Monday, November 02, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: What is Ishmael?

This week in Moby Dick, we are given something like an answer to a nagging question. What is the deal with Ishmael? Up until now, I've mainly considered him as a Nick Carraway-style narrator, an actual person who's present at the events he's relating, though more observer than participant. However, in the history-and-anatomy-of-whaling passages, one senses a different narrative voice, an old guy hunched over dusty tomes who might as well be Melville, or "Melville"--since Ishmael mentions, in passing or possibly in jest, that he's "unlettered." So far I've fudged the matter, calling the narrator Melville / Ishmael, or dismissing the question in favor of the larger problems of the moment. But in "A Bower in the Arsacides," we are forced to confront the issue.

Hitherto, in descriptively treating of the Sperm Whale, I have chiefly dwelt upon the marvels of his outer aspect; or separately and in detail upon some few interior structural features. But to a large and thorough sweeping comprehension of him, it behoves me now to unbutton him still further, and untagging the points of his hose, unbuckling his garters, and casting loose the hooks and the eyes of the joints of his innermost bones, set him before you in his ultimatum; that is to say, in his unconditional skeleton.

But how now, Ishmael? How is it, that you, a mere oarsman in the fishery, pretend to know aught about the subterranean parts of the whale? Did erudite Stubb, mounted upon your capstan, deliver lectures on the anatomy of the Cetacea; and by help of the windlass, hold up a specimen rib for exhibition? Explain thyself, Ishmael. Can you land a full-grown whale on your deck for examination, as a cook dishes a roast-pig? Surely not. A veritable witness have you hitherto been, Ishmael; but have a care how you seize the privilege of Jonah alone; the privilege of discoursing upon the joists and beams; the rafters, ridge-pole, sleepers, and under-pinnings, making up the frame-work of leviathan; and belike of the tallow-vats, dairy-rooms, butteries, and cheeseries in his bowels.

Ishmael goes on to say, in his defense, that he once dissected a young sperm whale that was hoisted onto the deck. But this hardly seems to explain the vast scope of his knowledge, as he clearly recognizes. In fact, he seems to toss this whale "cub" at us as a joke and a tease--how do you know so much about the world? Well, I saw a NOVA special once. The teasing, for that's what I think this is, goes on. "And as for my exact knowledge of the bones of the leviathan in their gigantic, full-grown development, for that rare knowledge I am indebted to my late royal friend Tranquo, king of Tranque, one of the Arsicides." Apparently on a visit to this island, Ishmael toured the complete skeleton of a whale that had washed up on shore. The skeleton (like Pip) has undergone a wondrous transformation:

The ribs were hung with trophies; the vertebrae were carved with Arsacidean annals, in strange hieroglyphics; in the skull, the priests kept up an unextinguished aromatic flame, so that the mystic head again sent forth its vapory spout; while, suspended from a bough, the terrific lower jaw vibrated over all the devotees, like the hair-hung sword that so affrighted Damocles.

It was a wondrous sight. The wood was green as mosses of the Icy Glen; the trees stood high and haughty, feeling their living sap; the industrious earth beneath was as a weaver's loom, with a gorgeous carpet on it, whereof the ground-vine tendrils formed the warp and woof, and the living flowers the figures. All the trees, with all their laden branches; all the shrubs, and ferns, and grasses; the message-carrying air; all these unceasingly were active. Through the lacings of the leaves, the great sun seemed a flying shuttle weaving the unwearied verdure. Oh, busy weaver! unseen weaver!--pause!--one word!-- whither flows the fabric? what palace may it deck? wherefore all these ceaseless toilings? Speak, weaver!--stay thy hand!-- but one single word with thee! Nay--the shuttle flies-- the figures float from forth the loom; the fresher-rushing carpet for ever slides away. The weaver-god, he weaves; and by that weaving is he deafened, that he hears no mortal voice; and by that humming, we, too, who look on the loom are deafened; and only when we escape it shall we hear the thousand voices that speak through it. For even so it is in all material factories. The spoken words that are inaudible among the flying spindles; those same words are plainly heard without the walls, bursting from the opened casements. Thereby have villainies been detected. Ah, mortal! then, be heedful; for so, in all this din of the great world's loom, thy subtlest thinkings may be overheard afar.

For all I know such a "bower" does exist, but the way Melville / Ishmael describes it, it's anything but real. Yet it is here, amid enchantment and divine mystery, that Ishmael proposes to undertake that most rational of activities, measuring the whale's skeleton for his future readers' edification. The priests object--"Dar'st thou measure this our god! That's for us"--but Ishmael takes advantage of a comical skirmish among them to complete his task. OK, maybe even now, we still believe him. But then there's this, at the end of the chapter:

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; nor, indeed, should inches at all enter into a congenial admeasurement of the whale.

Now Melville's just having us on. We can no longer be expected to believe that Ishmael's an ordinary person. Of course, no one on the Pequod is, as our narrator is at great pains to tell us (the blacksmith, the carpenter, the deranged drowned child who's still alive--every character has a bizarre tale). But Ishmael is something else entirely--a blank page who wanders through the book "composing" himself at will. Sometimes he looks rather like a person; sometimes he sounds like one voice or another. Like the whale, the narrator's "exposed" in this passage, and also hidden. We think we see the apparatus that keeps him together, but the trees are waving, the light is flashing, and Ishmael vanishes in a magical, joking blur. You can call him Ishmael, but that container really does not hold him.

Jonathan Culler's article "Omniscience" takes on the problem of what the so-called "all-seeing" narrator is. How embodied does a narrator have to be--how present? How much of a person can a narrator be, before real human limitations get in the way of telling the story? These can be tough questions for writers to solve. Melville's solution is to have Ishmael appear and disappear as a character, and call his own reality into question. This gives Melville the option of showing the thrilling, and often deeply moving personal experiences on board the whale boat, as one can do with a conventional first-person narrator; at the same time, Ishmael can go anywhere and see anything. Who went down to the depths with Pip's immortal soul and saw, with Pip, God's foot upon the treadle of the loom? Well, Ishmael did. He can do that. This is Nick Carraway as a ghost, or demon.

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