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

Share this story