Monday, September 23, 2013

Fast-fish and Loose-Fish

Chapter 89 of Moby Dick ends with these words:

"What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?"

Nothing better summarizes Melville's game (and, ultimately, our whole digital culture, but that will be my other post this week) than these words. Dr. Wickman's lecture on the non-narrative chapters today focused  a lot on how Melville took boring subjects in these "extra" chapters and linked them to universal ideas. As I listened, I became more and more certain that in any aspect of humanity, meaning comes from connection. Whether it be personal relationships, literature, work, or anything else, the meaning--in both the sense of definition and of significance--comes from the connection established.

This is the key to Moby Dick, and the principle upon which Melville based his whole art.

As part of Dr. Wickman's lecture, we viewed the painting "Now" by Barnett Newman:

"Now" by Barnett Newman (Image source:

Like art of any age, the meaning of this piece only comes from the viewer making some connection with it. However, like a lot of modern art, this piece is purposely abstract, making the initial connection difficult to find at times. "Hiding" the meaning in this way causes many casual observers to cast aside the piece as pointless, or without meaning. Such viewers turn instead to older works with recognizable physical forms, which facilitate connections much more easily. But a connection easily made is never a very meaningful connection, and, conversely, a more difficult connection creates a stronger meaning. When the viewer through some effort does make a connection with pieces like these, then, it creates a stronger connection with the piece, and therefore more meaning for that viewer. (This accounts for the divisive nature of modern art in general, but that's a different post entirely.) Essentially, my point is that the meaning of any artifact--artistic or not--is not contained within that object waiting to be discovered, but rather created upon it as the beholder develops a connection with it through dedicated effort over time.

Now, apply this principle to Moby Dick.

Moby Dick is a lot like modern art pieces like "Now" in that most people either casually discard it as pointless, or they have a strong, abiding connection with it as a truly great work of art. The key to this effect lies not in its plot, but its execution. The plot of Moby Dick is really quite unoriginal: man wants revenge and does anything to get it. This plot is as old as humanity (literally, if the Bible is to be believed in its account of Cain and Abel). What is unique about Moby Dick is not its plot but its extremely specific setting, and the intensity of its climax depends wholly upon the reader understanding and connecting with that setting. The central problem for Moby Dick as a novel, then, is not to present a compelling plot or exciting climax, but to ensure the reader is connected enough to the setting that the plot and its climax are properly received when they come. Thus, the plot is generously padded with extra stuff, all of which serves to connect the specifics of whaling to large, universal, and, all-importantly, relatable (or, we might say, connectable) truths, such that the attentive reader, by the time of the climax, is connected in some way to every single aspect of the scene, and the ultimate power of the plot is felt. The meaning of Moby Dick is not in a crew searching for a white whale, but in placing the reader on the boat as it happens.

Thus, Melville through Ishmael says quite honestly to us: "And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?" referring to the universal whaling laws that a harpooned, or "Fast," whale belongs to he who harpooned it, and all other "Loose" whales are fair game for all. We are all Loose-Fish because we are free, but we are also--especially at this point just past half-way through the novel--somewhat Fast-Fish as well, because we are connecting with the novel more and more as we travel through the chapters. Each "extra" non-narrative chapter is another harpoon launched from Melville's pen, sticking into our minds and tugging us deeper into his possession as he sets us up for the white whale's final stroke.

Here's the genius of Moby Dick. Anybody can tell a good story about a crazy sea captain--that's campfire work. But only a master like Melville can harpoon your heart with every detail of the situation such that you can't help but run to the railings when the call of the white whale comes.