Melville's woman

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The Draft of a Draft

"White Killer Whale Adult spotted for the first time in wild". On April 23rd, BBC reported a sighting of a white whale, off the coast of eastern Russia. The article concludes, "The most famous white whale, though, is the fictional sperm whale that drove Captain Ahab to his eventual fatal fury in Moby Dick".

'Killer' whales are not known to kill human beings, except when they are kept in captivity. Just like our elephants, the whales have no reason to kill people unless provoked. Whales belong to the dolphin family. They are known to be intelligent and very social, and use vocalization to communicate with each other.

Captain Ahab was after a Sperm Whale, the largest toothed mammal in the world. It was named Sperm whale, because of whalers mistaken belief that the wax found inside the head of the whale was coagulated sperm. Sperm whales were murdered indiscriminately to collect this wax to be used in manufacture of candles and cosmetic creams.

Such a sperm whale was 'Mocha Dick: or the White Whale of the Pacific'. Described as a monster by Jeremiah N. Reynolds, because the whale attacked boats and ships. But it was the human monsters who had compelled the whale to attack his enemies in self-defense. When finally Mocha Dick was killed to yield "one hundred barrels of clear oil, with a proportionate quantity of head-matter" the killers also found more than twenty rusted harpoons on his back, showing how many times man had failed to destroy this majestic creature, and how much the whale had suffered.

Herman Melville probably got the idea for Moby Dick from 'Mocha Dick'. Nathaniel Hawthorne had encouraged him to change 'Moby Dick' from a story full of details about whaling, into an allegorical novel.

Sena Jeter Naslund, based her novel about Una, wife of Capt. Ahab in Moby Dick. "But do you know me? Una? You have shipped long with me in the boat that is this book. Let me assure you and tell you that I know you, even something of your pain and joy, for you are much like me. The contract of writing and reading requires that we know each other. Did you know that I try on your mask from time to time? I become a reader, too, reading over what I have just written" (Ahab's Wife p. 145).

Naslund's Una begins the story, "Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last", a famous first-line to match Melville's "Call me Ishmael".

150 years after Moby Dick, perhaps Naslund is trying to hit back at Melville who had written to a female acquaintance that Moby Dick was not the kind of book for a woman. What he could have meant was that he aimed it more at men who were slaying whales and destroying nature in other dastardly ways. Stacy D'erasmo, in the New York Times wrote that Naslund is pursuing Melville, "...it may well turn out to be Melville's worst nightmare. 'Moby Dick' rewritten by a woman..". The nightmare would be because Naslund blurs the message Melville was trying to give us.

Melville does not let Ahab kill Moby Dick. He uses the story to remind us that man will never be able to defeat or conquer nature. Ahab is warned once, but he ignores the warning, and with typical human arrogance is determined to seek revenge. Ahab was not concerned about how many lives he has to sacrifice in his blind pursuit.

'Ahab's Wife' was an immediate success, getting into best-seller lists, while 'Moby Dick' had sold only 3000 copies in Melville's lifetime. Once again proving that not all great books become instant best sellers.

Was Una's adventure as a cabin boy on a whaler an attempt by Naslund to relive Melville's own adventure abroad a whaler, to describe the horrible scene. Yet Naslund could not empathize with Moby Dick and all innocent creatures exploited by man. Her book is full of irrelevant incidents and descriptions, spread over 600 pages, which overshadows the cruelty. The greatness of a book is not measured by its length.

There have been attempts to compare Ahab and Una with Adam and Eve, that Naslund created Ahab's Wife from the few lines written by Melville, which is compared to Adam's rib. Melville doesn't even give her a name, just calls her girl-wife. Others considered Ahab's Wife as feminist, but it is feminism that has missed something very important, that nature itself is feminine. Cannibalism and incest would never have been in Melville's mind when he wrote 'Moby Dick'. Naslund characters do not remind us of Adam and Eve, but of Cinyras (Thesis) and his daughter Myrrha and their incestuous relationship, in Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Melville let only Ishmael be saved, out of all the inhuman whalers, so he could carry this message to the world, and then Naslund got him to be Una's last husband.

Towards the end of the book, Ishmael tells Una,"My whole book is but a draft - nay, but the draft of a draft", and Una feels the same about her story. Perhaps we can say that about 'Ahab's Wife' and 'Moby Dick' too, that like all fiction and other creative works, it is the reader and the art lover who finishes them, the way they wish them to be.

That is why on this Wesak week, when we are thinking of Loving Kindness and love and compassion towards all living things, we should read Moby Dick again, to finish it the way we wish it to be, to understand the cruel barbaric nature of civilized man, and to learn from such weakness, how we could live in harmony with nature, without hurting or harming anyone. There are a few good things we can still learn from the West.

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