Saturday, 30 April 2016

On Ishmael

1/ In Leviathan or, The Whale, Philip Hoare refers to a line from Algernon Swinburne's Lesbia Brandon:
"... all the sounds of the sea rang through him, all its airs and lights breathed and shone upon him: he felt land-sick when out of the sea's sight, and twice alive when hard by it."
"Land-sick". What a phrase. It can apply to Ishmael (chapter 1), Bulkington (chapter 23) and Ahab (chapter 132). 

2/ Go back to the beginning. No, I don't mean "Call me Ishmael". I mean Etymology and Extracts. 
I have always wondered about the late consumptive usher and the sub-sub librarian- why does Ishmael/ Melville write so much about them if they're never to reappear in the book? Why does he write about them, at all? 
Etymology and Extracts, besides setting up the mood and preparing the readers for a novel that isn't quite a novel, touch on knowledge and knowability, or book-learning vs experience, 1 of the main themes of Moby Dick
Now, look at this passage: 
"No, when I go to sea, I go as a simple sailor, right before the mast, plumb down into the forecastle, aloft there to the royal mast-head. True, they rather order me about some, and make me jump from spar to spar, like a grasshopper in a May meadow. And at first, this sort of thing is unpleasant enough. It touches one's sense of honour, particularly if you come of an old established family in the land, the Van Rensselaers, or Randolphs, or Hardicanutes. And more than all, if just previous to putting your hand into the tar-pot, you have been lording it as a country schoolmaster, making the tallest boys stand in awe of you. The transition is a keen one, I assure you, from a schoolmaster to a sailor, and requires a strong decoction of Seneca and the Stoics to enable you to grin and bear it. But even this wears off in time." 
Ishmael doesn't say "I", but that does sound like it's himself he's talking about, that he's a schoolmaster before becoming a sailor. Does he personally know the late consumptive usher and the sub-sub librarian? Or is it his past self that he's talking about (so harshly)? Ishmael the character is of course Ishmael the narrator's past self. So it's the past past self. It's "the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself" that makes Ishmael turn to whaling at the beginning of the story- perhaps, after years of reading about whales, he decides to see them for himself?

3/ Ahab can be, and has been, turned into a concept: a mad man obsessed with a pointless and destructive goal. Or maybe an egotist who can't learn to let go and move on (which, in a sense, fits me right now, but that's another story).
Starbuck can also be a concept. Something like a good man with a weak will.
For some time I wondered if Ishmael could also be a concept, a byword for someone like him. Then I realised that I couldn't quite sum him up.

4/ From "When Is a Painting Most Like a Whale?: Ishmael, Moby-Dick, and the Sublime" by Bryan Wolf: 
"... The dilemma of the sublime, then, lies in its need to balance 2 contradictory claims. On the 1 hand, it crosses over all of that which is other in order to re-create it in its own image; on the other hand, it harbors within itself, like an ill-digested meal, traces of past texts that refuse to be assimilated. Queequeg is 1 such text for Ishmael, as Cole was for Church. Queequeg represents the mystery of language itself, and Sphinx-like, he will not be answered. Yet it is not Queequeg who is to be feared in Moby-Dick; his cannibalism is relatively benign. It is Ishmael who is the book's ultimate cannibal, for what he devours are words, sentences, and paragraphs: whole system of representation. And the reason he survives, the reason we love him, is that he doesn't care what he eats. The chewing is all." 

5/ "Melville fools readers of Moby Dick into the belief that Ahab and not Ishmael is the truly obsessed mind."
That's from Kevin at Interpolations.
(Kevin wrote a series on Moby Dick, which is worth a read).
Not only does Ishmael collect everything whales-related and want to know whales in all aspects but he also gets the whale's dimensions tattooed on his arm and writes a whole whale encyclopedia.


I've just finished reading Moby Dick. Nearly 8 weeks. 


  1. i've learned more stuff re MD in the last few weeks than i learned reading the book! many tx for all the work and the interesting posts!

    1. Haha, thank you. It's such a rich book. I have several posts in draft, but perhaps will never complete and publish them, as usual.