Hast Seen the White Whale?

I have a copy of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick that I’ve been carrying around for nearly sixty years. I acquired it as a child in Ottawa and have faithfully taken it with me on my many excursions across and in Canada. I meticulously entered it into my permanent library with a date-stamp of June 14th, 1961, in keeping with that obsessive personality trait that pursues order, organization, and purpose in what I do.

Still from Ustinov's Billy Budd (Courtesy: scrp.org)

Still from Ustinov’s Billy Budd (Courtesy: scrp.org)

Three months ago I watched Peter Ustinov’s film based upon Melville’s Billy Budd. The film is fascinating but unconvincing. So, I read the book two months ago. It amazed me. It is utterly brilliant: nothing is ever as we think it must be.

So, because of Billy Budd, I decided it was time to actually read my much-travelled tome of Moby-Dick. And did so, last week. I finished its reading, only to discover, when I began to examine the critical literature, that the volume I had was severely abridged, probably by about half; which explained some of the disjointedness of the narrative that was retained. Even though it will need re-reading of the full text, it is one of the most remarkable works I have read in years. Melville employs a remarkable employment of alliteration and assonance to mimic the moods of the sea, and impresses further on the reader the natures of the characters. In fact, the entire novel is exceptional in its depth and sureness of characterization. Some of the language is stunningly magnificent: “… elbowed lances of fire” is a description of night lightning in the sky above the sea.

Lighning upon the night sea.

Lighning upon the night sea.

He describes a breaching whale this way:

So suddenly seen in the blue plain of the sea, and relieved against the still bluer margin of the sky, the spray that he raised, for the moment, intolerably glittered and glared like a glacier; and stood there gradually fading and fading away from its first sparkling intensity, to the dim mistiness of an advancing shower in a vale.

This is English prose of the highest quality that makes its own rules, and leaves the others behind. I love his love of the adverb.

Sperm whale breaching.

Sperm whale breaching.

There is much more to be gained from reading the classics than sampling what is thrust at one. I continue to reduce attention to the latter, not only in terms of study, but also in terms of participation. Readings and literary events bore me.

Because of the decline during the last decades of social meaning and meaningful culture, and the prevalence of superficiality and evanescence fostered by rapacious corporations interested in greed to the exclusion of all else, classics such as Moby-Dick are unavailable in the remaining conventional bookstores. One must order it online, or read it online. In either instance, one is to browse in the anonymous emptiness of the commercialized internet. I like the real thing, made of paper and ink. So, I went in search of the definitive text, and found it, as expected, at Macleod’s on West Pender. And to my credit, time on earth being finite, I stopped myself from purchasing full score to Haydn’s The Creation and the vocal to Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and later, at Albion Books, nearby on Richards Street, the full score to Bizet’s Carmen.

Macleod's Used & Rare Books, West Pender Street, Vancouver

Macleod’s Used & Rare Books, West Pender Street, Vancouver

Vancouver in the spring is especially beautiful. Even along West Pender, with its monoliths of corporate offices and expensive condominium towers, water is flowing in the pools and fountains, the flowers, shrubs, and trees are in an ecstasy of bloom, the sunlight dances on Burrard Inlet, and snow remains on the peaks of the North Shore mountains. I walked back along Smithe, sometimes threading my way through the panhandlers, to Burrard and the high-heeled tourists swarming the hotels, and took Robson, which was crowded with half of Japan, back home; stopping for Ataulfo mangoes on sale at the organic food store, which was crowded by vegan backpackers, and for Moscow, Odessa, and Szegedi salamis, sremksa, Italian prosciutto, and pickled tomatoes at the Russian deli on Bidwell, American pop music thumping away as an elegantly dressed man examined packages of spelt and buckwheat.



I have duly entered the place and date of acquisition to my library of the full text of Moby-Dick, and am looking forward to reading the four hundred pages flensed from the original by long-ago editors in London and Birmingham.



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