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  • David Kiser

Moby Dick's Sublime Uneventfulness

Updated: Jan 26

Update: Part two is here

One of my main passions outside of piano and teaching great music is literature, namely Fiction. I always had a dream of compiling my favorite author's mention of classical music in their books. These two art forms music and literature have been intertwined for a long time. Usually music is mentioned as a way to expand the reader experience.

So I present the first iteration of Music in Literature, a high-brow exploration of allusions to classical music found in mostly heady tomes from the canon.

Right now I'm slogging through Herman Melville's Moby Dick. I don't pick books based on how much musical content they will have, but I'm always surprised about the author's erudition about classical music. Some authors like Murakami and Thomas Bernhard are almost famous for their references, others like Herman Melville...not so much.

Here are my findings from 183 pages. It hasn't been easy going but what Melville is writing about and what he brings to our attention is remarkable. These quotes and phrases set up the first instance of music.

Underlinings: ( U of California Press, Arion edition)

"and nothing particular to interest me on shore..." p. 2

Ishmael, our narrator is just as disinterested in life as many of we are.

"November in my soul..." p. 2

Is just a beautiful expression.

"methodically knocking people's hats off..." p. 2

He is in such a state that he is worried he's about to get into some anti-social behavior. We probably feel this most driving around town, dreaming about retreating into the mountains.

Circumambulate, spiles, noble mole, shady lee

A spile is a wooden beam that supports a structure. A lee offers protection from the elements and noble mole divides bodies of water. You've seen them at the beach. Here's a picture from a trip to Korea a few years back. Melville would have loved Korea and all of their moles.

(Picture: Lisa, Sophie, and Eleanor somewhere in Tongyeong, South Korea)

"I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote." p. 7
"boggy, soggy, squitchy..." p. 12

I can only infer that it means squishy.

"outer darkness" p. 28

Cormac McCarthy loved Melville. Outer Dark was his second novel. I see that wikipedia suggests McCarthy got it from the Gospel of Matthew, but it might as well have been this mention on page 28 of Moby Dick.

"Here comes another with a sou'wester and a bombazine cloak." p. 34

Bombazine refers to the material, cotton and silk perhaps.

"In summer time the town is sweet to see; full of fine maples--long avenues of green and gold. And in August, high in the air, the beautiful and bountiful horse-chestnuts, candelabra-wise, proffer the passer-by their tapering upright cones of congregated blossoms. So omnipotent is art; which in many a district of New Bedford has superinduced bright terraces of flowers upon the barren refuse rocks thrown aside at creation's final day." p. 35

I share this passage because I marvel at its construction and beauty. Here is a masterclass of description. He contrasts "bright terraces with "refuse rocks". Then gives a historical perspective at the very end, suggesting that the town of New Bedford is not only old, but biblical.

"In what census of living creatures, the dead of mankind are included..." and "...why all the living so strive to hush all the dead..."p. 38

This was one of those have to underline quotes. Here Melville asks a basic question of why do we forget the dead. He humorously brings up life insurance companies, asking what sense does it make to take out policies if we are immortal.

Now if you haven't read Melville you are probably getting his main quality: mythical word making. You will see how this plays into his first reference to music of some importance.

On page 42 he writes out the stanzas of what I am calling the whale hymn. Here's a taste:

In black distress, I called my God,

When I could scarce believe him mine,

He bowed his ear to my complaints--

No more the whale did me confine.

Scholars have found the source of the hymn in Psalm 18, but the obvious allusion is to Jonah and the Whale. The singer goes on to say: "My song for ever shall record/ That terrible, that joyful hour;".

Chapter 35 contains the first real discussion of music. It is entitled The Mast-Head, which is the look out on the ship. We known it mostly as the crows nest. The first thing to note is the oldness of music and of the practice called singing out.

..."whereby, with prodigious long upliftings of their legs, those old astronomers were wont to mount to the apex, and sing out for new stars;"p. 157

Or in this case to also sing for whale sightings in the pursuit of valuable spermaceti. This singer has it made:

..."a sublime uneventfulness invests you; you hear no news; read no gazettes; extras with startling accounts of commonplaces never delude you into unnecessary excitements; you hear of no domestic afflictions; bankrupt securities; fall of stocks; are never troubled with the thought of what you shall have for dinner-- for all your meals for three years and more are snugly stowed in casks, and your bill of fare is immutable."

I just love the phrase sublime uneventfulness. It could very well describe Mozart. What strikes me about this passage is its freshness. It could have been written yesterday. And that sums up these pages. There has not been a reference to a work in the canon yet or a specific composer. I don't suppose there will be (I don't know ahead of time, so don't tell me!) But what he has brought so far to the discussion is the sheer oldness of things and that music is present to express mythical ideas. For Melville, music is very much the domain of King David, we'll see about Mozart. Stay posted as I read more.

(Picture: artwork from the U of California, Arion edition of Moby Dick)

-David Kiser


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