The opening lines of Moby Dick are a bewitching blend of eloquence and humour. In them, Ishmael, the protagonist and narrator, launches into a surreal description of his innermost feelings, with verve and panache.
By translating thought into action, Melville conveys Ishmael's emotions and state of mind, with refreshing immediacy. There is a cinematic quality to his words, that is mesmerising. As you read them, you have the feeling you are watching a Charlie Chaplin masterpiece, where comedy and tragedy jostle for your attention. And where they both receive it.
Melville dazzles us with this opening. Before we know it, he puts us in Ishmael's shoes and has us walk around in them. And though we are not sure where they will take us, we know it's going to be one hell of a ride, so we hold on.
"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely--having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me."