Friday, March 13, 2015

Bowdlerized Melville

Just recently, there was a school shooting and all the children interviewed used the word surreal.   I actually did have a surreal experience in college.  It was a liberal arts college called Shimer, based on the great books where we used original sources except for a few textbooks and this one instance: Moby Dick.  Moby Dick is a young people’s adventure story.  Why out of all the books assigned, including Ulysses, was this the only abridged version?  I had read Moby Dick before and something was nagging at me throughout the class.  It wasn't until later when I happened across a cheap version of the book that I realized that not only was our version abridged, it was bowdlerized.

They had replaced all the Voudun imagery with Christian themes.  For instance, the ending where a bird is smashed against the mast with a hammer instead had three masts sinking into the ocean.   I still remember Professor Andy Armstrong, the Marlboro man who allowed us to smoke in class as long as they were Marlboros; he had been in advertising and had been used in the first mock up of the ad, pontificating over the three masts descending into the ocean, with feeling.

Melville had never written that.  We were required to write long essays on the religious themes of Moby Dick. I wish I could tell you that we took poor old Andy to task.  I wish I could tell you that any of us remembered our child hood reading and were horrified.  I wish I could tell you that Andy himself was in on the joke.  I don’t think so.

I had met C. L. R. James a few years before; he had written a book of criticism on Moby Dick when he was interred by immigration called Mariners Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World He Lived In. I even bought a copy.  He pointed out that  the Pequod represented the ship of state.  I’m sure he recognized the Voudun imagery but was disinterested. 
Years later I began to realize just how wondrously subversive Melville is. He holds every tenet of accepted teenage belief up to ridicule; what better use of an adventure story?  People talk about the relationship between Jim and Huck Finn, in the start of the book, Melville has Ishmael and Queeqeq sharing a bed, hey no big deal.  There are three great American novels: Moby DickHuckleberry Finn, and The Natural.  In all three, our great sin is naivete and we are duly punished for it.  In order for a book to be popular, it must have a happy ending.  In Moby Dick the whale wins, he was minding his own business; they were looking for him. 
If Shimer didn’t like the book why include it?  If they did, why gut it?  I have this vision of some secret stipend dictating the syllabus, ala Pynchon.  More realistically, I have to believe that even as they love the story, the great mediocrity recognize a threat, and in this peculiar way validate Melville’s vision.
 I did try to bring up the idea of the degeneration of the ship into fascism.  Andy said
 -You’re putting me on. 
Which even then I thought, was grossly unfair.

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