Speaking Volumes: Moby-Dick

April 28, 1995

A. Robert Lee on Herman Melville's Moby-Dick .

A summer vacation job clerking at the Army and Navy Store in 1963 might not seem the likeliest of contexts for a first close encounter with Moby-Dick. Little, then, could I anticipate that lunchtime reading between genteel orders for assorted toiletries, embossed stationery, bed-sheets and pipe-cleaners would possess its own kind of logic.

For maybe it took just so English a venue - not to say a pending degree in EngLit. and Lang. from London - to point up the slightly heady sense of betrayal, my own run, as it seemed, for the American literary border.

Fresh from Chaucer and Middlemarch, Long Slack "e" and Quirkian grammar, was there not something akin to an almost fugitive dizziness at having got hooked on Melville's fable of an American whaleship, a Faustian if New England Ahab, and a whale so teasingly one thing and many?

Even a touch of megalomania may have set in. Could there be any other Brit with a nose in the Everyman edition? Who else was amid allusions to Coenties Slip and Nantucket, South Seas sperm fisheries and diving Leviathans, a crew of "isolatoes" and an American Indian nailing a sky-hawk to the stoved-in whaleship? Only dimly, too, had I begun to grasp that I might be in for a lifetime's talk about, er, allegory and symbolism. Moby-Dick was to be either some defining liber mundi or, by its size and supposed fatal digressions, simply dead weight.

At any rate, it seemed but a trice before I had parlayed my way into a thesis ("That would be the American Melville?" I was asked at the senate House scholarship interview). Blessedly, and chance again, it was to be at the guidance of the one London University luminary who very much had read Melville, the sadly now late, inspirational Eric Mottram. Old London hands will readily imagine the supposed treachery of a transfer from UCL to KCL, compounded by a first-ever university postgraduateship in American literature.

As to Moby-Dick itself, the first shock on a re-read was to recognise that I really did not have any true bearings. To be sure, a whale chase, Atlantic and Pacific vistas, the eventual hunting-down and destruction of the Pequod. But what of Ishmael, was he there or not? And those discursive chapters, did they simply hold up things or indeed possess, as they say, "a purpose"? Little wonder that Melville himself speaks of "careful disorderliness" as the "true method" of his tale. Years later, a thousand classes later, articles, books and even my own Everyman editions later, the matter looks both clearer and simply more dizzying.

Yes, it all counts. I would even venture that the whale hunt may be the digression and the digression is the real story. Intimations of the post-modern and a canniest style of self-reference were there well ahead of Barthes or Derrida. It is a wickedly funny book, too. The mock lists in "Etymology" and "Extracts" guy any too solemn an encyclopaedist. The fart in "Loomings" confirms the touch of Smollett in Melville, as does his send-up of sabbatarian probity in the Pequod's owners, Peleg and Bildad. A sexual double-talk running from Queenqueg as Ishmael's marriage-partner to the priapism of "The Cassock" and "Heads and Tails" adds its own welcome seam of play.

Moreover, far from not knowing what he was about, does not Melville in chapters like "The Whiteness of the Whale" or "The Honours and Glory of Whaling" offer quite vintage symbolisme, language as itself a phenomenological drama? Who, with half a will, would not warm to the fierce ruminative appetite? For in the white whale, "ubiquitous in time and place", he seeks less the "light" of sperm oil than of the world's competing languages and codes.

Shadowing the Shakespeare and Cervantes that inspired it, varyingly quest and anatomy, Moby-Dick remains a book to be grateful for - Melville's American Gift.

A. Robert Lee is reader in American literature, University of Kent at Canterbury.

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