How do we read Moby Dick

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Big Books Home

2006 Final Web Report

On Serendip

How do we read Moby Dick

Chris Haagen

Introduction: Understanding Texts as Inspiration to Experience

Moby Dick is a tough text, one that overwhelms many people. The text is so dense with material, that the reader can be lost in the tangents, depth of language or complicated characters. However, all of these ideas can take hold of a person, causing them to falling undeniably in love with the work. In my experiences with the novel, I have found myself in struggles to bare it followed by moments of completely adoration. Much of my experience to with the text was finding a way to not only get through it, but come to love it.
Much of how I was taught it was from professors who loved the text, and tried to use their love of it as a teaching device. While I admire these professor and believed in their opinion, I found that there is no way to teach how to understand or love a text, that both of those are extremely personal experiences that must be found by the reader on his or her own. Instead, the guidance for the reader should only be inspiration, to be shown a door to how they can have an experience unto themselves, instead of trying to relive others interpretations and experiences with the novel. This method must be not be forceful, but a subtle flicker that catches the eye gazing out into the distance. The paper that follows this introduction may not be the flicker that catches everyone's' eye, but hopefully, in a passing gaze, it can be an inspiration to a future Ishmael sitting alone on his isolated hill.
A lot of my last year has been framed by my reading of Moby Dick. Each reading of the book was in a very different manner. The first experience came when I was the youngest student in a religion seminar, an experience where I often felt overwhelmed by the depth of the discussions. I was forced into not reading the text out of any particular enjoyment, but with the pressure to generate profound ideas. The next experience I had was in the Big Books of American History class, which was a faster, less in depth reading of the text. In the less intimidating environment, I found myself with more time to sit and read slowly, not to find any breakthrough ideas, but to try and read the text for enjoyment. I had no intention of writing on the text, as in my mind, I had already spent enough time with the text the first semester, and therefore would cheating my education by writing about something I already knew.
In my first two readings of the text, which is probably more than must people have given the text, I did not gain a lot. I was not able to appreciate the humor and richness of language. I am not a reader that is easily able to appreciate these characteristics of most novels. At times I can be taken in by a love of these paint strokes, but usual what interests me is how I feel changed by the novel. I believe in the influential power of a novel, and that how much of my reading is staring into a mirror of hypothetical potential. I love books, because I see books as a call for me to become something more than what I am.
In a third reading of the novel, I found that experience I look for in texts. I read it not because I planned to turn it into an academic idea, but in the moment, I felt I had to. I felt that starring off into the ocean, there was a calling, an understanding in that calling that would allow the third voyage not to be rushed and forced like the previous two, but to allow the book to come to me in a way that made sense, that worked. I do not purport to have an explanation of the meaning of it all, but in my paper that accompanies this introduction, I have a work that tries to inspire the reader to experience the text in a similar way. The paper explains very little about either the text or the experience, other than the point that such a text or experience is very hard to explain. This paper is about a moment that existed not to be a story, but to live and thrive in the moment it existed.
After coming back from the beach and writing this paper, I felt as if I came to some great epiphany on how one could be a teacher. Works did not have to be confined to a classroom, but they should be taught on the ocean of the Atlantic or along the Mississippi. The point of a work is not to be a critic inside learning how to dissemble beauty, but to use this as inspiration to become the people we want to be. I had ideas about how after reading Uncle Tom's Cabin we could go into Philadelphia and work on projects against racism. I was convinced that this way teaching text involved us as characters in an ongoing narrative, creating an understanding far surpassing any normal textual study.
In working on this idea, I came into contact with an English professor's writing, Jane Tompkins, teaching in my home town of Durham, North Carolina who tried to use this approach to teaching her students the novel . Her plan was to take fifteen students to the Oracoke Island and they would read the novel in a setting that would be more conducive to an understanding of it. The goal was that after the two weeks, the students would come back with a great appreciation and fuller understanding of the novel than if they would have stayed in a classroom (162). It was to be an experience that would not be governed by the expectation of a grade, but hopefully to create within each of the students and intimate relationship with the experience as a whole.
When the students were asked to write papers on the experiences, the students appeared to have been unaffected by their experience. While Tompkins would later acknowledge an important group dynamic that was clearly present as a result of the trip, her initial reaction was very powerful (167). This reaction was then reiterated in the student evaluations. Tompkins expected her students to come out in a fully enthusiastic manner in how much they loved the class. Instead the evaluations were filled with complaints of a lack of structure, too much time wasted on planning instead of learning (176). While many of the evaluation spoke about the strengths of the class, Tompkins clearly felt a sense of loneliness and defeat at the end of teaching the class she had always wanted to teach.
One can argue, like Tompkins does at the end of the chapter, that in fact the trip was a success. She says she has comes to terms with looking at the experience without judgment, and taking it for what it was. In the end there was a dynamic that had been created in the group that was very special, and in many ways made the experience all worth while. In a letter she received from one of her students at the end of the class, the student stated how he was pleased to have been in a class that challenged him like this one had. He stated how the more time he had spent outside of that class, the more he realized how important it was for him to have taken it. Tompkins empathized with this point, realizing too how the longer she had been away from the class, the more she could appreciate their unique experience.
When I look at the story, I do believe that there were many parts of this experience that were extremely powerful, but in many ways I do think the class failed. The reason that it failed had not to do with the students' commitment, but with Tompkins reason for having her students read Moby Dick. Whether she attempted to do this or not, much of what Tompkins was doing was not trying to teach a work, but to teach an appreciation. This book was what her dissertation was written on. This book is what she thought about lying next to her dying father. This was something dear to her heart, and part of who she was.
Taking them on this trip, she was forcing her identity onto the students. She was doing what she worried about when she taught the language of Melville to the students, which was mistaking her interest for the students. In the end, I feel that she tried to relive her experience for the students in a wholly artificially way, and when they did not appreciate it in the same she did. Maybe in time there experience will approach hers, but much of that is the result of being allowed to be free in their interpretation.
I believe that Tompkins' experiment is a fantastic attempt and goes along with much of what I believe about teaching. In the same line, I think it gives me an understanding of how to be careful in trying to teach in such a way. Through my reading of her experience, I gained a slight change of understanding, that being that it was not about having the students follow you in your happiest experiences, but give the material and inspiration for students to find there own. Students should go to the beach not because they are packed into a bus and taken there, but because like Ishmael, they are drawn to the sea.
In my paper, I am not trying to explain Moby Dick nor even explain the experience I had on the empty beach. The only explanation that can be found in this work is the utter inability to try and explain an experience. In this point, it is an attempt to prove the triviality of the need for others stories. Rather, it is an introduction the moment I encourage the reader to have. The paper attempts to give so glimpse of the emotion I felt standing in the surf and the cleansing feeling of enlightenment I felt in that moment. Yet, I do not want to use my experience as a substitute for others, as when taken out of context, it becomes meaningless. Its power lay in my ability to contain the moment in the moment, and not attempt to live it in a way that it could become a story.
This paper may not lead you to desire an experience like I felt. I found in the first two readings of Moby Dick I was inspired only to be done with the novel. Only when I was freed from an obligation to understand did I feel free to go back and want to interpret. The ocean called me back to the book. That is not to say the ocean has the power to call everyone back. It is only a suggestion, or maybe an extended hand that encourages a read not to understand the novel, but to come into an experience with it. The reader is not the main character of this book, but instead the Ishmael who leaves the Island of Manhatoes to live his life. Tompkins realized in her reading that she needed to get her students to not stare at the novel from afar, but to live instead it. However, she forgot that she was having them live inside her experience instead of there own.
Reader, use this essay as you may. I wrote it because of an over follow of emotion that I could not find any other place to put them. They may seem scatter and unintelligible to you, but my hope is that someone will see this experience and it will inspire them. Moments cannot survive as stories alone. They are not meant to remain lifeless, but to live and breath in the environment they were conceived. But I do not to live my experience, that was my own. I hope that the readers will live their own experience, that maybe they can inspire others with.

Gazing at the Whale

The ocean goes on farther than comprehension. In a world of limits, it is the contradiction. While it is appears constant and so much the same, the eyes cannot help but gaze at it, feeling a pull towards it. I feel so natural submitting to the pull, I feel a calm staring at the leviathan in front of me. Every morning it comes in, swallows up the beach, and drifts away in the afternoon. The waves will always break fifteen feet from the shore, and the tide will come circling around my toes. The ground will become wet, my feet will sink in, wet sand engulfing them. Each time and every time. The sky today is the blue that fades into the ocean's horizon, blurry any distinction. I love the ocean. I love the moment, looking at the ocean, feeling the cold water splash against my naked skin. The moment is complete in as much as any moment can be completed. This place is where I want to be, this sight is what I want to see.
I used to view the ocean with fear. I would look upon it as that which could tear me away, bringing me out into a new world that was unsafe and would probably kill me. I stood away from the ocean, safely on the beach with my concerns focused on my sand castles. I wanted to construct something powerful, something that would last to the next day. My enemy, other than an older brother who might stomp it out, was ocean whose high-tide would most certainly be too much. Walls got higher, moats got deeper, but each and every time, the surf would humble the bulwarks and fill the deeps. Each morning the castles was nothing more than a dent in sand, barely a fingerprint. After many attempts to withstand an ocean, I choose instead to move farther back, building castles closer to the dunes, farther from the ocean. It was safer to put it farther away, it was able to last.
Going to the beach is not staying in the dunes. The majesty, the force pulling us is the ocean. The books we read there, the day-trips we go on are not what draw us. There is a pull that makes no sense when we trying to explain it, we are unable to push our passion through the crude translation of language.
The ocean is not a swimming hole, not a fishing pond. Our attempts to make sense of all of its capabilities still do not explain its allure. There are swimming pools all around. There are place to fish that are a minutes drive, not several hours. My relationship is much more removed much more distant. I come to sit and watch. What is the purpose? It is not a calm I am looking for, as calm can be found in many songs, many soft afternoons. I am not calmed by the leviathan in front of me. I am perplexed, but only perplexed in the naturalness of the moment. Even in coming for just a week, I feel as though the years before were just a boarder around the sacred truth of the current moment.
I want to understand this moment, because sitting here is awe is no ground to build from. I do not want to be the gazer upon those who gaze, but the one who experiences the truth. How can we be so close to what is so right, and allow it to wash away? I want the water to come over and anoint me, be the bright epiphany that destroys the old and creates the definite and certain new. I do not care for words of rebirth or virginity in this moment. I care for only what the ocean whispers in its splashes against the surf and banter with the sky.
I can not decide if the years before I have waited were a waste, or all building towards this moment. Could a younger man had seen and heard the call of these waves, or am I too expired to live a life speaking in this language? Am I too ripe, or too expired?
Words lose their meaning when they are stripped down through repeating them over and over, and reveal certain honesty. An H is just a breath of air, but in the breath we attribute so much meaning. The more we repeat, the more peculiar, the more disenchanted we are with the reliance on the illusion. What are we that care so much for silent breaths?
When you stare at the ocean for long enough, the waves do disappear. The broken shingled surface becomes a flat stage, a solid platform that the mind can walk on and dance over. The new form it takes is more real, more natural than one could ever expect. It is not an illusion that has gained authority arbitrarily, but it is the apriori to which we should build ourselves entirely upon. This is not a limited existence, or fading delusions, but real full growth and recreation in every waking moment. But what does all of this mean? I can walk into it, but am I any closer? I know that it is something; I know it exists, but I can find no way to penetrate it more than a doting gaze. I cannot be happy with my reliance on a gaze. I don't even understand my gaze! The distance is immense.
I know the force exists, I know there is a pull, but which way am I being pulled? The tide would take me out, pull me down to the bottom, but the desire to live takes me back to shore. The only place I can stand comfortably is in the surf, equally distant from land and sea.
The sun breaks through the clouds and I am overcome. The sky now has a beauty incomparable to any other. The sky's pupil looks down on me. I know not how to respond, I know not what it is saying. My stance is faith, faith being the only rock I can stand on. The brightness of the beauty is inspiring, but overwhelming as I know not what to do with the presence. What do you inspire me to do? Nothing these eyes have seen, hands have touched hold a resemblance to the kingdom I am among . All the battles of light and darkness are being fought above me, and all that is good is revealing in its victory. Am I a part of the victory, or am I that which is being defeated?
All this joy tries to rush through shrunken pupils and an over perceiving mind only to find it is too full. The messiah has come to find there is no room for him here, and I must order him to lie in the manger . I am not ready for what he has to say, I am not ready for what he can show me. His visions fall on eyes that see them as God's foot upon the treadle of the loom . In my state of drowning, I allow myself to sink, to stop treading water and am taken by the waves, floating on the surface.
I know I see a truth, and in the language of the mind it all makes sense. But like all ideas of truth, the path from thought to speech strips away all the poetry draining too much blood from the idea. It cannot exist outside the body. I know what I have discovered is truth; I know that in the space between the Sun and the Sea I exist in a plane the recreates time and space. But in this sacred space, I know that I will have to leave. The shore calls me back. When I leave, nothing will exist as it had, as the attempt to speak or remember to myself will kill the experience in the form it had existed. In the moment everything danced together, so happily, so purely, frolicking in a way only that which understands its own impending expiration. The fading light becomes brighter by the darkness it creates.
Dreams are formed not by dreaming alone, but how we decided to remember them. Our memory of the dream makes sense in the context of the dream, but when we wake and try to communicate them, our language is unable to explain them in the form thy originally existed. They are either full of holes or too illogical. Instead we fabricate a combination of the dream and the awake one's interpretation. Authenticity is destroyed by a need for control.
I left the moment not because I did not like what I saw, but because I had no way of existing in the moment. I live in a world of sharing, and unfortunately the world I found was destroyed by an attempt to bring it to the world I know. The moment is now just a finger print, much like the washed away sand castles. The washing away does not cause me not to want to try again and be content to go back to the dunes, but to go back and try to hear the words spoken in tongues. Whatever existed in the place was exciting and real. I want it not like I desire for a lover, not like I desire for a greater image of myself. I desire it for what it was and what it will become. I desire the entity unto itself. Its power reintroduced me to the performance of my thought and cornucopia of possibility. The wonderful thing about this world is the very fact of how many things can be wonderful about it. In the meantime, I will continue to sit and watch the ocean, as it comes in, and drifts away.

| Course Home | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:51:38 CDT