Unlike the Pequod I’ve returned safely to shore after a nice long slow read of Moby Dick — but not before reflecting on just how little I know about why I take to Moby Dick as Ishmael takes to the ocean, and not before musing on the symbolism of water and Ishmael’s likely vocation as a country schoolmaster before becoming a merchant seaman and whaler, and not before appreciating tantalizing clues in a painting (and what a lovely painting it is!), and not before muttering a few vows over what D.G. Myers kindly coined in a Tweet Ishmael and Queequeg’s gay marriage, and not before turning the pages of Melville’s whale taxonomy, and not before marveling at Moby Dick’s handsomely endowed thingamajig, which is longer “than a Kentuckian is tall,” and not before drawing attention to Melville’s marvelous bit of trickery in fooling 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 Ishmael. I am done, with Moby Dick for now and the preceding sentence for sure. And in the spirit of long and longer sentences, I’m eager to share the closing sentence of Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, where Calvino performs his own bit of narrative trickery, on par with Melville’s. But that will have to wait till I come down from the oaks and pines and sycamores, where I’m rather enjoying myself at the moment.
Absence is everywhere, from fish, sharks and whales seething beneath the surface of the ocean, to the stowaway Fedallah hidden in the bowels of the ship.
Even Ahab is absent until Chapter 28 when he emerges at last from a deep hold of the Pequod.
And the plot, too, disappears for long stretches of time, sounding beneath the surface of Melville’s expository prose. No wonder Melville candidly observes, “So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book…” Yes, there’s very little narrative in Moby Dick.
Various and sundry grades of invisibility lurk everywhere—and Ishmael is haunted by them.
One. Other people are mysterious entities. We see them clearly enough smoking a pipe or ascending a masthead. But who they are to become in time is perceived only dimly if at all. Take Queequeg, for instance. He’s covered in tattoos. Combine that with Ishmael’s description of him as “a creature in the transition state — neither caterpillar nor butterfly” and we have an image of a man who is emerging from a mottled chrysalis. What he’s to become when the transformation is complete is unknown to us.
Two. Subjectivity is a mystery in that we only perceive its hints and signs in others from a third-person point of view. Ahab’s storm of ideas and emotions, his motives, beliefs and passions, are experienced by him from a first-person point of view. But to everyone else, from the jocular Stub and the righteous Starbuck to the poetic-philosophic Ishmael, Ahab’s seething inner world is only divined by its manifestations, by his tortured brow and wracked body.
Three. Poetic resemblances are entirely absent — they literally don’t exist — until they are created by an Ishmael or some other wanderer and outcast who perceives things differently. Whale skin is what it is; it’s whale skin. But only Ishmael broods on it and perceives in it an “isinglass” through which the world itself is perceived, with floating motes and squigglys superimposed on it like the “finest Italian line engravings.” Without imaginative conception, poetic resemblances don’t even exist as ghosts.
Four. Just as Ahab’s brow is the body of his torment made visible, so the world itself is a sign of an unseen agency. Unlike religious believers who interpret the world optimistically, Melville strongly suggests a more pessimistic view. The world is an incarnation of malicious forces. Behind the veil of appearances, an inscrutable force fashions a world where snakes eat plump mice, where men and women devour tasty little lambs and slaughter whales to burn oil in churches and preach ever-lasting peace and compassion to the world.
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.
The title, yes. A word about that. It’s not a ploy for cheap laughs. I don’t do humor; I’m earnest, you see. Only earnest people say things like “Wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable” and mean it. No, I’m unfunny. But unlike me, Melville is both funny and earnest. It’s a rare talent among gifted writers. Most folks take his earnestness for granted, not so his humor. But he possesses a great comedic sense all his own. It starts in the first passage of the book with the venting of spleen and the knocking off of hats and continues largely unabated right up through and beyond Chapter XCV, a 12-inch chapter-cum-tribute to the wonderfullest swinging unmentionable of all.
On the decks of the Pequod, behold it, ye curious voyeur, you! “You would have scanned with no small curiosity a very strange, enigmatical object, which you would have seen there, lying along lengthwise in the lee scuppers.”
No small curiosity, indeed. Just the opposite. The unmentionable is pathetically flopped on deck because it’s no longer attached to a body. That’s what happens when a Leviathan’s leviathan gets chopped off by an industrious Bobbitt.
What else do we learn about this strange, enigmatical object?
It’s “an unaccountable cone,—longer than a Kentuckian is tall, nigh a foot in diameter at the base, and jet black….” The unmentionable begins to lurch about only when a sailor humps it on his back “with bowed shoulders” and “staggers off with it as if he were a grenadier carrying a dead comrade from the field.” Then the sailor carefully removes the “dark pelt” with a skinning knife, turning it inside out. Cutting two slits for armholes he slips himself into it, a truly fashion-forward bloke.
Now properly attired in his snug penis pelt, the sailor begins the divine work of shaving bible leaves of blubber from the dead castrated beast, making it easier to boil the flesh and extract the oil, so landsmen can light their way in a dark and darkening world.
Yes, Melville has a wicked, sharp sense of humor.
I’m in the mood to write but don’t have anything particular to say, a problem for most people, but not me, not now. After all it’s Friday and I’m in a mood. What follows is a drive by blogging, which might rankle a bit, given my stated dislike of gun ownership. But if you can’t have a wee bit of good metaphorical fun at your own expense, what good is blogging in the first place. I’m rambling. Bang. I received a new book in the mail today, Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson. That’s Bryan with a y (or is it an y?). I’ve always liked photography, especially composition, but haven’t the faintest clue how to control for ISO, aperture and shutter speed to reliably produce great photos. When I’m not reading Moby Dick, which I’m already reading very slowly, I’ll be reading Understanding Exposure. And snapping frames like this one…
…which comes from a recent excursion to Hidden Villa with my family, a green cleft in the mountains behind Foothill College in the Bay Area. I particularly like the missing spokes and how they’re hard to notice until you notice them not there. That, and I’m a sucker for white clapboard houses and pastoral settings in general, and not just in literature. I snapped this frame…
…because who can resist the contrast of green lichen and red rust. Tell me if you can identify the farm vehicle that likely trundled about on this wheel rim. I’m thinking it’s for the front tire of a tractor, but it looks a little thick to me. And if you think you see an emerging theme here what with wagon wheels and a wheel rim, try your best to circularize the creepy, expressive beauty of this frame…
Guy Fawkes meets the Joker meets Cirque du Soleil. Scarecrows, those great terrifying parodies of people, work for a reason. I just now consulted Ahab who agrees with me: “In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here!” I added the exclamation point because it’s called for. Bang. If you haven’t read D.G. Myers recent piece over at A Commonplace Blog, you really should. Therein you’ll find this phrase which has been ringing about my head all day: “Blogging is not merely an amateur’s medium. It is a dissent from the professionalization of literature.” I’m all a-tingle and feel as though I’ve discovered my motto. Lest the transition from scarecrows and Ahab to Myers wasn’t abrupt enough for you, let me quickly say that I’ll write about a whale’s penis on Tuesday.