A Nabokovian Reading of Ishmael

May 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Moby-Dick.

Everyone who’s read or even read about Moby-Dick knows that Ishmael is a weird entity, a hybrid of character, limited and omniscient narrator, and authorial representative.  He shows and tells us things he, as a character, could not possibly have seen or heard.  But he came across as even weirder than I remember on this reading, if only because I was able to pick up more of the details than on previous readings, my attention focused on the bigger picture of understanding the novel.

The possibility of reading Ishmael as a Nabokovian trickster-narrator occurred to me on this reading — the possibility of Ishmael as a deliberately duplicitous narrator, a figure who indicates the fictional nature of his own composition and implicates the real-life author, as well.  It’s a half-facetious argument: some of the explanation for Ishmael’s weirdness lies, I’m convinced, in Melville’s being carried away by his passionate composition and his insistence that his text say what he wanted to express, whether or not it meant betraying the verisimilitude of the narrative and the character.  And so his character is given some of Melville’s own backstory and some elaborate incidents of his own, is thrown into situations to move the story along whenever convenient, etc.  But some of this does seem, if not deliberate, at least playfully possible as a legitimate reading, thanks to Melville’s gift for compelling detail, instructive incident, and frequent allusion.

Along with the first line of the book, the famously ambiguous “Call me Ishmael” (“call” you that because it’s not your real name, and you want to protect your identity, or “call” you that because you’re really the author and are assuming a persona?), the linchpin for an argument like this is probably the mention of a Captain D’Wolf in chapter 45, “The Affadavit.”  Ishmael has “the honor of being a nephew of his,” we’re told, and has confirmed with D’Wolf the truth of the whaling incident just described.  Interesting, this sidelight into Ishmael’s family (one of two, the other being the incident in which Ishmael’s stepmother sends him to bed in the middle of the afternoon described in an earlier post), especially considering his self-image as an “orphan” and “outcast.”  But more interesting is the fact that this Captain D’Wolf really was Melville’s uncle: “Nor’west” John D’Wolf.  (See here: as you can see, this message is part of a website about the film Traces of the Trade, about the slave trade, in which the D’Wolf family was heavily involved.  Also interesting, if not quite on topic.)

And so, if you knew Melville personally, or knew the D’Wolfs — and they were a famous family, and America was a much smaller place, so this was not unlikely — this punches a hole right through the mask of the character Ishmael to reveal the face of the author Melville.  This historical, verifiable D’Wolf is not the uncle of any Ishmael: he’s Melville’s.  And we’re suddenly on the unstable ground of nonfiction v. “realist” fiction v. self-consciously unreliable fiction.  And it’s utterly delightful that this mention occurs in “The Affadavit” — this half-serious, half-joking document attesting to the truth of Ishmael’s assertions, in which he relates whaling incidents he’s read about and those he’s “personally known.”

The trickster nature of Ishmael pops up often, of course, in his relation of incidents in Ahab’s cabin, of thoughts and private soliloquies he could not have heard — his apparent transformation into a spirit or god, until his reincarnation as the survivor Ishmael in the Epilogue.  But charting the course of his life after the novel’s close through mentions in the book also destabilizes his characterization.  Mentions of Ishmael’s working as a “schoolmaster” (in the very first chapter) and of his obsessive research into whales and whaling (throughout the heart of the book) lead one to look back on the prefaces to the “Etymology” and “Extracts” and wonder if that “late consumptive usher” and “sub-sub-librarian” are not, in fact, Ishmael himself: if his painting them in such pathetic colors is not a sign of self-loathing or remorse for his wasted life.  But then there are also frequent allusions to the many other voyages he’s made on whalers and other ships, the ports he’s stopped at, the adventures he’s had, the wisdom he’s found.  “The Town-Ho’s Story” is but the most famous example: Ishmael recounting the story he heard during the Town-Ho‘s gam with the Pequod to his Spanish friends in Lima some years later.  There’s also the utterly remarkable incident chapter 102, “A Bower in the Arsacides,” as Ishmael is able to measure a whale’s skeleton which has been converted into an idol.  Here’s the astonishing passage I’d forgotten:

The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics.  But as I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing — at least, what untattooed parts might remain — I did not trouble myself with the odd inches…

I mean… wow.  Ishmael, so astounded by Queequeg’s cosmological tribal tattoos at the book’s onset, has become an illustrated man himself.  That he did not mention it earlier surely means that this occurred after the Pequod‘s voyage.

So, to summarize.  We are to believe that Ishmael the composer of Moby-Dick, the lone lucky survivor of the Pequod disaster, is not traumatized by this experience into sticking to the land at all, but instead goes back to the sea constantly, taking many more trips not only on merchant vessels, but on whalers.  He becomes just as obsessed with whales and the white whale especially as much as Ahab ever was; he is a very old, very weathered and wizened sailor, covered in tattoos as surely startling as Queequeg’s once were to him.  The book is written on his body, perhaps, just as Queequeg’s understanding of the universe is written on his.  The book is as much an exorcism of his whaling demons as it is a chapter of his life recollected in tranquility.

All of which is not necessarily Nabokovian, except for the ending.  Provocative statement for discussion and debate: Moby-Dick has the craziest, most ludicrous ending of any great book.  As the ship sinks rapidly in its awful vortex, Tashtego, drowning, all but his arms underwater, still manages to continue hammering a red flag to the mast, and catches the wing of a “sky-hawk” in between his hammer and the mast, bringing it down with the ship.  In The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, Howard Vincent somewhat hilariously tries to defend this as “perhaps [Melville’s] masterpiece of style.”  Um, yeah.  Style does not change the fact that this scene is bat-shit insane, and always has been, even by Romantic standards.

Does the vortex scene ultimately destabilize Ishmael as a reliable narrator?  Does it convince us that he, the character who supposedly shipped on the Pequod and supposedly survived its wreck, is making it up, Pale Fire-style?  Has Ishmael the author (or, beyond him, a fictional “Melville”) been driven insane by his whale obsession and his cowardice, driven to compose an overheated narrative about a monster whale, a demonic captain, and his incredible survival of a massive shipwreck — of which he is, conveniently, the only survivor, the tale therefore unverifiable — supported by an overabundance of “evidence” from his many supposed voyages, his years of “wandering,” and his extensive research (but really from just a few printed sources)?

Well, no.  The greatness of Melville’s book does not lie in its destabilization of the author as authority or the intricate interplay between narrator and reader.  But it’s a testament to the expanse, the capacity, of this book, that it can absorb this sort of reading, too.  And it is fun to imagine the book in this alternate-universe sort of way, as a giant hoax, a massive documentation of an unstable mind.

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The Carpenter Does as He Does

May 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading (yes, still): Moby-Dick.

Reading next: A Whaler’s Dictionary by Dan Beachy-Quick and Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky.

So, yes, all right, I’ve been grossly lax in posting about one of my favorite books.  There’s never any lack of fodder with Melville, only lack of time and effort.  I’ve been the victim/perpetrator of both, I’m afraid.  And so here I sit, nearly done with the novel after having taken a ridiculous amount of time to get through a book I’ve previously read, with a few measly posts to my name.

I do have plans to write two longer posts after I’ve finished — one Ishmael-centric, one Ahab- — but for now, I’ll ease back in with a little mash note to one of my favorite tertiary characters, and another feature of the book I’d forgotten about: the carpenter, who appears on the scene only in the frantic final quarter of the novel, in chapter 106.

Melville contrives to introduce the carpenter by explaining that Ahab’s ivory leg “received a half-splintering shock” in a previous incident, and Ahab was cautious about his leg since some mysterious accident shortly before the Pequod sailed had “displaced” his former peg so badly that it had “all but pierced his groin” (kibble for academics, that).  And so the carpenter’s set to work making him a new one.

Here’s the gist of Melville’s lengthy introduction to the carpenter:

For nothing was this man more remarkable, than for a certain impersonal stolidity as it were; impersonal, I say; for it so shaded off into the surrounding infinite of things, that it seemed one with the general stolidity discernible in the whole visible world…. Yet was this half-horrible stolidity in him, involving, too, as it appeared, an all-ramifying heartlessness;— yet was it oddly dashed at times, with an old, crutch-like, antediluvian, wheezing humorousness….  He was a stript abstract; an unfractioned integral; uncompromised as a new-born babe; living without premeditated reference to this world or the next…. he did not seem to work so much by reason or by instinct, or simply because he had been tutored to it… but merely by a kind of deaf and dumb, spontaneous literal process.  He was a pure manipulator; his brain, if he had ever had one, must have early oozed along into the muscles of his fingers….

Yet… [he] was, after all, no mere machine of an automaton.  If he did not have a common soul in him, he had a subtle something that somehow anomalously did its duty….  And this it was, this same unaccountable, cunning life-principle in him; this it was, that kept him a great part of the time soliloquizing; but only like an unreasoning wheel, which also hummingly soliloquizes…

This complicated, ambiguous introduction (which, trust me, is even more complicated and ambiguous in full, as much is when Melville hurries to his conclusion) leads to three major tasks for the carpenter: crafting Ahab’s leg, building Queequeg’s coffin, and converting that coffin into a waterproof life-preserver.  Much as he does in his introduction, through these tasks he partakes, by degrees, of association with God the ultimate builder and shaper; with death and the darker side of eternity; and with Christ, the carpenter who converts death into life.  But there are also hints of the carpenter (and his partner-in-creation, the blacksmith) as a demiurge, automaton, or industrialized worker.  In this, he’s a sort of Bartleby — except that he would always prefer to do whatever’s asked of him.  (Interesting to think what might’ve happened to Bartleby had he shipped on a whaler, preferring not to do any of the thousand odd jobs asked of him.)

The demiurge and automaton aspects are interesting, indeed, and also potentially related.  Because the carpenter is constantly muttering to himself, he can become a kind of mouthpiece for whatever Melville would like to point out through his work: the relationship between dead matter and living beings, the mysteriousness of the workings of the universe.  (When the carpenter’s asked by Ahab why he’s sealing Queequeg’s coffin — accused of being “unprincipled as the gods, and as much of a jack-of-all-trades” — he responds, “But I do not mean anything, sir.  I do as I do.”)  Through this muttering, he becomes something like one of the Egyptian statues (or, to unbelievers, hoax-automata) through which the immaterial gods speak — the immaterial god in this case being Melville.  And he also bears some relation to the malevolent demiurge of Gnosticism — a mad god, muttering to himself about his power, but able only to shape, of limited power but convinced of his omnipotence.

But this partakes a little of what I want to talk about in connection to both Ishmael and Ahab, so I’ll stop there.  To be continued…

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