Thursday, August 01, 2013

Starting Moby-Dick, #5

We expect a novel to start with some sort of narrative voice, and we expect that opening to initiate a narrative arc. In other words, we expect, on page one, to start reading a story. Not what happens here.

Moby-Dick starts with two sections titled “Etymology” and “Extracts,” and they can seem weird or disappointing. Their position at the book’s opening makes sense when you realize that you have a narrator who’s either unable or unwilling to start telling his story. He wants to begin, but but beginning terrifies him – he knows where, once started, he will have to go. So he starts by consciously postponing the story of action. These two opening sections at least make an easy beginning: the narrator doesn’t actually need to remember anything. (Without Melville’s permission, the earliest British edition shifted them to the book’s end, which must have been an even stranger place to find them.)

“Etymology” reveals two first facts:

A) To spell whale, you must make sure to include the "h." Translation: if you want to truly tell this story, you will need to include all of it, including the part that is silent (like the "h" in "whale"). Without the silent part, "you deliver that which is not true." This book means to tell the truth – including the silent parts. If those cannot be told from direct experience, then they must be evoked.

B) One dictionary says whale comes from Swedish and Danish, another from Dutch and German. Which is it? More than once this narrator will digress, turning to facts as respite from his complicated, often terrifying story only to find that facts contradict; they are never enough.

As for the Extracts -- we'd call them Quotations now -- all of them concern (what else?) whales. They range from Pliny and Plutarch to the Psalms, to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Beale's History of the Sperm Whale, and so on and on. Tucked into this long list is a two-sentence bit of dialogue: " 'My God! Mr. Chase, what is the matter?' I answered, 'we have been stove by a whale.' " This bit comes from the story of the Essex, a whaler rammed and sunk by a sperm whale. Only by cannibalizing their dead did some few of the Essex crew survive, among them Owen Chase, who wrote and published a narrative of all this in 1821. Melville knew the story. He'd met Owen Chase's son, who gave Melville his own copy of his father's narrative.

Melville’s narrator has lived an experience he cannot process – it feels too large. It involves unspeakable violence, astonishing heroism, monomaniacal devotion, routine defiance of danger, and, occasionally, an experience of the vast sublime.

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