(Cross-posted from Infinite Zombies.)

“The ‘elusiveness’ of Kafkaesque terror … is maybe the supersaturation of every possible line of allegorical reading (you can’t isolate what is everywhere).”

John Holbo.

(I know Kafka’s a long stretch from Moby-Dick, but he’s not why I used the quotation; I aim to connect the extract and the point below.)

We finally meet the White Whale! And he’s just as vicious as we’ve been led to expect: rocketing up out of the depths of the ocean to chomp an occupied boat in half, swatting at other boats with his tail as if they were flies, pulling a remarkable Three Stooges maneuver with two harpoon lines to smash their boats against each other, single-headedly staving an entire ship so that its whole crew (but one) drowns in a maelstrom. But then, after three chapters of mayhem, there’s a short epilogue and the book is over. That’s it, nothing more to see.

It seems an odd kind of book whose title character only appears in the final pages to kill practically every other character and then vanish. It all happens quickly, but I agree with Paul that it doesn’t feel rushed. Instead it just feels very final, and brutal. Speaking for myself, there’s something about the mystery of Moby Dick and the compactness of his “on-screen” presence in the book that I find irresistibly suggestive. There’s too much weight placed on him through the course of the narration to be borne by that tiny role, so I find myself again saying it must mean something.

It’s not just me, though: Many of the characters, and I would imagine much of the criticism, look to Moby Dick as a symbol of something. For Ahab, he’s an agent or principal of supernatural malice, an implacable nemesis. Starbuck seems to think he is a devil and expresses concern that they’ll get dragged to Hell if they harpoon him. (I don’t know how literally he means it.) Ishmael goes everybody one better and devotes an entire chapter to projecting his own meanings onto the empty canvas of the whiteness of the whale.

As far as that whiteness goes, Melville practically invites us to write our own interpretations onto the blank page that is the whale’s skin. It’s certainly easy enough to grope toward reading Ahab and Moby Dick’s contest as humanity vs. nature, or humanity vs. the greater powers, or will vs. matter, or (at least poetically comprehensibly) even past vs. progress, and probably any number of other allegories. The resonance and capaciousness and complexity of Melville’s writing give us lots of pitons to rope a reading through, and seem to support a great variety of interpretations. The book brandishes an enormous amount of knowledge about whales, and brings to bear on the plot and its giant albino a huge range of human discourses, including economics, biology, anatomy, physiology, oceanography, literature, psychology, and theology. Of course we can make him mean something!

But this is where the quotation I began with enters the picture: allegorical supersaturation. Moby Dick can mean all those things, at least tolerably well; which is too many meanings. The confusion of every possible meaning that can be attached to him cancels out to a nullity—you can’t isolate any one of them, because the others all impinge too much upon it. Consider: After all we’ve read, outside of his great savagery we know nothing significant about Moby Dick except for a probabilistic idea of where he’s more and less likely to be at a given season. He’s visible from a mile or two out, and we know less about him than about the electron. To steal a phrase from Daniel, we still don’t know dick about Moby Dick. He spends the vast majority of the book hidden both figuratively and literally below the surface; for all the psychological effect he has on the characters (and, I admit, this reader) before he appears, he remains wholly unknowable. We can squeeze him into any interpretation we want, but it will teach us no more about the whale and we will have made the same mistake as Ahab and Starbuck and who knows who else: We will have ignored the irreducible fact of the whale in favor of converting him to an interpretive object.

That’s what I find the most compelling about Moby Dick. He comes out of nowhere, without warning (dare I say “like a thief in the night”?), does whatever he is going to do, then vanishes. There is no taming him or managing your encounters with him or even understanding him. He’s almost like a Lovecraftian monster in his assault on the idea that human beings can master or even comprehend the world. He is purely sublime, and although he will bear a great number of interpretations, none of them will encompass him. For someone as intellectual and Enlightenment-infatuated as I am, it’s an exhilarating thing to read such a stimulating book and then get my face slammed right up against the wall of human understanding. I look forward to it every time.

(Cross-posted from Infinite Zombies.)

“A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.”

William Blake.

Ah, “The Doubloon.” This is my kind of chapter (ch. 99). It’s all about interpretation, or the search for (and imposition of) meaning. It explicitly dramatizes the process we all go through every day, where we take notice of part of the world (something that is the case) and create a way of understanding it as it relates to our lives. This is a very normal part of the way human beings interact with our surroundings, and is in fact necessary to formulating the narratives we recognize as our selves and our lives.

Note that this is not the argument Ishmael makes in favor of interpretation. He says, “And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher.” In his view, what gives the world worth is the significance in it that can be divined by human beings; the world has meaning insofar as it means something to people, but no intrinsic value. This seems to me an extreme anthropocentric view, but not necessarily an uncommon one. Just an unreflective one.

So in the course of this dramatization of interpretation, we see eight different characters all try their hand at “reading” the doubloon that Ahab nailed to the mast at the beginning of their voyage as a guaranty to the sailor who first raises Moby Dick. (Other than the obvious meaning, of course, which is the one they all drank to during that weird ceremony.) Ahab’s interpretation, while dramatic and almost mythologically Norse in its pessimism, is also kind of funny: Looking at the various devices on the coin—mountains with fire, a tower, and a crowing rooster, and a segment of the zodiac—he sees Lucifer, Ahab, Ahab, Ahab, and the unrelieved misery of life, which begins in pains and ends in pangs. But also, it’s not for nothing that Ishmael keeps calling Ahab “monomaniacal.” This is very nearly solipsism in action.

Starbuck starts out as a foil to Ahab in his reading—he sees the mountains as a symbol of the Trinity, so that even when he passes through the dark valley between them, God still strengthens him and the “sun of Righteousness” still shines down on him—but then he remembers that the sun is only up about half the time, on average, which leaves human beings looking for hope and comfort much of the time (wait for it) in the dark. So even though he finds some devotional meaning in the doubloon, it is on the whole a somewhat depressing exegesis for Starbuck. Nonetheless, it’s a pretty clear application of the hermeneutic method involved in reading the Book of Nature, whereby everything created has a theological lesson within it, if you can just find the key.

Then Stubb gets up and sneaks in two interpretations. In the first one, he sees the doubloon as a piece of money, just as good for spending in commerce as any other piece of money. It’s a wonderful puncturing of the portentous mode Ahab and Starbuck both operate in, but it’s also a welcome nod to the fact that objects and experiences are embedded in the world and entangled with other people and places. Both Ahab and Starbuck find insular, self-centered meanings in the doubloon, but Stubb instead immediately recognizes how the doubloon is enmeshed with the rest of the world. Then he looks more carefully, convinced by Ahab and Starbuck’s long faces that there must be a deeper meaning, and descries a very long zodiacal version of the Sphinx’s riddle that supposedly charts a universal course for the life of man. (Women don’t count for much on a whaler, you might have noticed.)

When Flask looks at the doubloon, he literally sees nothing but the monetary value of it. (A special note from my Norton Critical Edition, on Flask’s line “It is worth sixteen dollars, that’s true; and at two cents the cigar, that’s nine hundred and sixty cigars”: “The arithmetic seems shaky.”) Unlike Stubb, he doesn’t seek a deeper meaning; he’s satisfied with his pragmatic observation of “a round thing made of gold.” I see this version as an important recognition of the thingness of the doubloon, regardless of what meanings a more reader-response-type approach yields.

The Manxman uses his special training in esoterica to identify the doubloon as half of a zodiacal prophecy of when the ship will encounter Moby Dick. I read this one as a small parody, actually. Daryl brought our attention to prophecy in the novel, and there’s always the possibility that’s at play here, but this one is so general that I suspect it’s much more like an ancestor of Maslow’s hammer. The Manxman knows something most people don’t, and everything he sees tends to be through that lens.

Queequeg comes in for comic relief, mistaking the doubloon for a fancy button. There may be a point to make here about constructed reality—if Queequeg’s pants lose a button and he sews a doubloon on in its place, that doubloon is now a button (as well as a doubloon and whatever else it may be)—but I wouldn’t want to strain that one too much, so I’ll just say it’s possible.

And then Pip. Pip is a character who makes me very sad, so I’m uncomfortable reading his mad babble anyway, but here it also feels to me like the kind of thing that might mean something if you try very hard to interpret it, but then probably won’t turn out to have been worth the trouble. So I don’t try. (My white flag, I wave it.) His reading of the doubloon can, however, illustrate the troubled extremity of personal meaning-making, since the significance he finds is available to him only. That is, even though he apparently finds some meaningful content in the doubloon, he can’t share it with anyone, because he spends most of his “on-screen” time in an interpretive community of one.

It’s very interesting to me that this chapter comes so late in the book. In a way, it’s kind of a programmatic chapter; it announces the book’s concern with meaning and interpretation by showing characters interpreting an object to create meaning. (I love that trick.) But I have a feeling that passages doing this work so explicitly usually come much earlier in books where they appear, to give the reader fair warning of what’s afoot—and to give us a chance to play along. Curious, then, that it’s only near the end that we’re asked to start looking for Rashomon Dick, the Allegedly White Whale.

(Cross-posted from Infinite Zombies.)

“And now the plant, resigned
To being self-defined
Before it can commerce
With the great universe,
Takes aim at all the sky
And starts to ramify.”

Richard Wilbur’s “Seed Leaves.”

Here in the heart of the book, it should be clear by now why some of us read it as a book about everything. There’s been plenty of plot, and we’ve had some exciting action (although I wonder whether ch. 61, “Stubb Kills a Whale,” was off-puttingly gruesome on purpose, or whether that’s just unavoidable), but there’s also been a remarkable exfoliation of the text from a story about a monomaniacal sea captain to…well, everything else that’s included. I take my metaphor for this post from Ishmael himself; he excuses his discursiveness at the beginning of ch. 63, “The Crotch” (…I know), with a lovely image to illustrate how the road between one narrative event and the next lengthens under his very feet:

Out of the trunk, the branches grow; out of them, the twigs. So, in productive subjects, grow the chapters.

Obviously this isn’t the first section of the book where we’ve seen digressions from the plot—I’d call Queequeg’s “Ramadan” the first major one, and that was pretty early—but it seems to me that this week we entered a more technical part of the book, where the digressions took on a different character. Before, they tended to be either apparently disposable set pieces or grand philosophical and historical disquisitions. But starting with ch. 53, “The Gam,” and ch. 60, “The Line,” and then throughout this week’s reading, we get chapters that are more like encyclopedia entries. Now that there’s proper whaling under way, there’s a lot that we reader-lubbers have to learn; and Ishmael has chosen intermittent and telescoping infodumps as the way to solve that problem. These infodumps come in two classes: those about the ship, and those about the whale. In those about the ship, I include explanations of whaling-ship terminology and habits of living, as well as depictions of equipment and techniques (like the chapter-titular explanation in ch. 84, “Pitchpoling”).

The ones about the ship are basically obligatory. The whole action of the book takes place on a ship, and if we didn’t know what things were and how they worked, we wouldn’t be able to understand much of anything. But the ones about the whale aren’t, strictly speaking, necessary. We don’t actually need to know that the sperm whale doesn’t have a real face. Instead of being primarily informative, then, I think the infodumps about the whale serve a different function. I think they’re more in the line of a blazon. On the literal level, it’s true that Ishmael (along with the rest of the crew) is dismembering a whale during this part of the book. He provides a very thorough description of exactly how the whale is butchered and flensed and rendered. But at the same time he takes the opportunity to lavish a lot of poetic language and reverence on the whale and its parts. This isn’t to say anything like “Ishmael is in love with whales”; but in the same way that Ahab sees Moby-Dick specifically as the agent of a mystical force athwart his destiny, Ishmael seems to look on the sperm whale generally as a Romantically sublime creature, imbued with wisdom and power and mystery that make it a fit subject for a blazon, even with the parodic inversion that characterizes (and partly disguises) this blazon.

(For reference, with chapter 54 of Moby-Dick.)

  • 2 years Before Narrating Present (BNP): The Town-Ho mutiny occurs.
  • “Not very long” BNP: The Pequod speaks the Goney.
  • NP: The Pequod gams with the Town-Ho and one of the latter ship’s sailors tells Tashtego what has transpired on board.
  • 1 day After Narrating Present (ANP): Sleep-talking Tashtego spills what beans he hasn’t already in the night.
  • Who knows how long ANP: Ishmael, now an experienced sailor, spins the Town-Ho’s yarn to his Spanish friends at the Golden Inn.
  • Still longer ANP: Ishmael, having completed his inaugural whaling voyage on the Pequod, decides to tell the story that he denied his Spanish friends in the form of a remarkable book.

(Incidentally, the mention of “Dame Isabella’s Inquisition wan[ing] in Lima” suggests that NP is in about the early 1800s, since the Inquisition in Peru pretty much ended with the Peruvian War of Independence [1809–1821].)

(Cross-posted from Infinite Zombies.)

“Art, whose honesty must work through artifice, cannot avoid cheating truth.”

Adrienne Rich.

It’s funny the way this book works on me: It spends 35 chapters deferring any revelations on the plot, and just as it finally establishes what’s really at stake, I go haring off after the narrator. Specifically, I want to look at the way our whole second section of the book communicates the extent to which the story is mediated through Ishmael’s narration.

Obviously, I’m not saying anything controversial when I note that no narration can be taken at face value. For all that some literature tries to pretend otherwise, there is no such thing as pure, direct truth in any narration; narration is always the result of choices and omissions that inevitably shape it. (Like I said, not controversial.) But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing interesting in the ways a narration differs from The Truth. And in Ishmael’s case, we get such a self-consciously artificial narration that I think it fairly makes the case for meaning as mostly constructed, rather than transcendentally existent.

Paul carefully traces the buildup of suspense about Ahab, and I agree with him, but I think it’s also important to recognize it as part of Ishmael’s narrative strategy. Melville foregrounds the mediated nature of the book by beginning with a narrator who refuses to vouch for the name he gives us. This is explicitly going to be Ishmael’s arrangement of events and his conclusions on their import. Paul describes Ahab as Melville’s “master creation,” which is true, but Ahab is only ever depicted as Ishmael’s creation. The whole book is Ishmael’s telling, the whole story Ishmael’s dramaturgy.

And I use the word “dramaturgy” advisedly—chapters 36 through 40 are all explicitly theatrical. “The Quarter-Deck” (ch. 36), which is by far the most eventful and dramatic chapter up to that point, begins with a stage direction. Then we get three monologues and an unwelcome premonition of Ulysses‘s interminable “Circe” episode, fully formatted as a play. At first I found this chunk of text almost inexplicably strange. I went along for the ride and enjoyed it, but I didn’t know where it came from. Then I looked back and saw that Ishmael had been patiently laying his groundwork for a couple dozen pages at least. Chapter 29 is the first with a stage direction (“Enter Ahab; to him, Stubb”), and as a title, no less. Two pages later comes the “Cetology” chapter (of which more anon)—which truthfully doesn’t much advance my dramaturgy argument, although it does foreground the artificiality of the narrative (that wasn’t the anon I was talking about)—and then at the end of chapter 33, “The Specksynder,” Ishmael gives us a straight-up statement of his mission:

Nor, will the tragic dramatist who would depict mortal indomitableness in its fullest sweep and direst swing, ever forget a hint, incidentally so important in his art, as the one now alluded to.

But Ahab, my Captain, still moves before me in all his Nantucket grimness and shagginess; and in this episode touching Emperors and Kings, I must not conceal that I have only to do with a poor old whale-hunter like him; and, therefore, all outward majestical trappings and housings are denied me. Oh, Ahab! what shall be grand in thee, it must needs be plucked at from the skies, and dived for in the deep, and featured in the unbodied air!

“I will invent what I have to,” Ishmael says, “to tell the story I want.”

And then a whole chapter that he must have invented! “The Cabin-Table” (ch. 34) describes a whole scene that Ishmael is forbidden to attend. He gives himself a possible out with a throwaway line about “peep[ing] at Flask through the cabin sky-light,” but I’m not convinced. (Chapter 35, “The Mast-Head,” avails me nothing in the line I’m taking, so I have nothing to say about it outside these parentheses.) After all that preparation for the dramaturgical angle Ishmael intends to approach on, I shouldn’t really have been surprised to see overt drama.

Now: “Cetology.” I love this chapter, because it’s so assured and almost absurd at the same time, and because it’s so obsessively detailed, and because it’s so delightfully bibliophilically artificial. The man categorizes whales by size like paper, and breaks his categorization down by books and chapters. The note on the classification scheme is a pure pleasure: “Why this [Octavo] book of whales is not denominated the Quarto is very plain. Because, while the whales of this order, though smaller than those of the former order, nevertheless retain a proportionate likeness to them in figure, yet the bookbinder’s Quarto volume in its diminished form does not preserve the shape of the Folio volume, but the Octavo volume does.” The whole scheme is arbitrary; Ishmael announces a definition of “whale,” then proceeds to lay down a division without any express authority. It’s pure ipse dixit, presented as science. This cetological plan is only barely more organized or sensible than the classification in the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. If Moby-Dick, as I’ve asserted before, wants to be about everything, within that ambition is an anti-totalizing recognition that meaning is always constructed, no matter how comprehensive it aims to be. The “Cetology” chapter stands as a perfect symbol of that tension, which is why it’s always meant so much more to me than just a dry taxonomy.