Relax. You’ll last longer.
That was how I think I read Moby Dick the first time.
I was nimble. Limber. I approach Moby-Dick like some men approach whores. They have paid for her.
There is no one to judge. You can fail. You can laugh. You can walk away. Everything is permissible. In those permissions, you relax.
I was not fatigued. I exulted in the experience and I bragged about it.
This time I froze. I intellectualized. I started sweating. I had another time to compare myself with. The first time, the novelty of the pages, like getting to know someone with an unbreakable facade, and realizing they were warmly and lustfully human, was all it took to steady the legs and dive in. The euphoria of feeling a connection, especially across presumed pyramidical silence, like seducing a stern priest, is ecstatic.
The book presents itself in many overlapping currents. I was not aware of how complex the book was in its execution. The first time, I rode the waves with unintentional, but serendipitous concentration. Looking back, I think, the first read was about getting to know me. I was exulting in some kind of an achievement that I was unlocking. Probably like catching sight of myself in a mirror and liking the movements.
I could not recreate it this time. This time I am reading Moby Dick devoid of delusions. I already know some facts about my relationship with the book. I know the plot. I know I can turn the pages. I know I had done it once.
This time, the experience will be different.
Is this how people feel when they, flush with adrenaline, achieve the unachievable, but when asked to recreate the feat, flounder?
I still persevered. The first time I read Moby Dick was the first time I had embarked, even literarily, on a whaling ship. It was the first time I was encountering the smells, the tastes, the foibles, the fears of long voyages deep in the watery worlds.
I was Ishmael.
Moby-Dick, the book, was Queequeg. I slept with the book. I companioned with the book. I turned and tossed and read and rejoiced. Ahab, the mad captain, was a charismatic individual, commanding the fear and respect of a crew of hardy sea buccaneers in his monomaniacal pursuit.
This time around, I feel not like Ishmael. I feel like Starbuck, the mate.
When I step onto the Pequod (the book), I know what is in store. I already know that whaling journeys are periods of intense actions, long phases of sailing over inky black seas, of bouts of solitudes stretching not just hours, or days, or weeks, but months and years. This time I know with more certainty that it is one thing to know how tough the journey is, and it is a completely different thing to have experienced it and to want it again.
This time I started glimpsing what Melville wanted us to get.
The long, monotonous single-minded voyage that is whaling, teaches a lot about, not life, but the voyagers. Why do we want to commit to this wretchedness, even if majestically beautiful in its enormity?
All the virile youth, that almost fawn-like vibration that accompanied Ishmael, is more apparent the second time around when you view him through the eyes of Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask.
I want to read Moby-Dick again sometime later in life. I want to voyage again into the ocean, trying hard to recollect forgotten images of shorelines that dropped from sight under curving watery horizons many years ago at the start of the journey.
I was aware, even when I read Moby-Dick for the first time, that Melville always had intended the work to pour beyond the pages and into the reader’s psyche. There are few literary voyages that make you live your read as Moby-Dick does. What took me by complete surprise was the shifting loyalty I felt towards different crew members the second time around.
I wanted to wait till the end until I wrote this, but in Melville’s own words, the read, like Pequod, is madly merry and predestined.
“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”