Whale Night

The BBC magazine has a piece by Philip Hoare about Moby Dick and the modern plight of whales. Moby Dick is probably my favourite novel, a cross between encyclopedia and adventure story. Like the whale its size is intimidating and its meaning elusive, but it is also funny, self-deprecating, and in the end, extremely gripping. The BBC article is really a trail for an Arena documentary about Melville’s novel, to air in the UK on September 20th, and for the wonderfully titled ‘Whale Night’ on the 21st:

Meville’s sprawling, idiosyncratic novel, published in 1851, was extraordinarily forward-looking. The book used the whaling industry as an allegory of imperial power. Melville configured the crazed Captain Ahab – who goes in pursuit of the eerie White Whale which scythed off his leg, determined to wreak his revenge – as a symbol of obsessive evil.

Only a few days after the 9/11 attacks, Edward Said wrote, “Collective passions are being funnelled into a drive for war that uncannily resembles Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby-Dick, rather than what is going on, an imperial power injured at home for the first time.”

Such madness is seen as one which endangers the hunter more than it does his prey. After all, as anyone who had made it to the end of Melville’s long and digressive novel knows, it is the whale that wins.

And 150 years ago, Melville addressed the immortality of the whale in a chapter entitled Does The Whale’s Magnitude Diminish? Will He Perish?

I can’t help but agree with what Hoare says about the novel. My own take on it is here, while a rather lovely and beautifully-designed annotated edition of the book is available online here.