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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