It is often said that Moby Dick is difficult to read. I don’t intend to disagree. It’s the kind of book that really can’t even be classified with clarity these days. It is in no way like a novel that we read now. It is something more akin to an “anatomy” as it seems to encompass so many modes of lexical representation. It is philosophy, essay, story, poem, encyclopedia, classification; perhaps it is a kind of bible–a collection of texts. It is a book that shows at all levels the ways in which what is most human cannot be properly captured. That is: language cannot hope to capture language.
The eel always slips away; of course it has left us a mighty charge in the attempted gripping.
Listen, here is an example of the simple and probably unnoticed brilliance of Melville’s language:
With bent head and half-slouched hat he continued to pace, unmindful of the wondering whispering among the men; till Stubb cautiously whispered to Flask, that Ahab must have summoned them there for the purpose of witnessing a pedestrian feat. But this did not last long. Vehemently pausing, he cried: — ‘What do ye do when ye see a whale, men?’
‘Sing out for him!’ was the impulsive rejoinder from a score of clubbed voices.
‘Good!’ cried Ahab, with a wild approval in his tones; observing the hearty animation into which his unexpected question had so magnetically thrown them.
‘And what do ye next, men?’
‘Lower away, and after him!’
‘And what tune is it ye pull to, men?’
‘A dead whale or a stove boat!’
In the above is a newly formed adjective that illustrates the very heart of this human gathering and the nature of the word. “Clubbed.”
We know that a “club” is a group that is defined by membership and in this by both inclusion and exclusion. We know that one might be “clubbed” as in hit with a club or some other item; one can also take a clubbing or give a clubbing. Here it is “voices” that are clubbed. They are “joined” in a chorus of “crowd response.” A group of men directed by a leader might deliver clubbed assent on the battlefield, at a political rally, in a mob. Voices “clubbed” are weapons to be used against another “voice” or opinion or group. And too, and deeper, these voices have been clubbed together under the sway of the madman. In the clubbing they have been clubbed.
All of that. All of that in “clubbed voices.” All of that and likely more.
That is the tiniest fraction of Melville’s brilliance.