There is a full chapter in E.M. Forster’s small, but significant, book on novel writing, Aspects of the Novel, on prophecy. Forster mines Herman Melville’s big and significant book, Moby-Dick, for examples of the prophetic in the novels he considers.
He focusses upon the coffin, which the ailing harpooner Queequeg commissions from the ship’s carpenter and which, though he lies in it, never actually bears his remains. Queequeg recovers to play his part in the galloping and horrendous chase scenes that form the climax of the novel. The coffin bobs to the surface and saves the narrator, Ishmael, in a turmoil of devastation and violence, the full and proper outworking of a grand sea-faring yarn of exploitation and madness that ploughs across the Atlantic and ends in the South Pacific’s bloodied waters.
To read Moby-Dick is to surge into the prophetic, but not in the ordinary sense of tellings about the future, but in a story that reaches back into the primordial past of the hunter, now capitalised by economic drives that launch men on vessels of war and rage in search of the largest animals on the planet to kill them mercilessly in order to harvest their oil and spermaceti to burn in lamps and to flavour perfumes. Essentially for money. When we now use the phrase ‘to monetise’ in relation to Apps and social media platforms, we are living out the prophetic tellings of Herman Melville’s great book.
The reader is swept into the power of the book as on a tidal wave, right from the famous opening injunction, “Call me Ishmael”, an Old Testament name that immediately draws the reader into the worlds of patriarchs of the Bible and the Koran and the prophetic songs they offer. From Genesis 16:11-12, we learn
And the angel of the Lord said to her, “Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has listened to your affliction. He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”
The name Ishmael can be translated as ‘God hears’. Thus the book begins with the Reader hearing voices that whisper and roar to create a demonic bedlam of character, story, incident, whaling lore, technical whaling information, philosophy, religion and sea-faring, sweeping the reader along, as much as s/he he wishes. Yes, you can skip chunks and still rush headlong with the thrilling yarn, but why miss the immersion in the prophetic?
And you can wrestle with the presentation of evil in the straight-forward revenge plot, that is the main-mast of the novel. Ahab, the monomaniacal captain of the whaling ship, Pequod, drives himself and all aboard in pursuit of the white whale, the Leviathan, despite the protestations and pleadings of his Chief Officer, Starbuck.
Moby-Dick is a tragedy for all, including the families of the men who drown. None but Ishmael survive, clamped to the bobbing coffin, not a symbol of survival but a prophetic enchantment of the tragedy of life served up with calculated literary irony.
The reader is left with a sense of having experienced a wonder. Questions of morality and action remain. What drives men to do such things? Monomania seems too simple an answer and can only be applied to Ahab. Ishmael says he goes to sea to overcome a deep sense of depression.
Yes, as everyone knows, mediation and water are wedded forever.
But not all the crew of the Pequod, and other whalers, sailed out of Nantucker into the Atlantic and away for three years or more, scouring the whale fisheries across the great oceans, north, south, east and west, because they were depressed. No doubt many were running away. For others it was ‘what they knew’, as their fathers and brothers went whaling before them. Throughout the novel, when Ishmael grows wistful, he muses on the economics of the activity and the huge draw there is, among the wealthier members of the society at home, for the products they seek.
The reader is left with the question: when it becomes obvious that doom is the only possible outcome of the chase, why don’t some of the crew jump ship? It requires a massive weight of mythology, a burdensome anchor of loyalty and duty and an explosive charge of power to force men to stay, when all around them is violence, danger and dread. Is the hope of a pay-off always good enough in the face of poverty?
The desperation of poor people is also found in a later American novel, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. And once again it is the prophetic voice of the novelist that resonates throughout. Faulkner obviously read Moby-Dick. He has a coffin bobbing about in tumultuous water too. He has language you’d expect from a religious book or tract. And he has a story of monomania. E.M. Forster might have identified a prophetic writer in action here again.
One ordinary prophesy that Melville makes concerns the survival of whales into the future.
… the moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.
Melville links the extinction of the whale with the extinction of human kind. He is optimistic.
Wherefore, for all these things, we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality.
Melville couldn’t have prophesied the massive industrialisation of whaling that has grown up in the 20thcentury. Or the pollution of the oceans by plastics, noise and effluent.
Expectations for the recovery of whale populations have been based on the assumption that, except for commercial whaling, their place in the oceans is as secure as it was a hundred years ago.
Moby-Dick is the great novel it’s cracked up to be. The reader surges with the seas and the prophesies. The reader is amazed by the lore and the technical data. The reader fumes at the racism. The reader is transfixed by Melville’s insights into human nature and by the total absence of women from the story. Would Melville write a different novel today? A different classic?
He might reflect on E.M. Forster’s final thoughts on the novel.
If human nature does alter it will be because individuals manage to look at themselves in a new way. Here and there people – a very few people, but a few novelists are among them – are trying to do this.
Moby-Dick; book, 1851; Herman Melville; Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition; U.S.A., 2009
As I Lay Dying; book, 1935; William Faulkner; Chatto and Windus; London, 1962
Aspects of the Novel; book,1927; E.M Forster; Edward Arnold Publsihers; London, 1963