Named Tomorrow


“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

Plato and the Whale

Moby Dick is not written as cryptography but as mystery.  The agitations of voice, the playfulness through which symbols emerge and then dissolve, the mixtures of incantatory, Biblical, polite, and vernacular language in this and other American books— these are what demand our attention altogether more than do ideas or themes extracted by critics in the interest of tidying up what is mysterious or confused.”  — Richard Poirier, A World Elsewhere, p. 36

“Skepticism of this kind [the authors’ regarding the symbolist tendencies of their central characters], however, need not and does not modify the grandeurs of description in which Melville and Lawrence like to indulge.  The admiration of the writers in both cases goes not to the possible accuracy of a symbolist perspective, but only to the heroic nobility of incentive behind it, its creative responsiveness to the things of this world.” – p. 43

Elsewhere, Poirier says that in the works he is discussing, the reader must ‘submit to a discipline, imposed by the difficulties in the writing, that will develop in us a consciousness rarely called forth…,’ and that, ‘in Emerson’s view, writing is valuable for the stimulations offered locally, by particular moments of the reading experience, and not for any retrospective consideration of the whole.’

After watching Phillip Hoare’s BBC documentary, The Hunt for Moby-Dick, I wanted to read the book, and after reading Poirier, I actually took it down and began to do so.  It’s been slow going, but not because of any difficulty in maintaining interest, really.  I even found fascinating, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment, the dreaded ‘Cetology’ chapter, which two friends had warned me was the First Test of Commitment.  No, I’ve been reading it slowly simply because there’s no rush.  Which is new to me.  I’m normally eager to get through a book so I can move on to the next one, or I’m worried that I’ll forget some crucial image or idea and something important will be lost on me in the latter sections of a book.  Proust may have been a remedy for that— it is impossible to remember it all, so you remember what you remember and forget what you forget, and its length seems to be intended to bring about that necessarily cherry-picked memory.  But I think Phillip Roth’s recent comment, that if you take more than two weeks you haven’t really read the novel, is illuminating here, because it strikes me as particularly inadequate.  In most books, there are pivotal scenes supported by groundwork: character background, establishment shots, tension-building, etc.  There is a lot of padding, necessary or not, and it can obscure the significant passages, images, and events, such that if you take more than two weeks you will probably have forgotten something crucial and had something unimportant emphasized by the recession of what surrounds it.  Moby Dick seems different.  That’s not to say Melville doesn’t engage in groundwork— the first sentence is famous, after all— but I feel as if I can wander in Moby Dick, that Melville isn’t trying to direct which moments will provide that ‘local stimulation,’ and is willing to let just about any provide it.  There isn’t the imperative to get it all in quickly, so the stimuli combine to the full effect.  (And on top of that, if you are reading for a culminating effect, you’ve several hundred pages of meticulous anti-climax to get through first.) I’ll read a few chapters, then not pick it up for a day or two, but I still find myself mulling over certain passages and scenes, particular images or phrases.

There is this highly amusing feint in Chapter 45: “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.”  Or, in the chapter examining the mythological importance of whiteness, there is the assertion that “without imagination no man can follow another into these halls.”  And this marvelous paragraph, that in four sentences portrays the development of Ahab’s madness, and his own understanding’s limits and reasoning:

“Now, in his heart, Ahab had some glimpse of this, namely: all my means are sane, my motive and my object mad.  Yet without power to kill, or change, or shun the fact; he likewise knew that to mankind he did long dissemble; in some sort, did still.  But that thing of his dissembling was only subject to his perceptibility, not to his will determinate.  Nevertheless, so well did he succeed in that dissembling, that when with ivory leg he stepped ashore at last, no Nantucketer thought him otherwise than but naturally grieved, and that to the quick, with the terrible casualty which had overtaken him.”

One passage that I keep returning to, though, is this:

“And thus have these naked Nantucketers, these sea hermits, issuing from their ant-hill in the sea, overrun and conquered the watery world like so many Alexanders…  For the sea is his; he own its, as Emperors own empires; other seamen having but a right of way through it.  Merchant ships are but extension bridges; armed ones but floating forts; even pirates and privateers, though following the sea as highwaymen the road, they but plunder other ships, other fragments of the land like themselves, without seeking to draw their living from the bottomless deep itself.  The Nantucketer, he alone resides and riots on the sea; he alone, in Bible language, goes down to it in ships; to and fro ploughing it as his own special plantation.  There is his home; there lies his business, which a Noah’s flood would not interrupt, though it overwhelmed all the millions in China.  He lives on the sea, as prairie cocks on the prairie; he hides among the waves, he climbs them as chamois hunters climbs the Alps.  For years he knows not the land; so that when he comes to it at last, it smells like another world, more strangely than the moon would to an Earthsman.  With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.”

What is striking in this description of the symbiotic relationship between the Nantucketer and the sea is what Poirier noted as the playfulness with which symbols emerge and dissolve.  Melville is adept at giving everything an equal allegorical weight; this seems to be that ‘mystery’ with which Poirier characterizes Moby Dick.  Set this passage next to the Cetology chapter, where the species of whales are classed by size into the categories of folio, octavo, and duodecimo, and then later to the passage discussing the ‘hieroglyphics’ on whales’ skin, and Melville appears to be hinting at a relationship between the use of language and the use of the sea, and positing that one can use it with or without integrity.  Against the identification of each type of seagoer with a metaphor, the Nantucketer is implicitly given that real quality, which the others explicitly lack, of relating to the ‘deep itself.’  His whaling is depicted as a natural progression following the push outward from catching crabs on the shore to catching cod from boats, a move, therefore, of growing necessity and increasing skill, not profit.

Melville establishes that, past this stage of cod-catching, there are those who treat the medium as a means to an end, and those who are willingly encompassed by it, who draw their living from it.  It is key, though, that each object in this passage is attached to a metaphorical counterpart— merchant ships and extension bridges, pirates and highwaymen, Nantucketers and landless gulls— but those attached to the Nantucketer refuse, or fail, to turn him into a pure metaphor. Even as we are being told that the Nantucketer is ‘with the landless gull, rocked to sleep between billows,’ we know he is not, because we have just been told that, at some point, “he comes to [land] at last.”  Even as he is defined by his relationship to the sea, he is called after the land from which he comes.  Merchant sailors and pirates, though defined by their business on the sea, yet use it disingenuously, as a means to move items from one land to another or to capture them without facing retribution.

Consequently, we can begin to see how a few of Poirier’s points play out: what he means when he describes the discipline to which a reader must submit in reading this type of book, the skepticism towards symbolism that yet admits the nobility of incentive behind it, and furthermore how the creative response to the things of this world, cultivated by a writer, is duplicated in the ‘local stimulation of the reading experience’ that occurs in the reader.  The book is too haphazard to say that Melville is linking language and the sea as a controlling metaphor, and the two’s ubiquity would make the whole book an overly complex allegory if he were.  In general, the form the above passage takes, of unwittingly inept metaphors for its primary subject, prompts a sort of creative recuperation— the hope that, even with failed metaphors, it has a larger point.  This is the certain extent to which one must submit to Melville’s program.

To attempt to ‘read’ this passage in predefined terms, and resist Melville’s rendering, would ultimately miss how the ‘symbols’ in this passage pull their punches as a reflex of the most important symbol’s failure.  When Melville compares the Nantucketer to an Emperor, it is not too distant in intent from Thoreau’s pun, highlighted by Poirier, in saying that he “walked over each farmer’s premises,” because, as Emerson has it, no man owns the prospect, even if some own the land.  Thoreau simultaneously recognizes the farmer’s ownership while satirizing the idea of land-owning.  In a similar tactic, Melville ends so many of his encyclopedic chapters with boisterously drawn moralistic aphorisms.  But however excellently succinct or awfully flat the allegories seem, the subjects which are transformed into allegory by his closing sentences never become mere “hideous and intolerable allegory.”  Moby Dick, as far as Ishmael is concerned, is a real and terrible being, a terror he is aware of even as the quality of whiteness becomes pure, if self-contradictory symbol.  He gives us, in one instance, the factual account of the harpooneer Tashtego falling into a whale’s head while removing its oil, and in the next, a warning against the dangers of drowning in philosophy: “How many, think ye, have likewise fallen into Plato’s honey head, and sweetly perished there?”  The fascination is not what the subject becomes a substitute for in the revealed allegory, but how exactly imagination allows one to “follow another into these halls” where Ishmael finds symbol upon symbol upon symbol, and where a whale’s head becomes Plato’s, or where I glimpse the sea as an inadequate yet fascinating allegorical substitute for language and how it is used.  Certainly, it will always be used to build bridges, necessarily and for good reason, and there will also be those who use it manipulatively, to get what they want without consideration of the results, but the Nantucketers, those are the ones to look for.


Filed under: Melville, Poirier, Writing

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