We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Image: Mike Beauregard
I. Chaos: An Allegory
To call Moby-Dick an introduction to the varying qualities of obsession qualifies as profound understatement. Before one picks up the book and opens it, she knows in advance some semblance of what it contains: a white whale and a captain so bent on revenge he will sacrifice his entire crew in the vain attempt to wreck his anger back upon it. But for those readers who, as if entranced by Ahab’s own magnetic spell, find themselves saying, as Ishmael does, that “I was one of that crew,” the novel offers a different course altogether: no longer Obsession 101, but an endless symposium housed in the Humanities but cross-listed with those lessons in the Eternal Vagaries that inspire and bewilder in equal measure, and to which the reader-as-whaler is devoted. Obsession contains layers, depths that rise up to become surface, and, shattered by attention, reveal a deeper deep beneath.
To lend to Ahab—perhaps the most infamously obsessive of character in American literature—the full complexity of the drive that so deeply marks him is to trust that obsession hurtles past mere monomania, mere egomania, and cannot be simply ascribed to the psychological. Obsession here runs afoul of the categories that should contain it. Ahab, whose “torn body and gashed soul bled into one another; and so interfusing, made him mad,” suffers a collision of opposites grown confounded—body and soul, mind and heart, and even, in stranger, more subtle ways, the enunciated pronoun “I” and one’s given name. Obsession stirs up the lees of such primary bewilderment. And so stirred up, that same bewilderment requires obsession to give order to phenomena remarkably resistant to categorization. To read Moby-Dick by its own light—and we must keep in mind that it is a novel about pursuing illumination—is to find ourselves obsessed with the nature of obsession. Never an end in itself, obsession dislocates us in ways a whaler himself is dislocated: a point on a surface of indefinite depth and breadth, a sentient mark, a feeling pip, immersed in the very element of experience without yet having a word to name it as such. Then we are—as is Ishmael, as is Ahab, as is every man aboard the Pequod—a constituent of chaos.
What may fascinate so deeply in Moby-Dick—perhaps the reason it is among those novels most notoriously left unfinished by those who begin it—is a demand hidden within it that we re-school ourselves, a hint that we have not mastered what we assume years ago we learned: how to read. What we tend to be unskilled at is precisely what Moby-Dick demands—that against the order language imposes on the experience it narrates we must find a way to let chaos back in. We must admit what is hardest to admit, that the very system of consciousness by which we make the world cohere in such a way that we can communicate our sense of it to another is itself a system riddled with gaps, excesses, lacunae, variable darkness, held breaths, unlit oil, mystic marks, fathomless volumes, inspirations and exhalations. To read chaotically admits to our condition upon the sea: held up by an element we cannot grasp. So of meaning, of word, of thought, and so of experience—they are, like water to a sailor at sea, everywhere and nowhere at once. Against Captain Peleg’s weary suggestion that Ishmael can see all the world from any place he stands—“nothing but water, considerable horizon though”—chaos returns us to a capacity for wonder. But wonder differs from our assumptions. Inclusive as it may be of spectacle and all that in the whale fishery marks it as unique, it also redirects our attention back to those minute differences within sameness itself—as if in the blankness of the page, as on the blankness of the white whale, we must learn to discern again those subtle shades within whiteness which so tax mind and eye to resolve them into any significance at all. But it must. Or both book and whale escape. They escape, as Ahab would remind us, into the “little lower layer.”
What we tend to be unskilled at is precisely what Moby-Dick demands—that against the order language imposes we must find a way to let chaos back in.
Absurd, and yet it feels right: to imagine the book and its hundreds of pages as ocean-like, if not an ocean itself. It puts us in a whaling frame of mind: read the surface so as to gain sense of what below it lies. So fated is Moby-Dick as a text—in the sense that Ishmael’s narration of it occurs after the events described, and so time subtly is turned backwards, moving ahead only into what has already occurred—that one feels that to read it truly one must see through a page to all the pages beneath and read them each at once. Then the depth could grow clear and what in its dark ink is being sought could be seen.
Chaos seems composed of those depths that compromise the methods used to categorize it. It resists the order it also dismantles. Though Ishmael warns us vehemently against construing his tale as “a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory,” the very nature of the book and its main protagonists seem to require us to do so. Against those allegories whose less tolerable ratios insist a given character stand exactly for a given virtue or vice, the obsessive, chaotic allegory Moby-Dick scrambles the ratios into variety and abundance. That mob of simultaneous significances lurks in the word itself. Allegory is cognate with agora, Greek for the marketplace, place of public gathering, and earlier, threshing ground and place of choral dance and song. Such an understanding of allegory leads one to ask different questions. Not “What does Ahab stand for?” or “What does Pip’s vision mean?” but “Who congregates under these names?” and “What collects in their gathering places?”.
Hearing his would-be Captain’s name, Ishmael is taken aback. To Peleg’s reminder that “he’s Ahab, boy, and Ahab of old, thou knowest, was a crowned king!”Ishmael responds, “And a very vile one. When that wicked king was slain, the dogs, did they not lick his blood?” Peleg pulls him aside, looks at him with startling significance, and says, “Look ye, lad; never say that on board the Pequod. Never say it anywhere. Captain Ahab did not name himself.” Such a name bestows upon the one that bears it some aspect of the history it holds as a kind of fate, a relict of the past that impresses itself on the possibility of the inchoate future. Ahab grows into his name as one comes into inheritance, destined to some degree to ask those questions of how God might abide in the world with some sense that only blasphemous answers are courageous ones. Ahab congregates, so to speak, under his own name, hurtling along the lines his own hurt provides him, losing the distance so marked in most of us: that between saying “I” and one’s given name there is a door ajar, to quote Dickinson, “just the door that oceans are.” As if pulled together by a magnetic force so strong it collapses the opposite poles into a singularity, Ahab is Ahab, through and through, and all of the crew are Ahabs, too. The single straight line of the pronoun “I” links them, lines them up as one, a compass needle tuned not to north, but to those depths toward which obsession bends free will down, helpless, heedless, a line that seeks its match in the depths of the Season-On-The-Line.
But in the tangled lines of chaos and fate Ishmael finds wrapped around him, these words of Peleg’s contradict the reality of his own name. For Ishmael opens the novel by declaring the opposite fact: “Call me Ishmael.” His name he has chosen. And who gathers there but all those who, bereft of their inheritance, find themselves unmoored in the wide wonder-world? Each of them nameless, for their names, as did our narrator’s, drowned, drowned, and only “I” survived. No, not I. Just me—object not subject—just me survived. Every me, that is, whose self has been so stove by whale or world that we are returned to our primary philosophic position: trying to fix a leaky boat adrift at sea. And for those who gather in this allegory, each one of them is me.
What worries me most, what nags at the tangled yarn of my mind, are the ways Ahab and Ishmael might offer guidance into the work that has occupied the majority of my life: making a poem. Beyond providing subject, Moby-Dick ushers back into the chaotic nexus that precedes chaos, that untamed, aqueous, breathless nothing the unworlds world in such a way that to speak, to write a verse, to write a sentence, reenacts the basic crisis of creative effort. Not to make a word, but to forge a world. Ishmael and Ahab are bound together by more than a name on a contract. Each man offers himself as an archetype of how creative work is necessitated by the tragic sense of the world slipping back into chaos. Each one is lost in the infinite; each must find a method to limit what threatens him with limitlessness. Each must find a way—as each of us who read know we must, too—to face the faceless white blankness of whale and page and, to survive, make a mark. Both Ahab and Ishmael strive to do so, and each succeeds in differing, if partial, ways. Together, though, bound by crisis into their spurious condition, they might offer a would-be poet a means by which to make a hold within meaning itself. Not a permanent hold. Just a stay, just a delay, in which world holds on as world, air separate from sea, breath held and breath breathed, for a little while longer. Moby-Dick might introduce us to what tools are most distinctly our own in this whaling, wording, work. What does it take to make a world? Maybe nothing more than a circle and a line. Such simple poetic geometries just might underlie the whole delicate edifice of what we know and how we know it. The scholar thinks the building made eternally solid; the whaler knows the foundation trembles; the whaler knows there is work to be done.
II. Ishmael; or, Circles
Only such a soul-spar could write as Ishmael does. Only Ishmael, naming himself after Abraham’s first-born son, could write Chapter 32, “Cetology.” In attempting to write a brief encyclopedia of all that of whales can be known, Ishmael returns us to the site of primary poetic crisis. A former teacher, he attempts to rely upon a system of knowledge he also knows he’s abandoned by boarding the Pequod. In comparing whales by their size to books by theirs—folio, octavo, duodecimo—he forges an implicit link between the two, a shared vitality, suggesting not only that whales are some strange compendium of knowledge, but also that a book is a form of life that dives fathoms down past the mind’s reach. Even as we hold it, it escapes. The entries, as a species of definition, seek accurate portrayal. The promise of such work is an architecture that holds, an epistemology in which the words that lead us to imagine what they name do so precisely; and so the reader can, as the whaler must, rely on the knowledge imparted as “true” to life itself. But Ishmael knows the system fails, cannot be perfected. He comes to sense the line as a unit—be it a whale-line or that line of words, a sentence—runs short of the length needed, lacks the requisite strength, to pull up what it would name into fact. Meaning drifts away from proof into realms more poetic, depths in which language works in ways other than categorically, seeking not to classify whale or world, but more beautifully, to participate, to enact, to mimic instead. Such effort requires the abandonment of one technology for the use of another. Ishmael lets go the line to pick up the circle.
To do so requires a strange initiation into one form of self-abandon. Aboard Starbuck’s boat for his first lowering, a mate known for his caution, Ishmael pursues a whale as a squall comes up, and “running through a suffusing wide veil of mist” while the frenzied whale rolls and tumbles “like an earthquake” beneath the boat, finds himself introduced to the indistinct terrors of ambiguity. Queequeg’s thrown harpoon but grazes the beast. Something about the work of whaling removes experience from itself, cuts in halves Descartes’s cogito, so that “I think” is a “loose fish” free from the existential suspicion that “I am.” Ishmael’s I am witnesses air and ocean so intermingled that they cannot be told apart, and he immerses himself—by choice or not, it hardy matters—in the confusion. To do so forces him to recognize that the old order by which the world made sense, where opposites held fixed relation to one another, where consciousness made claim that felt true enough to be called real (say, that the ocean is made of water, and the sky of air), no longer suffices. The cost of the wonder-world he has entered alters his relation not only to the world-as-such, but to himself. I am and I think both are simultaneously true, but each independent of the other, neither proving the existence of which they mark but a portion. This change is reflected in Ishmael’s position: sitting in water up to his knees, the boat floods, seeming to float up as a piece of coral from the ocean’s bed, the gale increasing its howl, and Queequeg holding at the prow a single lit lantern, “an imbecile candle in the heart of that almighty forlornness.” So Ishmael spends the night with Starbuck’s crew. In the image we see how little light the mind casts back into the world of the whaler. It is a lantern lit not to guide, but to gather; not to forge a path, but to be seen. It belongs not to the man holding it, but is a symbol belonging to each in the flooded boat equally—reason’s flickering, fading hope. It doesn’t say I think, therefore I am. It says, I am; we all are; find me, each one of me. Existence proves no more than an iota within all that threatens to submerge it, and so reduced, identities are fungible, the pronoun “I” becomes oddly anonymous, shared. Rescued finally by the Pequod, Ishmael takes precaution and writes out his will and locks it away in his chest. He writes out of himself that power of will by which any given self accomplishes what he may do, locks it away, and becomes will-less as a “quiet ghost with a clean conscience.” His I, missing his will, grows porous; he has lost that wall of self-definition that keeps his self apart from another’s. He riddles himself into plurality. Like the Greek chorus, when he says I he says I for all.
Unlike the line of “breadthless length,” the circle is a geometry that figures the insufficiency of any single point of view. It turns away; it turns to. Its coherency resides in no single point’s sufficiency. The same can be said of Ishmael’s narrative strategy. He finds voice not a place of certainty, but one of poetic abandonment. I am becomes a bewildered position. Ishmael, in the hints he gives of his life after the tragedy aboard the Pequod, shows us the results of this shattering, this being made wild. He says, “I myself am a savage, owning no allegiance but to the King of the Cannibals; and ready at any moment to rebel against him.” This becoming savage relies heavily on the word’s etymology, coming from silva, a man of the woods, of the wilderness. Ishmael has become gifted—as he must be, and as the narration of Moby-Dick is profound demonstration of—in managing every form of instability, from the “universal cannibalism” of the world that insists all is in some sense self-consuming, to the realization that we must be as wary of ourselves as we are of others and of all things. At the same time, we find ourselves in allegiance to those most significantly not ourselves; not to mark the difference, but to drift into their existence as if pulled in by some undertow. Ishmael reveals a wondrous facet of the bewildered condition: that the place of abandonment is also the realm of invitation. It makes place for others within us to dwell.
Unlike the line of “breadthless length,” the circle is a geometry that figures the insufficiency of any single point of view.
We feel that poetic in-gathering most distinctly in Chapter 94, “A Squeeze of the Hand.” Describing the work of squeezing the crystallized sperm back into fluid, Ishmael also offers a gloss on the circular poetic that undergirds his ethical and aesthetical vision:
Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-labourers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,—Oh! My dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humour or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all around; nay, let us squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.
Ishamel discovers within the work of being a whaler an education the former pedant could hardly have guessed at; the little iron rail of the pronoun I has been bent pliant and back upon itself, making a circle where before there had been a line. The Apollonian mandate Know Thyself applies to land-lubbers. To be upon the ocean, not as a traveler, but as one who works on its surface to learn its depths, ignorance is the way forward, and the counterbalance to the knowledge experience gives the whaler in his labor is the corresponding gift of self-ignorance, self-bewilderment. At work with his co-laborers, sitting in a circle around the tun filled with sperm, Ishmael squeezes his sole self into the communal body, keeping liquid that germ of anonymous intelligence before identity has molded it into personality. Here labor is an act at once physical and metaphysical, social and cosmic. Ishmael, thinking of the vision such work provides, sees “long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.” It is a vision magnificent in its betrayal of merest “reality”—essence outside of existence, as if the soul bore within its intangible boundaries the body into which it had been bound, or stitched.
This sublime sociability, advocating a return to a form of existence preceding the delimitation of self and the world self seems fated to negotiate, finds companion in Chapter 87, “The Grand Armada.” As in “A Squeeze of the Hand,” labor is the precondition for privileged vision; if the witness is not a worker, then he is no witness at all. Queequeg strikes one whale among a multitude. The wounded creature tows them away from “circumspection” into an existence felt as “the delirious throb.” The mind’s wary speculation gives way to the heart’s frenzied circulation. That wounded whale trying to outrace the mere point of its pain drags Starbuck’s crew through revolving circles, each a pod of whales in calm orbit that steadies the ocean’s waves into a placid, lucid, lake. The whalers find themselves towed through the outer circles into the innermost fold, a cosmic center, a navel of the world. Young whales, tame as pets, would come up to the surface to be scratched playfully with the lances meant to kill them. Violence here opens some enchanted gate: the sacred circle opens and lets in the trespassers, not as enemies, but as initiates. Wonder-struck, the murderous end of their intent dissolves just as being squeezed the solid sperm back into liquid.
But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the same time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment;—even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their new-born sight.
The whalers peer down into a gaze that looks beyond them, up into the infinite ethereal orders from which, out of nothing, the fact of their lives emerged from chaos into order. What Ishmael says of the suckling whales might likewise be said of him: he lives two different lives at one and the same time. He is a man of experience learning the uses of the line; he is anonymous, free-floating, merging into the life of others as a shape of water moves into another shape, speaking as them their thoughts that otherwise would be, maybe forever, silent. Such circles of narration act, as does the lake formed in the whale’s revolving cosmos, as a membrane, a lens—one not unlike the thinnest skin of the whale, wholly transparent, and which, when dried, exerts a slight magnifying force on the words of the books Ishmael reads—allowing not only the whalers to glimpse down into the sacred orders where life moves from essence to appearance, but allowing also the creature new-born to glimpse the indefinite realm from which its now mortal life has emerged.
The circle as a poetic geometry acts just the same. It keeps porous the boundary line between distinct orders of existence, be it the horizontal, social relation of squeezing sperm, or be it the vertical one of heavens to surface to depths. Seen through properly, the eye is one such circle; so is the pronoun I when it bends, ouroboros-like, and makes of itself a circle. The vision holds each man in its spell until a struck whale swims madly through those cosmic rings trailing a line with a loose harpoon slashing behind it, wounding others as he tries to flee the pain of wound. Then chaos of a lesser order reasserts itself: not chaos of source, of creation; but chaos of violence, and death. I can imagine that line dark as the line of ink the nib of a pen leaves behind. To make a point might also be a violent act; meaning might crash headlong through deeper forms of order. What harm is there in bringing any fact up into light?
What we know of Ishmael’s later life, the one he lived after the tragedy aboard the Pequod, but preceding, it would seem, the writing of this novel, echoes out from that question. The white man who—in the earliest chapters, when he first sees Queequeg’s markings—Ishmael reports as having tattooed himself over his whole body, ends up, of course, being himself. Strange forms of prediction abound in poetic circles, as if in attaching ends to beginnings, time itself returns to its cyclical, mythical, repetitions. Ishmael speaks of it movingly:
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 a whale.
The body becomes the book; just as it had been for his bosom friend, Queequeg. What Ishmael knows he has marked upon himself so he will not forget. But against the lines of measurement, congenial they may be, he has left open upon himself a blank space, a page open not for fact to fill, but for a poem. I imagine that blank page hemmed in by the ink that everywhere records what experience has taught him. Knowledge forms the circle it cannot enter; it is the space of ignorance fact makes available but cannot breach. Such is the poem’s realm. It is not yet written. The whole novel acts as prelude to that still unwritten poem.
III. Ahab; or Lines
How do you alter possibility into probability? How do you change possibility into certainty? You do as Ahab might advise. You use a line.
Emblematic of the man: his sleepless nights spent beneath a lamp burning on whale-oil, head bent over the chart he studies.
. . . you would have seen him intently studying the various lines and shadings which there met his eye; and with slow but steady pencil trace additional courses over spaces that before were blank . . . . While thus employed, the heavy pewter lamp suspended in chains over his head, continually rocked with the motion of the ship, and for ever threw shifting gleams and shadows of lines upon his wrinkled brow, till it seemed that while he himself was marking outlines and courses on the wrinkled charts, some invisible pencil was also tracing lines and courses upon the deeply marked chart of his forehead.
Ahab’s work on the charts, his “threading a maze of currents and eddies” with the line drawn from a pencil, offers an image not only by which we can understand the peculiar techne of the line’s poetic geometry, but can immediately apprehend its difference from Ishmael’s circular nature.
Ahab seeks that point at which the line he draws will intersect the line of the white whale’s undersea migration. His line works in depths even as it works on surfaces, existing on multiple planes at once, insisting that what is below can, by force of its own mark, become revealed above. The line is breadthless, says Euclid; for Ahab, it is breathless. It charts a map in the element of human demise. Such a line is a means of capture within all uncertainty, makes into possibility that which, missing a line, would remain something even less than potential. What Ahab seems unaware of—and which Ishmael, with his circular, cosmic vision seems uniquely attuned to—is the parallel gesture, the invisible hand that charts upon him the very lines he draws on the map. As Ahab draws his line through the ocean’s depth, so the depths of his mind are traced. So wounded is the man, of soul as much as of body, that extraordinarily outward effort of drawing one line certain through the ocean’s illimitable depths finds unknown reciprocation in the inmost depths of his mind. Such a line does strange work to the eye that can see it. It implies a wound as metaphysical as it is physical cannot be stitched shut by mere thread, and yet even mere thread, wound through the amazement of word and wound, insists that inner and outer bear no difference, and that thought, and faith, and belief, and doubt are likewise an ocean whose surface is but the wrinkled page of a man’s brow. Ahab doesn’t know it: but the line insists that the white whale (that swimming, living blank) will be found in the ocean only when it is also found in himself. And so of the tarred, hempen line tied to the thrown dart. It will be thrown within even as it is thrown ferociously out. The line seems to insist on metaphysical parallels—depths, surfaces, heights—that it also refuses to make explicit. Well, refuses until the lines all intersect. That’s a point we call a wound.
But against the lines of measurement, congenial they may be, Ishmael has left open upon himself a blank space, a page open not for fact to fill, but for a poem.
“Accuracy,” etymologically, is a form of care. It’s a poetic realization in and of itself, that to be accurate is a kind of love. Ishmael, it should be noted, is deeply attuned to the moral crisis of accuracy; he seeks to be as accurate as he can be, and he offers critiques, humorous and profound, of those who have failed to accurately portray the whale. Ahab seeks something other than accuracy, nor should we assume that the line-as-such, the line as poetic tool, concerns itself necessarily with accurate rendering of what it would name. For this man who feels his purpose “laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run,” the accurate line does contradictory work, attunes itself to excesses so grand they eclipse rendering, trace the monstrosity they’re hurled toward, not to bring it up into some harmony of air, but to find its vital place and there, give it accurate harm. Perhaps it’s easiest to see the point by an opposing example. Ishmael, kindly, gives us one:
On Tower hill, as you go down to the London docks, you may have seen a crippled beggar (or kedger, as the sailors say) holding a painted board before him, representing the tragic sense in which he lost his leg. There are three whales and three boats; and one of the boats (presumed to contain the missing leg in all its original integrity) is being crunched by the jaws of the foremost whale. Any time these ten years, they tell me, has that man held up that picture, and exhibited that stump to an incredulous world. But the time of his justification has now come. His three whales are as good whales as were ever published . . . and his stump as unquestionable a stump as any you will find in the western clearings.
Ishmael, in quiet ways, makes many claims for the nature of art in relation to experience. Greatest inaccuracies occur, he suggests, in those renderings that derive from the mere distance of objective rationality; such paintings might capture an outline, but they do not offer a glimpse of the life that informs it. The accuracy of this kedger’s painting of three whales derives from his being within the very squall of the hunt, within the quick of the crisis, from which he emerged without whale, scathed, and with only the ability to represent what nearly killed him. Lurking within these “good whales” is an aesthetic theory that secretly demonstrates itself throughout the novel. It insists upon a link that connects experience to experiment; that bond in accurate art is as strong as the nuclear bond within an atom. But such accuracy deriving from lived experience bears within it all the ambiguity of life, all the entering into boiling waters to get near as one can to what one wants. What one wants also wants to escape. It might take a limb with it as it goes. Against the clinical eye that profits most from lending to others a means of recognition, this whaler’s accuracy inscribes within it the mortal dangers of what it is to want to make an image of the world. You must go into it to do so. And this world that, as Heraclitus says, “loves to hide,” has some vested interest in keeping dark what the line would make visible. Keats realizes much the same, bears within his poetic thinking a parallel aesthetic concern, when he says: “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?” Why is the kedger’s painting, silently held up for ten years so he can make his living, begging? Because it renders into lines the creature that in damaging him so grievously broke his intelligence and made it a soul. Unlike the scientists Ishmael finds so often at fault, this beggar achieves accuracy because he works from an ignorance that knows itself. Such is one gift experience gives.
But I might argue the painting is not what is most accurate. For the picture of three whales and three boats is itself in representative relation to the unpaintable thing, that which is there only by not being there, evidence that has absence only as its proof: the missing leg. It may seem like small return, given the investment, but it’s not. This whaler discovered a means of offering to others what he experienced himself; and in their recognition of its truthfulness, they give him coins, and he makes his way though the difficult world.
What the whalers we have become by reading Moby-Dick cannot help but recognize is that our Captain has suffered the very same wound. But Ahab paints no paintings, draws no drawings: he sits at a table at night all night and draws lines in the ocean. To achieve any accuracy the line must learn to betray itself, to work against the infinite reach of its own geometric nature. It must bend and circle back and join—as Ishmael joins—its end to its beginning, for only in circumference does a world become apprehensive. But Ahab’s soul runs grooved on iron railings. The infinite in him rides straight along the line’s poetic geometry: “breadth without length,” yes; but also, a means to pursue that which denies pursuit as a possibility: divinity, infinity, immortality, and the principle agent who creates such incommensurabilities that so tease the mind out of thought. Ahab has a line. It is his poem. It has no meaning because it has no words. To stop there would be to give up his mad chase. Then possibility becomes something more fearsome than certainty; it becomes fate. We’re witness to that moment, that fatal error. It happens when Ahab speaks to all for the first time aboard the quarter-deck. Here he must make his purpose known, must hawser his crew to his plan. He asks questions that derive from experience.
“What do ye do when ye see a whale, men?”
One by one they answer, and the answers are right, so they please him.
Then he asks after a certain whale, if they’ve heard of this whale. It’s a white whale. White as a snow hill. White as a page.
Tashtego says, “That white whale must be the same that some call Moby Dick.”
Ahab hears the name, and in front of all, he asks: “Moby Dick?” He doesn’t say, but asks—asks as if he had forgotten the name, or never taken note of it. This man devoted to nothing less than killing this one whale in all the oceans in all the world doesn’t recognize the name of what he pursues. Such is the counsel of the merciless line. Were Ahab to say the name over and again to himself his point would pierce only an image—an image the name itself creates. He wants to “punch through the mask.” But to make the unspeakable wish of his heart known even Ahab must speak. To wind his line around his crew he must speak, he must say the name he hates and in saying it must submit himself to representation, to the trap of accuracy, in which, by making the white whale visible to others, he makes himself again visible to the whale. See, now, this fatal reciprocity of the line?
What do you do when you see it?
You sing out.
The mouth makes something like a circle then; and then the word on a line flies out.
What it hits, that word, it also misses; the creature dives down. It is a loss fathoms do not measure. It finds its escape in the song of its own name.
The one who sings seems to go missing, too. Well, all do—save the one who makes a circle of his arms, and embracing the empty coffin his friend will never be buried in, holds on for dearest life.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Philosopher William MacAskill contends that humanity’s long-term survival matters more than preventing short-term suffering and death. His arguments are shaky.
In her new book, Danish poet Olga Ravn writes with open love, pity, and compassion for her strange yet familiar creations.
Draconian individual punishment distracts from systemic change and reinforces the cruelest and most racist system of incarceration on the planet.