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An Eight-Sided Circle

“A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.”

William Blake.

Ah, “The Doubloon.” This is my kind of chapter (ch. 99). It’s all about interpretation, or the search for (and imposition of) meaning. It explicitly dramatizes the process we all go through every day, where we take notice of part of the world (something that is the case) and create a way of understanding it as it relates to our lives. This is a very normal part of the way human beings interact with our surroundings, and is in fact necessary to formulating the narratives we recognize as our selves and our lives.

Note that this is not the argument Ishmael makes in favor of interpretation. He says, “And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher.” In his view, what gives the world worth is the significance in it that can be divined by human beings; the world has meaning insofar as it means something to people, but no intrinsic value. This seems to me an extreme anthropocentric view, but not necessarily an uncommon one. Just an unreflective one.

So in the course of this dramatization of interpretation, we see eight different characters all try their hand at “reading” the doubloon that Ahab nailed to the mast at the beginning of their voyage as a guaranty to the sailor who first raises Moby Dick. (Other than the obvious meaning, of course, which is the one they all drank to during that weird ceremony.) Ahab’s interpretation, while dramatic and almost mythologically Norse in its pessimism, is also kind of funny: Looking at the various devices on the coin—mountains with fire, a tower, and a crowing rooster, and a segment of the zodiac—he sees Lucifer, Ahab, Ahab, Ahab, and the unrelieved misery of life, which begins in pains and ends in pangs. But also, it’s not for nothing that Ishmael keeps calling Ahab “monomaniacal.” This is very nearly solipsism in action.

Starbuck starts out as a foil to Ahab in his reading—he sees the mountains as a symbol of the Trinity, so that even when he passes through the dark valley between them, God still strengthens him and the “sun of Righteousness” still shines down on him—but then he remembers that the sun is only up about half the time, on average, which leaves human beings looking for hope and comfort much of the time (wait for it) in the dark. So even though he finds some devotional meaning in the doubloon, it is on the whole a somewhat depressing exegesis for Starbuck. Nonetheless, it’s a pretty clear application of the hermeneutic method involved in reading the Book of Nature, whereby everything created has a theological lesson within it, if you can just find the key.

Then Stubb gets up and sneaks in two interpretations. In the first one, he sees the doubloon as a piece of money, just as good for spending in commerce as any other piece of money. It’s a wonderful puncturing of the portentous mode Ahab and Starbuck both operate in, but it’s also a welcome nod to the fact that objects and experiences are embedded in the world and entangled with other people and places. Both Ahab and Starbuck find insular, self-centered meanings in the doubloon, but Stubb instead immediately recognizes how the doubloon is enmeshed with the rest of the world. Then he looks more carefully, convinced by Ahab and Starbuck’s long faces that there must be a deeper meaning, and descries a very long zodiacal version of the Sphinx’s riddle that supposedly charts a universal course for the life of man. (Women don’t count for much on a whaler, you might have noticed.)

When Flask looks at the doubloon, he literally sees nothing but the monetary value of it. (A special note from my Norton Critical Edition, on Flask’s line “It is worth sixteen dollars, that’s true; and at two cents the cigar, that’s nine hundred and sixty cigars”: “The arithmetic seems shaky.”) Unlike Stubb, he doesn’t seek a deeper meaning; he’s satisfied with his pragmatic observation of “a round thing made of gold.” I see this version as an important recognition of the thingness of the doubloon, regardless of what meanings a more reader-response-type approach yields.

The Manxman uses his special training in esoterica to identify the doubloon as half of a zodiacal prophecy of when the ship will encounter Moby Dick. I read this one as a small parody, actually. Daryl brought our attention to prophecy in the novel, and there’s always the possibility that’s at play here, but this one is so general that I suspect it’s much more like an ancestor of Maslow’s hammer. The Manxman knows something most people don’t, and everything he sees tends to be through that lens.

Queequeg comes in for comic relief, mistaking the doubloon for a fancy button. There may be a point to make here about constructed reality—if Queequeg’s pants lose a button and he sews a doubloon on in its place, that doubloon is now a button (as well as a doubloon and whatever else it may be)—but I wouldn’t want to strain that one too much, so I’ll just say it’s possible.

And then Pip. Pip is a character who makes me very sad, so I’m uncomfortable reading his mad babble anyway, but here it also feels to me like the kind of thing that might mean something if you try very hard to interpret it, but then probably won’t turn out to have been worth the trouble. So I don’t try. (My white flag, I wave it.) His reading of the doubloon can, however, illustrate the troubled extremity of personal meaning-making, since the significance he finds is available to him only. That is, even though he apparently finds some meaningful content in the doubloon, he can’t share it with anyone, because he spends most of his “on-screen” time in an interpretive community of one.

It’s very interesting to me that this chapter comes so late in the book. In a way, it’s kind of a programmatic chapter; it announces the book’s concern with meaning and interpretation by showing characters interpreting an object to create meaning. (I love that trick.) But I have a feeling that passages doing this work so explicitly usually come much earlier in books where they appear, to give the reader fair warning of what’s afoot—and to give us a chance to play along. Curious, then, that it’s only near the end that we’re asked to start looking for Rashomon Dick, the Allegedly White Whale.

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  1. July 2, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    Continuing on my “Moby Dick as modernism” kick, I’d say “The Doubloon” is a chapter about reader-response criticism.

  1. June 28, 2010 at 12:57 am

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