What is immediately obvious in Moby-Dick is that Melville has done a very thorough job when it comes to describing the whale. This completely exhaustive exploration of the whales’ insides, outsides and abstractions mirrors the complete fervor with which Ahab hunts the whale: all in all, Melville is mimicking or feigning monomania in a book that deals largely with monomania. With all of his talk regarding religion, Melville’s narrator (which I will refuse to call Ishmael, despite the text’s initial urging) seems to have found his own religion within the whale itself, more broadly, within the sciences. Indeed, the narrator has long descriptions of, among other things, whale biology, whale anthropology, whale psychology, whale phrenology (!), whale physiognomy, whale ecology, etc. Through the lens of the whale, Melville touches upon nearly every science that existed at the time (with obvious exceptions – not even Melville could make whale chemistry sexy). What results, and what is germane, is he provides a relatively complete list of the ways in which a whale, or subject, could be depicted.
“But, as in his narrow-flowing monomania, not one jot of Ahab’s broad madness had been left behind; so in that broad madness, not one jot of his great natural intellect had perished” (Melville, 201). This quote appears, quite appropriately, in the Chapter from which the title of Melville’s work is derived: Moby-Dick. Famously, Captain Ahab has only one agenda, to capture the white whale that took away his leg several voyages ago. This monomania is extensively flushed out throughout Melville’s work: in fact, the entire plot hinges upon Ahab’s ridiculousness. Indeed, the phrase ‘white whale’ has entered into our vocabulary (at least I’ve heard several individuals employ it) as something that a person is obsessed with to a sometimes destructive degree. The work has a monomaniacal character essential to the plot and also a narrator whom treats the subject of monomania with equal fervor. If Melville the writer exists in any of his characters, it is not Ishmael, it is certainly Ahab. Regardless of all of the criticizing of monomania throughout Moby-Dick, the novel suffers heavily from its own lengthy digressions concerning the science of the whale.
What is at work here is a problem of description or representation. Whether or not Melville meant to purposefully explore this idea in Moby-Dick, the narrator has profound difficulties in describing the whale, or whaling, in a way that he finds sufficient. What he does is offer the best he can – a slew of depictions of whales through just about any major line of inquiry that existed at the time. What furthers this is smaller, less non-fictiony representations of whale throughout Moby-Dick which extend beyond the form of literature (in ways). The very last extract is that of Whale Song, a musical description. Within the first few chapters we have a soliloquy on a painting of a whale, itself a description of whale through visual art. I don’t doubt there exist more. Melville’s own monomania concerns his knowledge of a whale. He does not want to kill a whale, nor capitalize (at least directly) on the whale, but he constantly obsesses over his ability to describe the whale.
It is perhaps important here to highlight the fact that I am periodically blurring the distinction between the concepts of knowledge, that is, epistemology, and description or depiction (mimesis), which is an outward projection of that knowledge. What is troubling, daunting, and exciting about Moby-Dick is not only that it constantly switches between the historically contrasted diegesis (the narrative itself) and the mimesis of the whale and the whaling industry, but that it so often conflates them. The conflation arises in how exhaustive the mimesis attempts to be: Melville asserts himself as an authority on the subject, and arguably has gathered the appropriate knowledge available in his time to appropriate such a title, yet the general obsession of the mimesis mirrors and contributes to the concept of monomania which is firmly anchored within the diegetic portion of the novel. Although the novel is certainly engaged with the question of whether or not a full knowledge of whale (or anything) can actually be achieved, it further complicates this by asking the subsequent question of, if such knowledge is obtainable, can it be properly described?
The whale was in 1851, as it still is today, a fantastic subject/object through which to ask these questions. The majority of individuals are fairly infrequently exposed to the actuality of a whale, its habitat being far removed from our own. Had Melville chosen a pedestrian subject that any reader could experience daily, Melville’s plight would have been diminished, it is the otherness of the whale that makes it a fascinating subject (to both the narrator and the reader). Yet, assuming that many readers have not experienced a whale, Moby-Dick yearns to substitute for that direct experience.
Largely, this is an argument for science’s or art’s failure to fully understand or represent a subject. Yet it is perhaps also a comment on the faultiness of science/art’s claim that it indeed can fully understand/represent a subject. Through his employment of various disciplines towards the whale, many of which claim to describe the whole through an analysis of the parts (both material and abstract), Melville illustrates the inherent impossibility of mimesis.
Much of Aristotle’s theory of knowledge rests upon his ‘four causes’ of an object (Metaphysics) and his analysis of our construction of knowledge is a particularly adept lens for examining Moby-Dick. Aristotle’s first two causes are the material cause and the formal cause. Within the whale, the material cause would be what the whale is physically made of, which Melville writes of extensively, e.g. baleen, spermaceti, various forms of blubber, etc. The second cause is the arrangement of these things, which Melville highlights as well: the shape and form of the whale (particularly its head). The last cause is the final cause, which is its purpose or aim. For the narrator, this cause is strongly tied to economics, for Ahab, it is violence, and for Melville himself, it is the subject of his work (quite a purpose). The narrator struggles with the third cause. Aristotle’s third cause is the efficient cause, which is roughly an object’s source. Clearly the source of any whale is its respective parental whale, although clearly Melville thinks this to be insufficient. The real efficient cause of the whale, for many a devout reader in Melville’s day would clearly be God. Which raises an important point regarding Ahab’s world view versus the narrator’s, especially concerning the whale.
For the narrator, the whale’s causes, and therefore the proper knowledge of the whale exist within science, that is, they are heavily grounded within the material and the formal cause. The efficient cause is perhaps hinted at, but is far underdeveloped when compared to the first two causes. Ahab, on the other hand, focuses entirely on the third cause. He believes the whale to be either an agent of God or the Devil (either or – recall class discussion) and openly shows disdain for the first two causes of the whale. Starbuck, although somewhat tertiary in this regard, focuses primarily on the final cause of the whale: the economic potential. Through these characters Melville, not the narrator, actually presents all four of Aristotle’s causes when it comes to the whale. However, the effect of this seems not at all demystifying.
What is important, perhaps, is that Melville illustrates each of these causes within different characters. Not any one character shows a breadth of understanding of each of the four causes of the whale, and many show not one. Melville is perhaps critiquing Aristotle’s theory of causes throughout Moby-Dick, showing that a thorough understanding of a thing’s material causes by an individual is often entirely contradictory to that individual’s through understanding of a thing’s efficient causes. It is important that Melville’s work arose during a time of great scientific revolution, namely Darwin’s theory of evolution which appeared, basically, to form a bridge between the first/second and third causes and perhaps Moby-Dick serves as either a prescient example of the scientific positivism that was already somewhat underway during the period in which he was writing (or maybe he was critiquing it – sometimes it’s hard to tell with Melville).
This leads to the observation that the reader themselves are left to guess or grasp at the final causes of the whale. Indeed several are offered: Starbuck’s economic cause, the quelling of Ishmael’s ennui, Ahab’s persistence through his own life and beacon through navigating his handicap, yet each are given and, at the end of the book disproved. For the reader is completely imbued with descriptions of the first three causes of the whale, through endless monologues and soliloquies, yet the final cause of the whale with regards to the reader is hardly hinted at. Why, exactly, is the reader given such long-winded descriptions? To what purpose does their understanding serve the reader, if it does at all? Ishmael wants to describe the profession of whaling as contrary to the popular belief of the time that it was “a rather unpoetic and disreputable pursuit” (Melville, 118). The long digressive moments in the book are the narrator struggling to bring the rigidity of scientific study to bolster the profession of whaling. If it is, as I believe, entirely necessary to separate the narrator from Ishmael, perhaps this is the most concrete manner in which to do it: Ishmael is present in the boat and views the whale, quite passively and objectively, as that which the pursuit of which will clear Ishmael’s eyes at the mast-head and improve his mood, whereas the final cause of the whale for the narrator is a channel for the interjection of science into a profession he holds dearly and sees as in need of serious P.R.
The reader, while understanding these final causes through the perception of the novel’s characters, is forced to consider what the final cause of the whale may be according to her. A great deal of whale-studying is arguably performed when Moby-Dick is read, yet Marine Biologists do not turn to the text for reference in any serious way (at least in the modern age). From a literary standpoint, the causes of the literary whale (particularly Moby-Dick himself) can be structured within the process of writing and the subsequent perception of the reader. If it can be argued that to fully understand or have knowledge of the whale, we must understand each of its four causes, the same must be said for Moby-Dick, and therefore Moby-Dick. The material cause is the writing process itself. The reader has a flickering perception of original process throughout the book, as Melville continuously and neurotically analyzes his own sections and provides insight into motive and intertextuality moments explicitly within the Extracts section and more sporadically throughout the novel. This is what the literary whale Moby-Dick is constructed of: Melville’s experiences, beliefs, etc. The formal cause is the arrangement and pattern of this knowledge and thoughts: precisely the structure or form of the novel. Word choice, syntax, all of the high-school grammatical analysis terms one can conjure perform the function of the formal cause of the literary whale. Here too, is where the scientific descriptions of the whale come into play: they are all, if divorced from their more theoretical purpose, descriptive techniques meant, sometimes, to provide the reader with concretizing details of the whale: Melville for all purposes arranging his knowledge.
I will here only briefly skim over defining the efficient cause of the literary whale, i.e. where it comes from or arises from. I partially avoid this because such analysis would mostly culminate in the garden-variety lit-crit hermeneutical tautology, bouncing meaning (and therefore source) of the text between reader, writer, and document. The only thing, hardly worth mentioning here, is that the publisher that manufactures the reader’s specific copy could be seen to contribute to this, or at least could be frivolously considered among other efficient causes.
Which brings us to the final cause of the literary whale. My argument here, for I do have one, is that the final cause of the whale is essentially identical for all nearly all characters within the novel and the reader. This final cause is teleological in its essence: the whale provides an end. While the economic, spiritual, and vengeful final purposes of the whale serve as fine final causes, they seem absolutely subservient to the teleological purpose of the whale within the literary framework; thus, both the reader and the characters arrive at a full understanding (knowledge) of the whale: the whale as end. Both the narrator and Melville seem keenly aware of this: “I do not know where I can find a better place than just here, to make mention of one or two other things which to me seem important, as in printed form establishing the reasonableness of the whole story of the White Whale, more especially the catastrophe” (Melville, 223). The descriptions and lectures seem infinitely more purposeful when viewed through the lens of teleology: they are nuanced depictions of the agent of change within the work. Not only does the whale reveal its final cause to be that of killing nearly all characters within the book, it in turn writes the final causes of those characters: to be killed by Moby-Dick and bolster and continue the legacy. For the reader, the final cause of the whale exists in the same way; the whale serves to end the book, in a way that would teeter upon deus-ex-machina if there weren’t such atheistic threads throughout the preceding narrative.
Regardless, Melville presents the whale as known – when in fact the reader is left with a great sense of not-knowing of the whale (although certainly a great sense of knowing a whale) – everything that comes with an actual physical encounter is present within the novel, yet the actual, physical encounter itself is inherently absent for the reader, presenting an odd and entirely uncomfortable form of knowledge.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick or, The Whale. 1851. New York : Penguin Books, 2003.
Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, translated by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933, 1989.
(Accessed from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0052%3Abook %3D5%3Asection%3D1013a)