I Think That Someone's Trying To Thrill Me: Happy Birthday Herman Melville
, August 3rd, 2012 07:26
Had he not been taken from us so cruelly, Herman Melville would have celebrated his 193rd birthday this week. Steve Earles waits and he listens to Mastodon because that's what he does
“The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil: Ahab did not fall down and worship like them but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated against it. All that most maddens and torments, all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cables of the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick. He pitted upon the White Whale’s hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”
Herman Melville: Moby Dick
”No man of the flesh could ever stop me/ The fight for this fish is a fight to the death/ White Whale/ Holy Grail"
Mastodon: ‘Blood and Thunder’
“What drove the Western whalers to these acts of deliberate slaughter? Sailing halfway round the world for profit, they arrived in the whale’s natural arena with the rampant spirit of the gladiator. They had to conquer the great sea beast; nothing less would do. This is one of the messages which Melville may have meant us to understand. There are as many interpretations to his tale as there have been readers, but time and again the white whale is taken as symbol of vulnerable Nature at the mercy of Man the predator. On the last and fatal day of the chase, First Mate Starbuck implores Captain Ahab to stop his insane pursuit and leave the whale alone. ‘See!’ he cries. ‘Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that seekest him.’ But Ahab presses on to his own destruction.
Tim Severin: In Search of Moby Dick
“As the survivors of the Essex came to know, once the end has been reached and all hope, passion, and force of will have been expended, the bones may be all that are left.”
Nathaniel Philbrick: In the Heart of the Sea: The Epic True Story That Inspired Moby Dick
In a genre that is often falsely equated with ignorance (usually by the ignorant themselves), Mastodon’s 2004 progressive metal masterpiece Leviathan stands as rebuke to such slurs as powerfully as the "salt-water mastodon" of Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick that inspired it.
Leviathan was unleashed upon a mainly unsuspecting world by Relapse Records in 2004 to widespread acclaim from metalheads, the rock-curious and critics alike. It is a great album, and Mastodon are one of the very few modern heavy bands that deserve the longevity of the likes of Rush, Metallica or Iron Maiden.
Melville's book has a rock solid claim to being one of the great American novels, even though it has a reputation as being a tough read for such a popular novel. However, Moby Dick probably has more resonance today than it did on publication. Leviathan’s genesis owes much to Brann Dailor’s being stuck on a long plane trip with nothing to read but the novel. It made a deep impression on him, and struck him as a useful metaphor for the band's overwhelming drive to succeed that had overridden any other concern.
The band's enthusiasm for the book spread to other people working on the project quickly. Regular Mastodon cover artist Paul Romano was similarly inspired, producing a final 52 inch by 52 inch cover painting, (what you see on the CD cover is only a portion of the final artwork). Romano explained some of his inspirations to Revolver magazine “That crown of colours on the whale’s head is called Ananta, when you see images of Vishnu [The Supreme Being in Hinduism], you’ll see the crown of cobras behind him that represents the endless and eternal. Vishnu is essentially the creator: He dreams us, and we dream him, going back to ideas on Moby-Dick and the book’s references to God, I made the whale a god.”
Melville mentions the White Whale as first among ten incarnations of Vishnu, as a giant fish on Earth and saving creation from the flood of destruction. The book also contains multiple allusions to the story of the hexed Jonah in the Bible, as well of the use of other biblical names.
Other inspiration for the artwork include, for instance, the white tower, which you can see on the inside cover of the CD booklet. This comes from Martin Heemskerck’s 16th century version of the Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World). There are Indonesian puppets with harpoons. The Japanese wave is inspired by Hokusai’s The Great Wave of Kanagawa. This is a famed woodblock print first published in 1832 (The Edo period in Japan) and is the first in Hokusai’s series of thirty-six views of Mount Fuji. It shows a huge wave threatening boats near the Japanese prefecture of Kanagawa.
Melville's novel tells the tale of an itinerant sailor named Ishmael, and his voyage on the whale ship Pequod, whose commander is Ahab. This captain has one all-consuming purpose in life: to destroy the white whale known as Moby Dick. In a previous encounter Moby Dick destroyed Ahab’s ship and severed his leg. Now, the red mist of revenge colours all he sees.
Moby-Dick, was inspired by two true events in particular. The first was the destruction of the Nantucket ship Essex in 1820. It was rammed by a sperm whale two thousand miles off the western coast of South America. The ship’s first mate Owen Chase was one of eight survivors. He wrote a vivid account of this in his 1821 book Narrative Of The Most Extraordinary And Distressing Shipwreck Of The Whale-Ship Essex.
The second event was the alleged slaying of an albino sperm whale called in the late 1830s in the waters of the Chilean island of Mocha Dick. This whale, known as Mocha Dick, was said to bristle with the harpoons of many whalers and was said to deliberately attack whale ships. Mocha Dick had over a hundred encounters with whalers between the 1810s and 1830s.
(My sympathies are all with the whales, but at least in the 19th Century, there weren’t synthetic alternatives to whale products, and at least the whalers had to take some risks. Now we have a revolting use of technology to slaughter these magnificent animals for no reason other than the profit of the cowards who whale today.)
Melville had been a sailor himself and had served on a whaling ship called the Acushmet in 1841-1842, and he was eager to give an accurate reflection of what it was to be a whaler.
Captain Ahab can be seen to represent many things. Melville describes him as a “grand, ungodly, godlike man.” He has a white scar (representing both divine wrath and a warning, which Ahab refuses to heed - he fears no god), which supposedly comes from a lightning bolt. It runs down the side of his face, and it is hinted that it continues the length of his body. He uses a prosthesis made from a whale’s jawbone to replace his missing leg. So he is constantly reminded of his one all-consuming goal, and in truth, he has in part become that which he most hates, all the better to kill it. One way of seeing Ahab is as a metaphor for sadistic mankind eager to impose its will on the rest of nature, even if it destroys itself in the process.
Ahab is a Quaker and yet he turns against the pacifism of his creed in his lust to destroy Moby Dick. He is Quixotic in his goals but in an entirely negative way. Ahab throws his last harpoon, roaring: “…to the last I grapple with thee; from Hell’s heart I stab at thee; for Hell’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”
Moby Dick was a book ahead of its time and is more appreciated today than it was on initial publication. Certainly the heavily tattooed Polynesian harpooner known as Queequeg probably strikes more of a chord with modern audiences. The character of Ishmael is also more resonant now - he goes to sea as he is very alienated from the rest of human society. Of course, living a virtual life via modern communication to the detriment of actual essential real contact with other people is not the rarity it once was.
The book has inspired adaptations in various media, including a 1926 silent film called the Sea Beast (note the similarly titled track on Leviathan and the silent film inspired video for Sea Beast), a 1999 25 minute paint-on-glass animated adaptation by Natalya Orlova, and my favourite version, the 1950s John Huston directed Moby Dick starring the great Gregory Peck, Richard Basehart and Orson Welles. (Welles would, interestingly, use his fee to mount a stage production of Moby Dick).
The screenplay was written by John Huston and famed writer Ray Bradbury. However, the two did not get on at the writing session in Ireland, with Bradbury finding Huston a bully (albeit one who would inspire two of his own works). Huston originally intended to cast his father Walter as Ahab, but Walter’s death prevented this, thus Peck was chosen at the studio’s behest. Peck and Huston were to fall out when Peck discovered this. Nevertheless it’s a fine film, with some beautiful exteriors shot in Youghal in Ireland and some fine performances. The Perquod was portrayed ironically, by an 1887 ship called The Moby Dick.
In Jaws, Spielberg intended to introduce the Ahab-inspired Quint (Robert Shaw, who possibly knew Huston, as they lived near each other in Ireland) by showing him watching Huston’s Moby Dick, but he was denied permission by Peck who was never happy with his performance.
The reasons that Moby Dick still strikes a chord with people, even in the 21st century, are myriad. The whale is a symbol of the strength of nature, we will never triumph over nature. It also symbolises the chaos and unpredictability of existence much as humanity might crave to put a delusional order on it. To Ahab, killing the whale becomes the sole reason for his existence, the only goal. That can be taken allegorically to refer to all our goals. If Ahab succeeds, what reason remains for his existence?
Goals are two-edged swords. We all need goals in life to give ourselves a reason to live, yet those same goals can take over our lives and destroy us. We all need to find a balance between these two opposites, for we all have an inner-Ahab, and it doesn’t take much to let it out. And like Ahab, we will never vanquish the beast, we can only hope to come to an accommodation with it.
“…and knowing that after repeated intrepid assaults, the White Whale had escaped alive; it cannot be much matter of surprise that some men go further in their superstitions; declaring Moby Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal.”
Herman Melville Moby Dick