Why Ishmael is all cracked up

At times Moby Dick is a painfully boring book to read.

Often narrative takes a back seat to a broad range of topics treated in an expository mode.

Ishmael describes cabin customs, quarterdeck politics, and forecastle rituals. He provides a minor treatise on cetology and even a history of specksynders. Who doesn’t love a good specksynder? Ishmael offers a lengthy musing on the phrenology of the whale’s head; the sperm whale lacks a nose! And owing to an incorrigible metaphysical impulse, he interrogates the significance of being-in-the-world-without-a-nose with Germanic philosophical intensity. And he takes a firm stand on the ticklish matter of where whale skin ends and blubber begins, and whether a whale’s “mystical” spout is vapor or water or an intermingling of the two.

No matter how varied your interests are, you will at some point be bored to tears by the ceaselessly rocking waves of Melville’s expository prose. Your mind will go numb.

But more than any novel I can think of, boredom is absolutely central to the experience of reading Moby Dick.

Without boredom, you cannot be jolted out of the lethargy fast upon you and gasp at the glories of the novel. Its poetry, for instance, “A curious sight; these bashful bears, these timid warrior whalemen!” or “I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where’er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass.” Or its humor, “Queequeg is George Washington cannibalistically developed.” Or its insight, “And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher…”

But more important than poetry, humor, and insight is the realization born of boredom that Ishmael is the most obsessed mind in the novel. His head is cracked and sorely in need of mending. Queequeg and Ahab have nothing on him. The former clutches at a small black idol; the latter, a large white idol. Big deal. Only Ishmael has the whole visible and invisible world as the object of his obsession. And mostly the world in its invisible aspect, which pervades all Yojos and Pequods and Moby Dicks, and beyond. Ishmael is haunted by invisibility.

Next week I’ll try to spell this out in detail while avoiding Nabokov’s “moonshine of generalization.”

Good luck to me.

14 Responses to Why Ishmael is all cracked up

  1. You make me miss the book. excellent posts.

  2. Ben says:

    An excellent point at the end about Ishmael’s mind! And everyone gives Ahab a hard time…

  3. Herman Melville.was a great fan of pleasurably boring books, books even more boring than Moby-Dick, so of course he wanted to write one of his own. Sir Thomas Browne is the obvious place to go next, but The Anatomy of Melancholy would be good too.

  4. storberose says:

    This has been a theory of mine too, that Ishamel is the true obsessed character in the novel, what with his religious fervour about whales. And the boredom is a central aspect of showing that boredom, for it proves we can never love or worship the whaledom as much as Ishamel does.

  5. Richard says:

    Call me an Ishmael fan, Kevin. I don’t remember him ever boring me. Maybe because he was so “cracked”? The poetry and the wonder I do remember.

  6. That’s a very pleasant theory!

  7. @Jessica, thanks!

    @Ben, Ishmael is an invisibility-intoxicated man, for sure.

    @Tom, I’ve shortlisted The Anatomy of Melancholy and given it’s cheerful subject matter, I’m just itching to read it.

    @Miguel, your comment, several weeks ago, about boredom, worship and whaledom was welcome validation of an idea that’s been bumping around my head and gave me the impetus to sketch out where we agree/disagree. The hard part will be giving, in next week’s post, concrete meaning to the different grades of invisibility that Ishmael grapples with, for his obsession is an obsession without idolatry, unlike Ahab, but it can still be named contra schopie Schop or Witters.

    @Richard, you’re NOT being bored represents a serious problem for my argument, damn you to hell. So I’ll do the intellectually responsible thing and ignore it.

    @Marly, happy you’re pleased!

  8. Richard says:

    Kevin, I’ll try to be bored during the eventual reread. In the meantime, ignoring me is perfectly fine/understandable/etc. (esp. given your argument). Cheers!

  9. nicole says:

    Ditto Richard! ;)

  10. Colleen says:

    Sorry, Kevin–I also ditto Richard.

  11. @Nicole and @Colleen, well, I’d like to amend my argument to, one of the functions of boredom is to, etc. But still I find it hard to believe that you were never bored while reading the book, not even a little. Cheers!

    • Colleen says:

      Ah, but there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy–and that includes Renaissance gals who love dissertations on all the different sorts of whales. :)

  12. Never bored, not even a little. Frustrated sometimes, but never bored. Where does this piece fit? Where does it fit? Lots of whote pieces, but it must fit somewhere.

    On Burton – my real recommendation is for the first 100 or so pages of Burton, titled “Democritus Junior to the Reader.” And then if your dig that there’s another thousand pages waiting for you.

  13. […] marvelous bit of trickery in getting the reader to think that Ahab, and not Ishmael, is the true monomaniac, and lastly not before wrestling with the invisible this and the invisible that haunting […]

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