On Two Classic Novels: Moby Dick and Tom Jones
Ah, Tom Jones and Moby Dick. Henry Fielding and Hermann Melville; hm!
Reading Melville I feel like he had written four or so sea tales of the commonest kind, stories strictly for men of the mediocre make, perhaps, and one day woke up and decided that if he didn't quit playing it straight this very instant then he might actually explode from lack of sincerity. So he quit pleasing paltry readers and wrote a sea story that revealed to the whole world his amazingly oddball personality.
Let me be very clear: Hermann Melville is a very strange fish. Just as Flaubert (pronounced 'Phallus-butt' in English, fyi), used to say "Je suis Bovary", so Melville can justly say "Je suis Moby Dick".
And after all, you know, after all, I mean, WTF? What is a reader to make of a book in which the writer's inner self appears to be symbolised by a spermaceti whale, and the reality principle seems to be represented by an insane PTSDed sea captain named Ahab? The really funny thing in this read is to notice how tremendously Melville enjoys himself. Like a carrion wind, Melville's good cheer never ever lets up. Laughter streams through the tone and transforms the horrid plot into a fearful symmetry such as would make Mister Blake quake.
Now to Tom Jones. Don't you think there is something snivelling and shabby about a world where everyone is a hypocrite except the hero and his missus? And when I see how tawdry Tom himself is even in his boldest conceptions of virtue, it quickly goes from discouraging to disgusting.
Yeah, I GET that Fielding wants us to clearly see how variable, moonish and instable a thing is virtue. And it's funny for a few hundred pages; but then it's not.
It doesn't help that Fielding's emotional life doesn't engage me. Here is none of the delightful sinister laughter of Dostoyevsky, and even less of the gallows good cheer of Melville. I like Henry Fielding best in legal and ethical questions, in which the disquisitions of his lawyerly mind find their field of muster.
I dug the allegorette (that's to say, the mini-allegory) of the Christian Thwackum and the platonist Square. It reminds me of William James' pragmatism. But I think the problem here is that I just don't care enough about Fielding, Jones, or their respective girlfriends.
Bottom line: Only the English find hypocrisy funny, but evil amuses forever.