Friday, January 1, 2016
Moby Dick and the Density of the Aesthetic Text
with a note of parallel passages
and a final note on the endlessness of interpretation
Chapters are named in the text and numbered in parentheses.
Poetry in the old broad sense, referring to all aesthetic or literary texts, shares with other works of art the distinction of being the densest information-bearing codes humans have devised. Other sorts of writing aim at transparency, allowing the reader to efficiently grasp the content without being distracted by sound or form or associations or paradoxes. The fact that poetry uses these resources and more allows it to embody simulacra of any variety of the immensely complex human consciousness and to convey not only information and ideas and opinions but also emotional states, ambivalences, contradictions, and mysteries far more precisely than other forms of discourse. The poet’s use of rhetorical figures of all sorts, connotations, verbal texture, melody, etymology, and a host of other elements which are not exploited in non-aesthetic writing allows the expression of subtle shades of thought and feeling that would be impossible for the author who aims at direct statement. In fact there is no end to the interpretation of a piece of writing as each image, sound, and theme generates an ever-expanding semantic field in which waves of signification react with other waves in patterns of subtle accuracy and, in the end, fabulous complexity. The critic must decide without prescription where to begin and end a reading of any poetic passage, for, just as in a larger philosophical sense all phenomena are interlinked and ultimately one, all writing is part of one immense book. The whole is deducible from every part. With the use of the resources of figures of speech and other literary devices, what passes for rationality expressed in the sort of unequivocal exposition freshmen learn to use for practical purposes is left far behind, stalled on the ground, while poetry mounts to the sublime and strives more or less successfully to embrace the cosmos.
Melville’s Moby Dick has always seemed to me the one novel that might challenge Huckleberry Finn as the single greatest work of American fiction. Like Emerson and Thoreau Melville is a master stylist and rhetorician, a poetic thinker ideal for demonstrating the density of the aesthetic text. Rereading Moby Dick on a trip to India I focused on a single brief passage chosen very nearly at random as I trundled along on a bus from Jaipur to Jodhpur from the beginning of the “Sunset” chapter (37).
"I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where'er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass."
In my mind Melville excels as a philosophical writer, more an allegorist led by theme like a super-sophisticated Bunyan rather than a poet marking concrete particulars like Keats or constructing enigmatic symbols like Mallarmé. Melville’s indeterminancies are indeed present -- Pierre is rightly subtitled The Ambiguities – but intellectual, and thought takes the lead in the subtle yet sensual delight in the Confidence Man's playing hide-and-seek with the reader's consciousness. His rhetoric, the palpable syntactical architecture of his sentences, their music and design, I have always admired, and the dance of his phrases is as worthy of attention as the quality of his thoughts.
The first thing the reader notices about this passage from the beginning of the "Sunset" chapter is the perfectly regular iambic pentameter.  The first "and" is semantically unnecessary but required for the meter and not distracting. This cadence forms the regular background beat, the rhythm section of the composition against which melodic and harmonic elements play. The ocean waves are embodied sonically and graphically in the repetition of the letter w in the first sentence. Before that pattern has faded the word "pale" is repeated, making a sort of ghostly whitecap on the sea. The phrase "where'er I sail" so liquid with vowels for eight of its twelve letters and its only consonants the smooth sounds of wh, r, s, and a concluding l, lacking a single plosive, further the replication of the ocean on the printed page. The rhyme of sail and pail brings the clause to an end like a couplet at the end of a scene of Shakespeare.
The decisive monosyllables of the final two clauses with less differentiation in accent provide the steady footsteps along time's lane. A disturbance is signaled by the compression of "envious" to two syllables and the b sound, rougher than what had preceded it, and this is then resolved when it is succeeded by the alliteration in s, as the sea’s surface becomes smooth once more after the speaking subject moves on.
In tone these lines suggest an elegiac and vulnerable resignation, a sort of soft lament for the human condition. The speaker proceeds through time without expectations or hopes, but also without hesitation, never slowed though always defeated. The final words “but first I pass” suggest a sort of self-assertion or, at any rate, a heroic existential acceptance.
I approach theme with this characterization, since for Melville as for each of us in lived experience, ideas are less logical conclusions based on evidence than moods and subjective impressions, subject always to the flickering alteration of the moment, for which we then invent adequate reasons. Melville is by temperament a thinker, and I have often qualified his literary standing by thinking him more a philosopher than a poet. In this intellectual realm he is great indeed, primarily after the manner of Plato and Nietzsche, not for the rigor of his reasoning but for the resonant chords he sets to vibrating within the reader. He is not one to settle on a thought made attractive by succinctness or clarity, much less by authority or tradition. Rather one finds near as many enigmas, contradictions, and mysteries in him as in one's own observations, should one be in the mood to look closely enough and not to scant a telling detail for the sake of ease. In this way his ideas remain as fresh as the reader’s own morning musings.
Among the reductive formulations of the thoughts set to mingle and struggle with each other in these twenty-nine words are the following.
1. Life is a process, a pilgrimage, a journey, though one with neither destination or reward.
2. The human being must contend constantly with everything else, an effort signaled by turbidity yet followed by the blankness of entropy that erases all events. The pale seas are the source of the paler human cheeks because sailing (which is to say living) is so inevitably rigorous and our tender human perspective sees ourselves as unique sufferers. Nature is not merely indifferent. It is actively hostile.
3. Nonetheless, one somehow goes on regardless, suggesting parallels with Camus and Sartre.
4. A further heroic response to the recognition of the human predicament is evident in the construction of lovely verbal patterns expressing our woe. Such artifacts prove in part redemptive, in part an all-too-human way of passing the time while awaiting death.
I have not begun to explore the passage in terms of its associations within the novel, Melville’s other work, or links to earlier or later literature. I can only here offer a few signposts for fruitful exploration. Paleness, of course, is central to the book. Even before the first chapter the “pale Usher” associated with mortality opens the book. His “queer handkerchief queer, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world” signifies the veil of maya that obscures the appalling emptiness of Ultimate Reality.
And who can forget the similar pattern of deceptive surface over terrifying whiteness in the magnificent crescendo that closes the chapter on “The Whiteness of the Whale” (42)?
"All deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colourless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge--pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear coloured and colouring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?"
Moby Dick is a classic because it reproduces a convincing projection of human consciousness, complete with affect, taste and sensibility, Weltanschauung, and experience in the most densely significant symbolic code available to our species. One might continue its interpretation as endlessly onward as the sea-waves themselves, and, like the waves, such readings are dynamic and ever-evolving. I have treated only the tiniest fraction of the great novel. Fortunately, the consideration of the text can be at any moment truncated and whatever work has been done on it may result in a rich and satisfying share, leaving always appetite for more, but no necessity to say another word.
A Note on Verbal Parallels
Even confining one’s attention to Moby Dick, there is no end to these internal clusters of images. For example, “envious goblins” appear in “The Funeral” (69), and the billows are “destroying” as the denouement approaches in “The Chase – Third Day” (135). Related images appear in Melville’s other works. Paleness is linked to whiteness and the word “whelm” and the entire complex to mortality as a green plant dies with the coming of cold in Pierre: “the drifting winter snows shall whelm it” and, in the same chapter the reader finds a reference to “pale cheeks” (Ch. 23). Life itself is “nobly envious” in Pierre, Chapter 12. “Evil- minded, envious goblins” emerge from the sea in Mardi, Chapter 69. But there is no point in cataloguing such associations without making something of the verbal recurrences. I mean only to suggest the unlimited process of semeiosis.
The semantic field expands immensely when one considers works by other authors. Given the fact that Melville explicitly refers to his story as a tragedy and consciously models elements of it on Shakespeare the critic might pursue parallel usage in that writer such as Pistol’s curse “ocean whelm them all!” (Merry Wives of Windsor, II, 2) or Andromache’s vision of “bloody turbulence” (Troilus and Cressida, V, 3), not to mention the hundred and forty-eight occurrences of the term “pale” in his plays.
Had Melville ever come across Robert English’s 1777 “Elegy” for Sir Charles Saunders that includes the line “in vain the envious billows round him beat”? (Note here that unlike in Melville the hero is stronger than the billows.) Or perhaps the line “The envious billows choak’d my struggling breath” in Charles Lloyd’s 1819 collection Nugæ Canoræ in which, on the other hand, the sea is altogether triumphant. He may even have happened upon Miss E. M. Allison’s poem on Columbus “The Genoese Immigrant” which includes a reference to “envious billows angry play” published in New York eight years before Moby Dick. Whether or not any of these played a role as a source, they cause Melville’s own usage to stand out in higher relief.
Among the most obvious relevant routes for further analysis are image systems of whiteness, water, ships, and life as a journey. Nor have I touched on etymology or connotation. Nor on parallels with epic which Melville explicitly had in mind in his use, for instance, of Homeric similes or the Biblical references suggested by names such as Ishmael and Ahab. The reading of the few lines I have selected illustrates the rich stores of meaning borne by literary texts.
A Final Note on the Endlessness of Interpretation
What is the meaning of Moby Dick? What Eco called “unlimited semiosis” (in A Theory of Semiotics) can be traced in all writing, but especially in poetry. Though generally applicable, some limited version of the idea is a commonplace in Melville commentaries. Thus Van Doren says “Ahab has a hundred symbolical or allegorical interpretations.”  Author David Gilbert notes, “It's been called a whaling yarn, a theodicy, a Shakespeare-styled political tragedy, an anatomy, a queer confessional, an environmentalist epic; because this novel seems to hold all the world, all these readings are compatible and true.”  In her introduction to an edition of the novel Elizabeth Renker observes “ascertaining the whale’s ultimate meaning is a project [one] could pursue forever.” To John Bryant readings of Moby Dick include an extraordinary range of “seemingly flat contradictions and simultaneously co-existing divergences.” 
To D. H. Lawrence, speaking of the whale,
Of course he is a symbol.
I doubt if even Melville knew exactly. That's the best of it. 
The catalogue of such responses could be extended indefinitely.
The fact is that literary texts are peculiarly polysemous; it is one of their foremost characteristics in contradistinction to all other sorts of writing. The best of them are often the most underdetermined. Yet they not only bear multiple meanings, their decoding goes on and on indefinitely just as our experience of time, but, like a life, or like these remarks, it is initiated and terminated suddenly and arbitrarily.
1. Carl Van Doren found Melville’s tendency to fall into blank verse “irritating.” See his essay “Mr. Melville’s Moby Dick” in The Bookman for April 1924, pages 154-6.
3. “The Endless Depths of Moby Dick Symbolism,” The Atlantic, August 20, 2013.
4. in “The Versions of Moby Dick” in The Book as Artefact, Text and Border, edited by Anne Mette Hansen. p. 258.
5. In Studies in Classic American Literature. Among Lawrence’s other comments are the identification of Moby Dick with “the deepest blood-being of the [doomed] white race.” He found the book brilliant, though its author was “hopelessly au grand serieux.”