Sunday, September 13, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: The Unfinished

In this week's writing lesson from Moby Dick, we are once again confronted with pedantry. I suggested a few weeks ago that Melville gets away with extended pedantic rants, even on page one, through sheer enthusiasm and judicious use of the second person. However, in Chapter 32, "Cetology," we are in a whole new realm of dust and dryness.

Already we are boldly launched upon the deep; but soon we shall be lost in its unshored harborless immensities. Ere that come to pass; ere the Pequod's weedy hull rolls side by side with the barnacled hulls of the leviathan; at the outset it is but well to attend to a matter almost indispensable to a thorough appreciative understanding of the more special leviathanic revelations and allusions of all sorts which are to follow.

It is some systematized exhibition of the whale in his broad genera, that I would now fain put before you.

And "put it before" us he does, over several, I hate to say it, tedious pages. I kind of skimmed them. This is not to say these pages are without interest; there is the irresistible (to Derridians and post-post-triple-double toe-loop-Derridians) intertwining of the whale with the book:

First: According to magnitude I divide the whales into three primary BOOKS (subdivisible into CHAPTERS), and these shall comprehend them all,
both small and large.


As the type of the FOLIO I present the Sperm Whale; of the OCTAVO, the Grampus; of the DUODECIMO, the Porpoise.

And there's the horrifying juxtaposition of real fondness for at least some of these creatures with the cold-blooded calculations of the butcher:

BOOK III. (Duodecimo), CHAPTER 1. (Huzza Porpoise).--This is the common porpoise found almost all over the globe. The name is of my own bestowal; for there are more than one sort of porpoises, and something must be done to distinguish them. I call him thus, because he always swims in hilarious shoals, which upon the broad sea keep tossing themselves to heaven like caps in a Fourth-of-July crowd. Their appearance is generally hailed with delight by the mariner. Full of fine spirits, they invariably come from the breezy billows to windward. They are the lads that always live before the wind. They are accounted a lucky omen. If you yourself can withstand three cheers at beholding these vivacious fish, then heaven help ye; the spirit of godly gamesomeness is not in ye. A well-fed, plump Huzza Porpoise will yield you one good gallon of good oil. But the fine and delicate fluid extracted from his jaws is exceedingly valuable.
Nevertheless, what is this "systematized exhibition" doing, plopped down in the middle of a narrative that has, like the Pequod, just now gotten underway? Is there some value in disrupting narrative momentum and taxing the reader's patience like this?

Thematically speaking, yes. In many senses the author of the novel is more Ahab than Ishmael. Like Ahab he seeks to get at the whale by any means necessary; he corrals it and aims at it every verbal weapon he can think of--straighforward narrative, theater, and now scholarly discourse. This latest stylistic shift also adds to the growing hodge-podge effect of the narrative, which I find appealing, even though I was glad when this particular part was over. While the voice in this section is still pretty dry, the overall sense is of an already oppressive desperation: we can't get (i.e. undestand) the whale; we will never get the whale.

And then there's this little outburst at the end:

Finally: It was stated at the outset, that this system would not be here, and at once, perfected. You cannot but plainly see that I have kept my word. But I now leave my cetological System standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the cranes still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. 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!
As I've said before, I'm a big fan of these authorial yelps. And what yelp is closer to the heart of a struggling novelist than "Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!"? You said it, dude. But what's also fascinating here is the announcement that this whole enterprise is incomplete. We're looking at the frayed edge of the fabric; if we pull one of the threads, the whole novel might unravel. Melville's almost daring us to do it.

So what's the point of that, and how might other writers put such a ploy to good use? A lesser author might use it as a cheap way out. Yeah, there are crappy parts here, but I was rushing, and everyone knows it's impossible to finish anything anyway. But the meticulousness of this section in particular shows that the author is in fact trying his damnedest to "get" the whale. The slap-dash aesthetic of the novel (created by all the different verbal styles, as well as this and other outburst of despair) is a result of over-work, not sloppiness. So, in short, a section that is radically different in style, not only from the rest of the novel, but from the novel genre, can work even if it bogs down the narrative--if it furthers the novel's tone. Plot can wait. Character can wait. Desperation is what's most important here, and it probably helps if the reader starts to feel a little of it too--Good god, get on with it already!

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