Tuesday, September 7, 2010

On the beginning of Moby-Dick

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!


  1. "Moby-Dick is a novel about knowledge, about knowability."

    Or per Faulkner: not-knowing (Queequeg), knowing-and-caring (Ishmael), and knowing-and-not-caring (Ahab). A trinitarian take on conscience...

    Just a thunk.


  2. Your post reminded me of a post I did on Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford in which I pondered if that work should be classified as an "Encyclopedic Narrative"-(a term coined I believe by Edward Mendelson in essay on Gravity's Rainbow-Moby Dick was one of his prime examples of such a narrative-one of the qualifiers for inclusion in this category is that the novel somehow sets out as theory of how we acquire knowledge-I have read Moby Dick twice for sure and maybe three times-In The March of Literature FMF makes no mention of Melville

  3. I admit to having a hard time believing many people really skip the front matter of Moby-Dick—I mean...who would skip the beginning of a book...I have to give people the benefit of the doubt there. But I'd be willing to bet the majority forgets it, even if they don't ignore it. On one level, how could you blame them? On another, it's so critical to preparing you for what you are about to read—for the big, dare I say it, baggy thing you are about to read!

    I'm looking forward to reading about "The Try-Works"; I feel like that chapter struck me more this time than it has in the past, mostly for the visual that it ends with.

    Did you happen to see this, by the way?

  4. Kevin, that's excellent, but not the way I'm going to go here. I need to identify all three characters as aspects of "not-knowing." Tomorrow, it's going to be full-steam Gnosticism. I have no idea what I'm talking about.

    Faulkner's schema better describes Faulkner's characters!

    "Encyclopedic narrative," taken is a metaphor, is perfect for Moby-Dick. The key is that everything, all knowledge or truth or whatever, has to emanate from the symbolic patterning of the novel, which is obviously impossible, but we can pretend, can't we? Melville and his disciple Pynchon make it easy to pretend.

    I have good evidence that people skip the etymologies and extracts - how many times have people misidentified the first line of the novel? How many people skip the beginning of Lolita, another one where the first line is routinely botched.

    "The Try-Works," yes, awesome, incredible. It ends with that eagle - again! - plunging into the blackest gorges, forty chapters too early.

    Thanks for that link, nicole. I must have seen it, but it did not register. Your comment there is useful - my edition (an old Modern Library with no notes at all) messes up Melville's design, but productively, weirdly - we get the Usher, but have to turn the page to get the etymologies.

  5. I had an American Lit professor who told students -- tongue-in-cheek, though most students did not recognize that caveat -- to read Moby-Dick efficiently by skipping all the "fish science" sections.

    I confess to being dismissive of the opening section(s) when I was a student.

  6. If we were interested in efficiency, we would not spend so much time with literature, would we?