My comprehensive theory of art appreciation, accounting for the objectivity and subjectivity thereof, goes like this: past a surprisingly low bar of technical competence, whether you like something is a function of how much you happen to click with that particular artist as a person.
So. Herman Melville’s technical competence is beyond question. Mixed as my feelings are, if you want to insult his powers as a stylist, I’d have to fight you.
Now, the question is–would you like Melville as a person?
To answer this, you must ask yourself:
Have I madness within me?
Am I a man or woman of powerful great feeling?
When life holds me down to its grindstone, whether to sharpen me to a keen point or to wear me down into nothing, do I shower incandescent sparks of poetry in response?
And most importantly: Do I really, really like whales?
The very first time I ever heard of Moby Dick, I was reading the marginalia in The Princess Bride. Goldman said something along the lines of, “only the most masochistic, dedicated readers read all the whaling chapters in Moby Dick.” In which case, most readers must skip sixty percent of the book. Why does nobody mention this? I thought it was just going to be one or two chapters about whales. I thought I was just going to grit my teeth for half an hour, and then I’d get to be better than everyone else. Why do people only talk about the white whale and Ahab? Ahab barely shows up! Is there some kind of conspiracy amongst all the English literature scholars out there? Will a shaggy grad student going to knife me in the back now that I’ve spilled the beans? (Bring it, bitches, I’ve known too many academics to ever fear them. My Daisy Red Ryder and I await you with pleasure.)
I’m still reeling from the pages and pages of excruciating detail on how exactly to use a block and tackle to hoist a sperm whale. But sprinkled in amongst the classifications of whale species and the exact measurements of whale skeletons, are gorgeous meditations on life, with roughly the same density as one might expect fruit chunks to be distributed in a fruitcake. You vigorously masticate an agonizingly dense substance for a long time, and are then rewarded by a chewy burst of flavor.
I tell you this so you can come in with the properly calibrated expectations.
As for me, personally, yeah, I think I’d get along with Melville. Not enough to be roommates, but enough for a long plane ride.
I live in a valley with a culture of ruthless efficiency, where the prevailing aesthetic is commercial, minimalist, and sterile. Moby Dick is lush, ornate, and uninhibited. It’s everything–whaling manual, Shakespearean tragedy, a play, a series of prose-poems, a loose collection of essays. It is precisely because of its chaotic nature that it achieves the kind of authenticity, the kind of earnestness that seems so hard to find these days. Real life is always irregular. Moby Dick is overwhelmingly passionate, and somehow, despite all the jokes in it, gay* and otherwise, I don’t want to mock it. Someday, I’ll reread it.
* Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, – Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.