Moby Dick is a true classic. What is a classic? The best definition of a classic I ever heard came from Italo Calvino who said, “A classic is a book that is never finished saying what it has to say.”
Last year I said I would read at least one classic every year. The first classic I read was The Plague. This was a perfect start, particularly since we were in the midst of a plague. It gave the book an existential edge. It was not merely academic. It was particular and immediate. I call that existential.
The second book I decided to read in this meandering series, almost a year later, was Moby Dick. That is a legendary book. I returned to it after about 40 years of experience. It was a sensational experience. In fact, I would say, it was the best reading experience of my life. I loved the book 40 years ago, but this year I found so much more in it. That is what a classic is all about.
I read with extreme care and attention. I have never paid such care and attention to a book before. Even when I studied Honours English and Philosophy and then law at the University of Manitoba from 1968 to 1974, I have never paid such careful intense attention to any book. It was the most amazing reading experience of my life.
Part of the pleasure in reading this classic story about 30 men on a boat that sails around the world in search of a White Whale is really about more than that. In my opinion, it is a book about a religious quest. Actually more than one quest. Carl Ridd, as far as I know, may not have taught this book as part of his course, “The Religious Quest in the Modern Age,” which I am trying to revive, but he should have. I think the book is richly filled with thoughts about the religious quest in the modern world. Some of those thoughts are very uncomfortable. This is not religion for the faint of heart.
Of course, part of what makes the book so interesting is the fact that it is in many respects about the search for a false god. How could a white whale be god? Or how could the mad obsessive search for it be a religious quest at all? Was it a false quest? Can a religious quest be mad?
The book is not an easy read. I often had to go back thinking I had missed something. I often had missed something. That was why it was so difficult. The book is complicated with some old English that makes interpretation difficult, but the time spent was amply rewarded. With this book, I had started my religious quest in the modern age and I had re-read an old classic. More than 40 years after I got the idea, I was doing it.
After 40 years of wandering in the desert I was on my quest. And this first book was an astounding experience. It dynamited a lot of my cherished certainties. It kept telling me it had more to say.
In future posts I will try to show you what I mean.