Tag Archives: Moby Dick

That sweet white space

The line break, an extra return after a paragraph that adds white space to a text, has practical and dramatic uses I was slow to understand. I was proud of my verbal transitions, and physical ones seemed like cheating. It took me a while to transcend my guilt, undoubtedly forged in newspapers where column-inches are precious.

But verbal transitions can be lame—they are artificial devices themselves windowblogand often clunky—and line breaks do more than indicate a major shift of location or time: they underscore the material where the break ends. That white space is a dramatic transition and a resonant pause filled with meaning and its own kind of content, a space pregnant with time’s passage and unstated events.

In his essay “This is What the White Spaces Say,” the writer and nonfiction writing theorist Robert Root discusses today’s segmented essay in which the line break is a significant element in the composition. “Segmented essays . . . depend on space, usually expressed as numbers or rows of asterisks or squiggly lines or white breaks in text, as a fundamental element of design and expression,” he writes. “. . . Like musical compositions, nonfiction need not be one uninterrupted melody, one movement, but can also be the arrangement of distinct and discrete miniatures, changes of tempo, sonority, melody, separated by silences.”

My students love trying the technique and discussing their thinking about where and why they’ve used breaks. (One girl confessed they seem like cheating to her, so this Puritanism isn’t just mine.) Undergraduates may miss the rhythm involved, and some happily hit an extra return after every single paragraph in an otherwise linear traditional essay. Students also like to put a dingbat of some sort in the white space, which I dislike but rarely mention. With today’s nonfiction writers using more white space, the unnecessary philodendron leaves or flowers or chuffy hogs that some publishers stick there can annoy. Asterisks are bad enough.

Perhaps the most basic reason for line breaks in traditional work is that they give readers an island where they might rest amidst a sea of dense type. Which raises the question of how white space is used in America’s greatest novel, Moby-Dick, which sprawls to 654 pages in the copy I own. In the book, white represents a hostile blankness epitomizing the indifference of the universe, so one wonders if Melville would dare employ white pauses, and if typographic conventions of the day were a factor when the book was published in 1851. Moby-Dick is famous for its 135 chapters, many of them very short; and Melville regularly ended a chapter and began the next as an almost-seamless continuation—a perfect place for a line break transition.

But . . . he does use line breaks, about four, and the short chapters supply even more emphasis and resonance than mere pauses. (In fact, one famous chapter, 122, is only four lines and is itself mostly white space.) To Melville, the matter was organic, as he explains in the opening of Chapter 63: “Out of the trunk, the branches grow; out of them, the twigs. So, in productive subjects, grow the chapters.”

Melville employs his  line breaks in the way we do. The first doesn’t appear, by my count, until page 234, in the middle of the short chapter “The Mat-Maker.” His white spaces aren’t completely empty, as they bristle with five asterisks harpooned across their modest wake. The publisher’s unfortunate decision? Maybe not, because there’s a strange place in Chapter 54 where four asterisks trail a sentence, telegraphing a break typographically, not physically—yet another innovation, an ugly one. I wonder if Melville drew them into his draft, though technically dingbats are the publisher’s lookout, at least nowadays, and I think a pure uncluttered white space there would be better. Yet preserve Moby-Dick with such eccentricities: Melville also uses the dash like we do—but sometimes like this,—with that comma, or sometimes a semicolon, before the dash. That’s the nineteenth-century showing in this startlingly modern book. Dash-wise, Melville may seem caught typographically in the evolutionary middle, halfway out of the sea, so to speak; but there were reasons for his variance, subtle in the case of the comma; the semicolon and dash pair makes more obvious sense: a pause;—and then a leap. We’ve largely abandoned that flexibility and have stripped to the plain dash; and to wider, more frequent, and less ornamented white spaces.

These may be small matters in a masterpiece. Yet white space is a powerful structural device and, as I like to tell students, structure is what writers talk about when they talk about writing.

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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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