Harrison Middleton University

Moby Dick and Queen

Moby Dick and Queen

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.

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April 5, 2024

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

It’s an unlikely pairing, but reading Moby Dick feels a lot like taking a deep dive into a Queen album. First, you’re in gospel, then punk rock, then opera, and all of this about some seemingly mundane thing, like a bicycle. Or, in the case of Moby Dick, into the world of whaling. There are entire chapters on the shape of a whale’s head, for example. In truth, however, while you can’t equate Queen and Melville, you will immediately understand that they aren’t addressing mundane issues.

In reading Moby Dick, switching from chapter to chapter feels like whiplash induced onboard a rocky vessel, mirroring dramatic shifts in songs like “We Will Rock You” or “Bohemian Rhapsody.” For example, Melville spends an entire chapter explaining why Jonah’s story of survival inside a whale is not purely myth or legend. He lists heroes who have reportedly survived being swallowed by a whale. Ishmael exclaims: “Perseus, St. George, Hercules, Jonah, and Vishnu! there’s a member-roll, for you! What club but the whaleman’s can head off like that?” After this excited dissertation on the history of great whalers, he turns to chapter 83, titled “Jonah Historically Regarded.” Then, after a short bit about “the foolish pride of reason,” he dumps readers back into the sea with an abrupt and slightly absurd turn to the mechanism of a ship. I’m convinced that no one but Melville could pull this off. Well, and perhaps, Freddie Mercury.

It could be that another example might convince you of the book/band similarity. Melville compares the breathing rate of a Sperm Whale to a weekly religious notice. In chapter 85, he notes, “[T]he Sperm Whale only breathes about one-seventh or Sunday of his time.” In a similar turn, “Bohemian Rhapsody” moves from lament, a son wishing he’d never been born, into a great crescendo: “I see a little silhouetto of a man/ Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?/ Thunderbolt and lightning, very very frightening me/ (Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Figaro)/ Magnifico.” In turn, this quickly rises into call and response: “Easy come, easy go, will you let me go?/ Bismillah! No, we will not let you go!/ (Let him go!)/ Bismillah! We will not let you go!/ (Let him go!)….” Perhaps the crux of their argument is this, as Melville says in chapter 86: “[I]t is all in all what mood you are in; if in the Dantean, the devils will occur to you; if in that of Isaiah, the archangels.”

And if I haven’t convinced you yet of the similarities in style between Queen’s lyrics and Melville’s prose, take a look at chapter 132, “The Symphony.” I hear Chaucer and Shakespeare and Plutarch, and so many others. But I hear Queen, too in the rise and the fall, in the mixture of sounds and complex grammatical turns. Melville describes Ahab’s inner turmoil:

“Slowly crossing the deck from the scuttle, Ahab leaned over the side, and watched how his shadow in the water sank and sank to his gaze, the more and the more that he strove to pierce the profundity. But the lovely aromas in that enchanted air did at last seem to dispel, for a moment, the cankerous thing in his soul. The glad, happy air, that winsome sky, did at last stroke and caress him; the stepmother world, so long cruel – forbidding – now threw affectionate arms round his stubborn neck, and did seem to joyously sob over him, as if over one, that however wilful and erring, she could yet find it in her heart to save and to bless. From beneath his slouched hat Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such a wealth as that one wee drop.”

From there, turn to “Bohemian Rhapsody” as it begins apologetically in the voice of a “little, poor boy,” only to rise in sudden anger and vengeance and frustration. Freddie Mercury puts that boy in front of the audience in the same way that Melville puts Ishmael, Ahab and Moby Dick in front of the reader. I believe it is their intent to give us emotion, what boils just beneath the surface of a man, to show us the inner tremblings, desire unmasked. Melville uses music to understand humanity, as does Queen.

“Champollion deciphered the wrinkled granite hieroglyphics. But there is no Champollion to decipher the Egypt of every man’s and every being’s face. Physiognomy, like every other human science, is but a passing fable. If then, Sir William Jones, who read in thirty languages, could not read the simplest peasant’s face in its profounder and more subtle meanings, how may unlettered Ishmael hope to read the awful Chaldee of the Sperm Whale’s brow? I but put that brow before you. Read it if you can.” (Ch. 79, The Prairie)

Consider watching the video of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in connection with this post.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Mark Grenier

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