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even when what is below emerges, it is no longer what is below

December 6, 2008

A Beginning for my Moby Dick paper

Ahab’s monomaniacal identification of the white whale with a metaphysical principle of cosmic government (or evident mis-government), is to Ishmael tantalizing, seductive, but never final; in the context of Ahab’s quest, the whale becomes for Ishmael the seat of a question that haunts all interpretation. What is this “little lower layer”(144), the underside of the apparent world which, though giving it color, shade, and contour, when we try to reach it, returns us again and again to the surface? Ishmael says of the whale, “dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep; I know him not, and never will”(318). Yet throughout the novel the unknowable whale surfaces again and again: he is “unconscious power” (62), malicious cunning (181), a helpless victim abandoned by God (302), intrument of retribution (222), worshipping creature (317), everywhere monster, and even, once, a god (447-448). The antitheses presented by what comes to the surface are dissonant, monstrous, potentially maddening, and the more so because none of them can be definitively pinned down on whatever underlying form which gives rise to them — not with a novel, not with a harpoon. No, but the troubled surface darkles, and, revealing that it is surface no more, no less — it lets one be seduced by the elusive depth from which it rises, responding to and experiencing more fully, for not being deceived by them, life’s momentary suggestions of final bliss, or grief, or horror. The action then that emerges in the novel, confounding the conventions of the tragedy it overturns, is Ishmael’s seduction by life’s polysemous surfacings whose suggested depths only death will sound. This seduction takes shape in his “marriage” to Queequeg, and is symbolized by the savage’s coffin surfacing to buoy him up.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1976

–the carpenter on the coffin turned life-buoy–

Now I don’t like this. I make a leg for captain Ahab, and he wears it like a gentleman; but I make a bandbox for Queequeg, and he wont put his head into it. Are all my pains to go for nothing with that coffin? And now I’m ordered to make a life-buoy of it. It’s like turning an old coat; going to bring the flesh on the other side now. I don’t like this cobbling sort of business – I don’t like it at all; it’s undignified; it’s not my place. Let tinkers’ brats do tinkerings; we are their betters. I like to take in hand none but clean, virgin, fair-and-square mathematical jobs, something that regularly begins at the beginning, and is at the middle when midway, and comes to an end at the conclusion; not a cobbler’s job, that’s at an end in the middle, and at the beginning at the end. It’s the old woman’s tricks to be giving cobbling jobs. 

–Aristotle on tragedy–

Now a whole is that which has beginning, middle, and end. A beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, and which has naturally something else after it; an end is that which is naturally after something itself, either as its necessary or usual consequent, and with nothing else after it; and a middle, that which is by nature after one thing and also has another after it. A well-constructed Plot, therefore, cannot begin or end at any point one likes . . .

surfacing-whale

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