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Chasing the Whale, Part 1

“Ignorance is the parent of fear, and being completely nonplussed and confounded about the stranger, I confess I was now as much afraid of him as if it was the devil himself who had thus broken into my room at the dead of night.”

So sayeth Ishmael, the narrator of Melville’s “Moby Dick,” as he reflects on his dark-skinned, tattooed, Polynesian bunk mate, Queegqueg, before they shared a friendly pipe and a whaling journey on The Pequod with Captain Ahab. The book, which is a tome, was published in 1851 at a time when men and and women with amputated moral consciences took pleasure in justifying slavery, one of America’s fault lines, the other being the genocide of the Native tribes. The evolution of our democracy was stunted then, as it is stunted again today, cut off at the knee like Ahab’s stump by an innocent whale fighting for its life.

It’s no surprise to me that I am reading “Moby Dick.” Iconic stories often arrive in our consciousness at the right historical and/or personal moment. We pick them up and suddenly they make sense. Had I been forced to read it in high school? If so, the language alone—Shakespearean, biblical, hyperbolic, often polemical—would have shut down my curiosity, if I had been curious, which is doubtful. And where are the women? I have encountered only one in 300 pages: she brings supplies onto the moored boat in Nantucket. This is a story about men at sea, literally and figuratively. They kill whales, which they barely notice are mammals. And they are unapologetic about the blood letting of these intelligent creatures. They need the oil and the meat, but mostly the oil. Another present-day resonance.

Hubris. Entitlement. Amputated moral conscience. We’ve seen plenty of this in recent months in Washington.

This flawed book, which I am not certain is even a novel, is encyclopedic, epic, occasionally self-important. But there are so many jewels embedded in the text that I am staying with it. I’ll report again when I have finished and read a biography of Melville by Andrew Delbanco. After that, “Billy Budd.” Immersion reading.

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