Shoots to Branches
“And now the plant, resigned
To being self-defined
Before it can commerce
With the great universe,
Takes aim at all the sky
And starts to ramify.”
Richard Wilbur’s “Seed Leaves.”
Here in the heart of the book, it should be clear by now why some of us read it as a book about everything. There’s been plenty of plot, and we’ve had some exciting action (although I wonder whether ch. 61, “Stubb Kills a Whale,” was off-puttingly gruesome on purpose, or whether that’s just unavoidable), but there’s also been a remarkable exfoliation of the text from a story about a monomaniacal sea captain to…well, everything else that’s included. I take my metaphor for this post from Ishmael himself; he excuses his discursiveness at the beginning of ch. 63, “The Crotch” (…I know), with a lovely image to illustrate how the road between one narrative event and the next lengthens under his very feet:
Out of the trunk, the branches grow; out of them, the twigs. So, in productive subjects, grow the chapters.
Obviously this isn’t the first section of the book where we’ve seen digressions from the plot—I’d call Queequeg’s “Ramadan” the first major one, and that was pretty early—but it seems to me that this week we entered a more technical part of the book, where the digressions took on a different character. Before, they tended to be either apparently disposable set pieces or grand philosophical and historical disquisitions. But starting with ch. 53, “The Gam,” and ch. 60, “The Line,” and then throughout this week’s reading, we get chapters that are more like encyclopedia entries. Now that there’s proper whaling under way, there’s a lot that we reader-lubbers have to learn; and Ishmael has chosen intermittent and telescoping infodumps as the way to solve that problem. These infodumps come in two classes: those about the ship, and those about the whale. In those about the ship, I include explanations of whaling-ship terminology and habits of living, as well as depictions of equipment and techniques (like the chapter-titular explanation in ch. 84, “Pitchpoling”).
The ones about the ship are basically obligatory. The whole action of the book takes place on a ship, and if we didn’t know what things were and how they worked, we wouldn’t be able to understand much of anything. But the ones about the whale aren’t, strictly speaking, necessary. We don’t actually need to know that the sperm whale doesn’t have a real face. Instead of being primarily informative, then, I think the infodumps about the whale serve a different function. I think they’re more in the line of a blazon. On the literal level, it’s true that Ishmael (along with the rest of the crew) is dismembering a whale during this part of the book. He provides a very thorough description of exactly how the whale is butchered and flensed and rendered. But at the same time he takes the opportunity to lavish a lot of poetic language and reverence on the whale and its parts. This isn’t to say anything like “Ishmael is in love with whales”; but in the same way that Ahab sees Moby-Dick specifically as the agent of a mystical force athwart his destiny, Ishmael seems to look on the sperm whale generally as a Romantically sublime creature, imbued with wisdom and power and mystery that make it a fit subject for a blazon, even with the parodic inversion that characterizes (and partly disguises) this blazon.