Melville novel "Moby-Dick," according to one of Allen's recent blog posts:

Well, at the one-month point, a progress report: I'm at page 243, out of 577, or Chapter 53 of 135. At this rate I'll finish by the end of March, which isn't bad; I initially thought it could take me to the end of April.

Did you know Barack Obama cites "Moby-Dick" and "Beloved" as his favorite books? When I read that, I suddenly became an Obama fan.

"Moby-Dick" is an amazing book -- there's a reason classics are classics -- although it's not what you would call a quick read, owing to long sentences filled with semi-colons that sometimes require a second or third reading to decipher. Some of the language is jaw-droppingly lyrical, though. My schedule is such that it's rare I can find even a half-hour a day to read it, further limiting my progress.

The Wikipedia entry for "Moby-Dick" notes that the 2002 Norton Critical Edition of "Moby-Dick" included this quote from a letter written to Richard Dana while Melville was working on his novel:

I am half way in the work ... It will be a strange sort of book, tho', I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho' you might get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree; — and to cool the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy, which from the nature of the thing, must be ungainly as the gambols of the whales themselves. Yet I mean to give the truth of the thing, spite of this.

Maybe a lesson to us all in this absurdly literal land of Claremont (no, the white whale isn't a racist comment). A columnist like Allen could probably confirm there's truth and poetry to be mined in even the most mundane human activity. The trick is to mine that poetry with respect, humility, and patience.

And the heck with the literalists. Truth is more than a simple agglomeration of facts, and art can help us find the way to understanding. As author Thomas Berger reminded us at the end of his novel "Arthur Rex":

Now to all the ladies of the world Guinevere and Morgan la Fey and the Lady of the Lake are exemplary, and these are the three who took King Arthur away in the barge, the not-so-wicked, the not-so-virtuous, and the supernatural.... But in these fair laps we must leave King Arthur, who was never historical, but everything he did was true.