Meaning

To say that Moby-Dick is a book about meaning is probably not a terribly bold statement. I haven’t done a search of the literature, but I’d wager a big bag of M&Ms that there are a dozen or more theses floating around whose titles (or tortuous subtitles) incorporate variants of our book’s title and author and the word “meaning.” During our first week’s reading, I spent some time poking around to find instances of the word (and its kin — it was this effort that resulted in Moby-Diction) and discovered some thirty in the opening sixteen chapters, of which a number of significant instances could be retained after paring off some of the junk. I’ll spare you the rambling set of quotes I had originally planned to pull by way of illustration, but I will offer one, Ishmael, on the appeal of the water:

Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned.

Although one might mark this down as simply a convenient literary reference on Melville’s part, I believe it bears some more scrutiny as it fits into our second week’s chunk of pages. What’s interesting to me isn’t so much the correspondence with certain patterns of narcissism through chapter 41 (not the least of which turns out to be Ahab’s decision to draft a ship and its crew to fulfill his personal vendetta), but the sense Melville’s word choice gives us of a yearning for (I think) understanding where none can in truth be found. In some versions of the Narcissus myth, the youth does reach out and try to grasp his reflection, thereby plunging to his death by drowning. This is a physical grasping. The OED cites usages of “grasp” meaning “to lay hold of with the mind… to comprehend” as far back as 1680. What a tactile definition for such an abstract sense of the word! By choosing this word, Melville imbues the circumstances of this myth with the sense of not only a physical grasping for something but also a mental grasping, as in a search for meaning. Further, it is a search for meaning not within the self but within some dumb, other, obsessed-about thing.

The idea of dumb, other, tormenting things endowed with reason or agency and so a sort of significance or meaning appears again and again in the first 41 chapters of Moby-Dick. The examples I took note of:

  • Ishmael desires to “[find] out what [a] painting meant” in The Spouter Inn.
  • In “The Chapel,” Ishmael meditates on the mind/body distinction as he ponders the ways in which we commemorate the bodies of our dead and seems to settle on the importance of the reason/mind over the body.
  • In “A Bosom Friend,” Ishmael speaks dismissively about Queequeg’s worshipping a piece of wood.
  • Also in “The Ship,” we see Yojo warming himself at the fire.
  • Again in “The Ship,” we’re told of the peculiar ferocity of the particular whale that took Ahab’s leg.
  • Still in “The Ship,” Yojo is credited with agency for having chosen the Pequod for Ishmael and Queequeg.
  • In “The Ramadan,” as Ishmael tries to bust down the door to the room he shares with Queequeg, it “stubbornly resist[s].”
  • Of Starbuck in “Knights and Squires”: “Wherefore he had no fancy for lowering for whales after sun-down; nor for persisting in fighting a fish that too much persisted in fighting him. For, thought Starbuck, I am here in this critical ocean to kill whales for my living, and not to be killed by them for theirs; and that hundreds of men had been so killed Starbuck well knew. What doom was his own father’s? Where, in the bottomless deeps, could he find the torn limbs of his brother?” (He knows that being attacked by a whale is a workplace hazard and not a personal affront, in other words.)
  • Flask, in “Knights and Squires,” is described (tongue-in-cheek, to be fair) as seeming to think that “the great Leviathans had personally and hereditarily affronted him”
  • Stubb’s dream, in “Queen Mab,” revolves around his kicking at an insulting and inamimate pyramid that has kicked him with a dead ivory leg (this pyramid image is later used to link Ahab and the white whale himself).
  • In “The Quarter Deck,” Starbuck cries “Vengeance on a dumb brute that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”
  • Ahab replies that all things are as pasteboard masks, which must be struck through. And, of Moby Dick: “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and, be the white whale agent or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” (Note that the sun is another inanimate thing here given the potential for agency.)
  • In “Moby Dick,” Ishmael reflects on the reported “infernal aforethought of ferocity” of the white whale, and of that directed ferocity’s resulting deaths not “having been inflicted by an unintelligent agent.” To Moby Dick here are attributed “direful wrath” and “seeming malice” and “malicious agencies.” Ahab’s rage is made a thousandfold more potent by its dumb recipient than had he aimed it at “any one reasonable object.”
  • And, finally: “Ahab did not fall down and worship [malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them] like [others]; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.”

There it is again, that word torment. Melville used it in describing the plight of Narcissus. Consider Narcissus and Ahab together: both obsessed; both willing to subvert the desires of those around them to their own obsessions; both reaching physically through a sort of mask; both grasping at a sort of understanding by pursuing a dumb thing (for Narcissus fails to bodily grasp his image but also fails to mentally grasp that it is a mere image and not a reasoning man); both punished (Narcissus literally) by a Nemesis for their hubris.

Starbuck’s admonition in “The Quarter Deck” seems to me to be a central lesson of Melville’s book. I hate, in a way, to look for a pat lesson, but I think it’s there. I can’t be the only person reading who has stubbed a toe only to deliver a retaliatory kick to the dumb thing I stubbed it on, making both the injury and the insult that much worse. It’s a good lesson.

Delbanco puts it rather more philosophically in his biography of Melville (p. 173):

[Ahab] speaks to the human need for finding meaning in suffering, to what he calls the “lower layer” of consciousness from which arises the demand to know if the “inscrutable” whale is the agent of “some unknown but still reasoning thing” that has sent it on its mission or if it is a mindless beast driven by purposeless instinct. To Ahab, we are all prisoners of our metaphysical ignorance about the meaning of our suffering, and so he demands of the dubious Starbuck, “how can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?”

[The speech Ahab gives in answer] is delivered by a man unafraid that meaning itself may prove to be an illusion, yet who is willing to destroy himself and, indeed, his whole world in pursuit of it.”

Delbanco goes on to quote Nietzsche, who suggested that “every sufferer instinctively seeks a cause for his suffering . . . a ‘guilty’ agent who is susceptible to pain.”

I would add to Delbanco and Melville and Nietzsche a near-contemporary of Melville whose own arc as an author rather mirrored our venerable author’s. Here’s Thomas Hardy’s dreary “Hap”:

If but some vengeful god would call to me
  From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
  That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”	

Then would I bear, and clench myself, and die,
  Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased, too, that a Powerfuller than I
  Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.	

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
  And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
  And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan….
  These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

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.

Week 1: The Point of Departure

Hello, everyone! I’m Matt Bucher and you might remember me from such group reads as “Infinite Summer,” “Murder in the Desert: 2666 and You,” and “The Ontological Despair of Ramona Quimby (and Her Sister): A 32-week Read-Along Course.” I’m happy to be here with you all as we try to read Moby-Dick in six weeks of summer. My way of getting around this is by reading as fast and furiously as I can before the official starting bell rings. When I first tried reading Moby-Dick, I’d take my time with the first 100 pages or so, relishing the time Ishmael spends in Nantucket, on dry land, and getting on the ship. That’s how Melville hooks you. However, when we pushed off the docks and faced the endless horizon of the sea, I’d start to get a little panicky. I’d long ago read a comic-version of the story so I knew how awesome the ending was, but between Chapter 21 or so and the end was a pacific-wide stretch of story that I had trouble sinking my teeth into. This time around, with the compressed schedule and all, I’m taking the aggressive approach of licking my thumb and *skimming* the first 20 Chapters, just driving right up to the Pequod’s departure. In all fairness, I’ve probably read that first 20 Chapters a half-dozen times, and once partly this year when we went back and examined Father Mapple’s sermon for the 2666 read, and while I love it dearly, the heart of the novel, I believe, is that chase for the whale. I love stories of the sea, especially stories of people who are pushed to the very limits of human endurance and experience (polar explorers and Holocaust survivors mostly), but I would not automatically read any story about a whaling adventure (although I probably would watch any giving episode of “The Deadliest Catch”).

What makes Moby-Dick special is its characters. Melville’s ability to create a voice inside the head of Ishmael that is still able to align with the empathy and thought patterns of readers 150+ years later is truly a stunning achievement. What I mean by empathy there is causing the reader, even in some small way, to think, “That’s how I would react, too!” or “That’s exactly what I was thinking!” This leads me to make even broader generalizations and say that when we talk about the author’s “style” we end up talking about characters. Diction, word choice, point of view, all of it ends up being in service of creating memorable characters—especially when we end up seeing the story unfold through a particular character’s eyes. Which leads me to this: 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?

Week 2: O Captain, Where Art Thou?

One of the more interesting aspects of the book so far is how little we have seen of Captain Ahab.  Last week, Matt asked “Who is the main character of Moby-Dick? Is it Ishmael, Ahab, or the whale?” It’s a question I’ve never really considered before.   I mean, the sort of easy summary of the book is “Ahab chases whale” and yet clearly the story is Ishmael’s.  And, since I haven’t finished the book yet, it’s hard to say who the main character is.

Now, at this point it would be foolish to discount Ahab’ role in the story, for we haven’t gotten even half way through yet.  However, we’ve seen barely anything of this fearsome Captain thus far.  But even if he isn’t the main character (to be determined), his role in the story is pretty essential, so what gives with the lack of the Captain?

I think that Melville is deliberately building tension about Ahab.  After 100 or so pages, we’re pretty invested in Ishmael.  His tone is one of a friend, a fellow traveler whom we might meet and who would tell us this story (including wanting us to be completely filled in on every detail of the trip.  And so, Melville uses a kind of slow reveal, keeping the Captain under wraps with just a few glimpses and portents about the man.

I may have gotten a bit carried away with some of the longer quotes (apologies), but after not seeing the man for a quarter of the book, getting this much detail is pretty powerful.

At first he is mentioned almost fearfully; Ishmael says he normally wouldn’t sail on a vessel without meeting its captain (sound advice, I would think). And, of course, Ishmael is told that the Captain is more or less crazy, but is recovering nicely.

But our first look of real menace about Ahab comes from Elijah (the prophet), who warns Ishmael about going on board the ship.

Even as the they set out (in a chapter called Ahab), Ishmael notes, “For several days after leaving Nantucket, nothing above hatches was seen of Captain Ahab” (119).* Our fears for him are assuaged when he reveals that it is not uncommon for the main captain to not really command the ship in the beginning of a voyage, that he’ll deal with the whale part, but the mates can run the first lengths.

And then Ahab appears, almost out of nowhere, and we get this amazing description:

He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s cast Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded. Whether that mark was born with him, or whether it was the scar left by some desperate wound, no one could certainly say. (120-121).

Ishmael is slowly blown away by him:

So powerfully did the whole grim aspect of Ahab affect me, and the livid brand which streaked it, that for the first few moments I hardly noted that not a little of this overbearing grimness was owing to the barbaric white leg upon which he partly stood. It had previously come to me that this ivory leg had at sea been fashioned from the polished bone of the sperm whale’s jaw. (121)

And the infamous leg:

was struck with the singular posture he maintained. Upon each side of the Pequod’s quarter deck, and pretty close to the mizen shrouds, there was an auger hole, bored about half an inch or so, into the plank. His bone leg steadied in that hole; one arm elevated, and holding by a shroud; Captain Ahab stood erect, looking straight out beyond the ship’s ever-pitching prow (121).

But still he does not say a word:

Not a word he spoke; nor did his officers say aught to him; though by all their minutest gestures and expressions, they plainly showed the uneasy, if not painful, consciousness of being under a troubled master-eye (122).

Now that’s an entrance.  And yet, despite all of this, we still don’t know anything about him.  He’s barely spoken, he just seems to have an air of menace.

From this point, we get little snippets of Ahab.  For the most part he is still silent, until he has an incident with Stubb:

Stubb, the odd second mate, came up from below, and with a certain unassured, deprecating humorousness, hinted that if Captain Ahab was pleased to walk the planks, then, no one could say nay; but there might be some way of muffling the noise; hinting something indistinctly and hesitatingly about a globe of tow, and the insertion into it, of the ivory heel. Ah! Stubb, thou did’st not know Ahab then.

“Am I a cannon-ball, Stubb,” said Ahab, “that thou wouldst wad me that fashion? But go thy ways; I had forgot. Below to thy nightly grave; where such as ye sleep between shrouds, to use ye to the filling one at last. – Down, dog, and kennel!”

Starting at the unforeseen concluding exclamation of the so suddenly scornful old man, Stubb was speechless a moment; then said excitedly, “I am not used to be spoken to that way, sir; I do but less than half like it, sir.”

“Avast!” gritted Ahab between his set teeth, and violently moving away, as if to avoid some passionate temptation.

“No, sir; not yet,” said Stubb, emboldened, “I will not tamely be called a dog, sir.”

“Then be called ten times a donkey, and a mule, and an ass, and begone, or I’ll clear the world of thee!”

As he said this, Ahab advanced upon him with such overbearing terrors in his aspect, that Stubb involuntarily retreated. (124).

But that scenes ends quietly, and we soon see the Captain and his three mates sitting down at to a civil, albeit quiet meal.  But all of this silence, all of this trepidation can only lead to some kind of outburst.  As if Ahab’s clomping around the deck of the ship (with his more and more insisting pacing) were some kind of anticipatory drum roll, we see that Ahab is about to let loose.

Stubb, once again, whispers (out of Ahab’s earshot this time):

“D’ye mark him, Flask?” whispered Stubb; “the chick that’s in him pecks the shell. T’will soon be out” (158).

Shortly afterward Ahab comes forth, calling all of the crew to attention.  He asks them a series of silly whaling questions, sort of like a good ol’ pep rally at football game.  And then he flourishes a Spanish ounce of gold–“holding up a broad bright coin to the sun”– and reveals the secret point of the voyage. (159):

whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke – look ye, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!  (159).

Although Starbuck is hesitant, Ahab quickly produces a hot, hard drink and all parties drink heartily (a perfect bonding moment).  After a few more rallying cries, Ahab ends the scene:

Drink, ye harpooneers! drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat’s bow – Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!” The long, barbed steel goblets were lifted; and to cries and maledictions against the white whale, the spirits were simultaneously quaffed down with a hiss. (164-165).

And the captain, on this high note, quietly retires to his cabin.

Before the week’s end, Ishmael muses about Moby-Dick (who is more or less making his first appearance in the book too) and about Captain Ahab. This final chapter gives a more detailed, nuanced look into the mind of Ahab (at least as Ishmael sees it).  I can’t decide if it’s entirely necessary (as it comes across as a lot of “telling” after a pretty clear “showing” but it does go someway toward cementing Ahab’s emotional complexity.

So Melville has done a pretty masterful job of building up suspense and then unveiling his master creation.  We read nearly a quarter of the book before we actually see him.  And if you’re reading carefully (or it’s 1851 and you’re only slightly familiar with the story), this slow build before revealing the madman at the helm is really quite effective.

I mentioned on my home post that the book was meant to be leisurely read (not crammed in a few days before a midterm!).  And, if you are prepared to sit back and let the language wash over you, the pacing for the book is really masterful, especially if you had a hint of what was to come.  And there’s really something striking about all of the build up before getting to this major character.

*This week, and for future weeks, I’ll be using the page numbers at this  Princeton site.  Sorry for the confusion

Week 1: Religion

This is my first read of Moby-Dick (and my first time posting as a Zombie).  I wanted to focus on religion in the first week’s read.

I don’t know very much about Melville.  I am planning to do some background work on the man, but I kind of like taking the reader-response tour of MD.  Of course, I think that works as a reaction to a book, I’m just not sure how valid it is when doing critical analysis (I’ll find out soon enough).

Reader-response aside, I’ll give a quick background to myself.  I am not a religious person.  I was raised Catholic but have since lapsed.  However, I have mixed feelings about religion: I’ve seen religious people do very good things, and yet, in general, I think it is a tool for bossing people around.

So, I’m not pushing any agenda here.  I’m just noting that religion plays a major part in this book, and I’m fascinated by it.

And it starts with the Extracts.

The first five Extracts are from books in the Bible.  And that might tell you something.

References abound in the text proper, too.  When he admits that he will sweep a deck if a captain asks him, Ishmael notes: “What does the indignity amount to, weighed, I mean, in the scales of the New Testament?  Do you think the archangel Gabriel thinks anything the less of me… (15*).

In Chapter 2 we get references to Lazarus.  And in Chapter Three there’s talk of blessed Saturday and Sunday night.

But once Queequeg comes in, religion really comes to the forefront.

Queequeg is, as we know, a cannibal and a seller of New Zealand heads.  And yet, he is also something of a Christian (he is seen at mass after all).  And yet, he is, of course, also, a pagan, a savage.

When we first meet him, we see he is tattooed head to toe.  And Ishmael thinks, “he must be some abominable savage or other shipped aboard of a whaleman in the South Sea, and so landed in this Christian country” (30).

And yet, it is more with fascination than a seemingly expected horror that he watches Queequeg unveil what he at first thinks is a “black manikin … a real baby preserved in some similar manner [to the New Zealand heads]” (30).  But it turns out to be a wooden idol.

Queequeg sets out to worship by setting the idol up in the fireplace.  And again, it’s Ishmael’s attitude that I find fascinating: “The chimney jambs and all the bricks inside were very sooty, so that I though this fire-place made a very appropriate little shrine or chapel for his Congo idol.” 30).

Queequeg and Ishmael have a bit of a tussle over the sleeping arrangements.  The landlord calms things down.  The men seem okay with each other and we get this fascinating observation from Ishmael:

“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian” (31).

So, just what is going on here?  There is a lot of talk about the Bible and Christians, and yet, rather than trying to convert the Savage, Ishmael not only welcomes him, but thinks he may be a better companion than some other Christians.

And then comes the famous sermon. Chapter 7 focuses on the Whaleman’s Chapel.  And Queequeg is there! (in another Chapter, it is revealed that Queequeg left his home land so that he could explore Christian lands).  The chapel contains plaques that memorialize dead whalers.  It also contains a pulpit that is mounted via side ladder found on a ship.

Father Mapple gives a lengthy account of Jonah and the Whale.  Now, I admit that I haven’t read the Jonah story in years (if I ever read the whole thing at all).  So, I don’t recall any of the backstory (about running from God); I assume that’s all true, and I do figure I’ll check it out one of these days). As such, I’m not sure if he is putting his own theories into Jonah’s actions (do the other shipmates really think that he is a criminal as soon as he steps on board?  I think I need to investigate that further).

This sermon (which is quoted in the extracts) is completely appropriate for the whalers.  And, given the deadly pursuit, it’s not surprising that there would be many whalers in the church.  And yet Ishmael writes, “But Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts, she gathers her most vital hope” (41).  Religion as a desperate man’s drink?

But to me the most surprising thing is when Queequeg invites Ishmael into his own ceremony.  Ishmael ponders:

I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood?

What I liked was his very open-minded resolution:

But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth- pagans and all included- can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship?- to do the will of God? that is worship. And what is the will of God?- to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me- that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. (both 54).

Moving away from Queequeg, when we get to the Pequod, Captain Bildad (and indeed many other Nantuckers was a Quaker).  My knowledge of Quakers is that the are a peaceful, entirely pacifist lot, so to get this quote was very funny:

For some of these same Quakers are the most sanguinary of all sailors and whale-hunters. They are fighting Quakers; they are Quakers with a vengeance. (71).

And of course, Bildad has been studying the Scriptures, now, for the last thirty years.  “How far ye got, Bildad?” Captain Peleg wants to know (73).

The last bit of religion is Queequeg’s fast, which Ishmael calls The Ramadan.  Daryl’s already answered my question about this, with the logical assertion that Ishmael is just picking Ramadan because his religion is “other.”  And I think that’s fair enough.  Ishmael is reasonably well versed among Christian sects, but any further afield and it’s all Hindoo and Muslim to him.

[This is actually unsurprising.  When Dewey created his Decimal System (in 1876), he created a section for Religion.  200 is religion.  220 is the Bible 230 is Christian theology.  240 is Christian moral and devotional theology.  250 is Christian orders & local Church.  260 is Christian Social theology.  270 is Christian church history.  280 is Christian denomination and sects and then 290 is Other and comparative religions [294 Religions of Indian origin, 295 Zoroastrianism, 296 Judaism, 297 Islam, 299 Other].]
So Queequeg’s Ramadan is played for comic effect, certainly. And yet, the joke is not really mocking.  For he and Queequeg are now fast friends.  And while he fervently wishes that Queequeg would fully convert (as does Captain Peleg who demands to see Queequeg’s papers: “He must show he’s converted” (83).) he still respects Queequeg as a human being and as a harpoonist (harpooner?).`

So, what to make of Ishmael?  He states matter of factly,

Now, as I before hinted, I have no objection to any person’s religion, be it what it may, so long as that person does not kill or insult any other person, because that other person don’t believe it also. But when a man’s religion becomes really frantic; when it is a positive torment to him; and, in fine, makes this earth of ours an uncomfortable inn to lodge in; then I think it high time to take that individual aside and argue the point with him (81).

And he’s also quick to comment

This is the reason why most dyspeptic religionists cherish such melancholy notions about their hereafters. In one word, Queequeg, said I, rather digressively; hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling (82).

I don’t know that I’ll be pursuing the religious thread in future posts, but I was really fascinated by this mix of Christian attitudes and yet wholly open-minded attitudes towards non-Christians.  It was quite a surprise for me.

* I am using The Norton Critical Edition for my page notes.  If we decide on a standard citation, I’ll update accordingly.

The Whiteboard

Since the beginning of my participation in the Infinite Summer and spin-off reads nearly a year ago, I’ve dog-eared books, scribbled dog-legging notes in the margins, and woken up in the middle of the night to frantically scrawl near-illegible paragraphs in a little notebook. I’ve drafted things in Google Docs, written ideas on decade-old receipts I’ve found tucked into books as bookmarks, and, to my children’s great consternation, inked my hand with sudden thoughts when out of reach of paper. But I had never — until last night — resorted to a whiteboard.

My dilemma was one of what felt like an unrein-in-able tendency toward expansiveness. There’s so much good stuff in this opening week’s reading that I wanted to write about it all. But my children need a father, my wife a husband, my employer a sub-sub of a something or other. So, having broken out the whiteboard to draw diagrams for my day job, I allowed myself a great white tabula rasa (Dare I confess how tempting it was to encircle my my notes in the outline of a great sperm whale? Only my howling ineptitude in the fine arts prevented it.) and narrowed the field of topics to thirteen items.

As I started to try to put an essay together, I found myself yearning to be expansive. I was going to head into a very busy weekend attempting to write a monograph or bust. And since I rather suspect there’s going to be a spurt of really intriguing posts early in the week from the other fine folk blogging here, I decided to pull back a little bit and offer instead a brief statement, a quote, and an invitation to ponder the two together as we go forward.

So, the statement. Moby-Dick has always struck me as an old-fashioned text. I’ve written before about how, before I read it, I expected it to be stodgy and dull and humorless. These things it is not, but it does present its share of sort of epic Biblical language (usually from the Quakers). It is highly allusive, and it addresses philosophical or moral questions in often direct ways, with figurative language, surely, but not in ways so hidden in elements of plot and character that sussing out its meanings becomes a puzzle. Melville will come right out and say something like:

And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.

I don’t think you often encounter such direct statements in more recent fiction. Authors these days often deliver meaning via things like character development rather than by just coming out and saying things directly as Melville often does. Of course, allegory and symbolism are as old as the hills, and there’s plenty of less-directly conveyed meaning in Moby-Dick as well. Still, something about this mode of writing has always struck me as not at all modern (or Modern).

That was an awfully long statement. Now for the quote (a lengthy one), from Andrew Delbanco’s Melville, which I’m well over halfway into and am enjoying immensely.

Looking back at his labors on Moby-Dick, Melville saw “two books . . . being writ . . . the larger book, and the infinitely better, is for [his] own private shelf. That is, whose unfathomable cravings drink his blood; the other only demands his ink.” Moby-Dick was Melville’s vampire book. It sapped him — but not before he had invented a new kind of writing that, we can now see, anticipated the kind of modernist prose that expresses the author’s stream of consciousness without conscious self-censorship. Melville was aware of this ideal in its incipient Romantic form, having marked approvingly a passage in an essay by William Hazlitt that declares true writing to be “an ebullition of mind,” a “flow of expression” that, by analogy with frescoes, must be executed with fast and free strokes before the wet plaster dries — a burst of inspiration whose “execution is momentary and irrevocable.” Melville was the first American to write with such outrageous freedom. He was the first to understand that if a literary work is to register the improvisational nature of experience, it must be as spontaneous and self-surprising as the human mind itself. Aware, as Freud later puts it, that “in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish,” Melville also knew that by concealing the existence of earlier versions of his work, he ran the risk of falsifying himself. In this sense, Moby-Dick was like an active archeological site in which the layers of its own history are left deliberately exposed.

So, my old notion of Melville as an amiable if in many ways old-fashioned author is dashed to bits. He’s a pioneer, Delbanco has it, writing in ways that anticipate the sorts of encyclopedic and fractured narratives that have often appealed to me from much more recent authors.

What was your first impression of Melville? Does Moby-Dick have for you an old-fashioned feel or does it (I know we’re only partway through) bear the markings of something newfangled for its time?

A Few More Intros and a Plug

I wrote intros for new contributors Matt Bucher and Matt Kish and promptly realized that several who had written for 2666 had never gotten formal introductions. Then another blogger signed up. I hate to lump these together, but I also hate to bombard you with a bunch of short individual intro posts on the eve of the kickoff, a day on which I imagine several posts about the book itself will land. So with apologies to the contributors I may be giving short shrift here, please allow me to introduce the other zombies.

Jeff Anderson is a writer and copy editor; he’s also a quilter, an incessant reader, a sometime musical ambassador to Cuba, and a member of that very exclusive elite: the 150 Jeopardy! contestants who lost to Ken Jennings. Although he wrote about Infinite Jest at his own blog, he started writing for Infinite Zombies as we plunged into 2666, about which he wrote this memorable and defining and pitch-perfect haiku:

I was just thinking,
“You know what else this book needs?
Prison rape with blades”!

Jeff lives in Los Angeles with his husband.

Paul Debraski is a librarian in New Jersey.  But he does not relish your silence…speak out about what you love.  Paul loves his wife and two awesome kids.  Pictures of said kids are littered about the internet but can be seen by following specified links on his blog I Just Read About That, where you’ll find more thoughts about Moby-Dick and all manner of other big books. Paul has been a frequent commenter here at IZ, but this will be his first time blogging here (if you haven’t read his summaries of 2666 at his blog, run — don’t walk — go to take them in).

Joan Sberro has been a part of the Infinite Summer series of readings from the beginning but made her debut as a blogger right here at Infinite Zombies, cutting her teeth, so to speak, by writing a number of posts pertinent to Dracula. Although she was visible in the comments for 2666, she didn’t blog much about it, but she’s enthusiastic about Moby-Dick. And, having swum with the pink porpoises in the Amazon and walked under the great squid model every day on her way to work at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, how could she not be enthusiastic about this sea-faring book? Joan now lives in Orlando and plays Wagner at high volume for her retired greyhounds.

Well, and then there’s me. Just because I’m organizing this thing doesn’t mean anybody knows who I am. I’m Daryl L. L. Houston, and I happened into administering this site after signing up as a “maybe” blogger for Infinite Jest last summer. I wound up writing obsessively and, it sometimes must have seemed, near-daily, and I guess I ran everybody else off. I’m squatting still. A computer programmer and sysadmin by trade, I’m a student at heart. Moby-Dick is one of my all-time favorites, though I’ve enjoyed it largely in a vacuum and so am excited to see what emerges from the discussion here. I live in Knoxville with my wife and two kids.

And now for the plug. When contemplating a post the other night, I wanted to count occurrences of a particular family of words in the first week’s section of reading. Not wanting to reread the whole section and tally the words manually, I fetched the text for free from Project Gutenberg and wrote some code to count the words for me. That effort blossomed into a little project to make it so that I could do the same for any word, and then I decided it might be neat to make it available to any other nuts who’d be interested in that sort of analysis. It makes for a fun few minutes of poking around in the text, in any case. So, for fellow-nuts, I hereby plug Moby-Diction.

Welcome Matt Kish

In the very heart of Moby-Dick, Melville dedicates three chapters to artistic representations of whales, with decreasing levels of scorn for the accuracy thereof. He rates them “monstrous,” “less erroneous,” and “true” and then holds forth briefly on artifacts of scrimshaw and the like created by people who actually hunted whales rather than merely painting them based on hearsay.

There is, of course, another type of art — art that is willfully not realistically representative but that nevertheless evokes, expands, and delights. It is this variety of art that Matt Kish creates. Quick to shrug off the title “artist,” Matt has nevertheless begun to accrue a sort of niche fame for his current ongoing project, in which he creates a piece of art a day by illustrating an excerpt from a page a day of Moby-Dick. As he meekly put it in his first blog post about the project on August 6, 2009:

Because I honestly consider Moby-Dick to be the greatest novel ever written, I am now going to create one illustration for every single one of the 552 pages in the Signet Classic paperback edition. I’l try to do one a day, but we’ll see.

A few days later, he landed his first brief interview. By December, he had landed another interview and been invited to be a guest illustrator at quotizzle.com, and he closed the year on the news that one of his illustrations had been the inspiration for a poem at The Storialist. So far this year, he has been interviewed for a couple of German web sites, had his portrait painted by another interviewer (!), and begun making standing-room-only appearances to display his work in Ohio and New York. He fits this all in, of course, around a day job and a schedule of creating a piece of art a day, some of it meticulously detailed and clearly a labor of love and time.

When I found his site a few weeks ago, I immediately flipped back through all the pieces he had done to date, and I’ve been keeping up with great interest ever since. You can imagine how thrilled I was when he agreed to write for Infinite Zombies. Please do yourself a favor and check out his site. I think the perspective he brings — not only that of a great admirer of Melville’s book but that of someone who has paid particular detailed, visual attention to it — will be a great addition to the discussion.

Welcome Matt Bucher

People who’ve followed Infinite Zombies from the time it started up as a spin-off of the original Infinite Summer blog will know very well who Matt Bucher is. The maintainer of the wallace-l discussion list, publisher of Greg Carlisle’s outstanding Infinite Jest reference Elegant Complexity, and all-around go-to guy in the Wallace community, he wrote the occasional post for the original IS project. Those who hopped on the IZ group read bandwagon more recently will know Matt as the fearless leader of the 2666 read over at http://bolanobolano.com. Matt runs a blog of growing fame at which he posts interesting screen grabs from Google Street View, he maintains a twitter stream that I never overlook, and he can be found elsewhere on the web at http://mattbucher.com.

When I floated the idea of a Moby-Dick group read, he was enthusiastic about reading along, and I’m really happy to announce that he’ll be posting here as we make our way through the book. The discussion is sure to be the richer for it.