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Three years and two months since I started, I finished my reread of Moby Dick!!!

-The shift in tone is very gradual, and then all of a sudden the Typhoon hits and you are in the endgame. The atmospherics change completely to this dark, somber, foreboding tone that of course Melville is constantly subverting to hilarious effect. Every other chapter ends with a line foreshadowing Ahab's death. Ten or fifteen chapters from the end, Melville ends a chapter with "In his fiery eyes of scorn and triumph, you then saw Ahab in all his fatal pride." and all I could think was "Way to spoil the ending, Herman!"

-But it's actually really important, since I've spent so much time in these notes snickering at Melville, to note just how brilliant the last twenty chapters of Moby Dick are. Seriously, if you're not interested in reading the whole damn tome, I totally understand it. Parts of it are pretty much unreadable. But do yourself a favor and read from chapter 115 to the end. You won't understand everything- the hundreds of pages before really do matter, Melville actually does spend that time setting up plot points and building character arcs and he pays off way more of them than I'd remembered in the ending, but even without understanding all of those details, those last twenty chapters are a thrill ride from a master of action suspense who is also a literary technician par excellence. For once, Melville does pacing remotely conventionally, except it turns out that when Melville tries to do pacing normally, he fails because he just does pacing better than everyone ever. He matches short chapters against long chapters, quick chapters against quicker chapters, then slows you down with a gripping monologue from the troubled Starbuck, then speeds back up again. The ending is just as unconventional as the rest of the novel, truly, but it's so skillfully done that it feels like there's no artistry to it.

-And holy shit the scene with Starbuck and the musket is a fucking masterpiece of slow-built character development. "The very tube he pointed at me!—the very one; this one—I hold it here; he would have killed me with the very thing I handle now." That scene could have been so tedious, but it's the opposite of tedious. After "Cetology" I think it's my favorite chapter in the reread, because Starbuck's dilemma is so morally difficult- and it is so specific. Nobody else in the crew could have struggled with it in the same fashion, but Melville somehow gets you to this scene and you just, with every bone in your body, ache for Starbuck, because you know that no matter what choice he makes, he will regret it for the rest of his life, and he knows it too, knows there is no choice he can make that is truly a moral choice.

-All of a sudden at the end we get Ahab as a real person. He monologues for page after page after being this inscrutable mystery to Ishmael for the whole book. We learn about his first whaling trip, his feelings about his wife, his feelings about his son. We know more about Captain Ahab's backstory than we do about Ishmael's backstory! And what really struck me this time around is that the change only comes after the musket scene, because something changes at the musket scene, or really I suppose after the typhoon scene that immediately precedes it, but the musket scene lays it bare: Before, there was something heroic about Captain Ahab's pursuit of the White Whale. After the typhoon, after the first time when Ahab deliberately risks the lives of the crew to keep his pursuit hot, Ahab is no longer the hero of the novel. And Starbuck considers becoming the hero, but he too declines. By the end of the book, there is no hero, just a collection of madmen following a spectral whale to their doom.

-"There she blows!—there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!" And then we get the three days of the chase sequence, three days that Melville compares to Jesus's resurrection, because nothing in Moby Dick is a metaphor or a symbol, right? The chase is operating at so many levels of symbolism and character drama, but it is fundamentally an action sequence and a brilliant one, albeit a scene that would make little sense at all without all of the exposition that preceded it. Melville doesn't do exposition in the chase, he doesn't explain how harpoons work or when boats are set out, he doesn't explain who crews the boats and what their rowing tactics are. He's done all that already and finally we get to enjoy the fruits of that labor, a totally unadulerated action sequence that rings with incredible clarity because of how hard Melville has worked to get you there.


-I did want to address one of the levels, a level that is oddly absent from the ending. No mention is made whatsoever in any direct fashion of Bildad and Peleg, but there are hints: Ishmael writes that Ahab seemed to especially value the Pagan members of his crew, whereas he didn't trust the Christians. After the compass demagnetizes, he goes to extra effort to magnetize a new compass needle to appease the Pagans of their superstitions, and perhaps this special trust for the non-Christians comes from his knowledge of Bildad and Peleg's devout Christianity, a piety that extends only so far as to make as much money as possible, as quickly as possible. They have no room for vengeance on the seas, not because charity is Christian but because vengeance is expensive. Ahab knows that there is more to life than money, though, and because of this he is drawn to his non-Christian crew as natural allies against the Christians. Of course, in the end, Ahab is monstrous for this. There is a safety in working only for money, a righteousness. That is a strange form of true Christianity, but it's what seems to emerge.

-And then somehow fucking Ishmael escapes, floating away on Queequeg's casket life buoy. As if in some way he never really belonged in the story at all, as if Moby Dick somehow wasn't his story but that of Ahab and Starbuck. What the fuck, Ishmael?
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Yeah, a lot of chapters. I've been reading the book in bits and pieces since I last posted in October 2013, and am getting fairly close to the ending now. It makes a nice filler in interstices of free time, because of how absurdly choppy it is narratively. Every chapter isn't just a new piece of story, it's a new way of telling the story.

It's such a big piece of text that I'm ostensibly reviewing that I'm not sure how to review it. This section of the book constitutes a lot of the 'boring' parts, the chapter after chapter is intensive detail about how a whale is butchered and its oil extracted. But even the non-boring parts are written in strange ways. Massive amounts of plot happen in tiny bursts. People die or almost die, people lose limbs, people lose huge sums of money, and it's all reported as asides to the dense explanations of whaling technology. There's one chapter where the Pequod is chased by pirates in the straits of Malacca, and it's written in full-on 19th century adventure novel form for about a page, until Melville runs out of steam and switches to writing about sick whales and whether they still yield good oil. In another passage, Tashtego nearly drowns until Queequeg dives in and saves him, and then Ishmael immediately switches back to talking about the different layers of fat on the whale.

Also, the 'boring' parts are not boring. They're technical and detailed and I'm never going to need to know them in a practical way, but they really give an impressive sense of immersion and they tell about a world I'll never get to experience, and that's honestly really exciting. I love reading the 'boring' parts of Moby Dick, I love learning little bits like how the Pequod is constantly illuminated at night with large numbers of oil lights because they have such a huge surplus of oil that they can afford to waste a little of this very expensive oil on the sailors. The almost surreality of the experience is brought to full attention.

There is very little of Ahab in these sections. He pops up in the brief moments when the plot diverts to the quest for the White Whale, and then vanishes again. Starbuck and Flask and Stubb in some ways serve as stand-ins for his authority, particularly on the chase, but that hardly suffices. We know that Starbuck and Ahab are at odds, a tension perhaps most magnificently expounded upon in the strangely rhythmic chapter where each member of the crew provides a successively more unusual exegesis on the gold coin Ahab placed as reward for spotting the whale. Starbuck's orders represent the natural order of life at sea, efforts at continuity and stability that Ahab's obsessive presence incessantly undermines. No matter how routine the marine rituals Ishmael reports are, something is wrong with the Pequod.

As to Ishmael himself, he gets stranger and obscurer as the book goes on, a fact even he acknowledges in the chapter on the whale skeletons where he concedes that if he were all he said he was, an inexperienced oarsman on a whaling boat, he would not be able to provide all the detail about whale skeletons that he does, in fact provide. Ishmael has seen an absurd amount of the world in an era where mass media was limited in its scope. He's seen so much that he can report casually on incredible adventures, doing whatever the opposite of burying the lede is. Countless times he starts off a story with something that requires explanation of how he learned it, and then veers off away from the part that would reveal how he came to be in that situation and tells the story as if the story were its own justification. The story of the "Town-Ho", Ishmael tells as he told it to the Peruvian Dons, without giving any reason why he would be in the company of such distinguished and dangerous figures. WHO THE HELL IS FUCKING ISHMAEL?

We get this hilarious reversion back to Ishmael is such a Greenhorn in like, Chatper 98, when Ishmael falls asleep at the tiller and manages to turn around, standing up, until he is facing 180 degrees the wrong way. This scene is not actually hilarious. One thing that is clear by chapter 98 is that life on the Pequod is incredibly dangerous. It is a miracle that Ishmael is still alive. But Ishmael writes this scene with such dreamy whimsy that it's impossible to see it as anything but a joke. "My God ! what is the matter with me? thought I. Lo! in my brief sleep I had turned myself about, and was fronting the ship's stern , with my back to her prow and the compass." I think I said much earlier that this is how most of the humor in Moby Dick works- you're never quite sure if it's really a joke.

I have several other similar epigrams recorded from this part of the book because they amused me. After a discursion about the absurd hodgepodge of laws regarding who has ownership of a whale, whether it be a 'fast fish' or a 'loose fish', he concludes: "And thus there seems a reason in all things, even in law."

And this amazing mathematics joke that had me laughing for minutes, describing a scene in which Ishmael is cleaning the inside of a domed furnace: "It was in the left hand try-pot of the Pequod, with the soapstone diligently circling round me, that I was first indirectly struck by the remarkable fact, that in geometry all bodies gliding along the cycloid, my soapstone for example, will descend from any point in precisely the same time."

And then I have some epigrams bookmarked because they are super-racist Melville. "The truth is, that living or dead, if but decently treated, whales as a species are by no means creatures of ill odor; nor can whalemen be recognised, as the people of the middle ages affected to detect a Jew in the company, by the nose." And "We can't afford to lose whales by the likes of you; a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip, in Alabama. Bear that in mind, and don't jump any more." Hereby perhaps Stubb indirectly hinted, that though man loved his fellow, yet man is a money-making animal, which propensity too often interferes with his benevolence."

In both of these cases, it's classic liberal paternalist racist Melville, where both of these statements can be read as excoriating 'actual racists', but both statements still, in their dark humor, deny the right to full personhood of the Jews and Blacks in question. Moby Dick is incredibly frustrating in so many ways.
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There are some amazing sentences in Chapter 42, one of which in particular I would quote because it fills a two page long paragraph with a single sentence and what's more, a single thought. Except that I don't want to inflict that sentence on [personal profile] sanguinity, because its comments on Native American culture are pretty awful in their clueless stereotyping.

Chapter 42 is about whiteness as a cultural touchstone of primal fear, wit the Great White Shark, the Polar Bear, and the Albatross, and of course the White Whale Moby Dick. Except that three chapters later we get Chapter 45, with one of my favorite sentences in the book, "So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory."

This sentence is plainly Melville fucking with us. Moby Dick is the biggest, most hideous and most intolerable allegory I have ever seen, and it makes no difference whether it is real or believable. Moby Dick is the most realistic novel that is also a brilliant fantasy.

But to go back to whiteness, the one kind of whiteness Melville does not spend any time on in this chapter is human whiteness. Race is a hard thing to talk about in Moby Dick in contemporary terms because the language of the novel is so very much the language of contemporary liberal racism. It is much easier to reject it on those terms than it is to confront it on its own terms, as a book that is legitimately struggling with how to overcome white racism and very often failing. Almost always failing. It is tempting but extremely dangerous to try to defend Moby Dick using contemporary liberal racist apologetics: to hold up Ishmael/Queequeg as evidence that Ishmael isn't really prejudiced, to point to this chapter as evidence that Melville appreciates the absurdity of making judgments based on skin color. These things aren't completely untrue, but I think we fail the text if we don't point out how all the non-white characters are cannibals, how Melville makes no serious effort to understand their culture and consistently depicts them as being less cultured and almost less human than his white sailors, how caricatures of pagan rituals underpin much of the narrative as a metaphor for the dark force of Ahab's vengeance. The best lesson to learn from Moby Dick's racism, I think, is probably how deep it lies in our souls. As we plumb the allegorical ocean of humanity's most inhuman desires, we study the ease with which it is possible to completely surrender to them, and what costs we pay for that surrender.


In between those two chapters, in between Melville's most obvious signposts of realism and allegory to date, we have Ishmael once more attempting a proto-psychoanalysis of Ahab. This time it is not in Ahab's voice, this time we see a narrator struggling and ultimately failing to explain the depths of Ahab's madness, but it is no more clear that it is Ishmael who is narrating. The intimate knowledge the narrator has of Ahab's life in his cabin argues against it, but perhaps we are intended to understand that this, too, is a guess on Ishmael's part, a fiction crafted from partial truths uncovered in search of a wholer truth.

But this is gamesmanship and almost besides the point. For all that Ishmael talks and talks and talks, we never seem to get any more of Ahab than the idea that he is obsessed with Moby Dick, completely and terrifyingly mad, and yet he was able to mask this madness in harbor because the ship owners and the rest of Nantucket society was either willfully blind to it or caught up in their own similar madness. Every detail Ishmael tells us, of Ahab mapping and remapping, worrying and plotting, merely serves to heighten our appreciation of the depths of the obsession.
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So after a while that feels eventually like stalling, Ahab is seized with a passion and we get a scene that reminds me of, if anything, the Saying of the Law in Wells's Island of Dr. Moreau.

In more Melville is doing it all wrong news, I was struck by a strong feeling in this reading that this scene reveals the problem Melville was struggling with in Knights and Squires. Because he does it the way he does, full of tell instead of show, we learn who the players are in anticipation of the big conflict between Starbuck and Ahab. We know what is going to happen in that conflict, it all makes sense to us. Had he flipped those passages, it might have been 'better writing' in the contemporary technical understanding, because Starbuck and Ahab would have been revealed through their actions instead of through Ishmael's editorialization. But the confrontation scene might have had less impact, because we would have been figuring out the characters instead of struggling with their moral conflict. In one of the many ways in which Moby Dick is a great book to learn writing from, these kind of choices are apparent and obvious. Because Moby Dick is so messy and apparently unartful, with all of its literary choices presented on the surface for quick judgement, it is easy and fruitful to pick it apart and learn craft from it. It is a lot harder to learn writing from some of my other favorite writers- no matter how many times I reread Joyce or Roth or Steinbeck, I can't quite figure out how it's done, because there is so much concealing art in the style.

And then after the Saying of the Law scene, which I'm going to keep calling it, Ishmael disappears completely. Oh, he didn't vanish, as he assures us when his narratorial voice returns. He tells us when he's back that he was there the whole time, part of the scene, swept up in the moment like the rest. But we get a chapter in Ahab's voice, a chapter in Starbuck's voice, a chapter in Stubb's voice, and then in the manner of a play (a comedy, most certainly a farce) we get a chapter in the multipartisan voice of the crew- ribald, merry, disturbed, thoughtful, fearful, etc. I wrote to [personal profile] cahn [O]ne of the things I'm commenting on is my foreknowledge of the fact that Ishmael does, as the novel progresses, sort of disappear into the background. Whereas Nick's observational perspective is always present and at the fore in Gatsby, it becomes more and more unclear what Ishmael's narrative function and perspective are. And this is the start of that phenomenon, where Ishmael stops being the narrator and starts apparently serving as something more like redactor- assembling the narrative from bits and pieces of other narratives. Are these narrations compositions of Ishmael, imagined perspectives from a narrator who while hidden is still there, or is there some uber-redactor/editor standing outside of Ishmael and adding in from other narrators where Ishmael fails to tell the story?

Either way, I think this complements nicely my gloss on Ishmael as the Exile and therefore the anti-Odyssean Nobody, the person for whom Nobody is not a joke to fool the Cyclops. Odysseus would never let some other hero steal his limelight, but Ishmael cedes Biblical primacy to his younger brother and our Ishmael cedes narrative voice to the rest of his crew, all the while insisting (desperately?) that he has not vanished at all.

These chapters strongly reminded me of Robert Browning's dramatic monologues, so I checked publication dates and it is unlikely that Melville would have known Browning's work, though I imagine Melville was familiar with whoever Browning's literary inspirations were.

But back to the Saying of the Law chapter, which is just one of the most fascinating pieces of writing we've seen so far. There's a level of anthropological detachment in places, like a naturalist studying an island tribe, and the word pagan resurfaces again and again... there's a strong suggestion that this is in some fashion an adaptation of some un-Christian rite Ahab has learned in his travels. That this is something inappropriate, something that Peleg and Bildad would be furious about back in Nantucket, and that perhaps part of the power of the ritual comes from the secrecy and taboo at its core. But of course the thing that is forbidden about the ritual isn't just the pagan element. The ritual is forbidden because the deity of New Englanders is profit, not revenge, and the crew has signed on to risk their lives proportionate to the level of reward possible, but vengeance has no limit. If the scene has a religious charge, that is what underlies it.If Ahab is Jesus overturning the moneychangers' tables in Jerusalem, he is doing so in the service of a dark god- and the way the chapter is written, anyone with any ability to detach emotionally from the moment will recognize this easily.

But that is perhaps why what immediately precedes this is Cetology. I keep phrasing it as Melville has a Lot of Feelings About Whales, Okay?, but the point Melville is making is that Ishmael has a Lot of Feelings About Whales, and so do most of the crew. This is Ahab's obsession, but it's an obsession that the rest of the crew buys into and not just because of the money at stake. For Moby Dick to work in this moment, the reader has to stand suspended between an understanding of Ahab's obsession with whales, and a readerly detachment that lets you follow the undercurrents of the scene. You have to be a little bit obsessed with whales yourself to get what's going on with the scene, but Melville clearly doesn't want you to sympathize too much with Ahab yet. He wants you to feel the foreboding of the moment, and admire Ahab while thinking he's rather mad.

But what is so marvelous about the craft of this moment is that Melville immediately deconstructs it. You get in the Saying of the Law scene a very schematic representation of the characters- the crew acts as one voice, held in sway by the arguments of Ahab or Starbuck as the moments shift. It's very Moses und Aron, actually, with Ahab as Moses, Starbuck as Aron, and the crew as the amorphous People. But immediately after the Schoenbergian (Kierkegaardian? Hegelian?) confrontation, we get a breakdown where we hear the inner voices and we hear the doubts of each position, and ultimately the crew resolves into a cacophony of individual voices. This isn't a Hegalian dialectic with a failed synthesis, Melville announces. This is a bunch of people on a ship with a bunch of opinions. (and then at the top there is the Captain. Melville/Ishmael juggles a fascinating question about whether Ahab's authority comes from some internal storehouse of power or from the mere existence of his title. It bears close watching, but thus far the answer has been a little of both. The crew seems in thrall to the mesmeric force of his personality, while Starbuck is constrained hopelessly by the maritime tradition of deference to the captain.) So that the dark, phantasmagoric potency of the Saying of the Law scene is immediately compromised with proto-Freudian psychological realism.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
The whole introduction of Captain Ahab is weirdly done, but I have trouble saying if I find it weird because I already knew who Captain Ahab was before I read it. His introduction sets him up as a man of mystery. We gradually get more and more, not even of him as an actual character with goals and feelings, but of his presence gracing the story. Since I already knew going in who Ahab was, that he was the famously monomaniacal captain whose leg was taken by Moby Dick and who thus pursues the white whale at all costs, is that why I found the introduction odd in its emphasis?

Maybe.

I think Ahab's introduction reminds me of the slow build of a suspense novel. First we get the prophetic appearance of Elijah, warning of the dread captain. We get Captain Ahab sightings, like the sightings of a long-fabled monster. Then we see more and more of him, until finally he speaks!

Ishmael's perspective starts to vanish in this section, though, which is an anomaly at odds with the construction of a suspenseful milieu. The narrowly focused first person narration of a suspense novel allows an author to withhold the keys to the narrative. The narrator is confused, unable to assimilate the facts in front of him or her, and thus the reader is stymied, too. Ishmael reports scenes of Ahab's odd activities that he explicitly explains he could not possibly have seen as a lowly deckhand. Still, he describes them in the same reportorial style accorded to scenes he does witness (or at least, has the capacity to witness).

In many ways, Moby Dick is a badly constructed novel. It just has this total disregard for the rules of fiction, for the conventions by which narrative flows linearly forward in a sense-making story. But more about then when we get to the novel's single best chapter, Chapter 32. Cetology.


Cetology is the marine biology textbook that Melville embeds in the novel, or at least it's the beginning of said textbook. My memory from the last time I read the book was that there was a lot more to it, so I'm guessing that there's some more marine bio textbook chapters to come that my mind combined into my memory of Cetology.

It is a very odd fish indeed. In some ways it's a parody of a 19th century scientific text, disputatious, tendentious, and unnecessarily authoritative. He entertains briefly the idea that whales are not fish, based on Linnaeus's classification and their mammalian characteristics, but completely rejects the idea because of um... the book of Jonah. Might be the novel's most unintentionally funny line, except that I'm not sure if it's unintentional.

In some ways, it's a legitimate exposition. Moby Dick is big and complicated and its intent is to immerse the reader in the world of whaling, so the reader had better know about whales. I'm told by those who know that for its time, Cetology is a work of exceptional accuracy. Comparatively little was known about whale biology in the 1840s, and many of the scientific texts on the subject were by non-whalers, a fact Ishmael strongly objects to.

And insofar as it is legitimate exposition, it's legitimate exposition with regard to what a whaler needs to know about whales. Each entry on a whale 'species' (and I use the term species as loosely as possible) describes the key visual identifiers large enough for a boat to spot- fins size and shape, coloration, spout location... and it describes how many gallons of oil and of what quality can be extracted from the species. Those facts are all that matter for most cases. In special cases, he'll single out some behavioral details, but only insofar as they matter to whalers- is a species friendly, or is it vicious and prone to attack? Is it slippery and fast and likely to escape, or is it slow and easy to kill?

My favorite entry, after the glorious entry on the sperm whale, is the entry on the huzza porpoise. It is a symbol of good luck, he says, and whalers love to see the friendly porpoises swim up alongside their ships. Then two lines later, he adds, "Porpoise meat is delicious." And as an afterthought, he adds, "You can get about a gallon of oil from a porpoise."

But the sperm whale! In addition to a decent helping of dirty humor about spermaceti being the semen of whales, we get odes to the quality and odor of sperm whale oil, and we get most important of all, lots and lots of promises that Ishmael will tell us more about sperm whales later, as if he hasn't told us enough. Of course, the reader most likely knows that the white whale is a sperm whale, that Ishmael's purpose is to provide us context on the central antagonist of the novel, but it's again the slippery disregard for chronology. Ishmael already knows that sperm whales are going to take center stage in his narration, so he can't help but give us the information now, out of any kind of logical order.

And it's the third function of Cetology where Ishmael offers explanation for this. A draught of a draught, he says. Cetology functions as an extended pun and metaphor for the entire novel. He sort of jokingly splits the whales into three size-based categories- folio, octavo, and duodecimo, based on the sizing of books. Thus Moby Dick is a sort of folio edition, and Moby Dick is a folio whale. Ishmael extends the metaphor throughout the chapter, calling his enumeration of whales a 'bibliography' and concluding with one of the most wonderfully moving passages in the whole book, the whole enterprise's raison d'etre:

Finally: It was stated at the outset, that this system would not be here, and at once, perfected. You cannot but plainly see that I have kept my word. But I now leave my cetological System standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the cranes still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!

Dirty puns, stacked metaphors, contorted metaphysics, dueling themes, obstinate optimism... is there anything this passage lacks?
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-Um... the Bulkington Chapter is my biggest WTF so far, and certainly my least favorite chapter. I don't know what to do with it at all. I think the problem is I'm not supposed to do anything with it. I think it's a piece of prose-poetry, a meditation on the place of man in the sea, another one of the early stylistic deviations. It doesn't set anything up plotwise. It doesn't tell us much about Bulkington and it doesn't tell us much about Ishmael. It's a mood piece.

I think what I'm supposed to do with it is just enjoy it. I don't think it's structurally important, I don't think it's meaningful or deep, I just think Melville had a thing he wanted to tell the readers and he was so worked up about it that he gave it his finest, more flowery language. That is really difficult for me. I don't know why it's difficult. Maybe it's just that the chapter is so damn overwritten that I want to treat it as satire. Maybe it's just not very good. I'm okay if the answer is that Melville slipped in a bad chapter. I can kind of accept that and move on, because he has so many good chapters.

But maybe the problem with the Bulkington chapter is that it's not just structurally unimportant, but actively works against some of Melville's other stylistic choices. Every character sketch thus far has been in its fashion, comic. (See past comments on Melville's humor in Moby Dick) Every character sketch has been pretty Dickensian, really. No, let's back off that a bit. Dickensian might imply that Melville is creating an inferior imitation of Dickens, but Melville's character sketches are not that. His portrait of Queequeg, his portraits of Bildad and Peleg, of Ned Coffin and Father Mapple, they're magnificent things that capture each character's essence in a stray gesture, a quirky response, a bizarre tic that reveals the monomanias and fascinations that define who these people are. And at the same time, they are leaden, ugly things that let us look deep into Ishmael's soul and his own deepseated prejudices.

Bulkington's introductory sketch qualified, but in The Bulkington Chapter, he is converted into an archetype. He is strong, noble, adventurous, but none of these traits are defined by any particularized action. Thus the Bulkington we see here is not a character who is compatible with the other characters in the story. He is a figure out of some other novel, some odd gothic monstrosity.

Maybe the right question to ask on the Bulkington Chapter is why Melville chose to make it anomalous. Why, in Melville's monstrously odyssean epic, where everything can be schematized and sliced and diced, where the point of the book is to chase a whale because it represents so much more than just a whale, is the epic hero a sideshow, someone who inspires Ishmael but is ultimately not relevant to the story?

-Melville follows it up with a duo of chapters titled Knights and Squires, in which he dissects the human dynamics of the harpoon boats, the relationships between the mates and the harpooneers. And these are great chapters, although I find the sectioning a little odd. Why have two chapters that serve a continuous function, have the same title, but break them up?

That notwithstanding, one of the things I love about the Starbuck chapter is how little it's about his skills as a first mate. There's virtually nothing about his experience as a sailor, virtually nothing about him as a leader, it's just about his caution and his courage. Cue the ISHMAEL IS SUCH A GREENHORN macro again, maybe? But I think I should penetrate a little deeper into an aspect of that: Is Ishmael still a greenhorn in these chapters? It's not clear. Time is fluid and messy in Moby Dick. Melville is inconsistent with tense and perspective in his narration. Is Ishmael telling this story as it's happening, unaware of the quirks of fate he is about to be subjected to, or is he telling it retrospectively, or is he doing a little of both? To bring back the Dickens comparisons, in David Copperfield Dickens balances this tension extraordinarily. The reader is always aware of Adult David's presence and consciousness, yet this doesn't keep us at any real remove from Child David's thought processes. But my ISHMAEL IS SUCH A GREENHORN macro is about the fact that Melville completely makes a hash of the distinction. Even in scenes where the reader is aware that Ishmael is being stupid, it's not clear by any means that Narrator Ishmael is aware that Greenhorn Ishmael was being stupid. Grownup Ishmael doesn't seem any wiser than Greenhorn Ishmael.

To be more specific, all this talk of the way Starbuck balances his caution and his courage suggests that Ishmael is writing this after having fought whales with Starbuck, yet the reader hasn't seen Ishmael fight whales with Starbuck, doesn't have the context to appreciate the value of Starbuck's whaling caution. It kind of makes a terrible introduction to the first mate of a whaling ship. We haven't had enough whaling porn for it to make sense. I still love the chapter, though, because I think it is a fascinating distillation of a person, to reduce him entirely to the question of how cautious he is when confronted with danger, and to try to render a moral dimension in that choice. Because everything is a moral question in Moby Dick. This is not a story about competency winning out over incompetency, it's a story where any battle between competency and incompetency is really and truly a proxy for the war between man's good impulse and his evil impulse. Starbuck's capacity to serve as chief mate is ultimately not about whether or not he is a good sailor and leader of men. It's about whether, when he is put to the test, he steps up to meet the challenge. Whether he is manly, which in a novel that basically doesn't have female characters, means whether he is decent.

And now to get back to my question on the division, I find myself gravitating toward the theory that Melville split it because he felt like it. Because his intuition told him it was right. More than a lot of other great novels, Moby Dick feels half-planned and at times half-finished, and I'm mostly pretty okay with that. Recall the note I made on Infinite Jest

Something I find exhilarating about the writing is the way it feels unmastered, like Foster Wallace has lost control of his narrative. The beginning didn't feel that way, I don't think, but sometime a few hundred pages ago I started sensing it coming off the rails. I don't really mean the narrative, though. I mean the language, the prose itself, that is out of anybody's control. It makes the narrative feel wild and unmanaged, but actually I think Foster Wallace still owns his plot. It's everything else he's given up on.

I feel sort of the same way about Moby Dick's bigness. Melville is butting up against themes so big he can't deal with them representationally by coloring within the lines, working within some systematic schema like his ludicrous marine biology textbook. So he doesn't even really try. The plot diagram of Moby Dick is almost impossible to draw. The next section is the next section because Melville wanted it next, not because it helps support the plan. The point isn't to build to something in particular, the point is just to keep building and building, a Babelian edifice that one feels certain will collapse at any moment, that perhaps does collapse repeatedly along the way.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
I feel like I should say something about Queequeg's biography, but mostly what I feel is disgust. Melville/Ishmael couldn't even be bothered to spell the name of Queequeg's homeland consistently from page to page! Boo Ishmael. Boo Melville.

The chowder scene is pretty hilarious. ISHMAEL IS SUCH A GREENHORN. Actually, the best summary of chapters 12-20 is ISHMAEL IS SUCH A GREENHORN. There's the chowder, the harpoon saga at the inn, the way he gets outnegotiated into a 300th lay by the Peleg/Bildad team... The whole point of these chapters is mostly for Melville to winkingly show how little Ishmael knows about whaling.

The impression one gets of Nantucket Island from Ishmael is of an insular community with odd customs whose sole ambition is to screw stupid whalers and wannabe whalers out of money. And Ishmael is class A chum for the Nantucketer, despite the fact that he keeps reminding us that he doesn't have money, because he also doesn't seem to really care that he doesn't have money. Another sign pointing to his exile from a childhood of fortune, perhaps?

I don't have too much else to say, except that I'd completely forgotten that the Pequod is dressed like a sperm whale. Ahahahaha... Oh, Melville, are you trying to tell us something there? Is the Pequod perhaps a Babelian monster, a man-made Leviathan? Is the true White Whale not Moby Dick, but Ahab's construction of self? Who is being doubled here, and for what purpose?

I think I mentioned in my past post, Melville is so good at sincerity and straightforward detailing that it's at times a bit tricky for me to tell if he even wants you to bother reading these things as symbols. Isn't it enough that Melville just really loves whales and whalers? Isn't the description of the Pequod, which takes several paragraphs and covers the minutest detail of the ship's decoration, a brilliantly entertaining piece of writing on its own terms?
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
-So in my big post on Macrofiction, I describe Moby Dick as "Endless stylistic mashups in search of the Great American Novel."

If Moby Dick is about mashup, The Sermon is Melville's first entry in the game. It's the first time he escapes Ishmael's perspective to offer us someone else's. It's the first time he abandons straight narrative for something more peculiar. It's the first time he... detours.

Melville will be doing a lot of detouring over the course of the book, and The Sermon is probably one of the detours with the most obvious justifications for its inclusion in the novel, but still it's probably worth noting it as a signpost of deviation. I'll trot out my college English professor's chestnut about Ulysses making use of its early chapters to train you to read its later chapters and suggest that Moby Dick does likewise. If every reading is a negotiation between author and reader, an accommodation to the author's rhythms, The Sermon forces the reader for the first time to adjust to a variation in tempo and perspective, and perhaps to start being prepared for this to happen continuously.

-At the same time, The Sermon kind of stands on its own as a thing, right? I mean, its purpose is to pretty heavy-handedly foreshadow the book's whole plot, with foreboding about the death and destruction to come. It purpose is to foreground SIN and good and evil as concepts for the reader to think about as they read what is to follow, which for the most part is a naturalistic adventure that doesn't dwell much on Miltonesque morality fable. (Except when it does. Moby Dick is not committed to anything stylistically except experimentation.) And I keep using words that begin with 'fore-', because whatever we want to say about the famous first line and those initial chapters in New Bedford, this is pretty much where the adventure kicks off. This is sort of Melville re-setting with a new beginning. All the pieces are on the board, we've met Ishmael and Queequeg and the fear of the whale, let's get going. Prologue Take 2.

And where Ishmael's beginning dissembles, Father Mapple tells nothing but the truth. Where Ishmael fumfers around with weird, head-in-the-clouds ideas about the spiritual magic of the sea luring him, Father Mapple talks about souls in mortal peril. You could read Chapter 1 and think this was going to be nothing more than an airy adventure story. The Sermon is about saying, no, shit's going to get real.

But the thing I most want to say about The Sermon is that Melville wrote it. And there's this thing, this kind of lurking question that dogs multimedia art and art about art, that I find myself re-approaching again and again from different angles as I explore more and more post-modernist work. When I read Pale Fire, I asked what the relationship was between Nabokov as a poet and John Shade as a poet. I meant, if I read the poem part of "Pale Fire" and think it's kind of mediocre, is that because Nabokov wants you to think of John Shade as a mediocre poet, or is it because Nabokov is kind of a mediocre poet and he's failed to create a sufficiently brilliant poem?

So the thing about Father Mapple's sermon is that Melville wrote it. And it's a very queer sermon. Part of that, I think, is obviously Melville's craft as storyteller rather than his craft as sermonizer. He's intending this to be a queer sermon because he's intending it to be delivered by a preacher who is also a dyed-in-the-wool whaler speaking to other committed whalers. Melville peppers the sermon with nautical metaphor. It's sort of a joke. (My experience is that all of the humor in Moby Dick can be classified that way: sort of a joke. I never laugh out loud at Moby Dick, just sort of grin and tilt my head a little and ask myself "Did he really just write that?")

But I digress. To return, some of the queerness of The Sermon is clearly deliberate on Melville's part. But consider my Nabokov comparison. Just as Nabokov is a novelist rather than a poet, Melville is a novelist rather than a preacher. The Sermon is not, I believe, Melville's only sermon, nor is "Pale Fire" Nabokov's only poem, but it is still a venture somewhat afield. Some of the queerness of the sermon can be ascribed to the fact that it is a composition by a novelist designed to fit within a novel, rather than a composition designed to be spoken at an actual pulpit. It may be that Father Mapple would happen to speak on Jonah when Ishmael shows up, that he would greet this crew of whalers with that most obvious of whaler sermons, but I find myself kind of skeptical. I think Melville's author instincts here overtake his preacher instincts, as he guides the sermon to where it needs to take the reader rather than where it needs to take its audience of sinners. Though maybe this is a classic example of a Melvillian joke, with the suggestion being that every week a bunch of whalers walk into a chapel to hear the same sermon on Jonah. Naturalism and fabulism feud fiercely throughout Moby Dick.

As to the sermon itself, I might observe that if it's about sin and redemption, it is equally about the exercise of human free will. God poses to Jonah a command and then Jonah must choose to follow it. Each time Father Mapple speaks of Jonah's repentance, he emphasizes that it is in a way an echo of the sin. Just as Jonah chose not to attempt to follow God's will, he chose to welcome God's punishment.

Ishmael calls himself a Presbyterian in this chapter. I'm not actually all that good at Protestantisms, but isn't that one of the ones that has some form of doctrine of Predestination? A curious contrast, that.

-Turning all the Ishmael backstory around in my head, it strikes me as not implausible that Ishmael is a mulatto, passing as white. To start with, this explains the name/pseudonym. I previously emphasized merely the Biblical Ishmael's sense of exile, but the other half of the allusion may be Ishmael being the son of his father's less favored wife, the illegitimate scion of the famous family he coyly suggests he belongs to. This would give context to a weird moment when he accidentally enters a freedman church. It would explain the disjoint between his kinship with the upper classes and his total lack of money. And it gives an interesting flavor to his relationship with Queequeg. Obviously, I have no proof of any of this, but I'm tossing it out anyway. Google tells me I'm not the first to have this idea.


-And then, um... Chapter 10 is the one where Ishmael and Queequeg get married and Chapter 11 is the one where they spend a postcoital morning in bed together. And that's not the slashgoggles reading of the scene.

The sheer motion of the Ishmael/Queequeg relationship is something of a problem for me. Moreso this time than the last time, I think, because I was primed for it and expecting it and it kinda just felt like Melville maneuvering the pieces to get to the story he wanted to tell. This is not a story about overcoming prejudices and forming a friendship. This is a story that glosses over the overcoming prejudices part because look, Ishmael's just this guy whose best friend is a cannibal, okay?

This time around, that bothers me a little bit more. It is always weird in a novel of this length to wish for any part to be longer, but I feel like the ease to which Ishmael acclimates to Queequeg's presence is not well justified in the story, and the ease to which Queequeg acclimates to Ishmael is even worse. I think Ishmael just says something like "Since he's an unpredictable savage, who can say why he decided to like me?"

I think it does speak to a deep unmooring loneliness that accompanies Ishmael through these opening chapters. In one additional stray revelation about Ishmael's backstory, he says that he has decided to accept pagan kindness because Christian kindness has betrayed him. Ishmael is a seeker, going out to sea because there is something about the people on land that is unwelcoming to him.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Here, have some notes on a reread of the first six chapters of Moby Dick, since some asshole dared to actually check Zadie Smith's NW out of the library again and [personal profile] cahn mentioned reading Moby Dick and I realized it's probably been a decade since I read it.

-Call me Ishmael. I have no idea why the line is so famous, or what it means. Actually, Ishmael tells you very little about himself, or his life before the novel. He hints coyly and almost hypothetically that he might be the scion of some wealthy and famous family and describes in still circumspect though somewhat more open detail the job he may or may not have held prior to the novel as a country schoolmaster, yet he is in the opening chapters almost without money, unable to buy a bed in one of the mediocre inns of a sailing town like New Bedford.

There is a story there. Whether Ishmael lost all his money in some boondoggle, one of the panics that plagued this frantic era of American economic history, or whether some scandal has driven him from his job as schoolmaster is unclear, but there almost certainly must be more to Ishmael's story than he is willing to share.

We know he has a cruel step-mother, from a story he tells in order to prove he is not gay, but nothing of the circumstances by which he acquired her. We know he is learned, from the stream of classical references he hurls at the reader, and from the casual quotation from the only extant copy of a volume he is in the possession of.

He is a romantic, as we see in the first chapter in one of literature's most famously beautiful paeans to the sea, yet that paean is full of practicalities. He embarks on a most romantic journey, claiming it is for no other reason than a restlessness of the spirit and a need to combat an impulse to suicide by immersing himself in larger, more philosophic forces, yet he enters fully aware that he will by needs carry a broom, take orders from a domineering captain, diminish his dignity in the process.

It is unclear most of the time whether Ishmael is lying to the reader, or lying to himself. It is unclear if Ishmael is his name or if 'Call me Ishmael' implies that it is some form of pseudonym. It is unclear what Biblical parallel one ought draw, if perhaps the sense of unwilling exile is all that Melville connotes, or if there's something else to draw out.


- I love the short passage in chapter one where he describes the New York shore of his time. It's always sounded like a really exciting part of NYC's history. Moby Dick is not a novel about New York, or about land at all, really, but I did enjoy that passage.

- Queequeg. Um... what to say. The passage alternates between frighteningly racist and charmingly if condescendingly liberal. It's unclear to me, because even in the first time I read Moby Dick I knew who Queequeg was, so it's unclear to me if Melville intends for the reader to figure out ahead of Ishmael that Queequeg is a Pacific Islander. He certainly plants plenty of clues before Ishmael finally has the realization that Queequeg is 'a cannibal'.

(I've had "Taniwha" marked as to-read when I had brushed up on Moby Dick. Probably time is now)

The one thing Melville/Ishmael utterly fails to do in these opening chapters is actually give you any sense of what Queequeg is actually like as a person. The chapters might introduce Queequeg, but they're all about Ishmael and how he feels and what he wants and what stories he is interested in telling about Queequeg.

On the other hand, if you're going into Moby Dick as an Ishmael/Queequeg shipper, Melville gives you hella grist for that mill, between the naked bed-sharing that ends with Queequeg spooning Ishmael, the way Ishmael ogles Queequeg's body, and the way Ishmael keeps lamely shouting "No homo."

Um... more later.

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