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A Sea of Memory

Claire Ceriani's picture

            Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is certainly the story of a man’s quest for meaning.  Ahab is frequently said to be a tragic character seeking revenge on the White Whale, because he believes that he is destined to do it, that there is somehow more at work than random chance in these events.  But as captivating as this story is, the book itself spends a significant amount of time focused more within the mind of the narrator known simply as Ishmael.  It therefore seems impossible to categorize this work as simply a novel, because doing so would dismiss many of the chapters that have no place in a typical novel.  The story Ishmael tells the reader is in fact his own quest to mentally reassemble the events of the tragedy he experienced in Ahab’s crew, and apply what meaning he can to them, making this story much more than a novel.

            From the very start of the book, Ishmael addresses the reader directly as “you,” but it seems that he is often actually addressing himself.  The reader cannot even be certain that Ishmael is the true name of the narrator, but it does not seem to matter, as the story is almost certainly written more for Ishmael’s benefit than anyone else’s.  He explains to the reader that he goes to sea as a sort of deathless suicide that allows him to isolate himself from the rest of the world.  He writes, “There is nothing surprising in this.  If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me” (3).  He then goes on to list many examples of man’s fascination with the sea, suggesting that people like to be “as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling,” (4) as though the sea is a way of looking at one’s own mortality.  The amount of time he spends explaining this suggests that he is rationalizing it to himself.  He does not begin his story by saying much of anything about himself or his past as most other narrators do; he just explains why he chose to go to on this voyage.  He says he usually leaves on a voyage when he finds himself stopping outside coffin warehouses and following funerals in the streets.  This fascination with death and mortality is certainly not normal for most people, no matter how hard he tries to convince the reader, and therefore himself, that it is.  About half-way through the book, Ishmael writes, “For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life.  God keep thee there!  Push not oft from that isle, thou canst never return!” (299)  This can certainly be read as regret.  Despite his attempts to rationalize his decision to sail with Ahab, he here comes to the conclusion that he has made a mistake.  This does not seem to be advice to the reader, but actually the self-scolding of a man haunted by memories and regret.

            Ishmael spends most of the middle portion of the book switching between narrative and reflection, but both are key parts to the story of Ishmael, not as a chronicler, but as a self-explorer.  Once he moves past the exposition, which is mostly the more pleasant memories of meeting his friend, Queequeg, the story loses its linear writing style.  Perhaps Ishmael found the beginning easy enough to think about, but once he begins writing about Ahab and his quest for Moby Dick, the events become more painful to remember.  The passage of time in this middle section is unclear, as though Ishmael himself does not really remember how long each part of the journey took.  He begins including chapters that are entirely about whales.  He considers them from a biological perspective, an artistic perspective, a symbolic perspective, any area of knowledge he has, in order to make what is otherwise an elusive monster easier to understand.  The chapter entitled “Cetology,” one of the longest in the book, is the first major section of this kind.  He writes at the beginning of this chapter that before saying anything about what happened to him in Ahab’s crew, he would like to bring a little order to the story, because “at the outset it is but well to attend to a matter almost indispensible to a thorough appreciative understanding of the more special leviathanic revelations and allusions of all sorts which are to follow” (145).  He then classifies whales at length, using books as an analogy.  This need to create order is recognized as a very human trait, seen in the way we very carefully organize books, which are themselves used to organize knowledge.  Ishmael’s motivation for writing this chapter is the need to create some order out of the chaos of Ahab’s quest.  He needs some way to organize his thoughts, and so he organizes whales, the very creatures that killed all the people who would become important to him in this story.  Perhaps by ordering them, he can better understand them and therefore understand everything that happened.  He spends a large part of the book just describing how whales are killed, exactly how they die, and how the whalers go about using the different parts of its body, again illustrating a fascination with death.  While recalling the events of the story, he continues to pause to think about the whale from a purely reflective perspective, drawing on whatever facts he has to anchor these memories to some kind of meaning.

            After his attempts to reconstruct these events in a way that he can better understand them, Ishmael seems at a loss for meaning at the end of his reflections, demonstrating that not everything has a reason, no matter how much the mind tries to create it.  The writing style begins another change as the climax of the book approaches.  The reflective, informative chapters disappear, and the narrative once again becomes a visually descriptive series of events more typical of other novels.  The imagery of these events is much more vivid, as though these memories are clearer in his mind.  After all the time Ishmael spent writing intellectually about whales, he can no longer delay writing about the tragic encounter with Moby Dick, memories that most likely haunt him.  It is worth noting that, though Ishmael has never been a central player in any of the memories that make up this story, he hardly even mentions himself in these last few chapters.  He is not telling the story of what happened to him; he is relating what he saw and what he heard around him as he remembers it.  He is unwilling to place himself in these events and must remain an observer for his own protection.  Most striking about this ending is that, despite his attempts at constructing some sort of meaningful story out of these memories, he is still left with a sense of hopelessness.  Of the ship that rescues him, the lone survivor, he writes, “It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after his missing children, only found another orphan” (625).  His use of the word “devious” is particularly telling.  It could be referring to the wandering, unordered course of the Rachel, suggesting that there is no significance in his survival while everyone else died, because it was only chance that he was rescued.  It could also be read as scheming or conniving, suggesting that Fate has somehow decided that Ishmael must live with the memories of this event, knowing that not a single other person exists who can tell his story.  Ishmael himself may not be certain which interpretation is the better one, but either way, he is still left with his memories and no hope of ever understanding the meaning of these events.  He is either looking for meaning that simply does not exist, or he is grasping at an idea that is out of his reach of understanding.

            The exploration of one man’s own mind is as much a story as the quest for the White Whale in Moby-Dick.  Ishmael is not relating his experiences to be read as a novel.  He is sifting through his memories, reconstructing them with knowledge and order in a vain attempt to bring some sense of meaning to them.  His quest is to find a way of facing himself as the lone survivor of a tragic voyage, without anchor in a sea of memory.


Anne Dalke's picture

The working brain

So, Claire--

I'm puzzled. When we'd talked about this project, you'd mentioned the work you'd done on the neurobiology of memory, and I'd mentioned Lehrer's new book, Proust was a Neuroscientist. What I was expecting to arise from our conversation was an essay in which you said let's look @ Moby-Dick, not as an example of an adventure novel, but as a neuroscience textbook, a description of how the brain works to reconstruct memories.

I was confused by the contrast you initially used to set up your project, between a typical novel's "quest for meaning" with Ishmael's attempt to "apply what meaning he can" to his experiences--what's the difference between the two? What's the implied definition of a novel, which you are using as a foil for your interpretation of the work this text is doing?

You've given a fine accounting of the various different forms the novel takes, as you trace its changes in writing style from narrative, to reflection, to informative, back to narative description. But to describe those changes as expressive of moments when some memories are "clearer" than others, or as attempts @ self protection, presumes some outside source of data that you don't have to rely on here.

What seems to hamper this project throughout is the presumption that Ishmael--who is of course a narrator made up by Melville--is a "real" person, with "real" experiences that he is recalling: "Perhaps Ishmael found the beginning easy enough to think about....Ishmael does not really remember how long each part of the journey took." What counts as "real" in a novel, a made-up story? What is fact, what fiction? What is your data, what your source, for what "really" happens here?

This becomes a particular tangle when you oppose your own understanding of the nature of the world--"fascination with death and mortality is certainly not normal for most people"--against Ishmael's ("no matter how hard he tries to convince the reader"); when he says he's speaking about "almost all men," but you say that he's writing "more for his benefit than anyone else's."

What is your evidence for your claim, what facts do you have to set again all the counter-evidence Ishmael marshals? What of the counter-evidence he marshals against his own best evidence (all the humor of the cetology chapter, for instance, which so makes fun of his own attempt to make order of the chaos of the world)?

What most intrigued me was your final observation that Ishmael himself may not be certain whether he is looking for meaning that does not exist, or grasping at an idea out of his reach. Which of these prototypes for meaning-making governs the study you've made of neurobiology? Does science as you've practiced it presume that there is a world out there, which our brains attempt to represent accurately? Or that we have no means of adjudicating the "realness" of our experience? Might one or the other of those presumptions help you talk about the degree to which Melville's novel shows us something of how the brain works?



Claire Ceriani's picture

Forget the neuroscience,

Forget the neuroscience, that didn't work!  Actually, that's not true; I did start this paper more from the original angle I talked about, but it didn't want to be written that way.  To write my original idea convincingly would have required more than 4 pages and a lot of research to be viable.


I cede that I could have benefitted from more definitively describing a typical novel; I assumed that most people would have similar expectations of a novel as a work that tells the story of specific events.  But my claim, as I state in my thesis, is simply that the true story of Moby-Dick is Ishmael's reflection on the events, not the events themselves, which I think I back up with passages that can be read as rationalizing, regret, and attempts at creating order.  I'm just a little confused, because it seems that some of your comments pertain more to our conference than to what I ultimately wrote.

Anne Dalke's picture

accessing the truth

Oh, I'm responding to your paper (though the lens of our discussion, of course); my questions are really about the claim you make about the "true story of Moby-Dick: where lies reality, where the truth, in a work of fiction? What constitutes proof in interpreting a fictional world? What can function as authoritative source for saying what really happened? How can you get outside of the voice of the reporter (be it Ishmael or Melville)? Is there something beyond the novel that you can use to say what "really" happened in the book itself? I agree that Ishmael has all the characteristics you ascribe to him--regretful, rationalizing, order-making. Where I find myself puzzled is around your claims for the existence of that order somewhere outside the novel...where is it? How to access it?
Claire Ceriani's picture

Oh, okay, that's a little

Oh, okay, that's a little clearer, thanks.

 To be honest, I wasn't consciously aware that I was making that exact claim.  Though this never enters my argument, I think Ishmael is a fairly reliable narrator, considering that his motivation for writing this is to come to terms with his memories.  I wasn't really thinking about truth vs. fiction.  I was thinking about Melville writing the story of Ishamel writing the story of Ahab; the significant story is Ishamel's own mental journey, not Ahab's quest.  My thinking was that the order-making we see in Moby-Dick is the evidence of this being written by a character trying to apply meaning to his memories.  I wasn't really considering possible differences between "fiction" and "reality" within the book, but rather Ishmael's perceptions: why he chooses to break linear narrative, why he speaks directly to the reader at some times, why he spends so much time categorizing whales...

Anne Dalke's picture

do i have it now?

And thanks back to you, Claire, for sticking with this conversation, helping me see more clearly what claim you want to be making here: that the significant story is Ishmael's mental journey, not Ahab's quest (though significant from what perspective? that of someone interested in how the brain works? that of someone counting how much time is spent on what topics in the novel?)

I think what threw me off-track was your saying, early on, that it's therefore "impossible to categorize this work as a novel." What I'm hearing now is the possibility of actually RE-classifying Moby-Dick as a novel, on the grounds of the material you've highlighted: because all its various parts--drama, classification, narrative--can all be seen as representations of Ishmael's brain making sense of the world. From this point of view, it's ALL psychological, as Ishmael "mentally assembles" the events of the story.

Do I have it now?

Claire Ceriani's picture

Yes!  I think the issue is

Yes!  I think the issue is just that I never fully explained what I consider to be a typical novel, assuming that most people think of novels as stories told about events as they unfold.  I read Moby-Dick as a very different kind of "novel" which, because it is being told as Ishmael reflects on these events, breaks the traditional narrative form.  People don't think in novel-form, and Ishamel doesn't either.