Homeric Simile, Fate, and Will

We all know from ninth-grade English that a simile is a comparison of two things joined by the word “like.” But what about a Homeric (or epic) simile? Harmon and Holman define the epic simile in The Handbook to Literature as follows:

An elaborated comparison. The epic simile differs from an ordinary simile in being more involved and ornate, in a conscious imitation of the Homeric manner. The vehicle is developed into an independent aesthetic object, an image that for the moment upstages the tenor with which it is compared.

(The weird terms “tenor” and “vehicle” are basically fancy words for the two parts of the comparison.)

Moby-Dick is full of these suckers, or something like them. In the lengthy example following, I suppose Melville doesn’t use the word “like,” but it’s surely a protracted comparison:

I was the attendant or page of Queequeg, while busy at the mat. As I kept passing and repassing the filling or woof of marline between the long yarns of the warp, using my own hand for the shuttle, and as Queequeg, standing sideways, ever and anon slid his heavy oaken sword between the threads, and idly looking off upon the water, carelessly and unthinkingly drove home every yarn: I say so strange a dreaminess did there then reign all over the ship and all over the sea, only broken by the intermitting dull sound of the sword, that it seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates. There lay the fixed threads of the warp subject to but one single, ever returning, unchanging vibration, and that vibration merely enough to admit of the crosswise interblending of other threads with its own. This warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads. Meantime, Queequeg’s impulsive, indifferent sword, sometimes hitting the woof slantingly, or crookedly, or strongly, or weakly, as the case might be; and by this difference in the concluding blow producing a corresponding contrast in the final aspect of the completed fabric; this savage’s sword, thought I, which thus finally shapes and fashions both warp and woof; this easy, indifferent sword must be chance–aye, chance, free will, and necessity–nowise incompatible–all interweavingly working together. The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course–its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that; free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions directed by free will, though thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events.

I wonder if this is one of those passages that tends to sort of fall through the cracks as people are reading. It’s a short one that, as Paul points out (he’s doing double-duty, posting commentary here and summaries plus brief commentary at his own blog — dude must have a deal with the devil to make time for all he reads and writes), leads into the action-packed first lowering for a whale. But however lost it may be in the transition from peaceful, dreamy work to frenzied action, it weaves together (har har) a number of references in this week’s reading to free will and fate.

Consider Ishmael’s affidavit, given to us after “The Chart,” in which we learn that Ahab is plotting methodically to hunt down Moby Dick (“threading a maze of currents and eddies,” as it turns out). Ahab defies fate, will have his way or else: “therefore it must have been that, in Ahab’s case, yielding up all his thoughts and fancies to his one supreme purpose; that purpose, by its own sheer inveteracy of will forced itself against gods and devils into a kind of self-assumed, independent being of its own.” The whale himself, Ishmael would have us believe, doesn’t merely strike out at whatever’s in front of it, but has been known to exhibit a sort of will and intelligence.

Later, we read of Ahab’s “precise agency,” but then there’s the hyena chapter, in which something like fate is represented as an “unaccountable old joker.” Radney is described as a predestinated mate, and that Town-Ho chapter seems very much to be about taking your fate (I don’t mean here to equivocate) into your own hands vs. being thrall to the whim of others. Melville makes several Christ references in this same chapter, calling to mind the free-will question, not only in terms of the fact that Christ is said to have been sent to redeem us for original sin (the product of free will) but also because he had to make the choice himself to be brutally crucified. And then of course there is Steelkit’s premeditation to murder Radney, which is taken out of his hands by the very whale that haunts Ahab. Of the events that took place on the Town-Ho, Ishmael says this:

Gentlemen, a strange fatality pervades the whole career of these events, as if verily mapped out before the world itself was charted

We opened this week’s reading with charts, recall, as Melville, also a victim of Moby Dick, charted and planned to impose his will on the whale that dismasted him.

As I’ve encountered a few ornate bits of prose such as this and other epic similes, I’ve found myself wondering why writers include such things when, sometimes, they seem gratuitous. Can it be that the great authors are all self-indulgent? I’ve had cause a time or two to think about the description of Achilles’s shield in The Illiad. Homer takes a long time to describe how the warrior’s shield has been specially decked out by Hephaestus, and it always seemed a bit much, description of ornament merely for the sake of ornament and not so much to move the story along or to enhance the story in some other larger way. (It is by coincidence that Melville himself mentions the shield in this week’s reading, though that coincidence is what makes me bring up the topic of ornament here.)

I’ve wondered if Melville’s not often guilty of the same gratuitous ornamentation. Why so many pictures of whales? Why the silly classification? Why the long bit about chowder? Why the big todo about a woven mat? This last is a lovely conceit, I’ll own, but it has always seemed just kind of dropped in, as do many of the sort of philosophical asides in Moby-Dick. It has taken me many reads culminating in this, apparently closer, read to see how well the mat passage fits within its context, a context that itself fits in very well with much of what is central to the book the book (ie, “meaning”), which I wrote about last week. So the mat episode is in a way a perfect little embellishment perfectly placed, an implicit simile expanded to an epic simile right in the middle of a larger series of events pertaining to the matter the simile addresses, within a book that is very much about that simile’s concern.

8 thoughts on “Homeric Simile, Fate, and Will

  1. MT June 9, 2010 / 12:53 am

    I made a note in my paperback copy here that that XLVIII passage was gonna mean something, and while I liked the idea of their differing weaving styles (I’s zombie-zen-zoning vs Q’s purposeful-masterful with shiny sword glinting/chiming), the only other thing I could pull out of this was that Ishmael had ventured beyond boredom into that delirious feeling you (I) get on long roadtrips (12-hours-plus) or on long stints becoming a temporary singularity with MS Access and/or Excel. Or if you (I) just say a word over and over enough times until it loses its meaning. “This warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, w/my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads.” My personal signal for beyond-boredom-delerium is the sneaking suspicion that I was born doing The Activity, that there is no beginning and will be no end to the it. A little silly or dramatic, yes, but the quote above (plus my gut telling me that weaving probably is, in fact, exTREMEly boring) reminded me of that.

  2. MT June 9, 2010 / 1:49 am

    Hold up, dumb question, what is this a simile of again? Homer’s description of Achilles’s shield? Or Ishmael is making a simile of the mat with chance, free-will, and necessity- opposing yet interwoven forces pulling at Man, etc? Is Melville’s Passa
    ge a simile or is The Mat a simile (or both)? Probably not grokking, need help.

  3. Daryl L. L. Houston June 9, 2010 / 8:34 am

    Melville’s passage about the matt is a complex simile (or maybe a metaphor, but it reminded me of an epic simile) of the whole chance/free-will thing. The shield thing is just another sort of embellishment that has come to mind several times as Melville has gone into big elaborate digressions that haven’t seemed fundamental to the story itself (however much I like them). This was not the clearest post, I’ll admit. Sorry ’bout that.

  4. Daniel June 11, 2010 / 10:50 am

    Ah, ornamentation for its own sake. I remember reading The Mayor of Casterbridge in high school and noticing that in one scene a character walks around a building basically for no other reason than to include a description of all sides of the building.

    Of course, Hardy was an architect by training, so maybe that had something to do with it.

  5. Jeff Anderson June 11, 2010 / 1:02 pm

    I’m reading in the Norton Critical Edition, and some of the footnotes have indicated that some scholars have made a case that Melville was consciously trying to create an American tragedy in the Shakespearean vein. Part of the problem for Melville, according to this argument, was that Shakespearean tragedies rely on status and position for their force (it’s not a tragedy per se if bad things happen to someone lowly); so Melville had to create a proper tragic figure in Ahab by exaggerating things and finding new ways to access tragic emotions.

    I don’t know yet how I feel about the argument (not least because I haven’t actually read it), but it seems plausible enough, and it certainly seems to play into this antiquated mode of discourse you’re highlighting here, Daryl. Surely these extended figures were already old-fashioned in the middle of the 19th century–at the very least, they must already have been known as a classical technique. (I hope I’m not wrong about things like translation dates…) So I wouldn’t be surprised if Melville was intentionally writing in ye olde stile so as to borrow some of the finery of the genre(s) he was trying to adapt.

  6. Paul June 11, 2010 / 2:16 pm

    FYI: no deal with the devil, although I am working on tying up my hair in a plaited turban, my living hair braided and coiled round and round upon my head.

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