[KB] KB on Melville
Edappel8 at cs.com
Fri Feb 8 12:42:51 EST 2008
First, thanks to everyone who has participated in this discussion of
Moby-Dick from a Burkean perspective. That's David, Leslie, Bob, Carrol,
Rick---did I miss anybody? This novel is something of an obsession of mine, and I
appreciate the contributions.
In response to Carrol's recent post, one of the criticisms of
Moby-Dick by Melville's contemporaries is that the "narrative," or third-person
omniscient, authorial stance intrudes too conspicuously into Ishmael's telling of
the story. British reviewers in particular, snotty deprecaters of American
literature to begin with back then, jumped on this sign of rank "amateurism" as a
pretext to dismiss Melville's work.
I re-read David's critique of 10/19. I should have added in a recent
post of mine that, in the Epilogue, Ishmael, staring down into the pit of
death, so to speak, as he holds onto Queequeg's coffin for dear life, is staring
also at the undecipherable markings that Queequeg had the carpenter chisel into
the wood. With the image of "whiteness" still fresh in his mind's eye, his
close-up view of these "meaningless" symbols but reinforces the pervasive theme
of the book. Thanks, David, for that incisive notice.
David says in yesterday's post:
"If I am correct in seeing a number of figures for authorship and
resdership in Moby-Dick, then I think it follows that it would be reductive to say
that the nevel is either a tragedy or a melodrama. Would it be more accurate
to say that the novel has tragic, epic, melodramatic, essayistic, dramatic,
and comic threads running through it? Can the book escape every definition or
Yes, Moby-Dick certainly has those threads running through it.
Without a doubt, the essayistic dimensions are numerous, with all those chapter
devoted to the practical arcana of 19th-century whaling. Yet, even those passages
are suffused with asides that add philosophic texture to the basic drama of
In a post dated 10/25, David called attention to the "ribald" comedy
in the chapter "The Squeeze of the Hand," and we could add the following
chapter, "The Cassock," to that thread. There's comedy in "His Mark," also, with
the play on Queequeg's name and the interplay between Peleg and Bildad.
Burke's treatment of the epic in ATH can be applied to the "warlike
hero[ism]" of Ahab, who "risks himself and dies" as something of a "mediat[or]
between men and gods" (pp. 35-36). Ahab is described in the novel as an
ungodly, god-like man. The crew run from him in fear and awe at the end of the
chapter "The Candles," to say nothing of their frenzied identification with and
devotion to him in "The Quarter-Deck." Recall, too, that Burke relates epic
heroism to tragedy, as well as the epic (p. 36 n).
Ahab surely projects more than a little of the exaggerated,
over-the-top demeanor of the melodramatic protagonist, as one of those contemporary
critics asserted. But if we look deeply into the narrative, we cannot be certain
that Ahab is the protagonist, as I've argued before on this list. Nor is the
quality of the chief character in the drama the sole standard of generic
determination. How is this character and his actions presented and construed in
the telling? I think that's the nub of the matter.
What's the overall feeling or impression a reader gets from Moby-Dick?
I think a careful reader's considered response will be a tragic one, a sense
of Ahab, and Ishmael, and in his own somewhat philosophically peripheral way
Starbuck, caught in an undecipherable dilemma in respect to the pain,
suffering, and ultimate destiny of human being---and the whale and the natural world
he represents that's under assault. There's implicit sympathy to go around, to
say nothing of fear and awe at the searing fatalism of it all.
How did they miss so very much of this 150 yeears ago?
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