Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Importance of Cetology

On first glance one may assume that Chapter 32: Cetology is a surprising detour from the path of the narrative. It can seem kind of dry and unnecessary to the narrative as a whole. However, this is far from the case, Melville uses this chapter as a point to revert back to when the barrage of his imagery becomes too much to comprehend. Although Moby Dick is a work of fiction Melville uses this and subsequent science based chapters to give us a concrete foundation from which to build from. J.A Ward a professor at Tulane University in his paper The Function of the Cetological Chapters in Moby-Dick agrees, to a certain extent, that this chapter is Melville’s attempt to keep the readers grounded. The chapter Cetology legitimizes not only Ishmael’s knowledge regarding whales but legitimizes the novel as a whole. It grounds the reader and makes the depiction of the whale more real. The chapter acts to give a root of non-fiction to the fiction of the novel.
From the opening sentences of the novel we are given reason to be skeptical of our first person narrator. He begins his narrative with ambiguity and inaccuracy which gives the reader cause for concern in regard to whether we should trust him. “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely.”(Melville 3) With the phrase “Some years ago” it gives the beginning of the novel an element analogous to the cliché fairy tale introduction “Once upon a time.” It makes the novel seem like a myth recounted by a grandfather to his grandkids with added anecdotes and embellishments.  By not being able to recall how long ago these events took place we begin to wonder how accurately he documented them. We wonder why the time frame is unimportant and we begin to lose all faith in our narrator. Then, initially and I would argue most importantly, we are not even fully confident that the authors name is the one he gives us. He starts off with “Call me Ishmael” not a confident and definite phrase like  “My name is Ishmael.” By recognizing all of these elements, with the first eleven words of this novel we are given no reason to trust our narrator.
Then we are presented with more information about our narrators current mind state. When we first meet Ishmael he is portrayed as a dark and dismal individual. We see that he is feeling a “November in [his] soul” and finds him self bringing up the rear at funeral procession and pausing at coffin warehouses. (Melville 3) We are given even more information that we should not trust our narrator because now we see he is an emotionally troubled individual. The impulsive reasoning Ishmael gives us for joining a whaling ship makes us more likely to believe that he is anything but puerile. “I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”(Melville 3) With all of this we can only assume that Ishmael is infatuated with violence and death and seems to be seeking a means of assisted suicide when joining the crew of the Pequod. He seems impetuous and childish and we have little reason to believe he is intelligent or and accurate narrator.  Initially one could easily believe that Ishmael has deliberately chosen a dangerous trade that he was inept in in order to harm himself. We learn later that Ishmael has some experience with sailing but we can still assume that he is ignorant to the art of whaling and the knowledge it takes to succeed at it. But when we arrive at Chapter 32 we see that Ishmael is not only an intelligent individual but he is also quite educated in the art of whaling.
One function that the chapter Cetology has in analyzing and understanding the novel on a whole is to establish Ishmael as a knowledgeable whaler. This chapter also establishes Ishmael as and intelligent individual and legitimizes his narrative.  Initially one could claim that these were the memoirs of a depressed self-destructive individual and it would be permissible to be skeptical of the text. Ishmael separates his knowledge in to not one but three distinct books, the Folio, Octavo, and Duodecimo, in order to further prove how well read he is on the science of whaling. With this chapter we see that he is not such a depressed character but on the contrary an erudite whaler. This chapter validates Ishmael’s account of the tale of the Pequod and makes the text and the narrator easier to believe. 
 We see that Melville wanted to use the chapter on Cetology to legitimize Ishmael as a narrator but also and more importantly to legitimize and center the novel. J.A Ward has a similar take on this chapter and the way Melville uses it to texture his novel. “In every aspect of the novel Melville's effort to balance the extra- ordinary with the ordinary is evident. For example, we notice in the microcosm of the Pequod a variety of attitudes toward the white whale, a variety of attitudes toward reality and man's place in the universe.” (Ward 170) In the same way the Melville uses Ishmael’s empirical intelligence to balance out his gloomy impulsiveness in the beginning of the novel he uses chapter 32 to center the novel and balance out the mysterious symbolism he uses throughout it.
When we arrive at chapters like “Moby Dick” and “The Whiteness of the Whale” at times we can become lost in the elaborate web of metaphors and similes that Melville presents us with. We become torn between what the whale represents to us, what the whale represents to the characters and what Melville wants the whale to represent.  As J. A. Ward said previously and Ishmael confirms in the chapter “Moby Dick,” many of the characters have many different opinions of what the whale is and the power that it has. Ishmael while recounting the opinions of other whalemen states that “Moby Dick [is] not only ubiquitous, but immortal (for immortality is but ubiquity in time).” (Melville 198) According to Ishmael this whale, which was originally assumed to be a mortal being, is really omnipresent and impervious to all weapons. Considering that this whale might be a god among men we begin to question the validity of the narrative again. We also begin to wonder why any man would go on a journey to catch a whale they cannot kill. When presented with situations like this I believe that Melville would urge us to go back to chapter 32 and chapters like it. We should use those sections as grounding points to affirm the idea that this whale is real, that it can be killed and that the members of the Pequod are valid in attempting to do so.
Melville continues to give us instances where we should refer back to “Cetology” in order to ground ourselves. As we move on to the next chapter we see more examples of instances of Ishmael attempting to use a type of allegory to define the whale:
“Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows -- a colorless, all- color of atheism from which we shrink?” (Melville 212)
When reading this and passages like it we wonder what Melville wants us to think. Does the whale represent colorlessness, emptiness, immensity or the full meaning of the universe? Even Ishmael begins to question what the whale means to him so it is impossible for the reader not to. We begin to lose touch with the foundation of the novel when we are presented with passages like this and that is why Melville included the chapter on Cetology, to give us basis from which to work from. J. A. Ward would also agree these chapters are here to give us a physical basis on to which we can build our metaphysical understanding. Which I would contend is these chapters’ biggest strengths.
 “In the same way, the cetological chapters give the illusion of objectivity and the effect of a wide view of life…. [t]he physical reality of the whale is contrasted with the metaphorical and mythological references such a chapter as "The Whiteness of the Whale, which establishes Moby Dick as a creature of spiritual as well as physical dimensions. Melville creates a world cosmic in scope but spiritual in centre but his starting point is earthly and physical”
This is one of the major and more vital functions of the chapter Cetology and chapters like it: to give the reader a base of non-fiction from which they can begin their journey through the fictional world that Melville creates. Although the book is entitled Moby- Dick we see very little of the whale in the novel at all. When we do receive actual glimpses of the beast we do not get any understanding of its objectives, emotions or point of view.  What we do get is the feelings and perspective of Moby-Dick’s human characters about the whale. We see what the whale is supposed to represent to the world and what it means to the characters through the characters. Over time in the novel the whale can begin to become more of a myth or an intangible entity rather than an actual central character. The symbolism and metaphors surrounding the whale can become muddled up and it becomes hard to find a veritable point in the text.  Melville wants to take the reader on a journey that involves the intangible, the poetic and the abstract but he wants to also give us a nonfiction foundation from which to expand on. Moby-Dick is a novel about personal perspective, contemplation and symbolism but is still a novel about whaling. Melville is extremely concerned about giving different evidence for what the whale represents, to every character and the reader, but he also wants us to build that connotation from a factual basis.                    
            J. A Ward would agree with this, and I find many places in his article where his and my theses coincide, but there is one point in his argument where I find Ward to be incorrect. Ward draws are attention to the fact that in his cetological explanation Ishmael leaves things incomplete and unfinished. He does not give a full and concrete definition of Moby Dick and here is where Ward is claiming that Melville is trying to reveal the inability of science to define the whale. The complexity of the whale goes beyond sciences and Ward believes that this shows the insufficiencies of empirical knowledge. Ward goes as far as to say that “Melville's symbolism is a truer knowledge than that … of Ishmael at the tryworks because it does not superimpose meaning on concrete reality but, draws out the truth latent in reality.” (Ward 181) Here is where I would strongly disagree. I do not feel as though Melville’s symbolism can be truer than facts, and scientific evidence. His symbolism is simply an interpretation of reality and I do not think it can be a truer more potent version of it. Ward is saying that where science fails Melville and his imagery succeeds but really Melville takes the things that science cannot define and gives his poetic version of it. He does not create a more absolute truth he simply gives his rendering of an incomplete truth but that truth is based in empirical knowledge.
       Moby Dick, the whale the Melville created has an enumerable amount of meaning and metaphors around it.  With all the symbolism that is connected with it we begin to forget that the whale is a real being.  Thus, Melville included this chapter; he wanted to layer his novel in level after level of depth and mystery but he needed to base those layers in something real and tangible. Melville’s portrayal of the whale, even though it is eloquent and masterful can also be somewhat  bewildering at times. When you begin to recall the chapter Cetology the idea of the whale becomes more realistic, tangible, and relatable; this adds even more depth to the novel. Much of the information in the chapter comes from the real life experiences of Melville who was also a sailor, which simply legitimizes the narrative further. For those reasons when reading the chapter Cetology and chapters like it they should be used as a grounding point from which to begin our fictional journey and legitimize the novel. 

1 comment:

  1. The style of your intro is a little awkward, but the focus on the legitimizing function is good. An actual quote from Ward might have helped here.

    The next couple paragraphs about Ishmael as a character are solid, but would have been better if your introductory paragraph had said something about the relationship between Cetology and Ishmael's personality - which seems to be your topic, more or less.

    For what it's worth, I agree that "Cetology" is the center, or at least a plausible center, of the novel (his other experimental novels lack such clear grounding, and suffer for it). But you're a little slow to articulate for what purposes/ends the novel is grounded.

    I think the claim that "We should use those sections as grounding points to affirm the iea that this whale is real, that it can be killed and that the members fo the Pequod are valid in attempting to do so" should have been your thesis, and presented as such at the beginning. One reason I think that is I immediately found myself arguing with it - which is a clue that there is something to argue *about*. In other words, you should be trying to prove this claim from the beginning, ideally.

    The other truly interesting moment here is when you begin to argue with Ward. I liked this a lot, because you are working on developing your own reading of the novel: one which resists metaphysics, or at least leans toward the physical rather than the metaphysical. You're making a case for a novel which belongs (these are my words, of course) more to the history of science than to the history of metaphysics.

    It's a great approach. I like it, and I'd be happy to read this stuff all day. What's lacking is a strong relationship with Melville's text itself. You spend the whole essay working out your thesis and your relationship with Ward - what's lacking is, for instance, a detailed attempt to show us how "Cetology" can lead us to rethink or challenge a particular symbol or set of symbols- perhaps to read that symbol scientifically rather than metaphysically?

    For instance, you might have begun with the chapter "The Quadrant" - a great one to approach with this argument, I think, challenging but with great possible rewards.