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From the Mast-Head ,hereis a condition I call “mobydickaphobia,”which is no doubt familiar to readers of thisjournal,if not practicing psychiatrists. It is the persistent urge to avoid Melville’s novel like the plague. Moby-Dick is a “classic,” and we know what that is like. Common knowledge among those afflicted with this disorder informs us that reading Moby-Dick induces distorted vision, psychosis, and, worse, boredom. And yet it is a cultural icon; thus, one is obliged to try it, although Uncle Ned gave it a shot some years back and he has never quite been Uncle Ned ever since. Perhaps “mobydickaphobics” have a more highly tuned sense of metaphysical self-survival than those of us who, in reading the book, have actually survived to tell the tale, to our students , and any random passersby who might listen. No doubt the “mobydickaphobe ” knows when not to probe or dive, if at all; and there is peace in that condition. But on the brighter side of that phobic tortoise is the mobydickaphobe who conquers obsession, becomes an Ishmael or Ahab on his or her own, and not only starts the book but finishes it, and then becomes a convert to all things Melville. I must admit a partiality to such converts. But then there is yet a third reader, who for one reason or another reads Moby-Dick and only finds confirmation of the belief that this book and this writer are an aggravation devoutly to be avoided henceforth. These particular individuals are a threat. They have experience to back up their paranoia; they know what they are talking about: Moby-Dick is a tough read, especially for students. This is not because the language is tough, or that the ideas are tough, which they are; it is because this book requires one to age while one reads. In our world, “aging”is not a good thing. We define it, falsely I think, by its end-point, that great undesired unnamable we so zealous attempt to forestall. It is a process colored by the naught beyond. Or, we equate it, again falsely, with “maturing,”which, forgive me, is worse than death. But to age is to ripen and to grow.And Moby-Dick ages you. To be sure, somewhere a classroom wag can be heard permitting me to say that again. But this aging as you read is a thrill; it is a kind of growing. Of course, such growth is exhausting. “Lord, when shall we be done changing,” Melville once complained to Hawthorne, and then turned around to write Pierre. Then “Bartleby” and then “Benito Cereno” and then again the poetry and on to Billy Budd. Keeping up with Melville’s ceaseless changing is exhausting. Readers of MobyDick sense this soon enough. And teaching: well, that’s just helping readers withstand the changing, growing, and aging our students so perfectly, often 2 L E VI AT H A N F R O M T H E M A S T - H E A D unknowingly, perform. A good deal of teaching Melville, I have found, is contriving ways to help my students cope with the enormous, destabilizing growth suddenly required of them when they confront Melville’stext. I anticipate that my students, the best and the least motivated, will have breakdowns in their readings, moments in which they feel compelled to hurl their copy of Moby-Dick against the white wall at the foot of their dormitory bed. I anticipate this, and try to invent ways to get students past the frustration, and the exhaustion they rightly have over their frustration. In one exercise, I have them put their finger on the exact spot in the text in which they have had some kind of breakdown. And then I have them write about it: how their breakdown passage makes them feel, what it means, and why the passage doesn’t seem to mean a thing. With some degree of frequency, I am happy to report, this simple “write-out-your-frustration’’ exercise works, so that the writing process enables the student to articulate their anger, doubt, frustration about reading but in the process come closer to what...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 2-3
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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