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.

Time, Reality, Authorship, and Other Delusions

March 14, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: VALIS, by Philip K. Dick.

Reading next: Against Nature (À Rebours), by J.-K. Huysmans, and Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, by S.S. Prawer.

VALIS is more or less the perfect book to read after Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, if I do say so myself.  Like Schreber’s book, it’s a cosmology and exegesis, not primarily a narrative, entertainment, or memoir.  Like Schreber’s book, the most interesting thing about it is the question of how seriously to take it. The question you keep asking yourself, when reading both books, is: Is this a joke? They’re batshit-crazy books.

Of course, there are different standards for VALIS.  Schreber, by all indications, was mentally ill, and both telling the story of his imprisonment and explaining the nature of the universe as he felt it had been revealed to him.  Dick was a novelist; his book was marketed as a novel; and despite the fact that the book is legendarily connected to the experience of “an invasion of [Dick’s] mind by a transcendentally rational mind” in 1974, it is (has to be) a fiction about madness, theology, reality.  It’s kind of Memoirs… turned inside out.

And the book’s main character, Horselover Fat, does have a stint in an asylum, after his miraculously unsuccessful suicide attempt.  Chapter 5, about this time, includes some great insights.  My favorite part of the book might be Fat’s interactions with Dr. Stone, a fascinating character — a “healer,” Fat believes, but possibly a quack and unstable himself.  Stone uses the unusual technique of simply believing his patients.  Stone takes an interest in Fat’s obsession with Gnostic Christianity and his theory that time stopped, kind of, in 70 A.D.: that time since then has been a delusion.  And as they discuss it, Fat seeks validity for one of his ideas.  “‘You would know,’ Dr. Stone said, and then he said something that no one had ever said to Fat before.  ‘You’re the authority,’ Dr. Stone said.”

Dr. Stone wasn’t insane: Stone was a healer.  He held down the right job.  Probably he had healed many people and in many ways.  He adapted his therapy to the individual, not the individual to the therapy.

That’s an interesting idea.  Most of the time we think that the problem with the seriously delusional — the schizophrenic, psychotic, what have you — is that they are too sure of their point of view.  They are sure they know.  This passage, in which Dr. Stone’s belief (real or feigned) in Fat’s theories is applauded as a therapeutic approach, seems to me to indicate that Dick really does want us to take Fat’s — the book’s — cosmology seriously.  Because you do not encourage the delusional to persist in their delusion.  Do you?

Here’s how Dick explains it, in one of the book’s best and most affecting passages:

They — note the “they” — paid Dr. Stone to figure out what had destroyed the patient entering the ward.  In each case a bullet had been fired at him, somewhere, at some time, in his life.  The bullet entered him and the pain began to spread out.  Insidiously, the pain filled him up until he split in half, right down the middle.  The task of the staff, and even of the other patients, was to put the person back together but this could not be done so long as the bullet remained.  All that lesser therapists did was note the person split into two pieces and begin the job of patching him back into a unity; but they failed to find and remove the bullet….  Dr. Stone had a paranormal talent, like his paranormal Bach remedies which were a palpable hoax, a pretext to listen to the patient.  Rum with a flower dipped into it — nothing more, but a sharp mind listening to what the patient said.

But as it turns out, Fat’s not healed after all.  If he was, he wouldn’t exist anymore, as we find out later.  (I think that “note the ‘they'” is PKD’s authorial interjection to tip us off to the fact: Fat’s/Dick’s persistent paranoia.)  So where’s that leave us?

As a novel, I have to say the book’s a failure (not that any PKD fan’s going to give a damn what I think).  It has about 50% too much going on: so many half-explained theories, overheated tracts on the nature of time and space, overreaching attempts to encompass too many very different ideas and religious systems in single symbols, muddled events.  (In this, it also resembles Schreber’s book, which could also be mind-numbingly boring in its minutiae of the workings of an obviously delusional and incomprehensible worldview.)

However, as a document, as an artifact of a mind with a vast capacity for idea- and narrative-generation shucking its habits and trying something vast and self-consciously “important,” it’s fascinating.  I do feel like lately, I keep harping on the narration of events rather than the events themselves.  I hate to keep being so meta in my reading; but it happens to be the most interesting thing about these books, to me.  I mean, I’m sure PKD would rather his readers took the opportunity to reflect on what they actually think about God, the existence of evil, and the connections between the religions of the world.  I’m sure he’d rather we talk about reality and whether our experiences are not often delusional in one way or another.

But the fact is, this is a book in which Philip K. Dick is a character, and so is one Horselover Fat — “Horselover” being the meaning of “Philip” in Greek, and “Fat” meaning “Dick” in German.  And it’s also a book in which Dick says, right up front, that he is Fat, but that he’s going to write as though he’s not.  And near the end of the book, Fat is reabsorbed into Dick.  Fat’s been a fiction all along, even in a fictional world.  Dick has been writing about an alter ego, a fictional version of himself.

You can see the whole narrative of this book as a complex allegory on the creation of fictions — of narratives, of universes.  VALIS is a term for a supposedly rational mind invading our irrational world, ruled by a “God” who thinks he’s the only god — a delusional god.  Is Dick trying to break out, and break his readers out, of the delusion of being the one true “God” of their fictions?  In other words, is the work self-consciously bogus — a hoax, like Stone’s, which really exists to listen and “believe”?

Near the end, Dick and Fat have become one and he and his friends have met the young girl Sophia (wisdom), who may be the “Savior.”  The group believes that Sophia tells them that “The time had come when we no longer had to believe in any deity other than ourselves.”  It’s wisdom shared in people, between people.  Is Dick trying to help us see that truth exists in between — in the communication, not in the interpretation?

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