Herman Melville died 100 years ago next month. In his honor I reread ''Moby Dick'' this summer.
I remembered it as a monster -- an endless assignment in one of my high school English classes. But now, 30 years later, I discovered the joy of reading what this man wrote.
I took the book with me on my vacation at the ocean. On stormy days, I walked along the deserted beach and recited Melville's poetical prose out loud to the pounding sea.
And heaved and heaved, still unrestingly heaved the black sea, as if its vast tides were a conscience; and the great mundane soul were in anguish and remorse for the long sin and suffering it had bred.
Paragraph after paragraph breaks over you like Shakespearean verse. The mighty language sweeps you away from shore. You begin to feel the rhythms of the sea, as if you too stood high on the masthead next to Ishmael.
Lulled into such a . . . vacant, unconscious reverie . . . by the blending cadence of waves and thoughts, . . . at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature. . . .
Then this sublime idyll of sun and sea quickly plunges you back into a merciless reality.
But . . . slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. . . . And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through the transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever.
This book is no novel. It's an epic poem. The details pile up into symbols. The whaling men form into heroic, mythic, legendary figures. The monomaniacal Captain Ahab's mad pursuit of the white whale becomes metaphorical. He hates the behemoth.
I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will
wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me.
Did thunder crack outside Melville's house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, when his pen first scratched those words on paper? He knew he'd achieved something significant. ''I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as a lamb,'' he wrote to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom he dedicated the work.
The public, however, didn't like it. Ironically, ''Moby Dick'' ruined Melville's literary career. His five previous novels had won an avid following for his romantic sea stories. But when he published his strange new book in 1851, the critics greeted it skeptically. His audience rejected it. It soon went out of print. He published several more unsuccessful books and some poetry, but he never regained his early popularity.
Eventually, financial difficulties forced Melville to spend 20 years as a customs inspector on the New York City wharfs. He died in 1891, worn out and depressed -- unknown, unrecognized and unappreciated. His obscurity continued until the publication of Raymond Weaver's biography resurrected him in 1921 and finally placed his Leviathan beside ''Leaves of Grass'' and ''Huckleberry Finn'' as the most profound literary expressions of the American spirit.
''Moby Dick'' takes us on an odyssey. It sets sail after those cosmic mysteries which would not otherwise confront me under my bright blue beach umbrella.
Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling's father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them; the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.
Is the obsessed Ahab the tragic human hero? Is our relentless exploitation of nature any less barbaric than the massacre of whales? Will it eventually arouse from earth a furious and vengeful wrath? What meaning do we find in the appalling whiteness of the whale?
The palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?
How do we explain the horror of evil in the universe? How can there exist a god who is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful? Has the polarity of good and evil collapsed into chaos? Do we confront a ''nameless terror,'' a ''demoniac indifference''?
Is there any hope?
At the end, nothing seems hopeful as the white whale furiously destroys Ahab and the Pequod. Ship and crew sink beneath the waves.
Then all collapsed and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.
Ishmael, however, survives to bring us back this tragic tale.
And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.
The human consciousness of this lost and lonely exiled orphan is the medium through which we experience the terrifying confrontation between man and nature and hear the great symphony of this book. From another century his sad and wondering voice still speaks for modern man, bereft but yet in ceaseless quest of spiritual renewal. As we face this poem's unanswerable questions, we can take heart from Ishmael's gentle voice, as indomitable in its own way as Ahab's defiance. Transported in Melville's glorious language, he has lighted my days and nights this summer. Like the adrift and forlorn Queequeg holding up his little lamp on a darkened sea, Ishmael's courageous spirit shines searching out into the void.
There, then, he sat, the sign and symbol of a man without faith, hopelessly holding up hope in the midst of despair.
When not plumbing America's literary soul, Tim Baker writes on regional affairs.