Thursday, March 17, 2011

The highest truth, the half-known life: biography of an ocean

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick – one of my favourite novels and surely one of the most sprawling works of literature ever created – often reads like a paean to the great water-bodies of the world. Time and again, we are reminded of the unfathomable majesty of the ocean. “Yea, foolish mortals,” says the narrator Ishmael at one point, “Noah’s flood is not yet subsided; two-thirds of the fair world it yet covers.” (Echoing these words more than a century later, Arthur C Clarke would say it was inappropriate to call the planet Earth, when clearly it was Sea.)

Elsewhere, Ishmael makes the case for an honourable death at sea: “In landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God – so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety!” And yet, when he uses the ocean as a metaphor for the dark and unknowable aspects of the human soul and of life itself, he cautions his fellow creatures to stay land-bound:
Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began. Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle and docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!

There are many ways of reading the phrase “the horrors of the half-known life”, especially today, when we know more about our planet and about our own origins than the people of Melville’s time did. The terror of oceanic exploration as expressed in the above passage – the urge to stay tethered to a small and insular world, even while enthralled by the thought of what lies beyond – can be likened to the fear of knowledge itself; the fear that the more we discover, the less comfort it might bring.

Moby-Dick was published at a time when the world was a larger place than it is today, and when it would have been ludicrous to suggest that a flying machine might one day cross an ocean in a few hours. And yet, even in the 21st century, the great waters have lost none of their splendour. You can feel the awe on practically every page of Simon Winchester’s Atlantic: A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories, which is a journalistic history of – and a wide-ranging tribute to – the Atlantic Ocean.

Winchester begins his story with the earliest days of the planet, millions of years before life of any sort had arisen (or could arise), and takes us through the geological churnings that very slowly led to the creation of the continents and oceans we know today. From there, it’s a relatively quick forward track to the recorded history of the past few millennia, including the realisation – with the discovery of the Americas in the late 15th century – that the Atlantic was in fact a discrete body of water with boundaries; and the subsequent role played by the ocean in trade, commerce, discovery, warfare and, essentially, the building of the world as we know it today.

The result is a book that – much like Moby-Dick – lurches restlessly from one topic to another, covering highly disparate material in the process (a short list: the ocean as inspiration for writers, painters and musicians; the ocean as the seat of the first parliaments; the building of the first undersea cables; the birth and development of the mighty Atlantic cities), and inevitably having to skim over some of it. But then, to paraphrase Melville, “A mighty subject requires a mighty book”. The Atlantic certainly deserves an epic - though Winchester might consider collecting his unused material for a new, multi-volume edition.

[Did a version of this for my Sunday Guardian books column. The paper’s Guardian20 supplement is finally online, by the way, though it’s slightly distressing that the cover story of the current issue includes a negative review of my Jaane bhi do Yaaro book!]


  1. I appreciate your love for fiction; in fact some fiction books have been excellent films, but I somehow find them boring. Banal anecdotes and subplots make them a somewhat less interestin read. On the other hand, non fiction (such as Gladwell or Taleb) is interesting because it deals with facts. But anyway, to each his own!!

    I read the negaive review, but I am too fond of the book to be swayed by it!! :-)

  2. Your book "fails to motivate"? Whom were you planning on motivating, Jai? And to do what?

  3. non fiction (such as Gladwell or Taleb) is interesting because it deals with facts. But anyway, to each his own!!

    Yayaati: to each his own indeed, and personal tastes are of course one thing. But thinking of non-fiction as being automatically superior to fiction is a very literal-minded (and therefore narrow) approach to literature. Good novels can be much more revealing and insightful - and truthful in a more poetic way - than the clinical accumulation of "facts".

    In any case, why are we talking about fiction here? Moby-Dick (the only novel mentioned in this post) is actually chockful of meticulously laid-out facts on a variety of subjects - often at the expense of the narrative.

  4. Unmana: am unsure myself. Perhaps I should look for it in the Self-Help section of the next bookstore I visit!

  5. Jai: I need to ask something...Do you read for the joy of reading or for learning something? Actually I belong to the category of people who read for knowledge (and pursue Autodidacticism), which is why I often end up getting bored while reading fiction. But do you think I could gain some knowledge by reading fiction? If yes, feel free to recommend some fiction books. I will definitely read them. Also, I have already added an item to my "to do list" for Saturday-it says buy "Moby Dick".

  6. Do you read for the joy of reading or for learning something?

    Yayaati: surprised by your strident wording of this question. All I'll say in response is: all the books that I really love/admire, whether fiction or non-fiction, have given me both joy and learning. And I'm very unlikely to learn something useful or lasting from a book that I didn't find engaging in the first place. (I've pretty much forgotten everything that was written in my school textbooks, for example, even though I was sufficiently good at rote-learning to do well in my exams!)

    Like I implied in my earlier comment (and in other places on this blog), I'm also surprised by the polarised view of literature that goes Fiction = Joy/Entertainment while Non-Fiction = Knowledge. It's a very limiting and impoverishing view. It's the same thing as people who go on touting the virtues of "realism" in art, without recognising that realism is just one among many modes of artistic expression.

    But do you think I could gain some knowledge by reading fiction?

    Of course you can, but that depends largely on your own attitude, and it also depends on how you interpret "knowledge". I'm not too keen on providing recommendations because I don't want to assume that you'll feel the same way about a book as I did - but if you want a sense of some of the books I admire and what I got out of them, feel free to trawl the archives of this blog; there are hundreds of posts about books.

  7. Apparently this reviewer had expectations from your book based on his reading of Lal's book .The exact opposite happened in the post you linked from diptakirti's blog. Lol!
    Btw.Here is an article about a novel - "The Diviners" - discussing the significance of river in it.

  8. Jai: Sorry about the strident wording!!

    It is interesting to know that books have given you both joy and learning. And I think it does boil down to how engaging the book is.

    Unfortunately most of the fiction books that I've read had way too many sub-plots, thereby making me lose interest in them.

    However, I understand that "knowledge" is broad, in fact even abstract at times. One can get to know a lot about the softer aspects of life by reading fiction.

    That said, when I'm done reading Tim Harford's "The Logic of Life", I will definitely turn towards fiction, and will start with Moby Dick.

  9. A very nice review, Jai. Makes me want to read Moby Dick too.

    About the negative review of your book: that seemed more like an instinctive reaction than a well-thought through review. "travels too much all over the place" sounds like an off-hand remark one would carelessly throw at a party.

    These questions here about fiction and non-fiction keep recurring, and each time you answer them diligently, patiently. Perhaps you should consider creating an FAQ page ;-)

  10. Parmanu: thanks. After reading your comment, I did a quick search on the blog to see if I could locate any old posts about the fiction-non-fiction thing. There's one here, with a long comments discussion that's more interesting than the post itself.

  11. Parmanu: about the Sunday Guardian review - I'm probably at a disadvantage commenting about it since I'm pre-cast in the role of The Aggrieved Author, but still: I thought the review was poorly structured, especially given all the space Butalia had. Putting in some context about film writing is fine, but he should have spent a few more words on each of the three books. A sentence like "But somehow it fails to motivate", with almost no elaboration on why he feels this is so, is the trademark of a lazy review.

  12. 'Lazy review' is an apt description.

    Don't know if this is any solace, but still: Aggrieved Author is any day better than No Author!!

  13. Jai: Moby Dick is one novel that gives me an inferiority complex. Though I must admit I haven't gone past the first couple of pages.

    "Call me Ishmael". So far so good. I cannot proceed further! I find it so difficult to read.

    I've had a similar experience with some of Mark Twain and Hawthorne's novels as well. Why is it that American classic authors are so very difficult to read. Or is it just me?

    British 19th cen writers, in contrast, are such a delightful read. I can read the first couple of chapters of David Copperfield a million times without tiring. Dickens is vivid, yes. But always with a compassionate eye for his characters.

  14. Here's some comfort for me. Looks like I'm not the only one who finds Moby Dick hard to read

  15. Actually I belong to the category of people who read for knowledge (and pursue Autodidacticism)

    Yayaati: just reread this part of your comment. If you don't mind my asking: did you take to reading at a relatively late age? Because it seems to me that anyone who encounters the joy of reading books very early on (I started when I was 3 or 4) is less likely to be preoccupied with "autodidacticism" and more likely to simply keep absorbing as many different types of books as possible (fiction, non-fiction, a large variety of subjects, etc). And naturally, as an unselfconscious part of that process, learning a great many things from them as well. But setting a rigid "agenda" for what one should get out of books seems like the hallmark of someone who developed the reading habit relatively late in life.

  16. now that sounds interesting! thanks for the article I'm gonna go look for that book for sure!

  17. Jai: That's a very acute observation on age and taste in books. I think Pauline Kael made a similar observation elsewhere in the context of movies. Someone who professes a dislike for popular, "mainstream" Hollywood and instead chooses to watch only continental art films is invariably someone who got into movies very late in life!

    Age helps hone one's intellect, but often at the expense of numbing one's senses and powers of observation - qualities essential to appreciate narrative/dramatic arts.

  18. Yayati: Also, the other reason why a lot of people feel the way you do is because of selection bias inherent in one's reading.

    Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution touched on this recently. I think he hit the nail on the head with this brilliant observation :

    For a given level of IQ, people are more likely to agree on what is a good non-fiction book than what is a good fiction book. Internet reviews therefore make non-fiction purchases more reliable to a greater degree than they do for fiction

    Having said that, the best fiction is more rewarding and more long lasting in its impact than the best non-fiction. Taleb may not be widely read a hundred years from now. But I bet Shakespeare will still be read. Narrative arts are often more successful in conveying ideas than tomes of non-fiction.

    I wonder if there has ever been a philosopher who has "explained" megalomania more succinctly than Orson Welles did in his work of fiction - Citizen Kane