Authorship in Moby Dick and a note on the whaling chapters

Again we’re dismissing time and context for our discussion, because I thought of something mildly interesting about Moby Dick.

It’s obviously hailed as one of the greatest English novels of all time in popular cultural quarters, even those two steps above the usual level of public discussion. (Meaning, above the level of barely-literates mouthing off about books they’ve never read between Netflix sessions.) This assures the careful reader that Melville had some serious literary chops. And it’s true. Fantastic book.

But there was one nagging question that plagued me as I plundered the depths of Moby Dick: did it really need chapter after chapter of context about the history, present opinions, and current methods of whaling? These things are constant and obtrusive: they stop the plot dead, and they often appear just when things are starting to get interesting. I don’t think the book was serialised (a quick Google is saying no) and so it wasn’t written this way for Melville to make a quick dollar from a magazine with one cheap cliffhanger after another.

I still can’t tell whether or not it really requires the whaling chapters to work. So, some rudimentary arguments for and against:

They increase immersion, for some people. They also add a factual (if laughably outdated) dimension to the novel. Some of the processes by which value was extracted from the whales, in the form of oil, ambergris, bones, and so on, are quite interesting.

More interestingly, by increasing the amount of time he’s writing about the mundane and physical aspects of the whaling craft, Melville is distracting us from the terrifying, nearly supernatural nature of Moby Dick. In fact, because the conceit of the novel is that Ishmael ostensibly wrote it, it’s more like he’s trying to distract himself from the memory of that awful apparition, by writing about things that would have become instinctual to him. Processes close to the heart, so to speak.

A quick note on that: the chapters create a time far into the future, when Ishmael has the opportunity to sit and reflect on his experience, and decides to frame it in a certain way. It is Ishmael the character, and not Melville, who decides to put a chapter about the popular American conceptions of whale types almost randomly between two eventful sections. The question for those of us who can put aside the relatively unimportant fact that Ishmael wasn’t a real person is: is he an unreliable narrator? He’s ordered his memoir under a certain framework, set of assumptions, and so on. It would have been easy to leave certain details out – and in fact, in a few parts one suspects more happened to the crew of the Pequod than what’s let on.

Some detrimental factors of the whaling chapters. They don’t add anything to the plot, save a quick mention that Ishmael tattooed his body with some self-written poetry and the physical dimensions of a massive whale skeleton. They also make the work longer, which is something most writers (and more vehemently, most readers) will tell you is to be avoided. My edition, some rubbishy, new, $10 paperback with a gaudy cover, clearly edited in Microsoft Word and probably with the text extracted from Gutenberg Press’ website, runs to about 600 pages. Cutting the whaling chapters would probably reduce that to under 400.

I didn’t realise they were actually written by the character, rather than being some meta-narrative authorial statements, until Ishmael’s mention of his tattoos. Is Melville playing a trick on us? If so, what is the nature of that trick? This is the middle of the 19th century – to my (admittedly extraordinarily limited) knowledge no one’s started playing with authorship in a really complex way yet. The frameworks in literature of the time were pretty simple, standard stuff.

Yet we’re considering the question anyway? Taking Moby Dick out of context and placing the reader over the author even after everything I’ve said about Barthes?

Well, clearly I need to go back and read the Death of the Author again. In any case-

Melville fooled me into thinking his unchanged voice was present in the text until it was proven beyond doubt that it was Ishmael speaking, adopting the tone of an all-knowing lecturer that he never adopted anywhere else in the rest of the work. Presumably, he gained that voice as a result of his adventures, then.

Moby Dick remains eminently readable, even after over a century of language adjustment. Melville wrote it for the common man; the book was to serve as a warning against revenge and so on. There are huge circles of people who claim it unreadable, and an equally vociferous camp that puts forth the opposite view; as usual the only solution is to try it yourself.

These whaling chapters may initially seem noticeably different from the rest of the book. But in one significant respect they actually retain the tone, by almost completely writing Ishmael out. He seems to want to keep himself hidden, much like the titular whale, and it could just be a result of his low station on board the Pequod – or, I suspect, Melville is playing with authorship in a way I haven’t encountered before.

‘Call me Ishmael.’ Don’t you think that’s a little abstract? One of the most famous opening lines in the history of writing. And it’s an imperative – ‘do this’ – and an identification of his self. It’s as if Melville wrote the whole thing in order, immediately declaring his maxim for the months of writing ahead. He’s almost psyching himself up – or, since it’s an imperative, encouraging the reader to get him into character. “Call me Ishmael – because only if you call me Ishmael can I assume that character.”

In fact, apart from a few understandably old-fashioned preconceptions, Ishmael doesn’t have much of an individual personality. Obviously the style betrays a poetic air, and he clearly has an abundance of professional knowledge, but Ishmael himself is curiously absent. Throughout the book, his name appears only 20 times. Only twice does another character refer to him by name, and both times are Peleg near the beginning, having just read his papers. He’s a generic 19th century whaler, shunted aside to make way for Ahab.

Bettany Hughes, in The Hemlock Cup, described the study of Socrates as a doughnut, with a Socrates-shaped hole in the middle. He exists in our minds surrounded by Plato and Xenophon and Aristophanes, these three authors who never completely managed to represent him fairly. This is a little different since the ‘author’ is also the principal character, but Ishmael’s committed a similar sin here and written himself out. There’s an Ishmael-shaped hole in Moby Dick.


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