Of Course You Can’t Trust Him—He’s Narrating
“Art, whose honesty must work through artifice, cannot avoid cheating truth.”
It’s funny the way this book works on me: It spends 35 chapters deferring any revelations on the plot, and just as it finally establishes what’s really at stake, I go haring off after the narrator. Specifically, I want to look at the way our whole second section of the book communicates the extent to which the story is mediated through Ishmael’s narration.
Obviously, I’m not saying anything controversial when I note that no narration can be taken at face value. For all that some literature tries to pretend otherwise, there is no such thing as pure, direct truth in any narration; narration is always the result of choices and omissions that inevitably shape it. (Like I said, not controversial.) But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing interesting in the ways a narration differs from The Truth. And in Ishmael’s case, we get such a self-consciously artificial narration that I think it fairly makes the case for meaning as mostly constructed, rather than transcendentally existent.
Paul carefully traces the buildup of suspense about Ahab, and I agree with him, but I think it’s also important to recognize it as part of Ishmael’s narrative strategy. Melville foregrounds the mediated nature of the book by beginning with a narrator who refuses to vouch for the name he gives us. This is explicitly going to be Ishmael’s arrangement of events and his conclusions on their import. Paul describes Ahab as Melville’s “master creation,” which is true, but Ahab is only ever depicted as Ishmael’s creation. The whole book is Ishmael’s telling, the whole story Ishmael’s dramaturgy.
And I use the word “dramaturgy” advisedly—chapters 36 through 40 are all explicitly theatrical. “The Quarter-Deck” (ch. 36), which is by far the most eventful and dramatic chapter up to that point, begins with a stage direction. Then we get three monologues and an unwelcome premonition of Ulysses‘s interminable “Circe” episode, fully formatted as a play. At first I found this chunk of text almost inexplicably strange. I went along for the ride and enjoyed it, but I didn’t know where it came from. Then I looked back and saw that Ishmael had been patiently laying his groundwork for a couple dozen pages at least. Chapter 29 is the first with a stage direction (“Enter Ahab; to him, Stubb”), and as a title, no less. Two pages later comes the “Cetology” chapter (of which more anon)—which truthfully doesn’t much advance my dramaturgy argument, although it does foreground the artificiality of the narrative (that wasn’t the anon I was talking about)—and then at the end of chapter 33, “The Specksynder,” Ishmael gives us a straight-up statement of his mission:
Nor, will the tragic dramatist who would depict mortal indomitableness in its fullest sweep and direst swing, ever forget a hint, incidentally so important in his art, as the one now alluded to.
But Ahab, my Captain, still moves before me in all his Nantucket grimness and shagginess; and in this episode touching Emperors and Kings, I must not conceal that I have only to do with a poor old whale-hunter like him; and, therefore, all outward majestical trappings and housings are denied me. Oh, Ahab! what shall be grand in thee, it must needs be plucked at from the skies, and dived for in the deep, and featured in the unbodied air!
“I will invent what I have to,” Ishmael says, “to tell the story I want.”
And then a whole chapter that he must have invented! “The Cabin-Table” (ch. 34) describes a whole scene that Ishmael is forbidden to attend. He gives himself a possible out with a throwaway line about “peep[ing] at Flask through the cabin sky-light,” but I’m not convinced. (Chapter 35, “The Mast-Head,” avails me nothing in the line I’m taking, so I have nothing to say about it outside these parentheses.) After all that preparation for the dramaturgical angle Ishmael intends to approach on, I shouldn’t really have been surprised to see overt drama.
Now: “Cetology.” I love this chapter, because it’s so assured and almost absurd at the same time, and because it’s so obsessively detailed, and because it’s so delightfully bibliophilically artificial. The man categorizes whales by size like paper, and breaks his categorization down by books and chapters. The note on the classification scheme is a pure pleasure: “Why this [Octavo] book of whales is not denominated the Quarto is very plain. Because, while the whales of this order, though smaller than those of the former order, nevertheless retain a proportionate likeness to them in figure, yet the bookbinder’s Quarto volume in its diminished form does not preserve the shape of the Folio volume, but the Octavo volume does.” The whole scheme is arbitrary; Ishmael announces a definition of “whale,” then proceeds to lay down a division without any express authority. It’s pure ipse dixit, presented as science. This cetological plan is only barely more organized or sensible than the classification in the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. If Moby-Dick, as I’ve asserted before, wants to be about everything, within that ambition is an anti-totalizing recognition that meaning is always constructed, no matter how comprehensive it aims to be. The “Cetology” chapter stands as a perfect symbol of that tension, which is why it’s always meant so much more to me than just a dry taxonomy.