Moby Dick @ The MLA

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

If the Modern Language Association (MLA) had done to Moby Dick what they did to Herman Melville, Captain Ahab might have kept his leg.

While we mere mortal readers might see Melville’s novel as the greatest fish story since Jonah and the Whale, speakers at the MLA convention in Chicago found symbolism that doesn’t exactly jump off the page of the original text.  Of Ahab,  Alexander Erik Larsen of Notre Dame said, “Melville must construct a robust character not castrated and Oedipalized.”

“What investment do we have in a Cold War interpretation of Ahab?” Meredith Farmer of Wake Forest asked. For her part, Farmer may be closer to the author’s original intent with her study of weather patterns of the time period portrayed in Moby Dick.

“I do not know where I can find a better place than just here, to make mention of one or two other things, which to me seem important, as in printed form establishing in all respects the reasonableness of the whole story of the White Whale, more especially the catastrophe,” Melville himself wrote in Moby Dick. “For this is one of those disheartening instances where truth requires full as much bolstering of error.”

“So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, or the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.”  One wonders what Melville himself might have thought of the MLA’s attention to his opus.

Moreover, if looking for context in Moby, it is hard to ignore, as the MLA panel did, the numerous religious references Melville provides. For example, he devotes a good ten pages to quoting Father Mapple’s sermon in its entirety. “In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers,” the seaman-turned preacher told his congregation.

Orson Welles recreated the sermon in director John Huston’s film version of Moby. Reportedly aided by several drinks, he pulled it off in one take.  One wonders how many belts he would have required to sit through an MLA convention.