The meaning of whales

This morning, Mathieu P. left the following comment to my post on Melville's poem "Monody":

I am currently reading Melville's Moby Dick. Although I enjoy the book, I fail to understand fully the meaning of the chapter devoted to whaling, such as the one about cetology or the one about whalemen eating whale meat. There are enough comments about religion or cannibals to make me think that these chapter should be taken with a pinch of salt. I do not however understand to which degree exactly they should be taken and what their precise aim is. I would welcome any pointers or explanations. I may add that my only clue about American literature is Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden, which I read eagerly (my English professor of my undergrad years praised that book).

I thought I'd try to answer publicly, not because I have the answer, but because by coincidence I've been thinking about this very question, among others, for a lecture that I've been invited to give at SUNY Geneseo's English department in honor of the Thoreau scholar Walter Harding. (The lecture is scheduled to take place at 4pm on September 23 on the SUNY Geneseo campus.)

What I hope to talk about at Geneseo is the problem of esoteric knowledge in Melville's work—that is, the sense that the reader has that Melville's work has a secret meaning, and that among the pleasures and duties of reading him is the pursuit of his secret. It isn't at all obvious that a work of art should have a secret meaning, and I think most successful works of art don't. It's hard enough to communicate when one is taking care to be honest and forthcoming. Jane Austen's novels don't seem to have secrets; not even a book as heavy with symbolism as the Great Gatsby does. Infinite Jest, on the other hand, seems to me to be hiding something—to be begging for exegesis—especially toward the end, when it turns compressed and the allusions to Hamlet start to accumulate. Books that provoke in the reader a sense of secret knowledge almost never, of course, make a claim to such knowledge explicitly, so deciding which books fall into the category is tricky and somewhat subjective.

There are more books in the world than anyone has time to read. Why should a reader think it worth his while to ferret out the meaning of a writer who is withholding it? Moreover, why should a reader believe that a withheld meaning is true? When people believe that someone has access to secret truths, it's generally because they think of the person as a prophet, a guru, or even an incarnated god. Why should a novelist have such access? Or to put the question another way: How does a novelist go about convincing readers that he has such access?

This is all a little far afield from Mathieu P.'s particular question, the short answer to which is that there is no consensus about what whaling signifies in Moby-Dick. Two books that suggest answers are Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael and C. L. R. James's Mariners, Renegades & Castaways, both of which lay more emphasis on political and economic meanings than is common in academic analyses. I hope in my lecture that I will be able to articulate some of my own hunches about the secrets in Moby-Dick, which always sound half-mad even to myself when I try to put them into words. My method will be to compare them to the half-submerged ideas that appear in Mardi and Clarel, two works of Melville's that are less successful but also try to lure the reader into the pursuit of hidden meanings. A whale is an intelligent mammal that doesn't kill, doesn't have to work, and needn't have second thoughts about its sexual nature. Though apparently simple, when that definition works its way through Melville's strangely intertwined ideas about gender, incarnation, sexuality, immortality, and capitalism, the reader ends up in a strange place. I read Byron's Cain this week, and it occurred to me that Melville's whales share a great deal with the beings that existed in the world before Adam, shown to Cain by Lucifer during a visit to Hades:

Cain. What are these mighty phantoms which I see
Floating around me?—They wear not the form
Of the Intelligences I have seen
Round our regretted and unentered Eden;
Nor wear the form of man as I have viewed it
In Adam's and in Abel's, and in mine,
Nor in my sister-bride's, nor in my children's:
And yet they have an aspect, which, though not
Of men nor angels, looks like something, which,
If not the last, rose higher than the first,
Haughty, and high, and beautiful, and full
Of seeming strength, but of inexplicable
Shape; for I never saw such. They bear not
The wing of Seraph, nor the face of man,
Nor form of mightiest brute, nor aught that is
Now breathing; mighty yet and beautiful
As the most beautiful and mighty which
Live, and yet so unlike them, that I scarce
Can call them living.

In Byron's play, the pre-Adamites are not the same as whales, which do however make an appearance a few pages later, when Lucifer, on the same tour of Hades, shows Cain an ocean, a thing Cain has never seen before:

Cain. 'Tis like another world; a liquid sun—
And those inordinate creatures sporting o'er
Its shining surface?

Lucifer. Are its inhabitants,
The past Leviathans.

6 thoughts on “The meaning of whales”

  1. Picture Moby Dick as a contemporary New Yorker article. You’d have all the chapters on whaling and whalers and little else. Maybe Melville simply wanted to write a big book, for which he needed the ballast of the whaling chapters. But I’m reminded of the era of secret messages on records, playing a record backwards supposedly revealing a message. When asked if he put secret messages into this records, Alice Cooper (I think it was Cooper) said, no, he didn’t know how to do that, but if he did, the message would be “buy more records,” which is maybe what Melville meant when he said, “Give it up, Sub-Subs!” And looming on the horizon are all those Extracts. What are those all about? I wish I could attend the lecture. Maybe you can podcast it.

  2. First of all, thank you for your answer. I would be very interested by a transcript, recording or podcast of your conference. I will try to sort out things using your other posts on Moby Dick and (hopefully) the references you kindly cite here.

    It so happens that the question you state about novelists writing books that beg for exegesis is very precisely my wife's PhD topic (defended two years ago), applied to texts of the French Renaissance (among them Montaigne's Essais and Beroalde de Verville's Le Moyen de Parvenir).

    Her answer is that once you start doubting that language offer a truthful image of things, you have to rely on your reader's capacity to understand your text the way you would like it to be understood. In other words, once you thing that there exists a distance between a thing and the word commonly used for it, you need to go a roundabout way. For some writers, this means appealing to their reader's sagacity, obliging them to find through exegesis a meaning they may not have understood or accepted had it be more straightforwardly explained. For some author, this even allow to express personal ideas and feelings that cannot be readily expressed in words, since feelings are unique and words are generic. Going into exegesis forces the reader to enter into the author's full set of representations and thus allow his to feel with him instead of just reading an inadequate description of something happening to somebody else.

    Fundamentally, the idea is that a text can convey the author's meaning if and only if there exists a relation of confidence between the author and his reader. Coaxing the reader into going deeper than the first layer of text is, for these authors, a way to build such a relation in a situation where it cannot be assumed to exist at first.

    Of course, I oversimplify her ideas, but I think that this is the gist or her thesis. I cannot specify her full body of critics used (I know she started close to Bakhtine but became more and more disassociated with his work as her own work went on). In French literature, the scholars whose work she identifies with the more closely are André Tournon and Jean-Yves Pouilloux. I know she also read some English-speaking scholars about the use of other peoples' texts in one's prose (Montaigne uses that all the time), but I fail to remember their names right now.

    In short, this is also not only a good question but actually a whole research program as far as French renaissance is concerned, a program whose roots seem to be found in Erasmus' copious works on rhetoric.

  3. I'm pretty sure that Geneseo will end up putting a video of the lecture online. In the meantime I'd better get busy writing it…

    Mathieu: Your wife's thesis sounds very intriguing. Maybe these are issues that writers and readers are constantly working out in literature, because I found myself coming to similar conclusions in my first book, American Sympathy. In my chapter on Billy Budd, for example, I wrote:

    [Captain] Vere dislikes language that is aware of itself as a vehicle. This is a sign of Vere's tyranny, just as it was the sign of the confidence-man's deceit that he found irony "so unjust." Like the writer who dislikes irony, the writer who affects not to care about literary style wants to believe that words are adequate representations of things. That writer wants the link between life and art to be unbreakable, hoping that an adequate control of words will lead to control over life. A pretended art is the mask of this writer's sadism. Language meant for communication, however, invites doubleness. Real sympathy cannot occur without a fiction.

    I may be in danger of repeating myself, it looks like, but I'll hope that the question I'm asking now is a little different, or at least comes to its answers by a slightly different route.

  4. One question I like to ask students when I teach Moby-Dick is, Could this novel have been about anything other than whaling? Now, to many, even asking that question is a sacrilege; but if you consider (as many do) that the novel is a prolonged meditation on problems of human knowledge, then the object of knowledge may not be as important as modes and forms. Moby-Dick tacitly asks, what are the different ways humans can try to know and understand things? Well, we can measure them, dissect them, organize them into elaborate taxonomies, tell tales about them, paint pictures of them, philosophize about them, chase them, eat them, observe how they are reproduced, examine their role in economics or the history of laws pertaining to them. . . All the same topics might be pursued in an encyclopedic novel about butterflies, or heirloom tomatoes. It might not be the same rollicking good time as the novel about whales, of course, but it could plausibly have the same table of contents. Usually I have some students who find this point of view interesting and run with it; others are unable to get past the whaleness of the whale. (Essentially, it's the difference between a metonymic and metaphoric way of reading the novel.) The synthesis, with which I myself tend to sympathize, is that the whale is only one among many objects of knowledge–and so only an occasion for Melville's artistic project, not the entirety of the project itself–but a singularly interesting object, because it dwells in the mysterious deeps, it is, as you have said, an intelligent mammal, and so on and so forth.

    Have fun at Geneseo. On your way out of town, stop at Wegman's, the finest grocery store in the land, and do a little shopping.

  5. Chris H.: Does it have to be a whale? Very good question. I think I end up thinking the answer is yes. There are a few chapters in "Mardi" where Melville tries to do a taxonomy of sharks, but it never quite gets off the ground. That's because, I think, in Melville's imagination the shark is sort of the anti-whale—sharks are hunger, emptiness, hollowness, need, whereas whales are presence, fullness. I think there's a clue in a throwaway phrase on the first page of "Mardi": "the whale, whose brain enlightens the world." I see what you mean about suggesting that the parsing and deconstruction applied to whaleness is a process that could be applied to anything, but the idea of applying a single process to anything and everything—I think that's what Melville's choice of object is meant to challenge. In fact, I wonder if Melville chooses the whale, must choose the whale, because of the mismatch between universal process and particular object. To turn an intelligent mammal that bonds with its children and peers, a sort of superhuman, into a source of fuel…

  6. "the mismatch between universal process and particular object" — yes, I think that's a great way of putting it. It couldn't be just *any* object, because it's important that the process not come to a satisfactory conclusion; the object must have the capacity to overwhelm the process. (If the object were, I don't know, the apple, it might come to be known thoroughly and well; all epistemological walls, all masks, would be struck through.) There are phenomena whose symbolic resonance and complex relationship to society perhaps could have excited Melville's imagination as much as whales (paper, for instance: imagine an epic novel that weaves together pieces of only the things Melville actually did write, to say nothing of what might have been — 'Tartatus of Maids,' all the crumpled, torn, and tear-stained missives in Pierre, the bleeding ink of newspapers in 'Donelson,' Bartleby's dead letters. . .). But that only convinces me that you're right to suggest that what makes whales the 'perfect storm,' as it were, is that bioecology comes into the picture alongside epistemology. To know and to use and hard enough processes to make sense of; to know and to use *life*, well. . . that not only taxes the imagination; it also should make us deeply uncomfortable — should remind us (as the spout does) that going too far in the pursuit can prove deadly, for us as well as others.

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