Saturday, February 4, 2012

Homeric Visions

I love hearing when someone can identify a favorite moment in Moby-Dick. My own is in "The Castaway" chapter, when Pip goes mad. Our favorite moments say much about each of us, and what attracts us to this unweildy, diverse, frolicking work. Favorites are personal moments, moments that seemingly have little to do with any objective assessment of the work.

Nathaniel Philbrick, in Why Read Moby-Dick, dwells on his favorite moment, in the first paragraph of Chapter 85, "The Fountain":
That for six thousand years—and no one knows how many millions of ages before—the great whales should have been spouting all over the sea, and sprinkling and mistifying the gardens of the deep, as with so many sprinkling or mistifying pots; and that for some centuries back, thousands of hunters should have been close by the fountain of the whale, watching these sprinklings and spoutings—that all this should be, and yet, that down to this blessed minute (fifteen and a quarter minutes past one o'clock P.M. of this sixteenth day of December, A.D. 1851), it should still remain a problem, whether these spoutings are, after all, really water, or nothing but vapour—this is surely a noteworthy thing.*

Melville writes down here the very moment of his writing, fifteen and a quarter minutes past one o'clock P.M. of this sixteenth day of December, A.D. 1851 (though the date of first writing was actually one year prior, and the year was changed prior to publication in 1851). Philbrick describes his reason for "favoriting" this passage of Moby-Dick: "Melville did something outrageous. He pulled back the fictive curtain and inserted a seemingly irrelevant glimpse of himself in the act of composition." In Philbrick's assessment, the "seemingly" in "seemingly irrelevant" is everything. This is not an irrelevant glimpse, but central to the work and one of the many engaging facets of what, in our discussions, we have called Melville's epistemology.

First, let us look at this passage, then, let us look back at another passage that pressages this one. You will find more.

Here, the narrator is pondering on the long length of our ignorance concerning the whale's spout. Look at the opening phrase: "That for six thousand years -- and no one knows how many millions of years before", and think on this contrast. The six thousand reference is Biblical, the approximate age of the world as calculated by Biblical sub-subs, and so reference's God's creation of the world; the millions of years could be geological, referencing then-common scientific thoughts about the possible world's age, or it could be a reference to the unformed world of welter and waste before Genesis, or to the Hindu cycles of prior worlds, or to something else before the dawn of human time. The phrase, like just about everything here, is half-satirical, but, still, our setting tells us that we are dealing with the ultimate of human time or divine time, and that, throughout this ultimate stretch, with regard to this topic, we have but ignorance. But we are as ignorant of what this time may be as we are ignorant of what the whale's spout truly is.

I have observed already that once at sea time becomes almost irrelevant; we cease to mark days or even weeks, references come only to where we have gotten, not how long we spend there or how long it has taken to get there. In the vast hundred chapter stretch of drifting timelessness, there are just two or three places where time suddenly and meaningfully errupts into the narrative, and, here, it erupts with overwhelming precision, down to a fraction of a minute. Yet, the time that matters is not of the story itself, but outside the story, and that is where Melville is pulling us. He wants to remove us at this point from the narrative, bring us into his library, and talk to us about what we are doing. Later in the chapter, he makes the conversation even plainer:
But why pester one with all this reasoning on the subject? Speak out! You have seen him spout; then declare what the spout is; can you not tell water from air? My dear sir, in this world it is not so easy to settle these plain things. I have ever found your plain things the knottiest of all. And as for this whale spout, you might almost stand in it, and yet be undecided as to what it is precisely.

Melville is pulling out out of the book to talk about the mistical spout of the whale, which is the whale's very life breath yet a thing that defies our attempts to understand it, whether through observation or divinitation. He pulls us out of the book to talk about the difficulty of knowing and the ultimate mystery of knowing the very things he is telling us. Melville's epistemology applies not just to the world of whales, but to the world of books and stories as well.

I am reminded here of the great Hindu bards, whose own stories interweave with the stories they tell, replete with protestations about their own ignorance and inadequacey to tell the story or explain its meaning. In these passages, the challenge of writing and telling and reading the story, the challenge of the hunt for the whale, and the challenge of perceiving, knowing or understanding anything all come together, no so much in an allegorical way as in a direct comparision of the underlying struggles we face in each endeavor. Melville is stepping out of the novel so as to avoid it becoming a mere allegory.

Now let us go back to the chapter "The Affadavit", where our narrator is discussing the unlikely occurance, in the near-infinite breadth of the world, that a sailor should not only meet but actually harpoon the same whale more than once. This is a chapter, or at least an opening of a chapter, about chance and determinism, about the extent to which the world itself avoids randomness. The chapter begins with a commentary on the proper way to read the book:
So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book; and, indeed, as indirectly touching one or two very interesting and curious particulars in the habits of sperm whales, the foregoing chapter, in its earlier part, is as important a one as will be found in this volume; but the leading matter of it requires to be still further and more familiarly enlarged upon, in order to be adequately understood, and moreover to take away any incredulity which a profound ignorance of the entire subject may induce in some minds, as to the natural verity of the main points of this affair.
The prior chapter was "The Chart",** where Ahab set to charting his course to seek to intersect the White Whale. In "The Affadavit" and "The Chart", again stepping into his book, Melville provides us with a series of underlying stories, all assertedly factual, that, regardless of the incredulousness of the proposition, show us that sailors do come upon and harpoon the same whale more than once. Like many a chapter, however, there is a mid-narrative pivot, where the discussion moves from the lack of randomness of these meetings to the extraordinary power of the whale upon a meeting. Throughout, however, the voice of the narrator is one that is concurrent with its reading, that steps out of the stream of the book and back into the narrative layer. It is in this tension, between the story, the telling of the story, and the interpretation or meaning of the telling of the story, that we lose Ishmael's voice and gain a narrator's voice -- and perhaps, in places, a narrator named Herman.

Philbrick rightfully revels in the outrageousness of Melville's approach. I look at it, and wonder, given Melville's own concern with the difficulties of knowing, perceiving, understanding, is this approach almost self-evident? Doesn't Melville's story and his approach to the story almost demand such that the Bard present himself to us to explain? Reading Moby-Dick, I come to more fully appreciate the blindness of Homer.

* An utter aside but an irresistable one: isn't Melville's use of the word "mistifying" wonderful? Those spouts, which so mystically adorn the horizon in "The Spirit-Spout", are but spreading mist. Their etymological roots differ, mist being a fractured part of compound words used in the Old English and Icelandic - misthleoðu "misty cliffs," wælmist "mist of death" - and mystic coming to English from Old French but going back to the Greek "mystikos"). So these words floated about for some thousand years before Melville found and married them.

**The Chart contains, in a footnote, another of the reference during the sea chapters to time. In commenting on the attempts to chart out migratory patterns of whales described in the body, the footnote cites to a circular, dated April 16th, 1851, released "since the above was written", another unveiling of the writer's work. The image above, by the way, is from Dalhousie University, and shows a current rendition of various marine animals' Pacific migratory patterns, including whales.


  1. I can so identify with your comments regarding that sense of timelessness at sea. Before kids, my wife and I sailed Hobie cats. A mere three hours in the water felt like three days (assuming one of us didn't try and get tricky on a pontoon and capsize us!) It was uncanny how time was so enriched as it was stretched and somehow slowed down out there. There is indeed something mystical happening either within or all around you when you're on the water for any length of time. I'm just sitting here admiring how you captured Melville capturing in his narrative's complexity, the complexity of that spiritual experience.

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  3. It has taken me a while to realize how well Melville has captured the whole feel of the sea and whaling - even while completely thumbing his nose at "realism" in his prose. When I've been on a boat, just for a short time, the same feeling emerges. It makes me want to try a long sail, just to really experience it.