Wednesday, March 14, 2012

An Inherently Flawed Description of the Problem with Description.

“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. How ironic is it, then, that Moby-Dick itself had a hand in Melville’s fall from literary fame, many decrying Melville as completely mad.  

For Moby-Dick is a book entirely interested in minutiae, most centering around the biology, symbolism, and economy of the whale. Melville approaches his subject like a scientist would his; it is clear that Melville not only studied the whale (and to a first-hand extent, whaling itself) lengthily, but that he did so from so many angles: the extracts at the beginning of the novel covering the literary importance and prevalence of the whale; several chapters (42: The Whiteness of the Whale, the countless Biblical references, etc.) are dedicated to cultural dealings or ideas of the whale, a gross amount of the novel is dedicated to the biology of the whale, the entire work is engaged with the economics of whaling, and I could go on and on at risk of appearing fluffy. Needless to say, Melville presents himself as somewhat of an expert on the whale (although he makes several claims contra).

While pulling my hair in order to keep myself awake while driving from Chicago and listening to some dispassionate rendering of Melville describe the entirely incomplete whale fossil record on tape, what is immediately obvious 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. To the point where I find myself, again and again listing and listing the things Melville touches on. 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 important, is that we have a relatively complete list of the ways in which a whale could be studied.

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. What’s odd is that it isn’t quite effective.

Perhaps it was effective in Melville’s time, with 19th-centuray-available media, but I can quickly watch a short clip of a whale and have a much better idea of the whale. In fact, so much of these obsessive descriptions of the whale serve to swiftly muddle and complicate any mental image I had near the novels beginning (Thanks, probably, to our version’s cover): now I have to remember how his tail fins cross slightly where they meet, now I must be able to separate Sperm Whale descriptions from Right Whale descriptions which were given for a contrastive analysis, and so on. The narrator’s intense effort to ‘capture’ the whale in one way is the same with which Ahab yearns to capture his own.

Largely, this is a comment on science’s failure, at the time, to fully understand a subject. Yet it is perhaps also a comment on the faultiness of science’s claim that it indeed can fully understand 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.

Melville here seems to be pulling a page from Aristotle and his ‘four causes’ (Metaphysics). The 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).

Either way, Melville presents the whale as known – when in fact the reader is left with a great sense of not-knowing of the 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. 
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1 comment:

  1. How to respond? I could say this is a bit of a mess, which it is - it wanders, and it's somewhat repetitive, and it omits the thread of a tree argument which would greatly benefit.

    Or I could say that it's deeply insightful not into the surface of the novel, but of (one of) its depths - its engagement with the philosophical tradition, and with the technoscientific tradition. You recognize that it's a "novel" as much about epistemology as it is about a particular system of knowledge, and as much as it is a narrative.

    But why Aristotle? Not that Aristotle is a bad point of entry - but it *seems* like a speculation on your part to leap to Aristotle.

    But acknowledging that it's a speculation, let me engage with it anyway. In my other class, we spent some time dealing with Heidegger's critique of Aristotle's causation in "The Question Concerning Technology", wherein he wants to gather all four causes up under coming-into-appearance, or poiesis.

    A rather famous line of thinking on Melville ( reads Melville primarily through Heidegger, and sees Melville as engaged principally in *ontological* work.

    I'm not asking you to recapitulate Spanos - I'm acknowledging that you're in interesting territory, and that you have the potential for outstanding work *if* you figure out your views on Melville's engagement with philosophy broadly, or Aristotle specifically - but no mater how rich with promise, this is a *little* muddled and general at this early stage.

    Also, on the matter of final causes - I think you rightly read Starbuck and Ahab's views in this matter. How about Ishmael or Queequeg, though? or the whale itself? This question will grow easier, or more comprehensible, as you continue.