Monday, August 24, 2009

A brief thought about MOBY DICK

A brief thought about a book that cannot be thought of briefly:

Moby Dick is the American Bible, the only canonical New American Testament. It’s a highly critical secular scripture that puts opposing philosophical positions in play and questions them all even as it questions the very ground of human knowledge and the validity of interpretation. More than an adventure story (although it is, of course, a great, tragic one of those, too), it’s an epistemological adventure, a hermeneutical quest--hence the multitudinous images of unreadable writing and uninterpretable signs that barnacle the skin of this whale of a text. The reason no one could understand the book when it was published is simple: a century and more had to pass before our intellectual culture could catch up with Melville’s mind (and we surely haven’t definitively caught it yet...). We needed to assimilate the ‘linguistic turn’ of philosophy, the structuralism of Levi-Strauss, and the poststructuralism of Derrida before we could begin to see all that Melville accomplished here–not because Derrida and Levi-Strauss explain Melville but because Melville contains them (and probably a critique of them besides). This is, moreover, the relationship the greatest art often has to philosophy, and we should begin to read fiction and philosophy accordingly. Reading Moby Dick in this light, we might see that while the white whale is the novel’s master-image of mystery, it is only the novel’s penultimate point of hermeneutic and epistemological failure. The ultimate mystery, the vast unknown, the gap for which that between the signifier and signified is merely one more trope, is that mystery of which the white whale is agent: death.


Joe Miller said...

The scene in 'The Armada' when the crew is encompassed by the whales is easily my favorite piece of prose of all time; "And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy."

What are your favorite moments?

BRIAN OARD said...

There are truly too many to tell, but a few that come immediately to mind are the great "strike through the mask" scene between Ahab and Starbuck (Ahab's speech should be as well-known as the Gettysburg Address); "The Cassock"; Ishmael's ruminations in the crow's nest; and any of the many passages in which it uncannily seems that Melville has been deeply influenced by structuralist and poststructuralist philosophy. I'm convinced that one of the reasons no one understood Moby Dick upon publication was that it took 100+ years for philosophers to catch up with him. This applies equally to a tale like "The Paradise of Bachelors and The Tartarus of Maids" which strikes me as an appropriately weird allegory of Derrida. (All of this is probably due to the influence of 19th-century hermeneutics on Melville, which gives his texts a hermeneutical flavor that dovetails nicely with post-Sartrean European thought.)

Joe Miller said...

"I'm convinced that one of the reasons no one understood Moby Dick upon publication was that it took 100+ years for philosophers to catch up with him."

That's an interesting point. The part where Ishmael makes the distinction between two types of readers illustrates that tendency pretty clearly. Ishmael can never really find a sufficient means of describing the pasty menace, can he?

Ishmael's mockery of pantheism in the crow's nest was exactly what I needed at the time I first read the book. I was enamored with anything that would incite those New Agey sentiments of "being at one with all of creation", and Melville's ironic treatment of Wordsworthian ruminations on some ubiquitous spiritual force was just the thing necessary for me to exit that cognitive dead end.

In spite of all Ishmael's nihilistic musings and his frequent outbursts of skepticism, I think that the novel is ultimately joyous, exuberant, and life-affirming. I really don't understand why people usually feel so despondent after reading it.