Friday, July 06, 2007
Moby Dick as an Original Text of Total Process / Gam 5 (Note)*
Herman Melville’s *Moby Dick* means a variety of things to a variety of people. Such is its richness as a text forming a discourse. For myself, as perhaps also for F.O. Matthiessen, Charles Olson, C.L.R. James, Susan Howe and others before me, I would like the book to remain irreducible, and to merely make that text meaningful for my own life and culture in relation to Melville’s own as I best understand them.
*Moby Dick* is so many things, and yet it may broach all things insofar as it is a book of what I am calling *total process*—an intertextuality describing a complete process of whaling more or less as it occurred until the period of the 1840’s and 50’s when Melville composed the book.
Reading *Moby Dick* these past months I have not turned to favorite passages—“The Whiteness of the Whale,” the speeches of Ahab, Starbuck and Stubbs, the Shakespearian tragedy comprising much of the later book. Instead of attending *Moby Dick* as a work of “literature,” I have looked to that which may be considered most banal about the book’s contents: the details of a culture and of a labor process as they are fastidiously, if not completely, described by Melville’s text. It is perhaps only by citing whaling in its minute particulars that Melville may express profound things about the world, his society, and so encounter the general and “universal”. Through “the whale” and whaling one proceeds to dilemmas of ontological proportion as they presuppose ones of production, craft, labor, identity, history, etc.
*Have ready a bottle of brandy, because I always feel like drinking that heroic drink when we talk ontological heroics together.* ~ Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne, June 29th, 1951
Encountering Melville again, “ontological heroics” antedate the facts of whaling as they alone may fathom a speculative aether—compose imagination, proposition, allegory and critique. Preceding William James’ *Principles of Psychology* by numerous decades there is Melville, that proto-Radical Empiricist, encyclopedically documenting whaling through research, perception, insight, and experience. That Melville could get down as much as he does about whaling is extraordinary considering his brief stint as a mariner, and that much of his information was culled from research in books—a fact the chapter on cetology underscores, as well as the “Extracts” prefacing the book.
Melville should be placed beside the most radical and thorough documentarians of the 20th century, and especially cinematic radicals like Dziga Vertov and Chris Marker, inasmuch as his book is organized through a method of narrative parataxis anticipating cinematic montage and radical collage. In this regard Melville, and not Whitman—whom Sergei Eisenstein, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Vertov all admired tremendously—may be the true predecessor of early Soviet Realism and French Cine Verité. Beyond documentary practices, we should also consider Melville an original ethnographer in his dramatic recording of the speech and behavior of whalers in the mid-19th century. Since I’m not a scholar of the 19th century whaling industry, nor of Melville per se, the “reality” of this ethnographic practice is, for me, unverifiable. Yet I continue to be interested in Melville’s *Moby Dick* as an ethnographic-documentary method: choose a particular field of inquiry and gather the facts about it allowing much else (everything?) must follow. It is likely Charles Olson cites this epistemological movement in the following selection from his “A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn”:
*And to hook on here is a lifetime of assiduity. Best thing to do is to dig one thing or place or man until you yourself know more abt that than is possible to any other man. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Barbed Wire or Pemmican or Paterson or Iowa. But exhaust it. Saturate it. Beat it.
And then U KNOW everything else very fast: one saturation job (it might take 14 years). And you’re in, forever.* (*Collected Prose*, 307)
Whaling was Melville’s “saturation job,” the thing he dug most intensely, and through this thing he got to more difficult truths about his world than he probably should have otherwise had he continued to write adventure stories like *Mardi* and *Typee*, or pursued strict existential-structuralist tales like “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “I and My Chimney”. The “second book” of the two comprising *Moby Dick*—that book Olson famously argues Melville writes after reading Shakespeare closely, marking-up the margins of the *Works*—arguably grows out of the first book being a “job” for total process. Through the deliberate mediation of a total process recording many facts the world should be converted—imaginatively, allegorically, propositionally, alchemically:
*There was only one thing in the spring of 1850 which he did not feel he could afford to do: “So far as I am individually concerned, & independent of my pocket, it is my earnest desire to write those sort of books which are said to ‘fail.’”
In the end, in *Moby Dick*, he did. Within three months he took his head again. Why?
Through May he tried to do a quick book for the market: “all my books are botches.” Into June he fought his materials: “blubber is blubber.” Then something happened. What, Melville tells:*
I somehow clung to the strange fancy, that, in all men hiddenly reside certain wondrous, occult, properties—as in plants and minerals—which by some happy but rare accident (as bronze was discovered by the melting of the iron and brass at the building of Corinth) may chance to be called forth here on earth. (*Call Me Ishmael*, 37-38)
What “wondrous, occult properties” are called forth “in all men” by an effort of total process?
Melville, Herman. *Moby Dick*. Oxford World’s Classics, 1988.
Olson, Charles. *Call Me Ishmael*. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
______. *Collected Prose*. ed. Donald Allen & Benjamin Friedlander. intro Robert Creeley. University of California Press, 1997.
*"Moby Dick as an Original Text of Total Process" appears in Gam 5, edited by Stacy Szymaszek with contributions by Etel Adnan, E. Tracy Grinnell, Deborah Meadows, Jane Sprague, Rob Halpern and numerous others.