Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Knowledge is Understanding

                The chapter entitled “Cetology” felt like a strange aside while reading it. It seemed almost like Ishmael was asserting his knowledge on the reader. However after thinking about it, this book deals a great deal with the true limitations of human knowledge. In a way, it is similar to Frankenstein in that there is no real way to learn everything because they are surrounded by a completely black abyss of water and life that leaves many mysteries beneath it. Although Moby Dick itself seems to be a representation of some unknowable God, there are many other creatures in the ocean that have this same ambiguous quality that comes from hiding beneath the veil of the ocean.
                By classifying a small sampling of these other sea creatures that are fairly closely related to Moby Dick and sperm whales in general, Ishmael is attempting to understand these creatures in a way that he can wrap his mind around, as opposed to the real-life issue that faces him and the crew. It seems to soothe Ishmael to have some sort of grasp on what he is searching for and on what is beneath the ship at all times. Prior to his classification he states things like, “The classification of the constituents of a chaos, nothing less is here essayed,” and describes the ocean using the statements of other researchers such as, “’Unfitness to pursue our research in the unfathomable waters’,” and “’Impenetrable veil covering our knowledge of the cetacea’”(Melville 145). He is just stating that these whales are like agents of chaos under the ocean, and they have been almost impossible to study in the past because of the dark veil of the ocean, or knowledge, around them. This knowledge is representative of the ocean, in that it is impossible to ever know everything about it and everything that lurks in the darkness. However if he is able to gather some sort of understanding about the creatures, it almost makes him believe there is a chance to avoid ultimate failure.
His personal classification of whales in the abyss of the knowledge is analogous to the threat of the whale in the expansive ocean. In the chapter titled “Moby Dick,” Ishmael discusses the myth of Moby Dick. He states that “wild rumors abound, wherever there is any adequate reality for them to cling to. And as the sea surpasses the land in this matter, so the whale fishery surpasses every other sort of maritime life, in the wonderfulness and fearfulness of the rumors which sometimes circulate there” (Melville 195). This statement that Ishmael makes is directly related to that inherent fear of being out on an unknowable ocean and his attempt to quell that fear by trying to understand. Obviously, rumors of Moby Dick are going to spread because many whale hunters cannot completely understand the sperm whale in general. Thus, any attack on a ship from a sperm whale would seem like some sort of vicious attack from a mythical creature. Similar to how many natural phenomena occur, the fishermen simply prescribe this ambiguous attack by a complex creature to be something supernatural and out-of-this-world. Things that are supernatural are inherently frightening to any normal man, and it would seem like suicide to go against something that cannot be understood or seen. After he is able to classify them and, in a sense, personify them, he is able to ignore some of these more ridiculous myths about Moby Dick and continue on the journey uninhibited by his fears. He goes on the say this specifically, “The outblown rumors of the White Whale did in the end incorporate with themselves all manner of morbid hints, and half-formed fӕtal suggestions of supernatural agencies, which eventually invested Moby Dick with new terrors unborrowed from anything that visibly appears” (Melville 196). This statement shows that Ishmael does not believe all the ridiculous stories he is hearing, and thus, he is able to stay grounded in this situation. There is a wide separation of knowledge of living things and belief in the supernatural, and by sticking to knowledge of living things, Ishmael is able to lay out a system that will allow his mind to remain focused on what is actually there, as opposed to what many believe to be there. He also does state that “But there were still other and more vital practical influences at work” (Melville 196). This statement shows that he is still quite aware of the presence of the enormous sperm whale that lurks somewhere in the ocean. He realizes that they are a threat to him and many others. The “Cetology” chapter sets up a realistic system of knowledge for Ishmael that gives him belief and hope in their journey in the face of unknowable fear and abyss.

1 comment:

  1. "In a way, it is similar to Frankenstein in that there is no real way to learn everything because they are surrounded by a completely black abyss of water and life that leaves many mysteries beneath it." - Isn't Frankenstein more obviously about a man who can and does aspire to knowledge, but shouldn't? *Bad* knowledge isn't the same as *no* knowledge, is it? Or, if there is a unity here, you need to bring them together. That's an aside, though - I don't think you really have anything to do with Frankenstein here.

    Now, about the rest of it: you're arguing that cetology is a kind of response to Ishmael's real feelings about the ocean and the things (especially whales) within it: reason imposed on unreason, order imposed on chaos, etc. It's a good approach and a good argument, although I think you do get a little muddled at some points - for instance, aren't unreason, darkness and chaos associated with the supernatural - so if you're right elsewhere, isn't "Cetology" a kind of failing argument about the supernatural truth of the ocean?

    That's an example problem. Really, what I think you're saying makes a lot of intuitive sense, but it could use more clearly stated, and to be related to other critical moments in the novel (for instance, the painting, and "Bowers in the Arcasides", a chapter later in the novel. It's a promising start, despite the flawed beginning and the so-so part about the supernatural.