Thursday, October 7, 2010

Melville's Affidavit

It is said that the best way to learn something is to teach it, a truth I'm discovering now as a teacher of American literature. I've been reading Moby Dick with an intensity of interest I can only attribute to this, that I want to do right by my students and present this material as best I can. It helps that I love the book, its philosophical and narrative exploits, as well as the literary virtuosity of the thing. Starting on any given page, one cannot read it for more than a few minutes without finding something worth quoting. Here are two of my favorites:

Hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling; and since then perpetuated through the hereditary dyspepsias nurtured by Ramadans. -- spoken by Ishmael


He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. -- spoken by Ahab

I am posting this, not simply to share my appreciation of Melville's achievement, but to make an observation which I find remarkable--perhaps the more so because I have been unable to find it made anywhere else, and I would be very surprised to be the only person to have discovered it.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Moby Dick is the ways in which it is not a novel, but a manifesto or, even more, a testament. In chapter 45, "The Affidavit," Melville suggests the Biblical dimension of his narrative, comparing his descriptions of whales to Moses' descriptions of the plagues of Egypt. The whole point of this chapter is to ground the story of Ahab's mad pursuit of the white whale in historical fact, to establish it as not mere fable or allegory, but as a true description of whales and those who hunt them. Yet, by comparing his tale to that of Moses, Melville suggests that this story should be taken as myth, one comparable to a Biblical tale.

No doubt, Melville wants to convey some of the truth of whaling. Chapters are devoted to the history and science of whales and whaling. Some of it is speculative, some critical, but little does any of this further the narrative. Rather, it is aimed at documenting Melville's own experience and insight into the subject. Others have pointed out that, in such chapters, the narrator may as well be Melville himself, and not Ishmael.

Melville so experiments with narrative voice that, even though Ishmael begins and genereally carries the narrative, several other characters become narrator in various chapters. In still other chapters, the narrative is given in the omniscient third-person, a phenomenon which can alternately be explained by the supposition that Ishmael is taking liberties with his own style, or by the view which I find most compelling, that Melville is not tied to Ishmael as narrator.

This is my observation: There is at least one chapter in which the narrative voice cannot be attributed to Ishmael or any other character in the book, but which can only be that of Melville himself. I am talking again about Chapter 45, "The Affidavit." While several of the other chapters, such as those pertaining to the classification and description of whales, might be attributed either to Melville or Ishmael, Chapter 45 belongs to Melville alone.

Our curiosity is aroused at the very beginning of the chapter, when the narrator acknowledges the fact that this is a book, and that the narrative of the book itself is fractured. It would be strange for Ishmael to speak of the narrative as if from the outside, though this, I admit, is not conclusive evidence. Nor is it conclusive that, in this chapter, the narrator appeals to historical facts--for Ishmael may himself be privy to such facts. No, the conclusive evidence comes when the narrator identifies himself as the nephew of one of the historical figures he is discussing, one Captain D'Wolf. As a point of fact, Herman Melville was this captain's nephew.

Would Melville have us believe that Ishmael is to be his own brother, or perhaps his cousin? If such were Melville's intent, he would surely have gone about it in a better way. The simplest and by far the most plausible explanation is this, that Melville had no qualms about speaking openly, as himself. This makes sense, considering his goal of blending fact and fiction in the mythologizing of whales and whaling. His willingness to speak as himself solidifies his effort to write more than a novel, but a testament to his own existential quest.