Another Extract

“A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.”

Gustav Mahler.

Daryl asked, “Are the extracts required reading?” I say absolutely. In fact, I think they’re so important that I want to add another one to them: the Mahler quotation I opened with. Think of it as a kind of meta-extract, describing what strikes me as Moby-Dick‘s overriding goal and illustrating the way the extracts condense and expose that goal.

What goal is that, you ask, and what way? (I’m so glad you asked.) Moby-Dick is the earliest novel I know of that tries to be about everything. Daniel touches on this in his contribution to the conversation about how the book is modern, and Matt K. takes it as literally the base of his project. For one thing, this is a broadly contextualized and extensively allusive book. Even when it isn’t about, say, the fortress of Quebec (ch. 8) or the assassination of Thomas à Becket (ch. 16), it assumes you know those various subjects well enough that they can be dropped in as figurative language without any explanation. (This is why I appreciate my Norton Critical Edition, even if it does also footnote the very most obvious things in all the world.) Moby-Dick, to paraphrase another writer of the period, is large, it contains multitudes.

That’s essentially a question of style; but the book’s inclusiveness stretches also to the level of content. The opening of the book—this whole first week’s reading, in fact—is awfully leisurely. We’re officially about a fifth of the way in, and Ishmael still isn’t even on the boat. Plot is obviously not the primary concern. I mean, there’s a whole chapter about chowder. The editor of any “normal” novel would have chopped that out right quick. And Queequeg’s “Ramadan” doesn’t appear to have any plot justification, since we get no explanation for it and, at least through chapter 39, no further mention of it. (Where that vigil does come into play is in the book’s critique of domineering Christianity.) While I am excited for the chase after the white whale, I’ve always felt like the plot is more in the line of a vehicle that Melville uses to carry out his other concerns—and in that respect, the most apt vehicle to compare it to may well be a clown car.

To return to the extracts, with a quick detour about their putative compiler, the “painstaking burrower and grub-worm of a poor devil of a Sub-Sub”: Daryl wondered why he even exists. I hadn’t considered the question before; I just knew he was about my favorite of literary supernumeraries. But I think Matt B. hit on it with his talk of empathy. That bracketed benediction to the Sub-Sub is so lovely, so affectionate—even if it is a bit condescending for comedy’s sake—that it really helps set the stage for what’s coming. Personally, I find it makes me more receptive to taking in the extracts, after seeing what care went into their assembly.

And there’s quite a lot to take in, by design. The scope of the extracts is intimidating. They’re international: Without researching, it looks to me like there are sources biblical, Greek, Roman, Viking, French, English, Dutch, Scottish, Spanish, Swedish, U.S. American, and German. They include biblical history, folk tales, wisdom, and prophecy; classical science and history; medical lore; poetry; political philosophy; satire; expository prose on slaughter; voyage chronicles; legal commentary; physiology; songs; natural history; fiction; demography; and economic analysis. At least one is invented, smuggled in with the same authority as Pliny. This is a deliberately bewildering mass of information, speculation, commentary, and rhapsody that, if you let it, tells you what you’re in for over the course of the book. It’s like a hologram, containing in one small bit the whole of the completed work.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. There is one thing it leaves for the body of the text to surprise you with: humor. Except for the attribution “Edmund Burke. (somewhere.),” the extracts are significantly less funny than the novel proper. I’ll close with an observation about Melville that never ceases to amuse me. Joan’s got a whole post on the beauty and majesty and suppleness of Melville’s remarkable writing; what I love is that, couched amid all that thoughtful eloquence, he regularly makes time for penis jokes. Ishmael’s nervousness about sharing a bed with a harpooneer (“And when it comes to sleeping with an unknown stranger, in a strange inn, in a strange town, and that stranger a harpooneer, then your objections indefinitely multiply”) cracks me up every time, and it’s not the only joke of its kind. The incongruity of such silly jokes in such an impressive book makes it all the more enjoyable.