Chris Walsh (chris_walsh) wrote,
Chris Walsh

There be blogging about whales here

I've had Moby-Dick (published 1851) on my mind.

It got on my mind after I recently read Ray Bradbury's 1992 novel Green Shadows, White Whale, a fictionalized account of the months he lived in Ireland writing a Moby Dick screenplay for director John Huston. (Felt like lesser Bradbury to me, this book, but as always the language is lovely.) The book is partly about their often-contentious working relationship, mostly about colorful Irish people living their lives*, and occasionally about the challenges Bradbury faced in tightening the sprawling novel into a satisfying script. Hell of a challenge.

I'm glad I didn't read Moby-Dick in high school, or even college. I wasn't ready for it; I'm guessing most students that age aren't, it's a challenging book. I read it in full in 2012, after not getting past the early chapters several years before. As I now do with potentially difficult novels, I started by reading the opening out loud; that's how I managed to get into China Miéville's Perdido Street Station in 2011, after another false start. Helps to reset the mind to a particular book's style. I read some (not all) of the rest of Moby-Dick out loud, too. And I took my time, though not nearly as much as I needed for Katherine Dunn's Geek Love.

It's like Melville wanted readers to feel the weight of the ocean all around them as they read. As I read an especially poetic chapter of it, I started to feel as if I were swimming through the ocean and could see through it, as if ocean water were clear to miles' visibility. Felt like I was looking up from the ocean bottom and could see to the surface, and the (tiny, tiny) Pequod above. Vivid.

Also vivid was the non-fiction book I'd read in 2007, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. In 1820 in the South Pacific, a sperm whale rammed and sank the Essex, forcing survivors onto tiny boats trying, mostly in vain, to get back to South America's shore. The story became famous, and was one of Melville's inspirations for his novel.

One of. But recently, a film version by director Ron Howard came out, and, from what I heard, over-emphasized how influenced Moby-Dick was by the Essex, making Melville a significant character in the film. It is possible, though (as I understand) not confirmed, that Melville met an Essex survivor, but the book In the Heart of the Sea doesn't make a big deal out of it. I kind of wish the film hadn't, either; to me it's the most obvious, least interesting choice for presenting and framing this true story. The attack on the Essex (which was almost 30 years in the past when Melville started writing) influences the novel's ending, but almost nothing else: God, nature and The Bible were among Melville's much bigger influences, as was his desire to tell a BIG story. "No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it": That's a line in the book, and practically a mission statement, said in Chapter 104. (Yes, 104, but more of the book's chapters are shorter than you'd think. Still, 135 chapters, a multiple-page list of quotes to open the book, then an epilogue: I understand why people find the novel daunting.)

And I just learned that there really was an albino sperm whale known by Pacific whalers in the 19th century: Mocha Dick. Neat. And another influence (though Mocha Dick was not the whale which sank the Essex).

Whales are amazing survivors. We've found evidence that some whales can live well past a century. They're intelligent in ways that are almost alien to us; we know they're smart, but we can't quite know how. Now that the vast majority of countries protect whales, they've generally become, shall we say, chill: grey whales, known as "devilfish" in whaling days for how they fought whalers, generally don't mind us watching them and even seem curious about us. (Again, "seem"; we just can't know what they're thinking, and MRIs are kind of out of the question.)

And being in a Moby-Dick mood had reminded me why whales are among my favorite animals. Good side effect.

* Some of the book is built from short stories Bradbury had written over the years, which he then adapted into the full novel with minor changes. The best-known such story is "Banshee," which is fantastical but also explicitly about the odd parts of working with Huston.
Tags: books

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