Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Starting Moby-Dick

Day 5 of Emerging Genres

Starting Moby-Dick

To frame our discussion: Blue (Moby Dick)
c. 1943
from Web Museum, Paris--

consider Jackson Pollack's "drip and splash style,"

a.k.a. his "action painting,"
his attempt to render
"a direct expression of unconscious moods,"

his "all-over style...which avoids any points of emphasis."

Working on our genre: the blog

  • Weeding, Seeding and Placekeeping
  • On Classification to and from Various Orders of Magnitude
    • to generalize is party to ignore differences
    • a genre is never complete
    • "no representation...can completely ..capture what it represents"
    • the probability of accuracy decreases as you move down an order of magnitude (its easier to accurately describe a genre from its parts than it is to describe all the parts of a genre)
    • a genre essentially places an expectation on the novel...
    • those expectations are confirmed, denied, or adjusted.

    So: What were your expectations of Melville's "organic form"? And how were they adjusted?

(For how many of you is this a re-reading?
What were the contexts of your earlier readings?
How has this current context influenced what you are noticing now?)

Beginning w/ the part (you probably?) skimmed thru to get to the "novel" proper:

Etymology/extracts and what sort of tone they set for book as whole....What did you learn by reading the opening pages?

What was the experience of reading them like for you?

(Etymology of "etymology"=from Gk etumon, "true sense of the word")

Does Melville provide the "true meaning" of the word "whale"?

And/or question the validity of the novel's central word/subject?


    Samuel Beckett's Murphy (1952): "In the beginning was the pun."

    Whale <--> Wale

    (=mark raised by whip on skin; raised ridge on surface of fabric;
    heavy plank along side of wooden ship > OE walu)

    Jonathan Culler, On Puns: The Foundation of Letters (1987, pp. 1-16):

    the interest of etymologies lies in the surprising coupling of different meanings.... Etymologies...give us respectable puns, endowing pun-like effects with the authority of science....Etymologies show us what puns might be if taken seriously: illustrations of the inherent instability of language and the power of uncodified linguistic relations to produce meaning....etymologies, like puns,...are instances of speakers intervening in language, articulating relations....intently or playfully working to reveal the structures of language, motivating linguistic signs, allowing signifiers to affect meaning by generating new connections....

    Not surprisingly, in both the realm of puns--relations between signs in a language at a particular moment--and the realm of etymology--relations between signs from different periods--there is no dearth of people anxious to control relations, to enforce a distinction between real and false connections. Puns are an exemplary product of language or mind....the exploration of formal resemblance to establish connections of meaning seems the basic activity of literature; but this foundation...depends on a function of practices of reading, forms of attention, and social convention....

    Punning frequently seems...a structural, connecting offer the mind a sense and an experience of an order that it does not master or comprehend....we are urged to conceive an order.....Insofar as this is the goal or achievement of art, the pun seems an exemplary agent....

    What is the nature of the extracts?
    What are Melville's sources?
    What kind of authorities does he draw on?

    What IS the point/purpose/pattern of these two opening sections?

    Open to host of perspectives/"fluid consciousness" (fr. Emerson)
    "Intellectual chowder"/compendium of juxtaposed texts militates against univocal order
    Questions wisdom of singlemindedness/comfortable resolution


    What's Melville's attitude toward literature/the written word in general?

    What reading takes place in the novel, and what are the consequences of that act?

    How are texts used? (Are they useful?)

    This savage was the only person present who seemed to notice my entrance; because he was the only one who could not read, and therefore, was not reading those frigid inscriptions on the wall...many are the unrecorded accidents. (44)

    Bildad...went on mumbling to himself out of his book, "'Lay not up for youselves treasures upon earth, where moth--'" (76)

    Queequeg counting pages...

    Aunt Charity's books (which none read)

    Inadequacy of books...

    Attempts at definition, simultaneous joke at difficulty...
    questions usefulness of activity of scholarship...?
    (Chapter 32: Cetology)

    And yet: there is SUCH a strong, insistent meaning-making impulse throughout the novel

    (From The Theory of Subjectivity in Moby-Dick:)
    Elemental human passions/anxieties re: ground of our being: how world is framed/governed
    Insistence on extrapolating cosmological implications from local experience
    Every story particularly pressed to yield a model of the world:

    Surely all this is not without meaning....It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all. (20)

    ...these things are not without their meanings (45) must symbolize something unseen

    what could be more full of meaning? (47)

    all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore....But as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God--so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety! For worm-lie, then, oh! who would craven crawl to land! (97).

    the cosmopolite philosopher cannot, for his life, point out one single peaceful influence which within the last sixty years has operated more potentially upon the whole broad world..than the high and mighty business of whaling...the whale-ship has been the pioneer in ferreting out the remotest and least known parts of the earth (99)

    And as for me, if, by any possibility, there be any as yet undiscovered prime thing in me...I ascribe all the honor and the glory to whaling; for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard. (100-101)

    He's a grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab (78)

    I felt impatient at what seemed like mystery in him, so imperfectly as he was known to me then (79)

    ...whether that mark was born with him, or whether it was the scar left by some desperate wound, no one could certainly say (109)

    Does Melville give us any guide for adjudicating among multiple possible interpretations ...?

    Let's read a couple of passages closely:


    Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Me thinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me. And therefore three cheers for Nantucket; and come a stove boat and stove body when they will, for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot. (45)

    What is the lesson of Father Mapple's sermon?

    if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying god consists (49)

    Delight is to him..who against the proud gods and commodors of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self....Delight, --
    top-gallant delight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven...and eternal delight and deliciousness will be his, who...can say...I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world's, or mine own... (54)

    How are we supposed to use this sermon?

    Is it setting a standard against which to judge Ahab and his crew?

    (Hold on: there's a joke sermon yet to come, Chapter 64, in which Fleece the cook preaches to the sharks to "gobern dar wicked natur")

How do you read Ishmael? (as a depressive seeking, or seeking to avoid, suicide...?)

    ...whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul...then I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword: I quietly take to the ship.(18)

    How well can Ishmael read Queequeg?

    How well can we read their relationship?

    How do you go about making meaning of it...?

    I found Queequeg's arm thrown over mine in the most loving and affectionate manner. You have almost thought I had been his wife ...when I was a child, I well remember a somewhat similar circumstance...a supernatural hand seemed placed in mind...nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom...seemed closely seated by my bedside (36-37)

    ...bridegroom clasp...hatchet-faced baby... matrimonial sort of style...henceforth we were married (56)

    ...there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures betwen friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other...thus, then, in our hearts' honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg--a cosy, loving pair (57).


    Read second 1/3 (it just gets wilder and wilder),
    attending especially to form:
    What do you make of the sudden introduction of stage directions, of the cetology chapters...??

    Melville's distinctive/peculiar stance toward literature:
    he refuses to acknowlege traditional literary restraint/
    protocol, delights in heterogenity/mixed, discordant kinds of writing,hectic shape shifting

    What meaning can you make of the varities of textual forms Melville includes in this "novel"?
    (Is it a novel? Can you identify the type?)
    Consider an "anatomy," an attempt to define the whale
    (cf. Northrop Frye on forms of prose fiction: novel/romance/confession/anatomy...)

    And what meaning can you make of the whale?

    And what meaning can you make of your reading experience?

    (Just so you don't forget the originary point of this conversation:
    Gregory Peck in John Huston's 1956 Moby-Dick)