Wednesday, December 24, 2008


After the holidays I will begin leading a group through Moby-Dick. Scheduling the class, I simply divided the length of the book by the number of weeks we will meet, which resulted in 100 pages a week of the Penguin edition that Andrew Delbanco introduces. This seemed logical, or at least methodical. However, I have come to realize that the first week will proceed much slower than the 100 pages that I’ve assigned. To digest the first hundred pages of Moby-Dick in seven days would be far too rich a diet.

Consider Chapter I, Loomings. The title itself raises questions. While “looming” is today a commonplace adjective, its contemporary use as a noun is rare enough to consign its definition at the end of the dictionary entry, if at all. In Melville’s time, a looming referred to a threatening apparition that appears out of the darkness or fog. The rising fog bank that the lone fisherman sees over his shoulder in Winslow Homer’s Fog Warning suggests a looming. Yet, in Chapter I we find neither apparition nor threat. Perhaps the title looks ahead to the entire story of the hunt for Moby-Dick.

Moving from the title to the novel’s opening sentence, we continued to be puzzled. “Call me Ishmael,” perhaps the most-known opening to an American novel, immediately establishes a link between narrator and reader, as the Monkey Rope will tie Ishmael to Queequeg later in the novel. The sentence is an imperative, yet resists being treated as a command. Instead, we feel as if the narrator is asking us to call him by a sobriquet while, at the same time, giving us a name that carries great biblical weight. And then Ishmael tells us he is going to sea to relieve himself of the “hypos.” Yet, he describes his depression humorously:

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

The novel's first paragraph introduces three facts that seem to evoke their own contradictions. As one reader observed of good and evil in Moby-Dick , Melville’s fictional world cannot be resolved into one condition or the other. Our entry into the novel supports this view.

Ishmael tells us at the end of Loomings that he wanted to ship out because of the overwhelming idea (my italics) of the whale, a “portentous and mysterious monster.” He looks forward to traveling to distant “barbarous coasts,” for he is deeply curious and can not only discern good from evil, but be comfortable encountering both. “Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it – would they let me in…,” he tells us. Events will challenge this claim, as we might expect after reading the first chapter of Melville’s great novel.


MegDC said...

Just wanted to wish you luck with your reading group and to say that if any of the members wants a boost with the vocabulary or references, they are welcome to visit, a new online annotation of this amazing book.

Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said...

It's good to see Unpacking My Library active again.

I really like what you've written about "Call me Ishmael." It's so succinct.

I have a couple small things to add. Addressing the reader at the beginning of a novel (in a preface, for example) is one of those novelistic conventions that goes back to . . . Don Quixote: "Idle reader . . . " Melville is addressing the reader--or implicating her--without actually calling her out my name. It introduces an interesting question: how are readers supposed to take this novel? Your commentary tempts me to reread it and find out.

I recently looked at an Italian translation of Moby-Dick. One thing I noticed is that the simplicity of "Call me Ishmael" is not easily translated into Italian. It's a deceptively simple opening, isn't it? Of course, we're so used to reading it that it's a challenge to see it freshly again. But that's what your blog is for!

Okay, I wasn't succinct.