One of our informal traditions has been that the person who selected the book under discussion makes a few comments before the meeting about why they picked the book, and perhaps a few topics and/or questions for everyone to be thinking about as we prepare for the discussion. So, here goes.
Why I Picked Moby Dick
I picked Moby Dick mostly by chance. I had originally intended to pick a book by Hawthorne for my next selection. Burk introduced me to his friend Susan D. who is a retired literary professor so that I could get some insights about Hawthorne from her prior to making my selection. She recommended to me that the best entry to understanding Hawthorne was to read some of Melville, and she loaned me two anthologies of his published writings and personal letters:
The Portable Melville, edited by Jay Leda, Viking Press, 1952.
Great Short Works of Melville, edited by Warner Berthoff, Harper and Row, 1969.
My intent was to simply peruse these briefly before choosing a book by Hawthorne. Twelve hundred pages of reading later, I emerged from this immersion in Melville with a high regard and respect for his writings and deep feelings of empathy for him as a person. And since I had never read his long epic novel, Moby Dick, I decided to give it a try for this round, and put off Hawthorne until later. Also, since my round came up in the summer, I figured this would be a good time for us to attempt a long read that would ordinarily be too much to accomplish in one month.
Here are a few of the themes I discovered that run through Melville’s short works and personal correspondence (and many of which I later discovered can also be found lurking in Moby Dick):
1. He was one of the first to question the prevailing theme of “American Exceptionalism” that was dominant in the mid-1800s.
2. He expressed strong concern about the dangers inherent in capitalism.
3. He explored the idea that civil disobedience could be an appropriate response to tyranny or other forms of repression.
4. He espoused a form of humanism based on a concept of a worldwide brotherhood of Man (He did not espouse any particular anti-feminist sentiment, but clearly his primary identification was with a society of like-minded men, which he often denoted by the term “bachelors”. There is perhaps even an undercurrent of homoeroticism, although it is more Agape than Eros).
5. He had a respect for what might be called “spirituality”, sometimes expressed in terms of a sense of awe towards forces that operate in our world but can not be seen or examined by science, but had a very negative view of Christian Puritanism, the dominant religion in New England at the time.
6. His sense of humor is complex, to say the least!
7. His writings frequently seek to explore the boundaries of, and ultimately try to break down, what he considered to be artificial binary categorizations: Christan/Pagan, Human/Animal, Good/Evil, etc. He was almost always able to discover at least some Ying in the Yang and vice versa.
8. He explores exceedingly complicated psychological topics. I was amazed to read much in his writings that I did not know had been dissected at this level of analysis long before these kinds of ideas were formalized later in the early 20th Century by writers such as Freud, Jung, and William James.
9. He had a lifelong intellectual interest in epistemology, and in particular with questions about how we know what things mean (I say more about this below).
10. There is a sadness and melancholy in his later writings. As a young man, he had an image of himself as being hailed one day as one of the first great American authors, following in the footsteps of Hawthorne, whom he knew personally and admired, but whose reputation he was expecting to eventually eclipse. For a variety of reasons (too far ahead of his time, too much of an original thinker to be understood, too much out of step with the values of the dominant establishment gate-keepers) this never happened. He pressed on, writing to the end, but was never appreciated as a genius or even as a great writer during his lifetime – Moby Dick was only “rediscovered” as being a great masterpiece in the 1920’s, long after Melville’s death in 1891.
Melville’s Exploration of Epistemology
Turning now to the question of what themes or questions I would like you all to be thinking about prior to our discussion, I realize that any attempt to reduce this massive epic to a few bullet points of themes to discuss is a fool’s errand. However, I do want to highlight one major theme (among many) that I found particularly fascinating – Melville’s deep thinking about epistemology, and in particular about the issue of how we establish what things mean. A quick summary statement that I think encapsulates both Melville’s position and a major theme in the novel would be something along the lines: Experience can not be reduced to a single meaning, regardless of how exhaustively it is written about, depicted in the visual arts, systematized scientifically, dogmatized by theologians, subjected to critical analysis, reflected upon, or lived. It always remains in the end, mysterious, and subject to ongoing multiple interpretations. That is true of a “Whale”, it is true of this book about a whale, “Moby Dick”, and it is true of everything else in life.
My question(s) for everyone to think about prior to our discussion
Go back and re-read the first three paragraphs of Chapter 3. It seems quite obvious, perhaps a truism, to assert that this passage is referenced by the book Moby Dick, since the passage is included within it. But this passage itself also perhaps references something, at least metaphorically. What? And what are some of the implications of that form of referencing? For one bonus point, Can you provide examples of other forms of similar referencing within the book? And for a second bonus point: In the phrases from this passage such as, “at first you almost thought” and “you at last come to the conclusion”, what is the meaning of the word ‘you’?