Monday, June 11, 2007

The Sperm Whale Will Stand no Nonsense

Well, friends and Romans, it's time for another of what overbearing grande dames in black-and-white movies called "elevating conversations."

I'm about 60 pages from landfall in Moby Dick, and I think it's about time for a wrap-up of some of the beautiful words that Melville uses so copiously. Following are terms I'd known of for years, but which ole Herm inspired me to look up. I sort of knew what they meant, but Melville's obvious joy in words makes you want to know exactly:

- Effulgence: radiant splendor

- Execration: the act of cursing or denouncing; also : the curse so uttered

- Blandishment: something that tends to coax or cajole

- Recondite: 1: hidden from sight : concealed; 2: difficult or impossible for one of ordinary understanding or knowledge to comprehend : deep [a recondite subject]

- Antediluvian: 1: of or relating to the period before the flood described in the Bible 2 a: made, evolved, or developed a long time ago [an antediluvian automobile] b: extremely primitive or outmoded [an antediluvian prejudice]

- Spavined: Old and decrepit; over the hill

Source: Merriam Webster (Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition and Online Search )

Finally, I couldn't resist offering a tasty excerpt from the middle of the book. (If you love snappy writing, that alone would be a reason to read MD. It's liberally sprinkled with gems.) Here, Melville is recounting a meeting with a military Commodore who was breezily skeptical on the subject of the great strength of whales, and particularly whether one could manage to damage his sloop-of war "as to cause her to leak so much as a thimbleful." Melville goes on:

"Some weeks after, the Commodore set sail in this impregnable craft for Valparaiso. But he was stopped on the way by a portly sperm whale, that begged a few moments' confidential business with him. That business consisted in fetching the Commodore's craft such a thwack, that with all his pumps going he made straight for the nearest port to heave down and repair. I am not superstitious, but I consider the Commodore's interview with that whale as providential. Was not Saul of Tarsus converted from unbelief by a similar fright? I tell you, the sperm whale will stand no nonsense."

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