Three Interlinked Selections from A Whaler’s Dictionary


Etching

Ishmael’s library, home upon shore, contains many volumes in which the title page, and end page, is marked so:

As for the book-binder’s whale winding like a vine-stalk
round the stock of a descending anchor—as stamped and gilded
on the backs and title-pages of many books both old and new—that
is a very picturesque but purely fabulous creature imitated, I take
it, from the like figures on antique vases. Though universally denominated
a dolphin, I nevertheless call this bookbinder’s fish an attempt
at a whale, because it was so intended when the device was first
introduced. It was introduced by an old Italian publisher somewhere
about the 15th century, during the Revival of Learning; and in those
days, and even down to a comparatively late period, dolphins were
popularly supposed to be a species of Leviathan.

At the opening of the first page, and on many a last page, an error
is stamped, and the indentation of this error, filled with gold.
We begin a book, and end a book, in error and mistake. The bookbinder’s
whale serves not as linguistic information (it might be unfair to
claim the bookbinder’s whale as any sort of information at
all). It is decoration—an embossed luxury. The bookbinder’s
whale is also the emblem that inaugurates the eye to the knowledge
about to follow; it is also the cipher that closes knowledge shut
when the experience of reading is done. On one page, the anchor
rises with a dolphin curled around its chain, and with it both the
promise of voyage and life pulled out of watery abyss. On the last
page, returning what has been seen back into the ocean in which
it lives—now dropping anchor, the voyage is done. Between
raising anchor, and lowering anchor, a book has been read, a voyage
has been run. Is your hold full? How many barrels have ye? Are ye
safe and wealthy in the spicy isles? Have ye come home? What cargo
do ye bear?

§

An etching is the effort to mark significance by removing material.
To write “whale,” carve it out the wood, burn it out
the metal, and write e-l-a-h-w, each letter in mirror image,
the word its own reversal. Then fill the wound with ink. Then press
a page upon it. The world reverses when the page off the press is
lifted and makes sense. We recognize it, until we see in it error.
“Whale” spelled Wale or Wail, or the
tail of a serpent on the Sperm.

Etching is the art that understands that the only way to reach
knowledge is to suffer the opposite. Like the whalers on board Pequod,
we must cross the line. We must pick up an awl, not a pen. We must
write on stone, not paper, to suffer what the world suffers: reversal.

Such knowledge is suspect, but how else can knowledge be? The book
proceeds by betrayal. As Ishmael, our author, says, “I myself
am a savage; owning no allegiance but to the King of Cannibals;
and ready at any moment to rebel against him.” So a page relates
to a page: obedient to the meaning the previous page established,
and ready at any moment to grow savage.

§

Two Grave Concerns/Contrasts

Exodus 20:4

You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness
of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath,
or that is in the water under the earth . . .

Letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, November 17[?], 1851

I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as the lamb.

§

The world is nothing on Nothing etched. Creation first happens
negatively.

§

Lear: “Nothing will come of nothing.”

§

Queequeg: an etched labyrinth of a man.

§

The skin of Leviathan is “obliquely crossed and re-crossed
with numberless straight marks in thick array, something like those
in the finest Italian line engravings.”

Accuracy
Cordelia
Inscribe
Line
Tattoo
Tzimtzum
Skin
Wound
Writing

Reading (Epistemology)

Queequeg is illiterate but he reads. Ishmael returns from Father
Mapple’s sermon to find Queequeg occupied in a sequence of
events that, seemingly unrelated, correspond to each other by speaking
to the same failure:

Returning to the Spouter-Inn from the Chapel, I found Queequeg
there quite alone; he having left before the benediction some time.
He was sitting on a bench before the fire. With his feet on the
stove hearth, and in one hand was holding close up to his face that
little negro idol of his; peering hard into its face, and with a
jack-knife gently whittling away at its nose, meanwhile humming
to himself in his heathenish way.

Beneath the slight humor of Ishmael’s tone lurks the strangeness
of Queequeg’s activity. He sits not in religious reflection
so much as he sits in critical occupation, emending the god. To
whittle away at the idol’s nose undercuts the symbolic reality
to which the idol refers. The purpose of the idol, of the totem,
does not rest in the wooden god’s representative qualities.
To think an idol needs one degree more of verisimilitude to represent
more perfectly the god it symbolizes is to reveal a skeptical distrust
of its actual meaning. Queequeg, in carving the idol to correct
an impossible likeness, reveals a schism in his relationship to
his own pagan faith. It is as if he knows but cannot accept that
the god in his hands is but wood. His faith is a doubtful activity.

When Queequeg realizes Ishmael is in the room, he puts the god
away and picks up a bible. Ishmael watches him, bemused but attentive,
as Queequeg placed the large book on his lap and “began counting
the pages with deliberate regularity; at every fiftieth page—as
I fancied—stopping a moment, looking vacantly around him,
and giving utterance to a long-drawn gurgling whistle of astonishment.”
Queequeg continues to count pages in batches of fifty, “as
though he could not count more than fifty, and it was only by such
a large number of fifties being found together, that his astonishment
at the multitude of pages was excited.” Queequeg approaches
the bible as an object of meaning rather than an object that contains
meaning. The book is but a symbol of a Library-God who pours his
power into countless words, just as the idol is composed of the
splinters and grain of wood imbued with a power beyond the material
of which it is composed. Queequeg’s whittling is as much an
act of attempted reading as is his counting with growing astonishment
the onion-thin pages of the bible—and the sorrowful revelation
is that, in both interpretive acts, he is equally illiterate.

Queequeg is a character, as is Ishmael, of haunted exile. Such
profound homelessness in each other helps them to recognize one
another as the “bosom friends” they become—the
homoeroticism that is the surface of their “married”
bliss serving merely as the pseudo-sexual surface of the deeper
commingling of similar souls. Queequeg, we learn, is Royal Blood,
but rather than simply ascend to his pagan throne, he desires to
learn about Christianity in order, he says, to help his people “become
better.” Queequeg leaves his island, a home which appears
on no map, tattooed by a prophet with the entire knowledge of his
people without the knowledge to read the book that is his own body,
and sails off on a whaling ship to gain a new knowledge. His desire
to learn to read another way of life, another language in which
he could think, results in his inability to return home. He is exiled
between a knowledge he bears and cannot grasp, and a book he can
grasp, but which brings him no knowledge. It feels reductive to
claim he exists between a symbolic, paperless world, and the world
of linguistic knowledge. Certainly, he is irretrievably caught in
the chasm between a symbolic world and a semantic one—but
the crisis runs deeper than the mind can explain, for the crisis
denies the mind its own innate powers. Queequeg is a spiritual aphasiac.
He has lost his own language, and is unable to learn another. When
fluency unfolds as a different capacity than mere comprehension
of and communication in a given language, the successful everyday
usage of words no longer means a language has been mastered. Instead,
language occurring at “the little lower layer” represents
all that can be known, represents every possible permutation of
meaning and law that the world invariably obeys. To be without language
is not merely to be savage or illiterate, unlearned or dumb, it
is not to find merely knowledge withheld, but is to find that knowledge
as possibility is gone. If Queequeg holds the idol in one hand,
and the bible in the other, both are blanker than erasure. Mute
epistemologies echo silent over silent abyss. Queequeg is caught
between two worlds, and neither is open to him. What seems in Queequeg
his natural goodness, his simple ethical kindness and care, is no
argument for the nobility of the savage. Instead, his character—that
is, the pressure of the soul that “cannot be hidden”—is
his home. Queequeg is a man only and “always equal to himself.”

As Ishmael intently watches Queequeg count/read the bible, he
“began to be sensible of strange feelings.” He sees
Queequeg suddenly not as an exotic curiosity, but as an Other who
exists as fundamentally as Ishmael himself exists; Ishmael sees
him as a friend. He goes over to help Queequeg with his reading:

We then turned over the book together, and I endeavored to
explain to him the purpose of printing, and the meaning of the few
pictures that were in it.

Ishmael chooses an unexpected topic given the source of the material
he’s trying to explain. Rather than paraphrase biblical stories,
rather than gloss theological concerns, Ishmael seems to give a
lecture on the history of print as media, and it seems just as likely
that he is offering the same technical minutia in relation to the
pictures. Ishmael places meaning, as does Queequeg, on the material
object rather than semantic meaning. He seems to understand, agree
or be sympathetic to the possibility that a word and a totem function
similarly. A word, too, is a visible symbol. It carries a symbolic
onus that exists outside of its lexical meaning. As such, it’s
no surprise that Ishmael agrees to perform with Queequeg his pagan
rites. The word and the idol are twins.

Coffin
Description
Dictionary
Faith
Friendship
Mincer
Other
Savage
Tattoo
Wonder

Coffin

A prophet tattooed upon Queequeg’s skin the entire cultural
knowledge (history, mythology, geography, theology, and a theory
of truth) of his tribe, and then the prophet died, never telling
Queequeg the secrets his own body bore. Queequeg is a dictionary
in reverse: the world a content on the cover, and blank pages within
to explain. No definition encloses fully the mystery it tries to
contain. The symbols and patterns that adorn Queequeg’s body
cannot gain expression, for they can never fall into actual inquiry.
None have a language by which to express that which is outside language’s
reach. Wittgenstein explores a similar impossibility: “For
an answer which cannot be expressed the question too cannot be expressed.
The riddle does not exist.” The terrible tantalization
of this savage arm: a star on the wrist that might point out the
direction to heaven, that “starry archipelago,” reveals
no hint as to what it might actually mean. One may hazard a guess,
but one is always wrong.

When Queequeg takes ill—when the rings around his eyes, “like
circles on water,” grow weaker as they expand, seem to be
witnessing death’s breadthless nearing—he asks to make
preparations:

He added, that he shuddered at the thought of being buried
in his hammock, according to the usual sea-custom, tossed like something
vile to the death-devouring sharks. No: he desired a canoe like
those of Nantucket, all the more congenial to him, being a whaleman,
that like a whale-boat these coffin-canoes were without a keel;
though that involved but uncertain steering, and much lee-way adown
the dim ages.

The carpenter, pitying the poor dying man, makes the coffin-canoe
to order, and once the lid was “duly planed,” takes
the coffin to Queequeg, who prepares for the voyage ahead by placing
in the coffin his harpoon, biscuits, a flask of freshwater, and
a pillow for his head. And then, more an act of will (seemingly)
than a miracle, Queequeg recovers.

Queequeg spends hours carving his coffin-canoe “with all
manner of grotesque figures and drawings; and it seemed that hereby
he was striving, in his rude way, to copy parts of the twisted tattooing
of his body.” This carving is a careful work, carried out
by one who understands that the mystery inscribed on his body must
continue, if it contains truth, to live beyond his own living. He
trusts that the nature of truth means that his own ignorance of
it diminishes naught its own essential nature. If he can’t
read his own body, some force in the world can, and so steer the
keel-less coffin onwards home. But Queequeg, in this act of carving,
accomplishes an equally strange work. He etches into the lid—that
ceiling, a sky for his body in the coffin—carving the constellations,
etching the answers into the stars. The gesture more profound than
his innate trust in the eternal nature of truth, is an act of reversal.

Queequeg’s dilemma is perhaps quite simple. He’s on
the inside of himself. His body, bearing the prophet-etched mysteries,
becomes radically exterior—almost the body of another. Introspection
serves no end in such a quandary, for the questions that need be
asked, and yet cannot be asked, are inked on his body’s surface.
For Queequeg to know himself—this son of a king, and so this
king himself—he must find a way to ask a question from within
a book he cannot read. Experience cannot help, for experience is
the opposite process, moving from the world into the self to ask
what the world means. Queequeg begins with the self, and the knowledge
embedded in his skin is a barrier to the experience by which he
might be able to explain the mysteries of the world in which he
lives. But by carving the figures on the lid of his coffin-canoe,
by being placed within the canoe, he will be contained in the mystery
that now he only bears as a page bears a prayer: to be read.

§

We read Moby-Dick by virtue of Queequeg’s coffin:

Round and round, then, and ever contracting toward the button-like
black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another
Ixion I did revolve. Till, gaining that vital centre, the black
bubble upward burst; and now, liberated by reason of its cunning
spring, and, owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force,
the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and
floated by my side. Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole
day and night, I floated on a soft and dirge-like main.

Ishmael survives dying by embracing a coffin. Inside the coffin
is no body, but all knowledge—“a theory of the heavens
and the earth, and a mystical treatise on attaining truth.”
Ishmael doesn’t read it by embracing it. He does not come
to truth; he does not reside in heaven, or write what we read from
heavenly enlightenment. He puts his arms around that which he too
does not understand. The coffin that is all human knowledge. The
library and the mausoleum are one. The dictionary sings a dirge.
We survive not merely by reading (no fact will ever add a single
breath into the lungs of the drowning man), but by putting our arms
around that which we’d learn. So we hover over infinite depths,
waiting for rescue, the knowledge that saves us not in us, but funereally
buoyant in our arms.

Death
Dictionary
Friendship
Reading (Epistemology)
Savage
Starry Archipelagoes
Tattoo

Wound

Ahab is not a man driven by pride; he is a man guided by wound.

This wound is worth meditating on, for it can explain to us more
than anything else the nature of the relationship between an I
and a You. When Ahab lost his leg to Moby Dick’s
scythe-like jaw, he simultaneously struck out with a dagger to wound
the whale. The ferocity of Ahab—a man, Peleg reminds us early
on, who “has his humanities”—is ridiculously palpable.
Why, harpoon lost, boat destroyed, floating in the turmoil of the
white-frenzied froth of the depthless ocean, would a man try to
kill a whale—a creature whose heart lies fathoms deep beneath
its skin—with a six-inch blade? There is no simple answer,
but there is an answer that is simple sounding. For the encounter
between Ahab’s I-self and Moby-Dick’s You-being
to enter into relation, a wounding contact has to be made that threatens
Ahab’s life entirely. The result of the wound is madness as
much as it is pain. Ahab has a hell loosed inside him. He is described
as a man whose soul is leaking out of him, and if it is true, his
soul is leaking out through the wound that Moby Dick has given him.
Once bodily healed, he walks upon his jawbone leg that knocks upon
the wood of the deck—a deck as wrinkled with Ahab’s
pacing as is Ahab’s forehead furrowed with his thought. Ahab
is described as a man who walks half on death and half on life.
Ahab’s courage, his fundamental approach to life, which is
to say, his understanding of how meaning comes to be meaning, is
not in recovering from the wound, is not in learning how to “heal,”
but rather, is in striving to stay absolutely wounded. He must return
to his wound’s source to do so. For the wound has given proof
of the soul in place of belief in the body. Fact has been shattered,
for fact is but a use of “truth,” a body of truth, a
knowledge that gains insight as profit. Thinking is no business
venture; nor is faith. Ahab is a broken idol, a shattered image—and
such shattering has given him the tremendous gift of his hatred,
a hatred whose force thrusts him outside the prison of body, the
prison of world, the prison of language, into inscrutable proximity
with Mystery.

By Mystery I also mean something quite simple—the open possibility
of meaning before meaning has taken form, and in taking form, has
become but a mask of truth in which we read the mask as “meaningful.”
What is at stake is the nature of reality. The result of the first
fulfilled prophecy in Moby-Dick (the prophecy that brought
Ahab to the White Whale to be wounded) altered irretrievably the
reality of Ahab’s world. The madness Ahab suffered in the
bowels of his own ship, the very madness from which he’s still
recovering when Ishmael is signing his name on the line, is the
vertiginous result of having the world shattered, as if the world
were but a hollow stone we mistook for the world, and now broken,
we must confront the expanding absence it had contained. Ahab says,
“Truth has no confines.” He means so literally. Only
a wounded man can speak so—and he can only be wounded by You.

The futile stabbing of Moby Dick strangely parallels the wound
Ahab himself suffers. Not that he wounds Moby Dick in any significant
way. The point is simpler. For the I-Thou encounter, as
Martin Buber describes it, to be a living relationship—this
I that says You, and in saying You, says
I—there must exist a reciprocity, even if that reciprocity
is vastly unequal. It is in such relation, Emmanuel Levinas might
say, that formal logic’s ability to explain relation is overthrown.
We can bring meaning to that unexplainable inequality. The nature
of the I is to act positively in the world: the I
wounds as an addition. As such, Ahab inscribes wound on the parchment
white skin of Moby Dick. (It’s worth noting that Moby Dick’s
blood is described as “inky black.” As such, the mark
with which Ahab wounds the whale fills with ink, a repetition of
the very creation of the world.) The You of Moby Dick wounds
oppositely. You wounds by increasing lack, by adding nothingness,
and for that soul brave enough to confront that nothingness, to
dwell in it, and then to refuse to leave it, there is no choice
but to return to that which created the wound. For one cannot exist
in two worlds at once—in the world one walks on a living leg,
and simultaneously in the world one walks on a ghost leg. In the
world the wound is written, it sounds as positive as fact. The world
is shattered when the wound itself is wounded—when our capacity
to want to know, to want to make meaning, to want to write beautifully
or think beautifully, is amputated, and in its stead we sense the
nothing over which such hollow desires hovered. We tend to think
of such capacities as art, science, philosophy—all of Ahab’s
“humanities”—as sufficient unto themselves, and
we realize, once we’ve confronted You (if we ever
confront a You) that they were not.

It is the wound that by harming us completes us. This completion
is perfection. Rather, the wound completes us with our imperfection.
To bear the wound is also to bear the lack the wound opens. The
physical wound cicatrizes, but the metaphorical does not. The wounded
contain an emptiness, and desire leaps out such emptiness, such
lack. Desire propels one toward that which may fill the lack. Ahab
pursues Moby Dick along such a desirous line. He does so, it seems,
not to heal himself. Ahab lives the wound.

Ahab
Death
Leg (Ghost)
Nothing/ness
Reciprocity
Time
Truth
Void
Writing
You / Thou

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