I have a lot of things I want to write about this week but not a lot of time to do it in, so I’m resorting to little vignettes or teasers.


There’s a lot of prophecy in Moby-Dick, isn’t there? We start, of course, with Jonah, a reluctant prophet whose fate in the belly of the whale is certainly relevant to the text. Then Peleg mentions (in “The Ship”) an old squaw named Tistig who said that Ahab’s name would be prophetic. The Biblical Ahab was counted a vile king, and Elijah prophesied that the dogs would lick his blood upon his death. This leads nicely into the chapter entitled “The Prophet,” in which a prophet named Elijah has vague, foreboding things to say to Ishmael and Queequeg about the Ahab of Moby-Dick. In chapter 37 (“Sunset”), Ahab soliloquizes about the prophecy that he would lose a limb, and then he himself prophesies that he’ll dismember his dismemberer, planning to become (in a typical Ahabian bit of hubris) “the prophet and the fulfiller one.” In another soliloquy two chapters later, Stubb mentions prophecy and predestination (not so much religious predestination as fate, I think) with respect to Ahab. In “The Mat-Maker,” as Ishmael ruminates on a great big Homeric conceit about fate while weaving a mat with Queequeg, he describes Tashtego (aloft in the rigging with an eye for whales) as seeming a “prophet or seer beholding the shadows of Fate.” We meet another prophet on the Jeroboam who suggests that his (the prophet’s) crew not lower for Moby Dick; when they do, the mate is killed by the beast. This is one of many ominous signs that fairly scream to Ahab and crew to turn away from the vengeful business at hand. In “The Virgin,” Melville quotes from a bit in the book of Job about the leviathan and then mentions the prophets. More about this in the next vignette. Ishmael says that Pip’s misadventure in the deep “ended in providing the sometimes madly merry and predestinated craft with a living and ever accompanying prophecy of whatever shattered sequel might prove her own.”  We learn during the chapter about Queequeg’s coffin that his tattoos relate a theory of heaven and earth as given by a prophet of Queequeg’s tribe. There are other references to prophets here and there but none so interesting as the ones I’ve listed. There’s an important one coming up in chapter 117.

If I had more time, I’d ponder the relationship between fate and prophecy and how that relationship bears on the matter of finding meaning in suffering (which I wrote about before and which I think is another thing central to the book).


There are miles and miles of line in Moby-Dick, most notably the rigging and ropes for fixing your boat to a whale. There’s the monkey rope. There are the strands of material woven into a mat that serves as a nice model for how Ishmael conceives of fate and will. These opposing ideas are key ideas in the book, and Melville handles them from a number of angles, from philosophical meditations and epic similes on the topic to examples of mutiny (or near-mutiny) that seem to me to represent a loss of (or reclaiming of) free will. The monkey rope chapter illustrates how inextricably linked we are to others (an argument against any fully intact will, I think). This idea meshes very well, I think, with the circumstance of being fixed to a sounding fish. I mention above the reference to Job. Melville gives us this as the boats are chasing and have fixed to a whale that the Virgin has missed. A lengthy quote is unavoidable:

As the three boats lay there on that gently rolling sea, gazing down into its eternal blue noon; and as not a single groan or cry of any sort, nay, not so much as a ripple or a bubble came up from its depths; what landsman would have thought, that beneath all that silence and placidity, the utmost monster of the seas was writhing and wrenching in agony! Not eight inches of perpendicular rope were visible at the bows. Seems it credible that by three such thin threads the great Leviathan was suspended like the big weight to an eight day clock. Suspended? and to what? To three bits of board. Is this the creature of whom it was once so triumphantly said–“Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish-spears? The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold, the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon: he esteemeth iron as straw; the arrow cannot make him flee; darts are counted as stubble; he laugheth at the shaking of a spear!” This the creature? this he? Oh! that unfulfilments should follow the prophets. For with the strength of a thousand thighs in his tail, Leviathan had run his head under the mountains of the sea, to hide him from the Pequod’s fish-spears!

What an image! These guys are just sitting there on the still sea with no real idea what’s going on at the end of this rope they’re attached to. The whale could come up and stave their boats or roll over top of them, and though they’ve gotten themselves into the situation by fixing themselves to the whale, their fate after the fact is utterly out of their hands. The same can be said of how the men on the ship fixed themselves to Ahab. (Can probably be said, to some degree or another, of any choice we ever make.)

Blackness of Darkness

This phrase appears two times in Moby-Dick. It’s a striking, redundant-seeming phrase that stands in stark contrast to the whiteness of the whale, which Melville goes at length to position as a thing of terror itself. The relevant passages:

It seemed the great Black Parliament sitting in Tophet. A hundred black faces turned round in their rows to peer; and beyond, a black Angel of Doom was beating a book in a pulpit. It was a negro church; and the preacher’s text was about the blackness of darkness, and the weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there. Ha, Ishmael, muttered I, backing out, Wretched entertainment at the sign of ‘The Trap!’


then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.

There’s an interesting note here on the origin of the phrase (either Carlyle or Jonathan Edwards). Though that article says there’s no scriptural source for the quote, I find that the King James version of the Bible uses the phrase in Jude 1. I don’t have much in the way of analysis of this. It’s merely a striking phrase, repeated.


And finally, an intratextual similarity of image that I’m surely not the first among this group to have noticed but that I wanted to bring up anyway. The first occurrence we find in “The Try-Works.” Ishmael has fallen asleep at his post and has managed to turn himself around. He’s confused and terrified for a moment before he gets his bearings. From a Biblical consideration of this event, he derives the pretty heavy statement that “there is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness,” and then he goes on to describe an eagle flying in the mountains. Even when at his lowest, that eagle, by virtue of being in the mountains, still flies higher than the highest among those not in the mountains. Such, I suppose, is the wisdom — or perhaps rather the woe — of Ahab.

In “The Doubloon,” we have this interesting presentation of people watching people watching people talk to themselves about the doubloon Ahab has nailed to the mast. Ahab sees in the mountains pictured on the coin his own firmness, courage, and victorious spirit. He sees himself in the gold coin. Starbuck, by contrast, marks the valleys and sees the peaks not as the expression of human achievement or virtue but as the Trinity. The coin is not a mirror in which one sees himself, to Starbuck, but is rather a beacon radiating the sweet solace of God (and its absence from those seeking solace in the wrong place). Both men regard the image sadly.

Shoots to Branches

“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.

Week 4: Queequeg: Comic Hero

I keep returning to Matt’s question of who is the main character of this book.  While I won’t suggest that it is Queequeg, he is rapidly shaping up to be the hero of the book.

But, like with the near-invisible Ahab, we haven’t seen much of Queequeg recently.

He doesn’t appear at all from Chapter 49 (The Hyena) until Chapter 61 (Stubb Kills a Whale) where he gets two lines.  The first is a bit of wisdom about the squid:  “‘When you see him ‘quid’, said the savage, honing his harpoon in the bow of his hoisted boat, ‘then you quick see him ‘parm whale.'” (281).  And a nonsensical cheer: “‘Ka-la! Koo-loo!'” howled Queequeg, as if smacking his lips over a mouthful of Grenadier’s steak” (284).

And in Chapter 66 (The Shark Massacre) he almost gets his hand bitten off, but in an offhanded sort of way.

So aside from those two brief, inconsequential mentions, Queequeg is out of the action from Chapter 49 to Chapter 72.  (Thanks Moby Diction! for making that easy to discover.)

It’s obvious that Queequeg is comic relief in the story.   In the early chapters, his foreignness is played up for comic relief: his reaction to Ahab Ishmael in his bed (including waking up with his arm around him); getting dressed under the bed (!); spearing food with his harpoon; even his little idol Yojo is seen as a comical thing.

Sure, Ishmael befriends him and even respects him: “Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed” (49), and he’s even impressed by his lineage: “There was excellent blood in his veins – royal stuff” (54).  But most of his scenes to this point have been pure comedy.

But just as we’ve gotten used to Queequeg being formidable and comical, he suddenly becomes heroic.  When the very man that mocks him on the boat is knocked overboard by the boom.  Queequeg wastes no time in tying a rope to the boom, jumping in tho the water and rescuing the very man who mimicked him.  But little is made of it, especially by Queequeg:

Was there ever such unconsciousness? He did not seem to think that he at all deserved a medal from the Humane and Magnanimous Societies. He only asked for water – fresh water – something to wipe the brine off (61).

And then it’s back to comic relief with the insanity of the Ramadan scene.  And soon after, we see him sitting on the unconscious Starbuck.  And of course, there are jokes about him being a cannibal and his ferocious appetite when the harpooners go down to feast: “Queequeg, he had a mortal, barbaric smack of the lip in eating – an ugly sound enough – so much so, that the trembling Dough-Boy almost looked to see whether any marks of teeth lurked in his own lean arms.” (149).

But then, when the action recommences, Queequeg is right there.  When they spot their first whale it is Queequeg who throws the first harpoon (missing, sadly).  But he is essential to the chase.

Then we get the zany scene from this week’s reading.  Queequeg balances on a whale like a log roller while tied to Ishmael with the monkey rope.

The whale be it observed, lies almost entirely submerged, excepting the immediate parts operated upon. So down there, some ten feet below the level of the deck, the poor harpooneer flounders about, half on the whale and half in the water, as the vast mass revolves like a tread-mill beneath him. On the occasion in question. Queequeg figured in the Highland costume – a shirt and socks – in which to my eyes, at least, he appeared to uncommon advantage (317).

This is all in aid of stripping the skin and blubber off the whale.  Despite this comic scene, Queequeg is risking his life (sharks are all around him) for the good of the boat.  And then, Ishmael underscores the scene with sentiment: “Queequeg was my own inseparable twin brother” (317).

But then Queequeg proves himself once again.  In Chapter 78 (Cistern and Buckets), Tashtego falls into the whale’s head (ew) and which then falls into the water.  And, mirroring the earlier scene: “The next, a loud splash announced that my brave Queequeg had dived to the rescue….and soon after, Queequeg was seen boldly striking out with one hand, and with the other clutching the long hair of the Indian” (341).

I don’t want to get too ponderous about this, but there is even the sense, in Queequeg’s recounting of the story that Queeuqeg not only saved Tashtego but gives him a new life:

And thus, through the courage and great skill in obstetrics of Queequeg, the deliverance, or rather, delivery of Tashtego, was successfully accomplished (342).

In all that I have heard about Moby Dick, I don’t know what happens to Queequeg.  But thus far in the book, while others may have proven themselves in different ways, Queequeg is unquestionably the most heroic and selfless.  And, since my first post was about religion, I’m willing to say that with these attributes, Queequeg is proving to be the most Christian.

Of course, I’m not sure where Melville is going with that exactly.

I’m now very curious to see how the Queequeg story gets wrapped up.

The Two Moby-Dicks

In my preparation for this group read, I ran across a number of references to an article entitled “The Two Moby-Dicks.” I have myself mentioned a couple of times in comments that some have proposed multiple modes of composition for Moby-Dick. Only this weekend did I get a chance to sit down and read the whole article (written by George Stewart of UC Berkeley and published in American Literature, Vol. 25, No. 4, Jan. 1954). Stewart posits that there’s an unmissable contrast between the first fifteen or so chapters of Moby-Dick and the rest, and he seeks to investigate by internal evidence (ie, the text itself rather than evidence from what few revelatory letters and other documents exist external to the text) what this unmissable contrast may mean.

I won’t say that I had missed the contrast, but I had surely never articulated it. Looking back on what we’ve read so far, though, it is a pretty stark contrast. The first few chapters have Ishmael and his particular adventures at their heart. We hear his stupid chowder jokes, his weird memory of being punished as a child, a detailed account of his misadventure turned bosom friendship bedding with a cannibal, and so on. But as we make our way deeper into the text, Ishmael becomes more a mouthpiece than a central character. He becomes omniscient, telling us things that the Ishmael of the first few chapters wouldn’t have been able to know. In the first lowering, he seems to be in first one whale boat and then another, so detailed and intimate are the accounts he gives of what the mates are saying. Stewart provides 20 or 25 pages of internal evidence for multiple modes of composition, and many of his arguments are convincing. He suggests that the book be divided into three sections, delineated as follows:

  1. Chapters I – XV. These represent an original story, very slightly revised.
  2. Chapters XVI – XXII. These chapters represent the original story with a certain amount of highly important revision.
  3. Chapters. XXIII – Epilogue. These represent the story as it was written after Melville reconceived it, but may preserve certain passages of the original story, doubtless somewhat revised.

In considering a shift in style as an indicator of the composition shift, Stewart provides a partial answer to one of my questions about ornamentation seemingly for its own sake (“UMD” stands for Ur-Moby-Dick, or the first fifteen chapters; “MD” is section 3 described above):

In style of writing there are great differences between UMD and MD. UMD is plain, even prosy and colloquial. It contains such dialectal expressions as “says I,” “says he,” and “thinks I.” Moreover, these occur not in conversation, but in the narrative itself. These colloquialisms are not characteristic of MD, and are, in fact, wholly lacking, as far as I have observed. In addition, UMD differs from MD by lacking almost entirely the elements of the conventional poetic style of the nineteenth century, ie., the use of thou with the corresponding pronominal and verbal forms, and the use of such devices as apostrophe, personification, and figurative language in general, including the Homeric simile.

He goes on to suggest that though Melville sought in the beginning to provide an account of a shabby whaling voyage, he ultimately needed to amp things up a bit and transform the narrative from a shabby account to something epic. The formal devices Stewart lists above go some of the way toward doing that. So too do the chapters on cetology (Stewart notes that two of these occur near the opening of the third section he enumerates), which give the book more the feeling of a great inquiry than of a simple travelogue. The extracts (I posit) probably contribute to the epic tone as well.

Stewart and others have pointed to a number of details — among them various sudden disappearances and appearances and doublings — that seem to indicate that Melville may have intended to take the story in one direction and wound up taking it in another, with rather shoddy patchwork editing to bind the two stories together. This may also account for some of the problems of narration in the book. Perhaps Melville wasn’t a visionary willfully writing an unreliable narrator but was merely trying to salvage what he could of an original story while finishing his book in a grander mode than originally planned.

The ramifications of the shift with respect to who the hero of the book turns out to be are pretty interesting, and thinking about these ramifications takes me back to Matt Bucher’s post from week one, in which he wrote the following:

Who is the main character of Moby-Dick? Is it Ishmael, Ahab, or the whale? How is Melville playing upon traditional ideas of the hero or the hero’s quest (the odyssey) by having Ishmael appear to be a passive observer throughout much of the book?

Now that we’re well over halfway into the book, I wonder what people would answer to Matt’s question (and I hope I’m not running away here with something Matt had planned to follow up on). I also wonder what people might think (without spoilers) about who the hero of the book might have been, if it turns out (as Stewart suggests) not to have been one of the suspects Matt proposes.

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.

Week 3: Others

This week’s reading made me think a lot about Others.

The first chapter (The Whiteness of the Whale) sets up some very broad (and, yes, some offensive) dichotomies: “though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe” (185). And yet, it also sets the tone for dealing with Others.

It seems like this section of the book shows more encounters with Others than any area of the book (aside from the opening scenes, of course).  And in this section we learn how to deal with Others.  In fact, the entire chapter The Gam discusses the protocol for when two ships encounter each other.  He even defines this alien word for us:

GAM. Noun – A social meeting of two (or more) Whale-ships, generally on a cruising- ground; when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boats’ crews: the two captains remaining, for the time, on board of one ship, and the two chief mates on the other (239).

And he uses a wonderful metaphor for us lubbers.

If two strangers crossing the Pine Barrens in New York State, or the equally desolate Salisbury Plain in England; if casually encountering each other in such inhospitable wilds, these twain, for the life of them, cannot well avoid a mutual salutation; and stopping for a moment to interchange the news; and, perhaps, sitting down for a while and resting in concert: then, how much more natural that upon the illimitable Pine Barrens and Salisbury Plains of the sea, two whaling vessels descrying each other at the ends of the earth… should not only interchange hails, but come into still closer, more friendly and sociable contact (237).

In fact, even ships from different countries welcome each other provided they can communicate:

Nor would difference of country make any very essential difference; that is, so long as both parties speak one language, as is the case with Americans and English. (237).

Of course, according to Ishmael, it is the whalers who are the sociable ones; that other ships are somewhat less gregarious:

So, then, we see that of all ships separately sailing the sea, the whalers have most reason to be sociable – and they are so. Whereas, some merchant ships crossing each other’s wake in the mid-Atlantic, will oftentimes pass on without so much as a single word of recognition, mutually cutting each other on the high seas, like a brace of dandies in Broadway; and all the time indulging, perhaps, in finical criticism upon each other’s rig. As for Men-of-War, when they chance to meet at sea, they first go through such a string of silly bowings and scrapings, such a ducking of ensigns, that there does not seem to be much right-down hearty good-will and brotherly love about it at all. As touching Slave-ships meeting, why, they are in such a prodigious hurry, they run away from each other as soon as possible. And as for Pirates, when they chance to cross each other’s cross-bones, the first hail is – “How many skulls?” – the same way that whalers hail – “How many barrels?” And that question once answered, pirates straightway steer apart, for they are infernal villains on both sides, and don’t like to see overmuch of each other’s villanous likenesses. (238).

Given this basis, we then see that Ahab himself acts unlike other whalers.  His desire on this trip is only for information about the white whale. Ahab

cared not to consort, even for five minutes, with any stranger captain, except he could contribute some of that information he so absorbingly sought (237).

This becomes most evident with The Goney.  When the Pequod comes across the Goney, Ahab shouts, “Ship ahoy! Have ye seen the White Whale?” (235).  Atmospheric conditions prevent any reasonable communication, but without any news of the Whale, Ahab is unwilling to pursue the matter much further.

Contrast this with The Town-Ho.  They have news about the White Whale and so, “in the short gam that ensued she gave us strong news of Moby Dick” (241).  Of course, this leads to a very lengthy story (which Ahab is not privy to) about a mutiny on board (and the death by Moby Dick of one of the men involved in a scuffle).  We aren’t told just how long the gam lasts (although it is “short”), but during it a very lengthy story is related.

Interestingly though, Otherness does not seem to apply to race specifically.  The crew is a motley assortment of men from all nations.  And aside from casual comments, there appears to be nothing but trust among all of the men.  The only sign of negative racial categorization comes when Fedallah and his men, who the crew had not met and were deemed stowaways, finally come aboard: “Now the advent of these outlandish strangers at such a critical instant as the lowering of the boats from the deck, this had not unreasonably awakened a sort of superstitious amazement in some of the ship’s company” (218).

But it’s clear contextually that the outrage is more about the fact that they are not known to the crew (and clearly had not participated in any of the workload–not that they are of a different race.  Although there is some concern that they are from “a race notorious for a certain diabolism of subtilty, and by some honest white mariners supposed to be the paid spies and secret confidential agents on the water of the devil, their lord, whose counting-room they suppose to be elsewhere” (215).

And yet, as we saw with Queequeg the cannibal acceptance is not hard to gain if you prove yourself worthy of it: “the subordinate phantoms soon found their place among the crew, though still as it were somehow distinct from them” (229).

The only one who doesn’t fit is Fedallah: “that hair-turbaned Fedallah remained a muffled mystery to the last” (229).  [Of course, what exactly he means by hair-turbaned is still something of a mystery.  He’s described that way initially: “crowning his ebonness was a glistening white plaited turban, the living hair braided and coiled round and round upon his head” (215).  The crew’s disapproval of Fedallah seems to be his absolute Otherness.  Not just a different race or even a different ship, he seems to be a different species:

He was such a creature as civilized, domestic people in the temperate zone only see in their dreams…when the memory of the first man was a distinct recollection, and all men his descendants, unknowing whence he came, eyed each other as real phantoms…[when] the angels indeed consorted with the daughters of men, the devils also, add the uncanonical Rabbins, indulged in mundane amours. (230)

Will he ever be embraced by the crew?  Is that even a concern of the book?  Or will his Otherness prove too insurmountable.

The book so far gives plenty of evidence that racism was alive and well, even if only because of a profound lack of understanding among people.  And yet, once the whalers head out to sea, Otherness seems to slip away altogether, provided you have joined the crew (or any crew) under proper circumstances.  I have to wonder if this all-inclusiveness was seen as shocking to 19th-century readers.

Water on the Brain

This week I’ve seen Moby-Dick everywhere I turn. (I’m way behind in the reading.)

• I forgot that I had a Captain Ahab t-shirt and found that at the bottom of the laundry pile.

• I picked up a book in the library because it had a cool cover (The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay) and it turns out to be a novel about a woman searching for a lost Melville manuscript.

• A lunch companion happens to be a specialist in 19th Century American fiction and he recounts the anecdote that Melville was so obscure upon his death that one of his obituaries referred to him (Melville) as “Sherman” Melville.

• The great whale seems to be stalking my salt shaker.

• I come across this tidbit about the original Infinite Jest manuscript: it began with quotes and definitions about addiction. Wallace cut this Moby-Dick-like opening and decided to let Hal summarize his findings: “The original sense of addiction involved being bound over, dedicated, either legally or spiritually. To devote one’s life, plunge in. I had researched this” (IJ 900).

So yes, the novel pervades. It feels as if its influence has never been greater. The canon wars seem powerless against Moby-Dick’s timeless postmodernism. I keep trying to pinpoint what makes Moby-Dick feel so accessible and relevant. Clearly, it’s a combination of things: a linear narrative, first-person narration, vivid characters, empathy, theory of everything, and others. Or maybe not. I don’t know.

The first 40 or so chapters, with all the scene-setting, describing the characters, their jobs, the specific rooms on the Pequod, in some way this all reminds me of parts of The Life Aquatic, with the cutaway ship visuals and the straightforward introductions of the crewmembers. I know the influence is going the other direction, but sometimes your memory does not move chronologically. However, once we’re past chapter 50 and we’re into the complexities of whaling, the details of the characters’ lives, and the interspersed calm days on the water, I find myself thinking of another relatively contemporary work: Stanley Crawford’s Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine. In a way, Stanley’s book is Moby-Dick‘s polar opposite: only 100 pages, narrated by a woman, a madman in search of nothing, two people alone on a massive ship. And yet, since I’ve read Crawford’s book lately, I see the source of his inspiration in new light (really, you should check out Unguentine). Jeff expertly shows how the narration of Moby-Dick is constructed, and thinking about Stanley Crawford’s novel and Wes Anderson’s film leads me to think that maybe Moby-Dick is (also) a novel about “the narrator” and narration.

I cannot let this week pass without quoting one of my favorite passages :

All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.

Of Course You Can’t Trust Him—He’s Narrating

“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.

Insurgent Summer (and Ulysses)

Those who have been following (or playing) along since this blog started up as a splinter of Infinite Summer will no doubt remember another splinter blog, Infinite Tasks. Its author (Jeff) was at times eerily on the mark when writing about his first read of Infinite Jest, and I’ve looked forward to his return to lit blogging since the end of that inaugural summer project. At last he’s back, this time leading a summer read of his own. See his announcement below.

What is this summer’s most radical online project? Insurgent Summer is an online book reading and cooperative blog discussion of Fredy Perlman’s 1976 book Letters of Insurgents. This is a 800+ page book of fictional letters between two Eastern European workers, Yarostan Vochek and Sophia Nachalo, separated by twenty-five years and two continents. As they reconnect through an exchange of letters, we learn about the battles they have fought – physical, political, emotional, and moral – and eventually the ones they have left to fight.

Your reading of Letters will begin on June 11, 2010, with the first of the ten exchanges between Yarostan and Sophia. Each week, three “Guides” (DeAnna, Artnoose, and Andrej) will post discussion pieces, reflections and analysis, preparing the terrain for an engaging discussion to which everyone is invited! We will conclude on August 20, in honor of Fredy Perlman’s birthday!

Though copies of the book are limited, we are happy announce that we have both audio and full-text downloads of Letters of Insurgents available. Insurgent Summer is an opportunity to read one of the most important books of anarchist fiction and morality of all time. Please visit for more information, and let us know that you’re going to participate!

It’s sure to be an enlightening and fulfilling group read. In fact, I have only two reservations about suggesting that you sign right up. Of course, there’s some overlap with the last half of Moby-Dick, so by advertising this, I’m inviting defection. But I think (hope) people are finding Melville’s book not to be the slog they expected it to be. And if you’re not more or less committed to Moby-Dick by the midpoint, you’re a defection candidate anyway, and I can think of no better endpoint for your defection than Jeff’s reading project. The second reservation pertains to the next Infinite Zombies read, which I’ve been planning but had not announced officially. That read will be Ulysses, starting around July 12, right in the middle (not by design) of Insurgent Summer. I don’t think I have the wherewithal to read both at once, but Jeff says he plans to. Maybe you can too! At any rate, one way or the other, you can go ahead make firm plans to dig into something heavier than Cosmo as we wrap up Moby-Dick.