Big Books of American Literature: Alchemies of Mind
Day 4: Thursday, February 2, 2006

Moby-Dick (The First One Hundred Pages...)

Coursekeeping and Related Matters:
Stop in front office and pay Shawn Covington $20 for your packet
Read next 100pp. of Moby-Dick for Tuesday, and post your reactions (thinking/feeling) in the forum
1:15-2:30 Friday, MCC, "Rethinking Science Education": A View From the Humanities

Jackson Pollack, Blue (Moby Dick) c. 1943 from Web Museum, Paris

To consider--as framework for studying Moby-Dick--
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."

So: What were your initial reactions to Melville's "organic form"?
How did the novel strike you?
(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?)

Reading the Course Forum

Brief meta-meditation on what's going on with this exchange

From Stories of Teaching and Learning: A Workshop on Psych 340: Women's Mental Health
This is a fairly common split across campus. Some students say that engagement w/ other students--learning about them and saying things to them--is satisfying. Others are impatient with listening to their classmates speak, and want to hear more from the professor. The issue is not really content vs. personal experience, but rather different sets of student aspirations. The way to mediate these different expectations (and perhaps meet them all?) is to be sure that discussions that involve personal experience are anchored in a principle: teachers need to create an atmosphere where everyone is asking what is generally significant about a particular personal experience. That component could be relevance to a theory or to someone else's life.

In other words, this is not a split between being academic and non-academic, but a question of whether people see the classroom environment as group therapy or as inquiry session. Do they want it to be personally cathartic and affirming, or as generative of new ideas?.... what does it mean to learn about and from other students?...Is it the role of the teacher to challenge and push students in the direction of making their knowledge of their experience more generally applicable? Yes, but only as a role model, with the expectation that students are at work on the process of acquiring that character for themselves.

Brief FURTHER meta-meditation on the theory of this practice

From Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction:

In other words, to theorize is to reverse our commonsensical understandings.
For ex, in Foucault's "What Is An Author?"
commonsense understanding=an author writes a text
reverse that: a text writes (i.e. authorizes) an author

James: ...thesis contrary to natural way of thinking: bodily changes follow perception of fact...feeling of the changes is the emotion.

Sky: I can't say...that his one theory discredits or devalues the "common sense" one he beings with in the text.

But cf. Peter Elbow, Embracing Contraries:
Unless one makes the conscious effort to believe in something one doubts, one will never come to see the sense of it. Unless one makes the conscious effort to doubt something that one believes in, one will never come to see the lack of sense of one's position as others see it.

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

From Moby-Dick Rocks/Herman Melville Rocks

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...?

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

From The Theory of Subjectivity in Moby-Dick

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 a 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)

From Herman Melville Moby-Dick T-shirt

(As per Hawthorne:) "Melville could neither believe nor be comfortable in his unbelief."

It is precisely the varieties of interpretation open to him/us that drive further interpretation.
Why Words Arise--and Wherefore:
Literature and Literary Theory as Forms of Exploration

This is a whole book of multiple choice/varieties of readings/perspectives.

Example: How well can Ishmael read Ahab?
How well can we?

Moby-Dick in Contemporary Art

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:

Moby-Dick in Contemporary Art

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?

Moby-Dick in Contemporary Art

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...?)

Laine: "To grope down into the bottom of the sea after them; to have one's hands among the unspeakable foundations, ribs, and very pelvis of the world; this is a fearful thing."...I thought "Yes! That's exactly it!"...I am groping down into the very pit of myself and I'm wary of what I might find there. I consider my emotions to be the foundation of myself...I feel as if I'm sticking my hands down where I can't see them and it's anybody's guess what I might pull up.

Margaret: Ishmael is telling the story of his feelings, which are a story of the emotions, that he experienced...He is also telling a story of the story of the way he perceived the feelings of his crewmates, which are, naturally, a story of the story of the emotions that they experienced.

Allie:free will exists in the space of time between the stimulus, emotion, feeling, and the response of how the individual processes and deal with that emotion. It brings responsibility...back into the equation....For Ishmael, this hesitation is the time between being on land and choosing to board the whaling ship

Jillian: 'Call me Ishmael.' Not, 'I am" or 'My name is...' this man hiding his name in order to disappear? Is he protecting someone? What's he running from? And wha kind of issues with self-loathing are represented....? Going to sea..suggests..a form of identity suicide/annihilation.

Cat: In order to avoid killing someone he will risk killing himself?...."Ignorance is the parent of fear."....put that into a biological context...could it be said that the sensory imput...are incomplete and objective anxiety, a defense mechanism to prepare us from the danger of the unknown?

Jess: I trust a man that feels as connected to ..the sea.

Jorge: What's the cause of Ishmael's "damp, drizzly November"...what has Ishmael been separated from...Is he an outcast because of certain ideals he defends?..I'm afraid that these questions will remain unanswered.

...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...?

Steph: not sure what to make of the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg. Is it just my 21st century mind that wants to make it homoerotic?

Margaret: I didn't find Queequeg and Ishmael's relationship to be homoerotic, but that could just be me

Jess: Yes, I think its homoerotic..I think its okay to read it alittle queer. What's the use of that, though, is my question.

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).

From Roggeri Joffe--Moby Dick

Read next 100 pp (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?)
Think of it as 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?
Laine: Moby Dick represents all emotion for Ahab...His entire being is caught up in his hatred...therefore pushing out any other emotions or feelings he might have....He is consumed by the create one "super-emotion" directed towards Moby Dick.

And what meaning can you make of your reading experience?

Alice: when I read it I think of my father's voice

Emily: Everything is pointing to a bad journey...I'm actually enjoying just makes me more anxious to find out what will happen next.

Jess: I'm finding Norton incredibly intrusive....It's making me too conscious of an authorial voice, and I like, when reading, to have my own association.

Jackie: Would I have felt the same way...if I didn't have my own memories to draw on?

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

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