Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Starting Moby-Dick, #6

This narrator knows his experience has utterly changed him, utterly altered what and who he is. To begin this effort to recount and to make sense is to start anew. Thus Moby-Dick's first stroke of brilliance: "Call me Ishmael." In fact, that first real chapter, Loomings, is all about trying to establish a confident narrative voice.

Thus Ishmael talks about his pre-Pequod habit of going to sea whenever he finds “himself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul… and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off…” Sounds nonchalant, easy-going enough in tone. But it’s also a confession of deep disquiet. That is the condition of this narrator before he signs on to the Pequod. This is a person who already periodically feels isolated from those on a public street – a gap so large that it almost incites him to violence. And when that violence becomes a real possibility, it’s time to go back to sea, back to the place defined by water. That’s a reason to sign on to the Pequod.

 But what’s he after as the teller of this tale? He’s after his own experience, which he believes promises – if he can only get it right – “the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.” High ambition? You bet. But this narrator registers some real optimism: “I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did.” Clearly, for this narrator, the major story is one of memory and of doing memory justice. When memory isn’t available – when, for example, Ahab’s thinking can only be deduced after the fact – then Ishmael will have to supply, somehow, what his earlier self could only guess at.

So Ishmael knows he will need to invent Ahab as much as remember him. And that will mean recreating Ahab’s fascination and obsession with one very large albino whale. Yet in this opening chapter, he expresses some confidence: “in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, midmost of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.”

If we are to call this traumatized survivor-narrator Ishmael, then what are we to call the young sailor who meets Queequeg at The Spouter, the young sailor who signs onto the Pequod even as he admits he has no whaling experience? For our purposes, let us call this young sailor Young Sailor, or, hereafter, YS. YS and Ishmael are younger and older versions of the same person. Sometimes they seem quite separate, at others almost indistinguishable. For great stretches of the telling, YS disappears and we have only Ishmael’s voice.

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