Melville’s Descent into the Maelstrom

A Whale Swims Between Two Icebergs, Where It is Crushed. the Whalers Manage to Cut the Wire in Time and Save Themselves (segment), Edouard Riou

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) is a book with a thousand-and-one keys, or a single key – “It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life: and this is the key to it all,” says Ishmael/Melville in Chapter 1 – or no key. Cervantes, Shakespeare, Rabelais, and Sterne—none of Melville’s precursors are more outrageous than his own monstrous compendium. With the gestures of a prestidigitator, he begins his capework with a dedicatory clap to Hawthorne, followed by a certain “pale Usher” with his “queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world.” This “Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School” supplies us with an etymological prose poem on the word WHALE, which ends with what looks like an onomatopoeia: “PEHEE-NUEE-NUEE,” from the Erromangoan, meaning “Fish-Plenty-Plenty.” The sounds and imagery introduced in this etymology, the novel’s wheel-wallow-whale-while-white-whirl-wail-vale-veil-vile word-whorls, will weave and roll the reader through Melville’s encyclopedic dream of the Deep, his meditation on Everything, this last great gasp of late dark gothic Romanticism—Moby hyphen Dick semi-colon or comma The Whale. If ever a novel embodied the notion of the world within the word, it’s Moby-Dick.

In its audacious reach, its erudition, its music, beauty, metaphysics, histories, allusions, anagrams, democratic disruptions, nose-thumbings, polysemies, repetitions, puns, encryptions, inscriptions, detailed deconstructions, layerings, nestings, “careful disorderliness,” circles within vortical circles, ambiguities, contradictions, “sinister dexterity” (Billy Budd, Sailor [1888-91]), bluster, fantasy, crackbrained comedy and realism, the novel was and is an outrage against mediocrity and decency, the literary marketplace’s twin CEOs. The sixth of his nine published novels (a later novel, The Isle of the Cross, was rejected and lost), Moby-Dick met in America both praise (“the gusto of true genius”—Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer; “subtle mysticism”—Horace Greeley, New-York Daily Tribune) and derision. Southern Quarterly Review found the novel a “monstrous bore” filled with “ravings,” while for the United States Magazine and Democratic Review Melville’s “morbid self-esteem,” with “all his insinuating licentiousness” on display, had produced another of his “increasingly exaggerated and increasingly dull books.” Nor did the gilt life preserver embossed on the cover stop reviewers from noting that at $1.50 the book was overpriced. Sales were modest to disappointing.

Here, near the midpoint of his eleven-year professional fiction-writing career (1846 – 1857), after the success of his first two novels, Melville’s descent into literary oblivion effectively began. The reception of his next novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852) was worse. Fitz-James O’Brien, author of that gloriously bent fantasy “The Diamond Lens” (1858), advised the author to “diet himself for a year or two on Addison, and avoid Sir Thomas Browne,” to cure him of his “drunken and reeling” prose. Pierre will sell 283 copies in the U.S. “What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,” Melville wrote to Hawthorne, “—it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.” There was still brilliance to come, especially in The Piazza Tales (1856) and his final novel The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), but for the sake of his family, his sanity, and his finances, Melville had to stop composing fiction. “Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!” Ishmael calls out at the end of the “Cetology” chapter, but these four necessities had failed Melville. The once infamous author of Typee (1846), and now father of four children, was, by the age of thirty-seven, washed up as a professional fiction writer.

Why had he thought he could get away with writing and publishing a delirious tome like Moby-Dick without its sinking him deeper into the grave of his career? For one thing, he writes the novel when he’s thirty and thirty-one, not yet fully aware, as was Robert Walser two years after the last of his fifteen books appeared, that “[e]very book printed is, after all, a grave for its author” (Walser to Max Brod, 1927). The reception of Melville’s previous two novels, Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850), each completed in a feverish two months and each mistakenly dismissed by Melville as pot-boilers, was an improvement over Mardi and a Voyage Thither (1849), although again some reviewers were censorious. Only “flippant, tom-fooling writers of Melville’s sort” (Puritan Recorder) could write a book like White-Jacket, filled with “crudities and puerilities that would disgrace a school-boy” (Boston Post). This time, unlike in the allegorical romance Mardi, he would ballast his metaphysics in the specifics of WHALE and drape it all over the back of the epic revenge tale of a mad devil-worshipping captain and his crew’s hunt for a monstrous white sperm. And ballast and balance and blast it all to a cyclical hell and gone he did.

In Melville’s metaphysics, will-I nill-I, Matter devours, “oblivionates” us. The “nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing” is what Ahab hates, that ultimate wall of “dumb blankness” separating mind from matter, appearance from reality, a blankness before which one “gazes blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around.” This “thought-diver” (“I love all men who dive . . .”—Melville, after hearing a lecture by Emerson), “mystic who hated mysticism” (as Robert Penn Warren described Melville), “universal absorber” (as Melville says of his eponymous white-jacket), avaricious plunderer of libraries, was forever grappling with inscrutable Nature and butting his head against the “dead indifference of walls” (“The Berg,” 1888). In Mardi we encounter “inscrutable penguins [. . .] building their inscrutable nests” and a South Seas philosopher “intent upon the essence of things” who wishes “to evolve the inscrutable.” At the end of the diptych “The Paradise of Bachelors and The Tartarus of Maids” (1855), the narrator, after visiting a paper factory (“Your great machine is a miracle of inscrutable intricacy”), pauses “as within the Dantean gateway” of a gorge, before “shooting through the pass, all alone with inscrutable nature.” And who doesn’t wish at times he could forget “the inscrutable scrivener” Bartleby’s uncompromising example before his blank wall?

Melville’s willingness to confront metaphysics’ endpoint was due in part to his desire to strive for the kind of greatness he encountered in Virgil, Shakespeare, Sir Thomas Browne, Milton, Carlyle, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the numerous other works he was reading at the time. Along with his “irreverence,” what the Commercial Advertiser called his “sneering at the truths of revealed religion,” Melville’s reach, his “quality of Grasp,” must have outraged readers who preferred their “greatness” more restrained. In his copy of Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Melville wrote:

Attain the highest result.—
A quality of Grasp.—
The habitual choice of noble subjects.—
The Expression.—
Get in as much as you can.—
Finish is completeness, fulness,
not polish.—

 —all attributes of Moby-Dick. Like Kleist, but decidedly less or at least differently mad, Melville was willing to grapple not only with giants but with God. “We incline to think that God cannot explain His own secrets,” he quipped in a letter to Hawthorne, while Moby-Dick was still in progress, “and that He would like a little information upon certain points Himself.” Within a year, such jauntiness will have vanished to be replaced by a more sober and sour confrontation with Truth: “For the more that he wrote, and the deeper and the deeper that he dived, Pierre saw the everlasting elusiveness of Truth; the universal lurking insincerity of even the greatest and purest written thoughts.”

But not yet, not while composing Moby-Dick. His spirits were high. He had moved from New York to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and bought for $6500 (bad deal) the 160-acre farm he would name Arrowhead (with his Fourth Avenue house still not sold and a $2000 debt and $90 a year mortgage he could not pay and another $5000 owed to his father-in-law). The manuscript that awaits him at his morning desk (he preferred a 9 a.m. to early afternoon writing schedule) he knows contains, as Hershel Parker has remarked, “the tragic grandeur of Shakespeare’s plays.” Best of all, Nathaniel Hawthorne lived nearby. In his essay “Hawthorne and His Mosses” (1850) Melville could not help but describe Hawthorne’s work as if it were his own:

Through the mouths of the dark characters of Hamlet, Timon, Lear, and Iago, [Shakespeare] craftily says, or sometimes insinuates the things, which we feel to be terrifically true, that it were all but madness for any good man, in his own proper character, to utter, or even hint of them. Tormented into desperation, Lear the frantic King tears off the mask, and speaks the sane madness of vital truth.

 The author of The House of the Seven Gables (1851), Melville tells Hawthorne in a letter, “says NO! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie; and all men who say no,—why, they are in the happy condition of judicious unincumbered travellers in Europe; they cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpet-bag,—that is to say, the Ego.” This is the “grand truth,” as Melville saw it, “about Nathaniel Hawthorne,” superimposing his own spirit over his idol’s. But his meetings with Hawthorne are too few. The house fills with visitors and relatives. His wife Lizzie is pregnant with their second child Stanwix. Melville’s mother worries about his irreverence and recklessness. Renovations begin on the house. With spring coming, the farm needs his attention. The book will be a masterpiece. The book will not sell. “Wrote White Whale or Moby Dick under unfavorable circumstances,” Lizzie noted nine years after her husband’s death.

Ishmael’s miraculous survival — after the White Whale, that great romantic beast, has destroyed the Pequod and its crew in his romantic, “ever-contracting circles” — turns on a paradoxical pun, the “life-buoy coffin” that pops Ishmael out of the maelstrom:

Round and round, then, and ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another Ixion I did revolve. Till, gaining that vital centre, the black bubble upward burst; and now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and, owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side.

In such puns we see Melville’s ambition take a self-conscious, inward turn into language itself. Like the grog mad Ahab has his crew drink to pledge their fidelity to their mad captain’s mad quest (“I am madness maddened,” says Ahab, getting to the square root of the matter), all of Moby-Dick “spiralizes in ye.” The novel’s self-consciousness is evident in its language and structures. There are, for the example, the dialectical gams: Pequod (Gloom) meets the Bachelor (Joy), Pequod (morose, legless captain) meets the Samuel Enderby (jolly, armless captain). And there are the chapters that proceed, frequently, two by two (Chapter 26 “Knights and Squires,” Chapter 27 “Knights and Squires”; “Chapter 74 “The Sperm Whale’s Head—Contrasted View,” Chapter 75 “The Right Whale’s Head—Contrasted View”); the mirrorings; the preluding calms before the storms; the great movement of the novel’s diastole and systole; the “concentric spiralizations,” “coilings,” “twistings,” “serpentines.”

When we look into chapter entitled “The Fountain,” we see the author at his desk, I mean the real author at his real desk, “down to this blessed minute (fifteen and a quarter minutes past one o’clock P.M. of this sixteenth day of December, A.D. 1850),” pondering and punning whether the whale’s spoutings, which have been “sprinkling and mistifying the gardens of the deep” for ages, “are, after all, really water, or nothing but vapor.” His conclusion that “the spout is nothing but mist” brings to his mind the time —

While composing a little treatise on Eternity, I had the curiosity to place a mirror before me, and ere long saw reflected there, a curious involved worming and undulation in the atmosphere over my head. The invariable moisture of my hair, while plunged in deep thought, after six cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August noon; this seems an additional argument for the above suspicion.

In the maze of Moby-Dick, the reader encounters again and again such funhouse reflexivity. Ishmael enters the Spouter-Inn, its “wide, low, straggling entry [. . .] reminding one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft,” to espy at once “a very large oil painting [. . .] that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist [. . .] had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched.” This “boggy, soggy, squitchy picture,” modeled on the seascapes of J. M. W. Turner, Melville barnacles to the reader as a mise en abîme, the description of the painting mirroring Melville’s book.

Yet there was a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. Ever and anon a bright, but, alas, deceptive idea would dart you through.—It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale.—It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.—It’s a blasted heath.—It’s a Hyperborean winter scene.—It’s the breaking up of the ice-bound stream of Time. But at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture’s midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great leviathan himself?

The novel coalesces into the painting, the painting into the novel. Its reflective surface opens out, closes in. Ishmael’s “final theory” of “the artist’s design” is that the picture depicts a Cape-Horner going down in a hurricane while “an exasperated whale [. . .] is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.” But this is only theory. The fact of the chapter continues as an epistemological comedy of misconstruction concerning his bedmate, the beloved cannibal Queequeg.

Moby-Dick’s reflexive showcase, the “Cetology” chapter, “divide[s] the whales into three primary BOOKS (subdivisible into CHAPTERS) [. . .] I. THE FOLIO WHALE; II. the OCTAVO WHALE; III. the DUODECIMO WHALE.” “The classification of the constituents of a chaos, nothing less is here essayed,” Ishmael claims, aligning himself with the young painter who “endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched.” Having “swam through libraries and sailed through oceans,” Ishmael, conjuring one of his many “linked analogies,” says there is “nothing but to take hold of the whales bodily, in their entire liberal volume, and boldly sort them that way.” As the Folios give way to the Octavos, the Octavos to the Duodecimos; as “BOOK I. (Folio), CHAPTER I. (Sperm Whale)” descends to “BOOK II. (Octavo), CHAPTER III. (Narwhale)” (whose horn Ishmael speculates “would certainly be very convenient to him for a folder in reading pamphlets”) to dwindle in the end to “lists of uncertain whales” that one “can hardly help suspecting [. . .] for mere sounds, full of Leviathanism, but signifying nothing,” Melville leaves his “cetological System [. . .] unfinished,” and prays, “God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!”1

The book’s dialectical rhymes spin us round and round. Tashtego’s fall into the dead head of a sperm whale, Ishmael compares to “an Ohio honey-hunter” who, “leaning too far over,” drops into a hollow tree, “embalmed” in the honey, and then (folk tale to philosophy) rhymes this image with that of thinkers who “have likewise fallen into Plato’s honey head.” Queequeg’s “great skill in obstetrics” comically delivers Tashtego from the head; in the end it’s Queequeg’s coffin that delivers Ishmael from out the vortex. The second time Pip falls out of a boat, he’s left behind for hours. “The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God!” But isn’t this also the heartless center of Ahab’s metaphysics? Pip returns insane, one of God’s holy fools, but Ahab wills his madness onto the world. Where else can his thoughts go? “O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! not the smallest atom stirs or lives in matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.” All thoughts are mirrors, all mirrors oceans on which roll the backs of sperm whales “glistening in the sun’s rays like a mirror,” and in oceans we drown, especially if what takes us there is leviathan, on whose back like harpoons we’re “Caught and twisted—corkscrewed in the mazes of the line.”

From its dark, irreverent metaphysics to its political satire, from its reflexive hijinks to its industrial realism, right down to its ontological, alphabetical core, the novel pulls us into the maelstrom of its contrarieties. Take, for example, the moments when birth and death are juxtaposed or fused. In “The Grand Armada” chapter, the whales, those “inscrutable creatures at the centre” in their “submarine bridal-chambers and nurseries,” engender and give birth while the ones on the periphery are being slaughtered. Elsewhere Melville tells us “All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks.” In Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1952), Vladimir lyricizes: “Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps.” In Moby-Dick, Melville elegantly collapses these points to a precise pun as Ahab descends to his cabin, to his “grave-dug berth.”2

Not content to merely ponder the inscrutable wall, Melville cavorts before it, composes games from its shadows. The pall-appalled-pale-white cluster, for example: “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.” The easy puns such as Peter Coffin’s calling Queequeg “an airely bird” and the tortured ones: Queequeg, trying to describe to Ahab what the harpoons on Moby Dick look like, says “disjointedly, ‘all twiske-tee betwisk, like him—him—’ ‘Corkscrew!’ cried Ahab.”

Ahab is almost as frequent a punster as Ishmael. “Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more?” he asks, sound and sense doubling in a distorted glass. Of the old Manxman, where the x in the name’s middle can multiply or sign the unknown or obliterate: “Here’s a man from Man; a man born in once independent Man, and now unmanned of Man; which is sucked in—by what?”

“The more I consider this mighty tail [an easy wordplay, but none more reflexively significant], the more I deplore my inability to express it,” says Ishmael of the whale’s anatomical tail in the chapter entitled “The Tail.” Not the poet of the antelope or bird, “less celestial, I celebrate a tail,” he proposes, hinging the sacred (celestial) to the profane (tail). As in any solid narrative, its “triune structure [. . .] imparts power to the tail,” as must the tail’s “[f]ive great motions.”

In the tail, of course, we partake as well of the novel’s easy sexual punning. “[S]ee how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when love comes to bend them.” Nowhere more so than in the scatological couplet chapters “A Squeeze of the Hand” and “The Cassock.” Thematically part of the novel’s all-embracing democracy or, in this case, its “homosocial brotherhood” (in Laurie Robertson-Lorant’s apt phrase), Melville layers on the phallicism in broad strokes. While the sailors around a tub squeeze lumps out of the sperm as if part of a giant jerk circle, “an abounding, affectionate, loving feeling” comes over Ishmael. “Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.”

“The Cassock” presents us with the mincer, he who flays the whale’s penis and then wears it “in the full canonicals of his calling” while the “minced pieces [of the whale’s penis] drop, fast as the sheets from a rapt orator’s desk. Arrayed in decent black, occupying a conspicuous pulpit; intent on bible leaves; what a candidate for an archbishoprick, what a lad for a Pope were this mincer!” By this point in the novel Harold Beaver, in his extensive commentary to the 1972 Penguin edition, is willing to place the ass inside the cock of the cassock: “so this ‘cassock’, turned inside out, spells ‘ass/cock’ in the rigging.”

The principal language play naturally is on whale and all the words within its cluster. A world saturated with whale. Whatever swims however cetaceously by, Melville imbibes. In “The Honor and Glory of Whaling” chapter, the whole world’s cosmology turns cetaceous, when Vishnoo, “incarnate in a whale [. . .] rescue[s] the sacred volumes.” The world within the whale within the word. A dying whale “revolved like a waning world.” And where else should we find an image of surreal “wails” but in the dead, dynamic center of Ahab? Pulled from the ocean, Ahab lies “crushed in the bottom of Stubb’s boat [. . .]. Far inland, nameless wails came from him, as desolate sounds from out ravines.”

A pale usher dusts off the globe and opens the door onto a word. That’s how Moby-Dick begins. Next a Sub-Sub-Librarian (below below) supplies us with eighty extracts whose “higgledy-piggledy whale statements” we’re warned not to take “for veritable gospel cetology.” How many readers are already outraged enough by the delay to go no farther? Enough for many editions to have omitted both the “Etymology” and the “Extracts.”

Drenched in philosophy and myth, propelled by a revenge plot that allows for baroque digressions, its axis set in motion by a word (WHALE), its invention the equal of its ambition, Moby-Dick uncensored is the Great American Novel. ∎

  1. Twice in John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956) we have visual metaphors for the whale-as-book trope. In the first, the smiling face of Ishmael (Richard Basehart) in ¾’s profile dissolves into the picture of a whale stoving a boat in a book that Ishmael is holding. In the second, Father Mapple (Orson Welles) is shown in low angle with an open bible in front of him resembling the back fins of a whale, as if it’s about to stove the old whaler-turned-preacher right where it’ll hurt the most. Recall that in the novel Ahab’s ivory leg one night has “smitten and all but pierced his groin.”
  2. Robert Penn Warren uncovers a similar “secret, and grim, pun” in the “berrying [burying] party” from Melville’s poem “The March into Virginia” (Battle-Pieces and Aspects of War [1866]).