Sunday, January 1, 2012

Loomings: the Opening Narrative

Moby Dick, a book chock-full of multitudinous multifaceted multicolored coral gems, begins its narrative simply and cleanly, as if Ishmael has gathered some friends before a fire on a wind blown winter day so he can spin his yarns. First, there is that famous opening line, that great lead which must be the envy of any prize-winning journalist, and what comes afterwards over the pages of the first chapters is the kind of sparkling clear prose that would have made a Hemingway proud. Melville begins with Ishmael the story-teller, in this chapter called "Loomings", setting down to tell the tale.

I love this opening. I set aside all thoughts of the profound and am once again a boy imagining an adventure. There will be time for the exotic and obscure and, particularly, the religious, but later; for now, we are here with Ishmael, leaving his city life, feeling a bit blue, and heading for the wealthy but worldly port city of New Bedford. Who does not feel "a damp, drizzly November in [their] soul" anonymously wandering city streets some time? And who, having adventured before, does not want to take the next adventure one step farther? Ishmael has sailed before, in the Merchant Marine, but is looking to up the adventure with a Whaling voyage. Hurrah! That would cheer any of us up on one of these gray wintery days.

Melville does not overplay his hand in these chapters. He will let us enjoy this time with Ishmael, and he will draw it out through the streets of New Bedford and Nantucket, fine places for a bit of a vacation and hearty good chowder (and when we get there, expect me to offer my own chowder recipe, very different from Ishmael's) and cheer. But right there in the title is the warning of what is to come: "Loomings".

Ah, something is looming is right! I spy two meanings to this "loomings" title: the first, the obvious, is the looming outcome of that adventure, this looming is Melville's foreshadowing, and, really, there ought to be a stronger word than "foreshadow" for what Melville will do here. He will fore-show, fore-picture, fore-tell - he will lay out in full color but in bits and pieces all that is to come. Yes, "loomings" refers to all that looms there, in the future (or, because this is a story Ishmael tells of his own past, perhaps we should say it looms in the past?).

Just as much, and just as importantly, however, the looming refers to a "weaving": the loom is a favorite metaphor of Melville's that ties much of the book together. We will beat this metaphor to death over the coming pages; shuttle-cocks tied with yarns shall be passed through the "warp", or sturdy set threads, pulling the "woof" or "weft" threads behind them. This metaphor plays out about a half dozen times in the book, my favorite of which led to the naming of this blog: in the "Castaway" chapter little Pip, whom we shall meet soon on this blog, when abandoned in the wide ocean, overwhelmed by the unfathomable infinite, sees God at the Treadle of the Loom and is driven mad. It is not a subtle metaphor, but we should watch for it.

Oh, well, I seem to be mucking up the beauty of that opening narrative already. Enough of that now. Let's let Ishmael spin his yarn and we'll get to the weaving soon enough. The boy is resolved to go aboard a whaler "before the mast", as a simple hand on deck, but he will be paid for his efforts, and that is a great thing. I can see him counting the coin already.


  1. Talk about great opening lines:

    a book chock-full of multitudinous multifaceted multicolored coral gems

    Easy for you to say!

  2. Thanks - I think I added a "multi" with each rewrite, if I'd held on to this post much longer, that string would have been insufferable.