10 February 2013

Every Word a Whale

More than one friend has said to me the Melville's White Whale was a non-starter for them--just couldn't get into even when they really tried.  I understand.  I really do.  We can only read what we're ready to read.  Great books only speak when they can be heard.  This is not a judgment on one's reading ability or intelligence--it is only the suggestion that we all vibrate to different chords and books do too.  Sometimes you are in tune.

My joy in Melville is as due to the tumblings, the cascading fall, of meanings from sentence to sentence.  Chapters can order meaning by sequence yet just as suddenly serve to disorder some other intended sequence of meanings in other chapters.  There is vast possibility that lives within this novel--that is the novel contains the material that will undo it.

The novel is the world; the novel is the whale; the whale is the novel; the whale is the world.  It is always swimming into and out of view, swimming in and out of capture.

It is in what is recognizable and understandable that we first experience the book and so we seek to identify with the voice that goes "a-whaling," with Ishmael.  He is a novice and so are we.  He has sailed before, as we have read before, but he has never gone to sea hunting the Leviathan, and we have never read a book like this.

That is, we realize that life on board the ship is just this way; that whale boats are run just this way; that whale oil is light in just this way; that industrial whaling is as any other industrial activity; that captains act this way and cannibals act this way.  That this is dream and nightmare too.  But it all is warp and woof and the tapestry is as liable to unravel as be tied off.

The real action of the novel is the destabilizing action of words themselves.  Each word a whale.  Melville spends his longest chapter on just this effort to destabilize the meaning of whiteness.

This is an anthropology as anthology--a key to mind as a singleness and plurality, expressed in the idiom of poetry, drama and symbolism...what is and what can be.*

A cosmogony and a cosmology.  A begetting and an ordering.

A whale.

*ripped off of W. E. H. Stanner from his essay "The Dreaming" about Australian aboriginal societies and their metaphysics and social structures.

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