The great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open | Riff 1 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (Etymology/Extracts/Loomings)

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

 

I. I last reread Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick in full way back in 2013.

II. I’ve read chunks and excerpts of it over the intermittent seven years though—there’s always some bit in it that calls to me, prompted by events personal, political, cultural. I read Melville’s 1846 novel Typee during the beginning of 2020’s quarantine, and knew I’d need to reread M-D in full sooner than later.

III. (Why later, why now? I guess I made this kinda sorta tacit promise to myself not to reread in 2020—to expand my palate, to go past all the Dead White Guys.)

IV. I started Moby-Dick this afternoon. I read the two opening salvos, “Etymology” and “Extracts,” and then the first chapter, “Loomings.”

V. (I have read that some folks skip the “Extracts”: No.)

VI. I started Moby-Dick in an edition that I bought years ago but haven’t actually read: the California UP/Arion Press edition with Barry Moser illustrations. It’s lovely—grand, generous, rich on the page.

VII. So I’ve probably read “Etymology” more than any other section of M-D. It was certainly the section I messed around with for years before reading the actual novel in full. The etymology has supposedly been given to the author of M-D — HM? Ishmael? Some other ghost — by a “pale Usher” (not Poe’s), “threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain…” The poor fellow “loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.”

VIII. I don’t dwell on the pale Usher, but I’ve long found the next line of “Etymology” fascinating. It’s a quote attributed to the sixteenth-century English author Richard Hakluyt:

While you take in hand to school others, and to teach them by what name a whale-fish is to be called in our tongue, leaving out, through ignorance, the letter H, which almost alone maketh up the signification of the word, you deliver that which is not true.

A former teacher of mine, A. Samuel Kimball (who I am forever indebted to for teaching me to read again) made much of this citation. For Kimball, the foregrounding of the “H” calls attention to one of Melville’s central themes: whaling as wailing—Moby-Dick as a wail, a grief, maybe a resistance to the infanticidal, genocidal scope of American culture. Ishmael, an orphan, goes to sea to resist his suicide-impulse on a ship named after a near-extinct tribe of American Indians. Ishmael, whose very name is marks him, at least in the KJV context Melville was working within, as the rejected son of the patriarch Abraham. In the novel’s last moments, Ishmael is saved (is he though?) by the ship the Rachel, which, “in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”

IX. (Whale-wail / whiteness-witness. Etc. etc.)

X. And those “Extracts,” supplied by a “burrower and grub-worm of a poor devil of a Sub-Sub” — who’s the dom?

XI. I remembered the “Extracts” more fondly than I experienced them.

I just really wanted to get into Ishmael’s head (voice). (And then get out of it, into the drama of Ahab and His Whale.)

XII. And so I got into Ishmael’s head (voice).

XIII. “Loomings” is such a great, great, perfect chapter, and the joy in re-reading Melville is having already worked out most of the plot kinks. Instead of dwelling on What is happening? you can experience What is.

XIV. (I always forget how terribly sad poor Ish is at the outset of M-D. He’s depressed, suffering from hypos, the spleen. He’s not just suicidal, he’s homicidal, wanting to step in the street and knock people’s hats off.)

XV. One of the fascinating things about Moby-Dick, at least in my memory of it, which maybe I’ll expand upon in riffs on this reread, is how little we get to know Ishmael. Like his wanderer namesake, he’s an outsider who, despite taking us in to his tale, nevertheless keeps us out: We know very little about his past or his future, and his present (by which I mean Moby-Dick) is mediated in voyeurism, questioning, and philosophy.

XVI. And “Loomings” — well, what a great title, maybe obvious, but great — the indistinct coming into view, but also the mount of the warp, the initial move in a great tapestry: Moby-Dick.

XVII. I’ll close on the closing line of “Loomings,” which point to the great wonder-world to come, and the grand hooded phantom at the end of Ishmael’s journey:

By reason of these things, then, the whaling voyage was welcome; the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.

1 thought on “The great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open | Riff 1 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (Etymology/Extracts/Loomings)”

  1. When I went to HS in the Bay Area – out on the West Coast – my English teacher had an MA from UC Berkeley (where I went to college) and wrote his thesis on Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” This teacher was a very interesting guy: a spy during WWII operating in Japan where he learned judo and jujitsu, the wrestling coach at the HS, and an expert on the ubiquitous metaphorical allusions and symbolism in “The Whale.” He also thought that students should be able to read and organize a large body of information for examinations. (College prep) Well, I read and I organized. I also – at his urging – went out for the wrestling team (which came in handy later on – as a flaneur – in the slums of four continents during my bohemian existence). English language books were a little thin on the ground those days in Tangier. So I read Moby Dick again – for what? the third time? – and continued to discover new and wonderful monsters gliding in the depths. Now that I’m a published author (crime fiction), I continue to return the Melville’s wonderful adventure of the seas for inspiration — and Melville’s desultory life as a writer. He rang the bell with his early novels – “Typee” and “Omoo” – which were racy, sexy novels of the South Seas. But altogether? I think he only made about 15 grand from all his writing, and “The Whale” went over rather like a lead balloon. Of course, “Bartelby” is the alpha and omega for me. And then there’s Conrad…

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