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Through A Whale Darkly

Amy Stern

I don't know how to write this paper. Which is, I guess, a bad way to start a paper, except that the more I think about it, the more it epitomizes how I feel about Moby Dick. I don't know what the text means, I don't know what I got out of the text, and I don't know how to write this paper in way that encapsulates both how much is in there and how little I know I was able to glean.

I'm the type of English major who writes her papers based on what she sees that she thinks no one else does. It doesn't have to be particularly good or deep, it just needs to be that one splinter of an idea that gets stuck, that I can't shake, that wasn't discussed to death in class. My problem with Moby Dick isn't that there aren't ideas; it's that for me, the text never forms a cohesive whole; the entire text is these splinters of ideas that dig deep under the skin. The problem, of course, is that one splinter can be focused on, but millions of splinters just kind of hurt, and you can't really distinguish each individual pinprick of pain from the others digging in just as hard.

The splinter metaphor doesn't even work that well here, for one reason: the book failed to get under my skin. Part of this, of course, was my conscious decision to keep the text at arm's length. I have a deep-seated fear of fish, and whales, to my mind, are mammals that have betrayed the cause. But beyond that, maybe because the text was so long and we had so little time in which to read it, there were times I was actively fighting becoming engaged with the novel. There were other times, though, when I was glad I wasn't engaged, because then I would probably need to worry about how little I cared.

The strange thing is, though, I don't really feel like I didn't care. There are many little details that really worked for me, and I feel like if I'd let myself care about the storyline or the characters I could have really felt something strongly. But the text functioned to simultaneously pull me in and repel me, often at the same time, and I can't quite figure out how.

I have a lot of friends who consider Moby Dick to be one of their favorite novels, and over the last week I've asked a lot of them what it is that they find appealing. One person told me the story of the Essex, a ship which faced a similar fate to the Pequod several years before Melville wrote his novel; when the whale destroyed that boat, however, more of the passengers survived, and several were forced to turn to cannibalism before they arrived back home. Another reminded me of the homoeroticism between Queequeg and Ishmael; when I'd first told her I would be reading Moby Dick, that's what she had told me, and I'd assumed she was exaggerating until I started reading and could not believe how explicit the subtext was. One friend went on and on about the amazing friendship between Melville and Hawthorne; reading Melville was worth it, she said, if only so that when you read Hawthorne you could see what they got from each other. A fourth told me that it's about the struggle of a person to find meaning in life when there is no meaning, and how much within that meaninglessness the struggle can mean.

By that point, I was fully understanding the desire to find meaning in the meaningless abyss, because that was what Moby Dick had become for me. The text has managed to supersede my wildest expectations of inability to comprehend a text, and while I'm sure it's partially because I skipped any chapters about whaling (I spent three years with nightmares about sharks and whales when I was little, and have no desire to repeat these my last semester of college), I think it's mostly because of the way the text is formulated, and the way that I learn.

I've always felt that I can't write a paper, can't do an analysis, can't do much of anything unless I have enough of a grasp on the text that I can look deeper. Literary criticism only works for me when I have a firm basis to build it off of. It's not necessarily a case of knowing one real meaning of the text, but I do find it necessary to be able to decipher at least one complete meaning of the text, so that I can build off of it.

With Moby Dick, I never found a single meaning of the text that worked for me. There was no way to look at it that didn't open up several new gateways. From every angle, I could see more and more paths that I could take. After a while, the tangents became overwhelming for me; the actual content of the novel was surpassed by my ideas about it, and those ideas in turn were outweighed by the ideas I got to from them. I feel like writing any paper about my reading Moby Dick is flawed because I do not feel like I read Moby Dick; I experienced bits and pieces of the text, but never once put together a coherent whole that I can analyze.

The counter-argument, of course, is that Moby Dick succeeds precisely because it fails to be a readable text. Melville clearly set out to tell more than a simple story; if Moby Dick were merely supposed to be a linear novel, large sections could have been excised without hesitation. Moreover, the class discussions over how we can possibly classify Moby Dick have proven to me that any categorization is doomed to fail. To see it as drama neglects the humorous aspects; to see it as comedy ignores the long factual digressions. The novel succeeds or fails not through any one lens but through the sum of its parts. The inability of a reader to parse a single meaning from the text is the mark, then, of Melville's successes rather than his failure.

Therefore, as a reader, all that I can do is place the pieces I have gotten into something that resembles a framework, and see what fills in. This is where my love of pop culture comes in; I have spent more time considering what Moby Dick means in a culture that has given me multiple cultural reference points while simultaneously failing to give me a context in which to understand the text, than I have spent understanding the text. Except perhaps that, in and of itself, is a form of textual analysis. If I can look at Battlestar Galactica or The X-Files through the lens of Melville's classic, am I perverting the intentions of the text, or in fact strengthening them?

Looking backwards at the novel through the lens of the media which I have consumed before reading the novel is therefore useful in the same way that any other lens is; when Melville aims to create limitless questions and interpretations, then each additional question or interpretation only allows the text to grow. My viewing of the 2003 Battlestar Galactica, for example, made me look at any references to Starbuck and "the old man" through one very specific cultural lens; Katee Sackhoff's Starbuck character, as well as the other members of the crew on the Galactica, refer to Edward James Olmos's Adama as "the Old Man" as a sign of affection. In the same vein, Scully's relationship with her Navy father in the X-Files episode "Beyond the Sea" shows her referring to him affectionately as Ahab, and him returning the compliment by calling her Starbuck. (Later, in "Quagmire", the theme is continued when it is revealed that she has named her beloved dog Queequeg.) I thus found it hard to read Starbuck's reactions to Ahab in the text without assuming some paternal impulses on his part, or a daughter's devotion to her father on Starbuck's. This is, naturally, complicated by the way that Starbuck is not a girl. The question "But what if he were?", however, is one of the many digressions that I found myself pondering at three AM, instead of the mystery of the White Whale. In fact, I probably spent more time on the digressions, of all shapes and sizes, than I did on the story of Ahab and the white whale.

I started this paper thinking that my lack of a single solid reaction to Moby Dick was a failure, either on the part of Melville or on myself. The more I consider it, however, the more I think that it's actually the mark of its success. I can't make myself understand Moby Dick within its original context. I can't independently identify the thousands of references that Melville put in, expecting people to understand them, or perhaps expecting them not to. I can, however, bring my own context to it, and that may not provide me with answers, but it certainly supplies more questions. Because of that, I am, in a way, getting exactly what Melville wanted.

Works Cited

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick (or the Whale). New York: Random House, Inc. Modern Library Edition, 1992

Battlestar Galactica. Ron Moore. Perf. Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Jamie Bamber, and Katee Sackhoff. 2004.

The X-Files. Chris Carter. Perf. Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny. 1993.

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