“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.
I totally agree that the infodumps serve to make it more of a “book about everything.” Rather than “everything,” though, I’d say it’s an attempt to illustrate that which is beyond human understanding. Beginning with one of the earlier digressions, where he takes up the consistent failure of everyone who has ever tried to illustrate a whale, it reads to me like a demonstration of the fact that whales are just too immense and awe-inspiring to be fully comprehended. You can build a temple in a whale’s skeleton, and the skeleton is still smaller than the actual whale was. You can kill a few individual whales, but it takes a crew of thirty men three years. What’s more, whales live over two thirds of the planet’s surface, and so they will never be driven extinct as the buffalo were (a sadly ironic statement from today’s perspective, but there it is). Whales laughed at Noah’s flood, and if you try to hunt them, you will be killed (or driven insane, e.g. Ahab, Pip) as likely as kill.
This is really sharp, Daniel. I have more to say about this idea of the numinous sublime next week, but you’re absolutely right (as far as I’m concerned, anyway) to see in this whole enterprise a recognition of something that’s just too much for human beings.
Thinking about this a little further, I wonder if this isn’t also a reason why so many people have trouble getting through Moby-Dick. Since text progresses word by word and paragraph by paragraph, it’s not really possible to get to the “numinous sublime” (excellent phrase!) directly, in any meaningful way that doesn’t consist entirely of abstract language and hand-waving. Instead, it’s an emergent property of everything you know — all Ishmael’s years of whaling experience — that he has to build up for you, bit by bit. There are moments when he’s talking about flensing, and slicing, and rendering, and building barrels, and the work of the carpenter, and the work of the blacksmith, and every minute detail of cetacean biology, that it’s hard to remember that these details are not really the point, in and of themselves. The point is that even if you know all of these things, you still don’t really know anything about whales.
(I was tempted to say “don’t know dick about whales” but I resisted.)