Melville’s thematic fluidity

This is a guest post by Tom Gilbert, my son, a college sophomore majoring in philosophy and film.

“To write a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme.”
–Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

“Everyone knows I’m not a folk singer,” says Jude Quinn/Cate Blanchett/Bob Dylan at the end of I’mbluewaterblog2 Not There, and I might have taken that a little easier if it was said to a superimposed LBJ or questioning reporter. But as it stood, right into the camera, with such an acerbic smile on Blanchett’s face, it was jarring. Todd Haynes’s biopic of Dylan lives on that fleeting edge of self, not so much breaking the fourth wall as balancing on its edge. I reflected on this on my half-hour walk back to my dorm in the bitter cold of finals week, wishing that shot could have lasted a little longer instead of clipping along at 24 frames per second. Film is better at portraying the fluidity of ideas than measuring their depth, and I wished for something that could penetrate that search for identity while balancing the audience’s knowledge and emotions separately. And then I remembered Moby-Dick.

I realized the two works are surprisingly similar: both are immersed in the search for truth, and use a pantheon of characters to portray a fundamentally ambiguous symbol. But where Haynes assumes we already know Dylan and uses that knowledge against us, Melville is tasked with telling an ignorant public just what the hell whaling is. And so he decided to write a textbook.

For nearly every narrative chapter, Melville crafted an explanatory one that dealt with the art of whaling or whales: harpoons, compasses and blubber have entire chapters to themselves. It is impossible to imagine a publisher in today’s world who would be hunky-dory with this. But a writer who allows structure to define narrative will quickly allow it to define theme: the path to cliché., No wonder, then, that the mind-blowing depth and breadth of Moby-Dick would lead to such structural digressions.

So what was Melville’s theme? Many commentators have tried to tear apart the book and find its nub, from the book’s rediscovery in the 1920s to now, but its structural variance defies such a rudimentary summation. What is the whale? Everything and nothing. What does Ishmael want? Truth, companionship, love—the list goes on. Any book with an entire chapter dealing with a whale’s penis is understandably hard to swallow, but as Ishmael opines to the reader, we must look closer.

Amidst myriad chapters of whaledom, let us look at “Fast-fish and loose-fish.”In whaling, Melville/Ishmael explains, a whale is either a fast-fish, meaning that another boat has already spotted it and has first poaching rights on it, or a loose-fish, meaning it is still up-for-grabs. Ishmael believes these terms were introduced in the British fishery for economic reasons, and were modeled after the legal practices in matters of land ownership and marrying women (harpoon puns abound). However, these whaling terms soon became popular with competing religious sects about new converts, or the dynamics of communism, or in philosophical circles (loose-fish retain free will!). Finally Ishmael asks us, are we not all a fast-fish or loose-fish?

Whatever truth Moby-Dick ultimately aims for, we see these kind of rhetorical questions in nearly every chapter, and slowly the reader realizes that Melville’s theme is the search for meaning itself. Ahab’s hunt for Moby-Dick and Ishmael’s digressions are both attempts to understand and quantize the universe. Therefore, such digressions are hardly nonsensical, but instead essential to theme. The anatomy of a whale’s head is itself meaningless to the story, but given a contrast, or a history, or an idea, and suddenly Melville can confront the tenets of transcendentalism. Symbols are meaningless without context. Such a radically changed structure is merely Melville’s decision to let the symbol carry the structure. The divorce of narrative and thematic development is therefore superficial. The epistemological chapters provide character development, philosophical possibilities, and even narrative foreshadowing (I was surprised to find while rereading the novel that Ahab’s fate is revealed in a chapter on harpooning). These two halves of the novel need each other to coexist and point to the philosophic implications of the plot.

We are taught that theme should be woven into a story seamlessly, that the reader should only experience a story’s raison d’etre like the sherbet after a five-course meal, or else the reader will be distracted by inefficient storytelling. This method flows well and sells well, and Hollywood is defined by it. But Melville’s complex structure, which appears to subvert his narrative, is truly in service to his theme.

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