By which I mean:
(Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School)
The pale Usher--threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.
There seems to have been some confusion over how Moby-Dick actually begins. Do not call this poor fellow Ishmael.
I cannot say I am too happy with this opening. It hits a little too close to home. I love to dust my old grammars, too. My handkerchiefs are rather plainer, though.
For some reason, this passage occupies an entire page. One must turn the leaf to find the etymologies themselves, where I find Hackluyt telling me that the letter H is (“almost”) the only important letter in the word “whale,” and that whale, in both the Fegee and Erromangoan languages, is PEKEE-NUEE-NUEE.
Then we turn to the cetological extracts, as supplied by the “hopeless, sallow” Sub-Sub-Librarian, a meek man who will not inherit the earth, but rather heaven, taking the place of the archangels. Look, that’s what it says. I couldn’t make that up.
I wonder if many readers, or many potential readers, of Moby-Dick, forget the beginning of the book, or ignore it, or even skip it. What a terrible error. Understandable, though. The consumptive Usher and the poor devil of a Sub-Sub-Librarian never reappear (they don’t, do they – how could they?). A flag appears at the very end of the book, a queer and mocking flag. It is unembellished and of no known nation, and it reminds me of my own mortality in a decidedly unmild way.
If the chronology were not against me, I would assume that Melville had begun Moby-Dick with a deliberate invocation of Jorge Luis Borges, patron saint of Sub-Sub-Librarians and dusty old lexicons. Moby-Dick is a novel about knowledge, about knowability. Epistemology, is that the word I want? And theosophy, to harpoon another word I don’t really understand. There came a point, near the end of the novel – I can be specific, actually, in Chapter 96, “The Try-Works” – where I actually began to feel, in whatever vague and formless way, that I was getting Moby-Dick, that I was looking right down its charnel of maw. What I saw was terrifying, and probably addled my brain. I’ll see if I can recover any of the feeling tomorrow. Seriously, though – mildly reminded of his mortality! Mildly!