Moby Dick & Francis Bacon

Reading list re-established !
Mentioned a month ago that I was reading Melville’s Moby Dick, and finding it enthralling so far. I got distracted however, and in the meantime read John Henry’s biography of Francis Bacon – Knowledge is Power, mentioned below and have since completed and enjoyed that (review to follow), together with dipping in and out of selected lectures from Poincare’s work, the selection edited by SJ Gould (much tougher going to find the relevance.) Poincare was a “geometer” – a perceiver of the big picture and claimant of sweeping generalisations – his arguments sound good on a rhetorical level, with exceptions ignored, but I’m not sure I can find much convincing rigour – I guess you have to be a mathematician. I think “maths-as-a-thing-of-beauty” is cool, I’ve certainly bought it for four decades, but it’s getting a bit overdone recently by the likes of Ian Stewart et al.

Struggled to get back into Melville, having put it to one side, but now back in full flow over one third through. I see now that my stumbling block was the series of chapters (scenes) on deck, written in the style of third person stage directions (unlike the rest in “I Ishmael” first person) which culminate in Ahab announcing in dramatic style his pursuit of Moby Dick to the assembled crew. One of the fascinating aspects for me is the degree to which the novel is a true story versus the fiction of Ahab and Moby Dick. For example, not only are Melville’s sea-faring credentials clear from the beginning, and the historical detail on the whaling industry, but in the sections explaining the credibility of Ahab’s attitude to Moby Dick, and that of the experienced crew, Melville cites in documentary fashion the cases of many “well-known individual whales” including names and ranks of the various ships and captains involved, with approximate dates. One of these chapters is entitled “Affidavit”, and Melville is clearly laying out supporting evidence – “Look, I’m not making this stuff up. Truth really is stranger than fiction.” If it’s just a literary ruse it’s very effective. I guess others must have researched all of this, (there is no end of books on Melville !) but I will just have to check-out this aspect – I’ve swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

Marvellous turns of phrase and humour throughout (too many subjects to mention here – race (colour), politics, communication, perception, motivation and madness to name a few.). Particularly enjoyed the passages describing the first lowering of the boats from the Pequod, and discovering the unexpected fourth boat (which I wont spoil by describing the circumstances), followed by the all action description of how Starbuck’s boat, with Ishmael, makes difficult and hazardous progress across the rising and falling waves, is upturned by the whale and ultimately smashed by being overrun by the mother ship in the grey squally conditions. You come out of it aching and sodden. By contrast their rescue and safe return to the Pequod is glossed over in a single, easily-overlooked statement. A little concentration pays off.

Some very interesting linguistic analysis too – not just the diverse historical and geographical sources of the words and styles, but artefacts like multiple threads of aliteration “crafted” in the one sentence and so on (don’t have the text to hand as I sit here, so I’ll dig out some quotes later – they’re worth it.)

Note the Hudson River analogy, when talking about [great] lakesmen – linked in Pirsig’s mind too ?

In view of some of my other threads majoring on “irrationality” and Catch-22 – the passages on Ahab’s “madness” when he returns from his original fateful encounter with Moby Dick, being “rationalised” by all who perceived it, drew lots of annotation for later use. As you can tell I’m getting a lot out of Moby Dick on many levels. (More than one drop of human blood per gallon of sperm oil at any rate.)

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