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Posts Tagged ‘Moby Dick’

Title Page of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

In which conclusory (if not conclusive) remarks are made regarding the final episodes in M. Verne’s adventure novel, Vingt mille lieues sous les mers; in which there may be spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book, don’t already know the basic story, and intend to read it for yourself one day — proceed with caution!

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Kraken artwork by TheSeek (theseekproject.wordpress.com)

Courtesy of TheSeek (theseekproject.wordpress.com)

The breath-taking conclusion to a 7-part series of profiles on sea monsters.

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Part 5 in a series of profiles on sea monsters.

Jaws poster

Hopefully no one will be confused by the transition from Moby-Dick to Jaws. To me, it certainly feels like one of the most natural progressions imaginable. Both are about huge, white, underwater monsters. Central to the plots of both is an obsessive search-and-destroy mission undertaken by men to rid the deep of the titular terrors. In both, said search is met with mixed results.

When Steven Spielberg’s Jaws opened in 1975, it transformed cinema. What we now take for granted as the Hollywood business of “blockbusters” was actually a concept birthed that summer. A lot of cinephiles hold a grudge against Spielberg for unleashing his great white monstrosity on the public for just that reason: the summer that Jaws opened is sometimes pointed to as the beginning of the end for patient, intellectual, “serious” filmmaking. It’s easy even for fans of Jaws to dismiss it as an exercise in expertly timed “jump” scares and over-amped tension. If in fact it turns out that Jaws is nothing more than a “popcorn” movie, let’s at least give it its due credit for being one of the best ever. The formula has been reproduced over and over again (“Okay, instead of a shark in the ocean, what if it’s an alligator in a lake? What if, okay, it’s snakes… on a plane?”) even by Spielberg himself (“Ok, what if it’s — track with me here — dinosaurs in a park?”), but rarely with near as much success. (In fact, of the examples I’ve just alluded to, Spielberg’s own knock-off, Jurassic Park, is arguably the best.) In short, to dismiss Jaws as nothing more than the genre of film it inspired is as criminal as dismissing Psycho as nothing more than the host of anemic imitations it has inspired.

Great White Shark

I'm so disturbed by these creatures that I could hardly bring myself to do the Google image search that netted this charming picture. It's from the first page of results... Gulp.

After all, I just compared it to one of our country’s finest literary achievements, and I’m guessing there wasn’t too much surprised blinking.

So, then, bringing our high-minded approach to inquiry to our low-brow penchant for amusement (as is the Monk’s raison d’être), the question seems to be this: Is the shark an instrument of God’s retribution on a corrupt seaside town masquerading as the perfect summer getaway spot? When it tugs Chrissie beneath the ocean’s dark surface in the film’s chilling opener, is it divine punishment for the campfire promiscuity that led her into the ocean that night? When it bites Sam Quint in half, is it a higher power finally claiming a soul it missed when the battleship Indianapolis went down, and most of its crew were devoured by sharks? Is it a mythical man-eating monster deserving of its own special epithet, “Jaws,” to set it apart from its fellow great whites?

Or, is it just a shark? Unusually large, sure. Maybe a little more ravenous than most, but that’s like accusing one certain snail of being slower than its peers. It’s simply one of those variations in a pattern which happens in Nature. The shark isn’t picking on anyone, it’s simply found a source of food, and it will feed until sated. It’s a shark, after all. What is a shark if not an eating machine? To give it an individual name is preposterous. It’s simply a Great White. Carcaradon carcharias.

Yeah. Tell it to Captain Quint.

Jaws from Moonraker

Not the Jaws I'm talking about, but given the theme of this blog, we may get to him one day...

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Moby Dick

MOBY DICK, by Mark Weaver

Okay, okay, this blog was never intended to be an art gallery. But I could use a break from all the verbiage, and I’m sure you could, too! So sit back and enjoy Mark Weaver‘s* take on Herman Melville’s classic, posted at Society6.

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*Mark Weaver is the first person I saw doing the Make Something Cool Every Day project, where he makes a piece of artwork every day. Or almost every day, anyway. Whether he was truly the first person to start doing this or not I can’t say, but there are plenty of people out there undertaking similar initiatives, including Lukes Beard’s Tumblr blog, A Lyric a Day. My hat’s off to both of these guys, and anyone out there managing to do this. I have tried it a couple times, without much success.

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Control - Ryan Snook

CONTROL by Ryan Snook

Urban Outfitters has teamed with Society6 to bring you Print Shop, a place on the web where you can order quirky artwork like the above, by Ryan Snook, as a print or as a skin for your laptop, iPhone, or iPod.
As far as the Orange Monk is concerned, it has synthesized all this “belly of the beast”/ Nemo-in-the-Nautilus/great-white-whale stuff going on in his head right now, and brought a beatific, Buddha-like smile to his face. And so he shares.

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Part 4 in a series of profiles on sea monsters.

Moby-Dick

A big book about a big whale

Moby-Dick“Call me Ishmael.”

So opens Herman Melville’s 1851 masterpiece. Some consider Moby-Dick to be the Great American Novel (although perhaps more consider that to be The Great Gatsby). This country’s greatest novel or not, one thing’s certain: it is the American Beowulf: a tome equal in length to the proportions of its monster, dense, feared by college students, a national treasure.

Take it from someone who’s never read it.

See, I was one of those college students who tried to dodge Moby-Dick. But sooner or later, that great white whale found me. Fortunately, I had a great professor for it, who probably realized he was dealing with a roomful of kids who simply weren’t going to read Melville’s 600-page tome. He must have felt it was nonetheless vital that we leave his class with some kind of understanding of the work, because he would give us reading assignments, and then summarize the reading and explain it for us during the next class. By the professor’s own admission, much of Moby-Dick strays from the well-known conflict between the monomaniacal Captain Ahab, and the great white whale that robbed him of his leg. Often, it devolves into a whaling manual, or a seven-page description of a painting. Its meandering structure seems to be something of an open secret among literary enthusiasts, and for those to whom Moby-Dick especially appeals (such as another English professor of mine, in high school, whose claimed Moby-Dick as his favorite book), I think its flaws are a significant part of the novel’s appeal. I can appreciate this, and when the inevitable day comes when I finally break down and attempt to read Moby-Dick cover to cover, I will do so with my mind set on appreciating its digressions and oddities.

Herman Melville

Herman Melville

This portion of a letter from Melville to his contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, written days before Moby-Dick‘s publication, indicates that the great novel’s tragic flaws were evident from its inception:

You [Hawthorne] did not care a penny for the book. But, now and then as you read, you understood the pervading thought that impelled the book—and that you praised. Was it not so? You were archangel enough to despise the imperfect body, and embrace the soul.”

(Incidentally, Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” is one of my favorite short stories. But I use the word “short” liberally.)

But enough backstory! Cut to the chase! Here’s something I took away from my college course on Moby-Dick. The novel has two titles: Moby-Dick, or The Whale. Is this just another artifact of what might be viewed by some cynics as a literary pig-sty? Or is there something deeper going on here? Assuming there’s a reason to have two titles, so radically different, what might it be?

Moby-Dick title page

Two Titles: Literary Indecisiveness, or Thematic Significance?

Moby-Dick vs. Captain Ahab

Vengeful Ahab tangles with a vengeful God. Or does he?

One of the questions at the heart of Moby-Dick is this: is the titular beast an instrument of God’s wrath for Ahab? “The Hand-puppet of God” is a phrase that sticks in my head, but I regret to say I don’t know if this was a term actually used in the text, or a phrase coined by my college professor. When Moby-Dick chomps Ahab’s leg off, is it a wrathful God rising from the sea, wearing a sperm whale as a mask? Ahab believes it is, and assigns it a proper name, Moby-Dick, to specify this whale from any other whale, to imbue it with a mythical status equal to his rage.

On the other hand, is it just a whale? Is the world in fact a random, God-forsaken place, without deeper significance? Is Ahab’s peg-leg simply the result of… chance? Does Ahab’s stalked whale have any awareness of its role in the mad captain’s revenge play?

sperm whale

Sometimes a whale is just a whale

Join me for the next installment of sea monster profiles: Jaws, or The Shark.

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