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Not without meaning

August 25, 2014

[For context, read this post.]

It should not be a surprise, given the name of this blog, that Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is one of my favorite books. I have never understood why most people find it a difficult read. Perhaps they just approach it in the wrong spirit. The book does not ask us to read it in a mood of profound seriousness; it asks us to approach it with laughter in our souls.

Not that it is not a serious work. It is about, not only the New England sperm-whale fishery, but also death, love, and the soul; law, politics, and religion; science, art, and God; and (more difficult still) it’s about this being-about-ness, about the act of meaning, about how we move from one thought to another. But–and this is part of Melville’s genius–he addresses these most serious and sublime of subjects with his tongue firmly in his cheek. He spellbinds us, only to dismiss the enchantment with an absurd hyperbole or a coarse joke. He offers deep insights, but all the while whispers: all this is vanity; laugh, and go learn what no book can say.

In lieu of a plot summary–the plot of the book is well-known, and simple enough–I would point to two small aspects of the book, each of which could be taken as emblematic of the whole. For this, too, is part of Melville’s genius: he makes it seem as if, despite the apparently arbitrary compositional choices–why, for example, have three chapters on determining the size of the whale?–some deep order underlies it all, such that the entire book could be reconstructed from a single trope, or a single scene. Such metonymic reconstruction would, of course, be impossible–but it feels as if it would not be; because it feels as if what wisdom the book has to offer can be contained in a single word as easily as in a hundred thirty-five chapters. Contained, that is, not at all.


The reader will notice, the very first chapter, a desire to find meaning in all things. And so we find catalogs such as the following:

Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. (Ch. 1: Loomings)

This is the first appearance of what could be the motto of the book: “Surely all this is not without meaning.” “Yes,” the reader may be tempted to respond, “but what is the meaning?” That would be to miss the point. We are not meant to take this catalog so seriously. It is enough, for Melville’s purposes, for us to recognize that a meaning could be seen in this combination. We are to enter into the state of mind in which such lists seem full of meaning; so full that the meaning need not even–cannot even–be said out loud.

And we are also to look at that state of mind from the outside; to laugh at it; to recognize that, seen from outside, it is insane. And so Ahab, the mad captain, often has the same response as the narrator Ishmael:

Though in the course of his continual voyagings Ahab must often before have noticed a similar sight, yet, to any monomaniac man, the veriest trifles capriciously carry meanings. (Ch. 52: The Albatross)

The whole world, then, is full of meaning–for he who has the eye to see it. But is it something we should wish to see? Moby-Dick does not answer this question–it answers no question. It only helps us to see the question more clearly. To see the meaningfulness in some of the meanings it offers, and to see that in some of the meanings madness lies.


And so over the course of the book, despite many false starts, enduring metaphors are built up. Most principally, the whale: the whale is the soul, and America, and the world, and God. So that when we come across a short story about measuring the dimensions of the whale, it is not just an amusing short story (though it is that), or a lyrical ekphrasis (though it is that too); it is a commentary on, among other things, divine transcendence, organized religion, European tourism, and the tentative nature of the artistic endeavor. Here Melville need not insist on the fullness of meaning, for we have already learned to see it ourselves: here he simply presents us the world in the skeleton of a whale, and allows us to see the meaning for ourselves. Because the story comes from my favorite chapter in the book, I will end this post by quoting it in full:

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 Arsacides. For being at Tranque, years ago, when attached to the trading-ship Dey of Algiers, I was invited to spend part of the Arsacidean holidays with the lord of Tranque, at his retired palm villa at Pupella; a sea-side glen not very far distant from what our sailors called Bamboo-Town, his capital.

Among many other fine qualities, my royal friend Tranquo, being gifted with a devout love for all matters of barbaric vertu, had brought together in Pupella whatever rare things the more ingenious of his people could invent; chiefly carved woods of wonderful devices, chiselled shells, inlaid spears, costly paddles, aromatic canoes; and all these distributed among whatever natural wonders, the wonder-freighted, tribute-rendering waves had cast upon his shores.

Chief among these latter was a great Sperm Whale, which, after an unusually long raging gale, had been found dead and stranded, with his head against a cocoa-nut tree, whose plumage-like, tufted droopings seemed his verdant jet. When the vast body had at last been stripped of its fathom-deep enfoldings, and the bones become dust dry in the sun, then the skeleton was carefully transported up the Pupella glen, where a grand temple of lordly palms now sheltered it.

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 vapoury 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 freshet-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.

Now, amid the green, life-restless loom of that Arsacidean wood, the great, white, worshipped skeleton lay lounging—a gigantic idler! Yet, as the ever-woven verdant warp and woof intermixed and hummed around him, the mighty idler seemed the cunning weaver; himself all woven over with the vines; every month assuming greener, fresher verdure; but himself a skeleton. Life folded Death; Death trellised Life; the grim god wived with youthful Life, and begat him curly-headed glories.

Now, when with royal Tranquo I visited this wondrous whale, and saw the skull an altar, and the artificial smoke ascending from where the real jet had issued, I marvelled that the king should regard a chapel as an object of vertu. He laughed. But more I marvelled that the priests should swear that smoky jet of his was genuine. To and fro I paced before this skeleton—brushed the vines aside—broke through the ribs—and with a ball of Arsacidean twine, wandered, eddied long amid its many winding, shaded colonnades and arbours. But soon my line was out; and following it back, I emerged from the opening where I entered. I saw no living thing within; naught was there but bones.

Cutting me a green measuring-rod, I once more dived within the skeleton. From their arrow-slit in the skull, the priests perceived me taking the altitude of the final rib, “How now!” they shouted; “Dar’st thou measure this our god! That’s for us.” “Aye, priests—well, how long do ye make him, then?” But hereupon a fierce contest rose among them, concerning feet and inches; they cracked each other’s sconces with their yard-sticks—the great skull echoed—and seizing that lucky chance, I quickly concluded my own admeasurements.

These admeasurements I now propose to set before you. But first, be it recorded, that, in this matter, I am not free to utter any fancied measurement I please. Because there are skeleton authorities you can refer to, to test my accuracy. There is a Leviathanic Museum, they tell me, in Hull, England, one of the whaling ports of that country, where they have some fine specimens of fin-backs and other whales. Likewise, I have heard that in the museum of Manchester, in New Hampshire, they have what the proprietors call “the only perfect specimen of a Greenland or River Whale in the United States.” Moreover, at a place in Yorkshire, England, Burton Constable by name, a certain Sir Clifford Constable has in his possession the skeleton of a Sperm Whale, but of moderate size, by no means of the full-grown magnitude of my friend King Tranquo’s.

In both cases, the stranded whales to which these two skeletons belonged, were originally claimed by their proprietors upon similar grounds. King Tranquo seizing his because he wanted it; and Sir Clifford, because he was lord of the seignories of those parts. Sir Clifford’s whale has been articulated throughout; so that, like a great chest of drawers, you can open and shut him, in all his bony cavities—spread out his ribs like a gigantic fan—and swing all day upon his lower jaw. Locks are to be put upon some of his trap-doors and shutters; and a footman will show round future visitors with a bunch of keys at his side. Sir Clifford thinks of charging twopence for a peep at the whispering gallery in the spinal column; threepence to hear the echo in the hollow of his cerebellum; and sixpence for the unrivalled view from his forehead.

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.

(Ch. 102: The Bower in the Arsacides)

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