Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Moby-Dick Reading

With the reading of Moby-Dick completed, I thought this blog needed a better table of contents to help someone stumbling upon it read it in and order that is more useful than reverse chronological. I learned much as I went on; these are in rough (but not perfect) chronological order of writing, so if you read through, you will learn with me. Also note this table of contents doesn't contain my postings on Melville subjects other than Moby-Dick or on a few tangential or procedural things that came up during the read.

Here we go:

The Preliminaries, for reading prior to tackling the book, to give you some notion of the world you are about to enter:

1. Why People Don't Finish Moby-Dick: My general head's up on approaching the book.

2. Some Background Research: a bit of humor

3. Some critical background:
a. Bruce Franklin, Vishnu and Melville's Humor: Some words on and with one of my favorite critics
b. Melville and My Critics
c. Of Useful False Dichotomies
d. A book to be read, not decoded
e. The Americans before the great revival
f. The revival
g. Review of "Why Read Moby Dick"

4. A few bits of color on Melville's world, including some suggestions for background reading:
a.Prelude to a Ship
b. Hawthorne's World
c. Some reading before reading
d. The Wide World (written about 1/3 of the way along in the book)

Introductions to Key Characters:

1. "Comical Obligations: The religions of the characters
2. Enter Ahab
3. Notable savage: Queequeg
4. The Cadet: Ishmael
5. The Harpooners
6. The Whale:
a. The Whale and how to know it
b. The Whale and what it is not

The Book itself:

1. Random thought or two on etymology
2. Loomings
3. Massachusetts' First Gay Marriage
4. The Try-Pots: food fit for a beast
5. Fanciful Reality: The Pulpit
6. Sermonizing, Literature and Currency
7. The Ramadan: a Hindu interpretation
8. Primordial Divinity
9. A break
10. The Pipe
11. Of Cetology and chaos
12. Head well, ye Pantheists
13. The stage, the storm, enter: Pip
14. Whiteness
15. Filling bottomless bellies
16. The voice of the whale
17. Ishmael and cetacean foreskin
18. Homeric visions
19. True religion
20. Song of the Typhoon: first verse
21. Song of the Typhoon: second verse
22. Identity of Job; other courses to sail


My review

Moby Dick Review

I have read so many, many books, articles and reviews try to boil Moby-Dick down to the purest most refined elements. But, like Russian television and Nietzschean abysses, when you deconstruct Moby-Dick, Moby-Dick deconstructs you. Ultimately, every reviewer finds, somewhere in this oceanic work, their own gods and demons.

Boil, boil, trouble and toil. Tell me of ships, whales and oil. Melville’s words are a mashup of all that comes before. There is Shakespeare. There are sailor’s ditties. There is Biblical poetry. There are songs from the kids in the street. There are myths. There are encyclopedia entries. It is a hip-hop book wrought of minnesang and hula and kathakali, ending in a glorious danse macabre. Most of all, there is humor, there is seriousness, and there is drama. Come, more wine! There is a roaring furnace before us and we’ve tales to tell!

Melville does not so much challenge the novel’s form as disregard it, crafting a tale that makes sense to him, pulling together his whaling canon from all the literary and philosophical flotsam gathered in a life of global wandering. He sprinkles acts of a drama among tableaus and stories and treatises, he throws in footnotes, he steps out of the book and comments upon it, and steps back in and takes on a new voice. Throughout, ever writerly, the story plods on, in those wonderful words and phrases and rhythms, slowly building, building, building into a drama like no other (however much it borrows from others - is this the fish that sank a thousand ships!). There is a typhonic crescendo at the end, and then the music tails off.

Since this review must ultimately devolve into a deconstruction of myself reading, since the book is beyond knowing, I might as well tell of this particular reading of Moby-Dick, which has been quite different from prior readings. In this reading, I see a book of uncommon dramatic energy and careful construction that seems to pull all the diverse threads of our deepest myths and creation tales together, building out of them a misty, mystifying fabric, diaphanous as Cleo’s gown, a sort of alternative mythology for a world in which science and technology are emerging and removing us more and more from nature itself, and putting us more in opposition to it. He offers us this mythology because he knows that this new, scientific world, this world of observations and answers, will ultimately provide no more answers than the ridiculously pious (piously ridiculous?) world that came before.

But, whatever my reading, you must tell me yours, for the book lends itself to many.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Identity of Job; Other Courses to Sail

"And I only am escaped alone to tell thee. JOB" Thus reads the perfect quote at the top of the Epilogue. Job has received multiple mentions and discussions in this book, particularly the Whirlwind passages, but this quote is a masterful identification of Ishmael. Let us look at the passage of Job from which it is taken:
Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house;
And a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them,
When the Sabeans raided them and took them away—indeed they have killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!”
While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; and I alone have escaped to tell you!”
While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three bands, raided the camels and took them away, yes, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!”
While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house,
And suddenly a great wind came from across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you!”
Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped.
And he said:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked shall I return there.
The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away;
Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong.

There is not one but four different messangers in Job who "alone" escape to tell the tale. Ishmael is identified with all those survivors of all those tragedies. Meanwhile, we are left to ask, well, who is Job? If we draw out the analogy, as Melville baits us to do, the White Whale is either one or all of these divine misfortunes, Ahab and the crew are the slaughtered children and servants of Job, and Job, of course, is the person to whom Ishmael brings his message. That is, you, dear reader, are Job.

Now, we may be overplaying that quote, but, Moby-Dick gives us fertile ground for flights of readerly imagination. In the some fifty or so blog posts that have gone up since the beginning of December, I have focused in on a few major themes of Moby-Dick, particularly the allusions to mythology and non-Western religions, Melville's "epistemology" and the questioning of our ability to know or perceive, his approach to reading, and his dramatic technique.

As we close, I remind you how few aspects of this book I have touched on. Here are some of the threads in the book I would love to explore further:

Melville's argument with the Christian God; this book relies heavily on references to the fast-fish-and-loose-fish chapters of the Bible, chapters like Job and Jonah dealing with power and obedience. I have genuflected at some of these discussions, but they run far deeper than this blog would suggest.

Melville's commentary on contemporary politics, and especially his depiction of the crews of the various boats who visit with the Pequod: I have devoted not a single post to these visits, yet, they are one of the central threads on the loom.

Melville's parrying with various philosophers (beyond epistemological thrusts), and particularly his ongoing discussions with Locke (who was accepted in America, in spirit, as a sort of virtual founding father), Hume, Hobbes, the Germans, and, particularly, the locally ever-looming Emerson. No small part of this book is a dialogue with the transcendentalists, the inescapable intellectual groundlings of New England.

The book's musicology. If you open a dozen pages, expect to see musical references on nearly half. The harps sing; there is a symphony before the chase; music appears at the very heart of the book. This is not random.

The symbolism. I acknowledged the Great Loom, and I mentioned Queequegs accoutrements, but for many of the early revivalists to read Moby-Dick was to divine symbols and their meaning. Every wave spoke, and the symbols would, should, ought to build into allegories bearing masonic meanings. I find Melville more of a literalist, willing to tell us just what he means. But, still, there are still symbols here, and great ones, ones that will give a laugh as well as a moment of recognition. More can be done with them; uncovering the phallic symbols alone is worth a read.

Job-like, we have only begun to imagine what challenges Melville, with his foot on the Treadle of the Press, has set for us in this book. Is this reading, or perhaps even this book, but the first appearance of the Ishmaelian messanger? Or is he, simultaneously, telling us all four tales?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Song of the Typhoon: Second Verse

We have heard the Typhoon sing in our first verse. We are on the quarterdeck, where Starbuck would turn the ship toward home, but Ahab, "Old Thunder", has appeared to sing with the storm. At this very moment, the action pauses briefly, and we have a short discussion on lighting rods. Rods have been fixed to the masts, but they attach to chains which must be thrown over-board to ground the boat. These chains, on the Pequod, have not been thrown overboard.

Starbuck, seeing mad Ahab lit up by lightning, yells to the crew to drop the chains. To this, Ahab cries to let them be. Ahab is looking to wage an old war here, not a modern one; the ancient Ahab is engaged in a primal quest. In the prior chapter, he crushed his Quadrant, choosing to steer by the old arts; here, he refuses the lightning rods. He is pulling the Pequod into an id of time.

And at this moment, before any chains have gone over, the flames appear: St. Elmo's fire. The boat's masts mystically light up, and now Melville weaves magic. Watch the two pages after the fire lights. There is so much here.

The crew falls silent, free of oaths; Melville notes that while for sailors oaths are but a common part of speech, he has
seldom heard a common oath when God's burning finger has been laid on the ship; when His "Menne, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin" has been woven into the shrouds and the cordage.
The phrase is from the book of Daniel, which reads:
And this is the inscription that was written: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.
This is the interpretation of each word. MENE: God has numbered your kingdom, and finished it;
TEKEL: You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting;
PERES: Your kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.
In Daniel, God writes these words on the wall at a banquet at Belshazzar's Feast, where the nobles are sacreligiously toasting to other gods from Jewish sacrimental vessels. Note that Melville, or Ishmael, seems to have seen God send this message to whalers on more than one occassion. The art shows Rembrandt's depiction of the "writing on the wall" scene in Daniel, from the National Gallery.

During the silence, Queequeg's tatoos light up "like Satanic blue flames"; as the corposcants die, the Pequod is "wrapped in a pall". Finally, the silence is broken with Starbuck looking to Stubb for his read of the meaning of the corposcents, and while Stubb tries to read them as a good omen (as lit up spermacetti candles), Stubb quickly pleads for mercy on their souls as they light up once again. A moment of very dark humor at Stubb's expense.

At this point, Fedallah is lit up fitting out Ahab for the next coming strange ceremony; stepping on Fedallah, beside the Doubloon, Ahab gives a speech to the storm and the crew, telling of his prior wounding by lighting on these seas, his prior dismasting, when he "as a Persian once did worship". He calls to the fire, "Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee." This is the third great sermon, preached from on high, of the book, following Father Mapple's sermon in Nantucket and The Reverend Cook's sermon to the sharks. It is worthy of a close reading and comparison, though I will not do so now, since we are looking for a broad overview of this critical chapter.

Now, as you might imagine, Franklin with his Osiris myth has a field day with this chapter. There is no shortage of references that fit the myth including the anticipation of a pall for Ahab. However, other commentators, with different favorite myths, also see much in this chapter. Myths come together. In particular, many have focused on the Zoroastrian theme that sits right on the surface obvious to all: from the "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin" reference to Fedallah's role as Ahab's alter-boy and footstool to Ahab's statement that he "as a Persian once did worship". You will find fire imagery throughout this book, and fire is a key symbol in Zoroastrianism. The sun is a character all its own in Moby-Dick, whether beating down on poor Pip or floating in the upper half of the Doubloon. Here in "The Candles" is where you will best gain insight into the role of fire. Watch closely; it is a mighty force, and closely associated with Ahab. In Christian mythology, first is most often associated with hell, but in Moby-Dick fire does not play so clear or simple a role.

Ahab's speech is answered by yet more lightning and flame, and, in particular, the corposcents now light up his harpoon, which sits on his boat, just as it has lit up the masts. The lighting of the harpoon is magnificent and awe-inspiring. The crew is completely panic stricken. References to "The Forge" and earlier chapters involving fire abound. And, at this critical moment, Starbuck knows what he must do: he tells Ahab, in no uncertain terms, that God is against him and it is time to set the sail for home or face God's wrath. As the crew comically prepares to set sails that have been shredded to rags, Ahab reminds them their oaths to hunt the Whale are binding, as is his. We end the chapter with all in terror, with Starbuck and Ahab opposed, and with the crew in dismay at Ahab's orders.

In unpacking this chapter, I would focus you on two truly exquisite strands, recognizing there are others: first, the pivot to a fast-paced action-adventure and the movement into the final part of the book is a masterful exercise in writerly craftsmenship; and, second, the way in which many different mythological strands are brought together is a phenomenal set-up for our grand finale, with first the drama among the sailors and then the chase of the White Whale. The Book of Daniel melds both Judaic/Old Testament and Persian/Parsee mythological streams; the use of fire sets up an opposition of Parsee/Pagan and Christian themes (watch all the pagans in this chapter: they each receive a mention); the Typhoon captures it all in the ancient Egyptian myth. Suddenly, Ahab's central role in each different mythology seems to be coming together, even though the role he plays in each does not seem to allign. Is this song contrapuntal? Is Ahab simultaneoulsy a hero of a Parsee, a God to the Egyptians, and a Blasphemous Rebel to the Jews?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Song of the Typhoon: First Verse

When first we meet Ishmael ashore, and we learn of his plans to escape the damp, drizzly November of his soul by going to sea, Melville graces us with some twenty beautifully wrought witty and easily read chapters. Then, we begin drifting asea, and things get strange, turgid, and considerably slower. For almost a hundred chapters, we timelessly drift, learning of whales and whaling as one after another whale's spout goes red as the whale turns. Other boats are met and other characters emerge as Melville encourages our speculation, prepares us for what is to come, and waxes philosophical. There is a sea-rhythm to it all. We sail towards South America, cross the Atlantic to the horn of Africa, and cruise through the Indian ocean. Passing the west of Australia, we cross into Asian waters at the Sunda Straight, sail the South China Sea, and enter the Pacific just south of Taiwan. We have passed every continent, save only Europe, though on these waters we have met one set of Europeans after another.

But, after entering the Pacific and heading for the Japanese hunting grounds, the pace quickens and the intensity builds. In "The Candles", St. Elmo's Fire lights up the boat's masts as we turn south toward the Equator and a typhoon hits. With all the drama and charged meanings of this chapter, as signs and signals literally light up around us, we enter a very new, different and exciting part of this book.

"The Candles" is packed. The pace now is that of a page-turner, the language pushes us forward, and the form is dramatic. Let us unpack this chapter a bit.

"Warmest climes but nurse the cruellest fangs" begins the chapter; "[s]o, too, it is, that in these resplendent Japanese seas the mariner encounters the direst of all storms, the Typhoon." The Pequod enters a Typhoon, its masts are shorn of sail, and thunder and lightening blaze about, showing the rag-tattered masts in profile. This is a stormy setting, remiscent of the storm that hit in the first act of our dramatic chapters, in "Forecastle - Midnight", when Pip and his tambourine were introduced to us. The storm, the "Typhoon" with a capital "T", has been read as repleat with meaning, as a storm demonstrating divine intelligence, for in this chapter, besides bearing that capital "T" name, it will respond to the actions of the crew. Here is the chapter where Franklin's reading of Ahab as the personification of the Osiris/Typhoon myth of ancient Egypt rings most true.

Once the stage's background is set and our storm is upon us, the characters enter: Starbuck on the Quarterdeck, attempting to contain the damage, Flask and Stubb before him, vainly securing the boats. Vainly because, our storm-with-a-will sends a sea to crash Ahab's whale-boat, in the very place where Ahab stands. Stubb laughs, tells Starbuck the sea will have its way, and sings a song for us, with a refrain "Such a funny, sporty, gamy jesty, joky, hoky-poky lad, is the Ocean, oh!" Stubb is steeling his will with song; the fact is, he is frightened to hell by the storm's power.

Starbuck, however, reads the storm, and understands its will. To Stubb's song, we get a grand line from Starbuck: "let the Typhoon sign, and strike the harp here in our rigging". The harp has sung in just one other place in the book: right after Ahab blesses his harpoon in pagan blood, he attaches the harpoon to a rope and makes it hum "like a harp-spring" in "The Forge". The exchange between Stubb and Starbuck here focuses on music and bravery, but note throughout the references to other chapters: Stubb talks of "singing the doxology", and the doxology is likewise referenced in "Fast-and-Loose Fish" as the song sung by the victor making fast a fish another had harpooned but left loose. As a pivotal chapter, you will find many strands of the story, many references, pulled together here. Expect this to continue in these fast-paced final chapters. Also note the changes to the sense of humor, which becomes much more gallows humor in its bent; the slapstick abates as we hit hight drama, and the humor takes on deadly irony.

As Starbuck reveals to us, the rapt audience, that the storm will turn fair if they turn for home, but will continue to hammer them if they instead head for the Line and Moby-Dick; at this moment, Ahab appears as a disembodied and unintelligible voice in the dark; finally, when asked who is there, he answers, mid-Typhoon, "Old Thunder!" Ahab identifies with the storm and embraces the very typhoon that is assualting them.

What have we so far to our drama: a storm with a will, a crew whose leader reads the signs in the storm, but whose other members are simply terrorized, and a captain who embraces the storm and its terror. Reading this with the Osiris myth, we are approaching the time of Osiris' dismembering by Typhoon, before Osiris wanders the earth in his coffin for six months, in a natural, eternal, and recurring progression.

This is the first verse of the Song of the Typhoon; in our second verse, the next posting, the stage, with Ahab on it, will be reset slightly as we get a short scientific discussion of boats, lightning, and lightning rods, and following this, the corposcants, or St. Elmo's Fire, will appear, and Ahab will take center stage from Stubb and Starbuck.

Monday, February 6, 2012

True Religion

"The Whale Watch", chapter 117, is, to my way of thinking, the single most devoutly religious chapter in this book filled with every religion born of Babel. After a day in which four whales were killed, far apart around the boat, Ahab and Fedallah (and their crew, but they are silent) float all night by a dead whale that they could not get back to the boat during the day. As the lamp casts its glow across midnight seas, Fedallah provides Ahab with a prophesy, a prophesy that we and Fedallah know to be grim, but that cheers Ahab:
"But I said, old man, that ere thou couldst die on this voyage, two hearses must verily be seen by thee on the sea; the first not made by mortal hands; and the visible wood of the last one must be grown in America."

"Aye, aye! a strange sight that, Parsee: - a hearse and its plumes floating over the ocean with the waves for the pall-bearers. Ha! Such a sight we shall not soon see."

"Believe it or not, thou canst not die till it be seen, old man."

"And what was that saying about thyself?"

"Though it come to the last, I shall still go before thee thy pilot."

"And when thou art so gone before - if that ever befall - then ere I can follow, thou must still appear to me, to pilot me still? - Was it not so? Well, then, did I believe all ye say, oh my pilot! I have here two pledges that I shall yet slay Moby Dick and survive it."

"Take another pledge, old man, said the Parsee, as his eyes lighted up like fire-flies in the gloom, - Hemp only can kill thee."

"The gallows, ye mean. - I am immortal then, on land and on sea," cried Ahab, with a laugh of derision; - "Immortal on land and on sea!"

Melville casts no doubt or ridicule on the prophesy; he does not even color it. Where other prophesies are made, as with Elijah, they are delivered with more than a touch of madness. Where other outrageous, difficult to verify statements are made, whether regarding the swallowing of Jonah or the chance of meeting up with the same whale twice, we get some discourse attempting to explain, justify or even just gild the extraordinary statement. This is bare, dramatic, and, most of all, true to what will occur.

Only here, in the words of this Zoroastrian, in the dark of night, lit only by a bit of oil and Fedallah's eyes, do we find true and unquestioned prophesy. Is this Melville's Pauline moment?

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.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Of Ishmael and Cetacean Foreskin

In earlier posts, I looked at Melville's use of the Egyptian myth of Osiris, in which Osiris is, like Ahab, dismembered by Typhon each year and then reborn, and the Hindu snake sacrifice myth in the "Ramadan" chapter, where the devout sage is ridiculed and mocked while carrying out a vow of silence. We have also looked at the Old Testament myths of Job and Jonah, preached through Christian authority. But we would be remiss if we did not delve more into more purely classical and Hebraic mythology.

In an article in Poetics Today (1998), Elisa New rereads Moby-Dick as critically focused on the conflict between Ishmael, whom she sees as an Hebraic scribe and the hero of the story, and Ahab, whom she sees as the flawed and anti-heroic voice of Hellenism and, in particular, of Pauline Platonism, a sort of angry Emerson in a toga. Ishmael, forever classifying, forever spewing legalisms, becames a wise Rabbinical sub-sub authoring a story that is a new Deuteronomy and a new Ecclesiatics, upholding the power and logic of the Word. Ahab, forever soliquizing, is the embodiment of a Christian/Hellenic spirit which wishes to embrace, conquer, and unify the very essence of the world. Ahab is St. Paul to Ishmael's Moses. Ishmael lives; Ahab dies.

New's reading grounds itself on a number of chapters she sees as the ultimate expression of "Ishmaelic scribalism", "Cetology" and "Fast and Loose Fish" among them, contrasted with a handful of chapters she finds deeply imbued with Hellenism: most prominently "The Cassock". In "The Cassock", a mincer cuts thin sheets of the blubber to feed into the flames of the try-works while encased in protective clothing crafted from the whale's penis skin, and New quotes the chapter:
"Bible Leaves! Bible Leaves!" This is the invariable cry from the mates to the mincer. It enjoins him to be careful, and cut his work into as thin slices as possible, inasmuch as by doing so the business of boiling out the oil is much accelerated, and its quantity considerably increased, perhaps increasing its quality.

Here is what she makes of it:
Melville's caustic allusion to "Bible Leaves!" makes it ambly clear that his mincer is a satirized minister. Traducing the materiality and history of the world's body in pursuit of its perfect spirit, this cassocked divine is one of Melville's many figures of a sacrificial and deadly Christian Hellenism, whose essentialist legacy Melville opposes with all the textual resources he can marshal. In another context, the analogy between the rendering of whale fat and the extraction of essence from Scripture might seem merely playful....This tableau of the tireless priest feeding leave to the fire and working, moreover, in an apron fashioned from the whale's own stupendous penis is calculated to elicit laughter.

There is indeed something here in her quote and analysis; the whale oil as essence, the giver of light; the humor of a cassocked mincer dressed in a penis feeding the Bible to hellfire; the send up of preachers and their hellfire rants; the intermixture of the demonic and the sacred.

But, somehow, New, as earnestly scholastic as any sub-sub, boils down the whole book into a single conflict between Hebrews and Christians/Greeks; she peels away the chapters to reveal in them her own most favored and most despised mythologies, and in so doing, gives the role of sacred law-giver and true superhero to Ishmael. She even identifies the Hebrews as the winners; the book becomes an anti-Platonic diatribe.

While it is good to see Ishmael raised up to such heights rather than in his usual role as the mere Bard of the two great characters of Ahab and Moby-Dick, a sort of Cetacean side-kick, I can not help but find this approach, well, sort of essentialist and Hellenistic of her. Come now. We can't read out the Hindus and Egyptians. More is afoot.