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Another Extract

“A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.”

Gustav Mahler.

Daryl asked, “Are the extracts required reading?” I say absolutely. In fact, I think they’re so important that I want to add another one to them: the Mahler quotation I opened with. Think of it as a kind of meta-extract, describing what strikes me as Moby-Dick‘s overriding goal and illustrating the way the extracts condense and expose that goal.

What goal is that, you ask, and what way? (I’m so glad you asked.) Moby-Dick is the earliest novel I know of that tries to be about everything. Daniel touches on this in his contribution to the conversation about how the book is modern, and Matt K. takes it as literally the base of his project. For one thing, this is a broadly contextualized and extensively allusive book. Even when it isn’t about, say, the fortress of Quebec (ch. 8) or the assassination of Thomas à Becket (ch. 16), it assumes you know those various subjects well enough that they can be dropped in as figurative language without any explanation. (This is why I appreciate my Norton Critical Edition, even if it does also footnote the very most obvious things in all the world.) Moby-Dick, to paraphrase another writer of the period, is large, it contains multitudes.

That’s essentially a question of style; but the book’s inclusiveness stretches also to the level of content. The opening of the book—this whole first week’s reading, in fact—is awfully leisurely. We’re officially about a fifth of the way in, and Ishmael still isn’t even on the boat. Plot is obviously not the primary concern. I mean, there’s a whole chapter about chowder. The editor of any “normal” novel would have chopped that out right quick. And Queequeg’s “Ramadan” doesn’t appear to have any plot justification, since we get no explanation for it and, at least through chapter 39, no further mention of it. (Where that vigil does come into play is in the book’s critique of domineering Christianity.) While I am excited for the chase after the white whale, I’ve always felt like the plot is more in the line of a vehicle that Melville uses to carry out his other concerns—and in that respect, the most apt vehicle to compare it to may well be a clown car.

To return to the extracts, with a quick detour about their putative compiler, the “painstaking burrower and grub-worm of a poor devil of a Sub-Sub”: Daryl wondered why he even exists. I hadn’t considered the question before; I just knew he was about my favorite of literary supernumeraries. But I think Matt B. hit on it with his talk of empathy. That bracketed benediction to the Sub-Sub is so lovely, so affectionate—even if it is a bit condescending for comedy’s sake—that it really helps set the stage for what’s coming. Personally, I find it makes me more receptive to taking in the extracts, after seeing what care went into their assembly.

And there’s quite a lot to take in, by design. The scope of the extracts is intimidating. They’re international: Without researching, it looks to me like there are sources biblical, Greek, Roman, Viking, French, English, Dutch, Scottish, Spanish, Swedish, U.S. American, and German. They include biblical history, folk tales, wisdom, and prophecy; classical science and history; medical lore; poetry; political philosophy; satire; expository prose on slaughter; voyage chronicles; legal commentary; physiology; songs; natural history; fiction; demography; and economic analysis. At least one is invented, smuggled in with the same authority as Pliny. This is a deliberately bewildering mass of information, speculation, commentary, and rhapsody that, if you let it, tells you what you’re in for over the course of the book. It’s like a hologram, containing in one small bit the whole of the completed work.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. There is one thing it leaves for the body of the text to surprise you with: humor. Except for the attribution “Edmund Burke. (somewhere.),” the extracts are significantly less funny than the novel proper. I’ll close with an observation about Melville that never ceases to amuse me. Joan’s got a whole post on the beauty and majesty and suppleness of Melville’s remarkable writing; what I love is that, couched amid all that thoughtful eloquence, he regularly makes time for penis jokes. Ishmael’s nervousness about sharing a bed with a harpooneer (“And when it comes to sleeping with an unknown stranger, in a strange inn, in a strange town, and that stranger a harpooneer, then your objections indefinitely multiply”) cracks me up every time, and it’s not the only joke of its kind. The incongruity of such silly jokes in such an impressive book makes it all the more enjoyable.

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  1. May 27, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    And don’t miss the fart joke early on (Pythagoras proscribed beans, and you don’t want to be downwind of a man on deck who has feasted on beans, now, do you?).

    It’s possibly worth noting, of the extracts, that Melville not only made one of them up, but also molded a few of them to suit his purposes (in one case eliding something like forty lines of the original text).

    It’s neat that you use the word rhapsody. Critics of the time used it again and again to describe Moby-Dick. I guess there’s a negative connotation (certainly there was in the reviews), but I find the rhapsodizing delightful.

    This obscuring of identity happens at least thrice so far in Moby-Dick (the sub-sub, the consumptive usher, and Ishmael himself, whose real name we probably don’t know). It also happens in Typee. I’d be interested in tracing this trend through his work to see if it’s a tic, or something he does purposefully, or is something whose appearances I’ve here exhausted.

    Great post, Jeff. Moby-Dick as a clown car. Comedy gold.

  2. Joan
    May 28, 2010 at 7:38 am

    Just brilliant! I love that Mahler quote and it’s spot on. I’ve always said to people that I suppose you can read Moby-Dick as a seafaring adventure but to me it’s not really about the whale at all. As you’ve very elegantly put it, the plot is a vehicle for everything else. I can’t help thinking how much Moby-Dick is resonating with Infinite Jest for me. A big, sprawling, beautiful and funny examination of life as a whole.

  3. May 28, 2010 at 9:56 am

    Thanks for the shout-out. 🙂

    I wonder if this is why the book was such a failure in its day. In the 19th century, of course people were used to reading long novels (or serials that have since come to be published as novels), but if you compare Moby Dick to something like Great Expectations there’s a real difference in what that length is made up of. Dickens, it seems to me, is primarily about plot, and he piles complication on top of complication (to keep readers engaged with the serial format?). Melville, on the other hand, isn’t trying to tell us everything about Ishmael, as if Ishmael were a sort of David Copperfield; instead, he’s trying to tell us everything about everything.

    Interesting, then, that he makes whales his point of departure. In the chapter on taxonomy he makes it clear that most people are totally ignorant of them, and even experts have huge gaps in their knowledge. I’ll throw this point back out to the group, if anyone wants to pick it up …

  4. MT
    May 28, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    My boyfriend and I took turns reading each one aloud to each other, made for a good appetizer for the rest of the book, I think. Let’s you know from the beginning that there is something silly and different about this one…

  5. mattkish87
    May 29, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    This was an absolutely brilliant post! I am so glad to finally know of so many others who feel, like I feel, that the novel is indeed a book about everything. Often I am asked, sometimes with incredulity, just why “Moby-Dick” is my favorite novel ever. My answer is always that I think it is a book about everything. Which either provokes amused stares, further questions, or sardonic shakes of the head and an early end to the conversation.

    • June 1, 2010 at 2:05 pm

      Think of it as a response to all the people who loved Seinfeld because it was a show about nothing.

  1. May 27, 2010 at 9:14 pm

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