Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Irreconcilable Differences: Voice, Trauma, and Melville's Moby-Dick

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Irreconcilable Differences: Voice, Trauma, and Melville's Moby-Dick

Article excerpt

[Freud's] model proposes that we live in order to die, hence that the intentionality of plot lies in its orientation toward the end even while the end must be achieved only through detour.

--Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot

Although Melville's great novel Moby-Dick opens with arguably the most famous introduction in American literature, the identity of the narrator--along with the impossible features of his narration--has posed vexing questions for readers since the novel's 1851 publication. These questions emerge out of the seeming chaos of the book's formal inventiveness: the novel begins focalized neatly through the character of Ishmael; drifts into long, impersonal cetological excurses; and shifts without warning into the dramatic mode, complete with dialogue appearing as script and action guided by stage directions. Even when Ishmael is clearly speaking, he describes events he could not have witnessed, moments experienced by other characters in utter privacy. With its "jumbled form" (Howard 26) and "ballast" (36), the narrative fails either to cohere on its own terms or to transmit a sense of a singular consciousness communicating it.

These violations of narrative convention and aesthetic expectation impede even basic comprehension, so that first-time readers are distracted from the progress of the plot as they wonder, "Wait--where did the narrator go?" or "How can Ishmael know what Ahab is thinking?" Every teacher of Moby-Dick can point to an assortment of possible answers to these questions, from explanations grounded in Melville's writing process to assertions of the right to poetic license in telling a grand tale. What I want to consider here are the implications of one interpretive perspective--one that emphasizes Ishmael's status as the sole survivor of the wreck of the whaling ship the Pequod--for the narrative theory worked out in the novel.

The circumstances of Ishmael's narration unsettle any easy relationship between story and discourse. Beginning with Freud, theorists have suggested that a traumatizing event is, by definition, unspeakable. Approaching the narrative as a record of trauma is thus both tantalizing and problematic: Ishmael's narration is illuminated when considered alongside theories of trauma, not because Ishmael's report becomes more convincing, but because that scholarship redirects the reader's attention away from the destruction of the Pequod and toward the effects of the trauma on the narrator's psyche--that is, away from the fabulous events and toward the discursive ethos.

My argument unfolds in two dimensions. First, I offer a reading of Moby-Dick as the account of a traumatized subject. This reading provides a means to resolve some of the text's narrative ambiguities, not by determining a stable history, but by shifting perspective on the subject of the novel. The account becomes one of the psychic contortions experienced in the mind of the narrator as they are registered in the narrative. And second, I suggest that the discourse calls for a theoretical formulation for narrating events to which a conventional, mimetic recounting cannot do justice, a theory that accounts for what happens when the unspeakable is spoken about. Ultimately, in its imagination of this fictional trauma, Melville's novel urges us not to produce a theoretical logic that mends these structural ruptures, but precisely the opposite: to enter into the play of the multiple narrative modes and--because it is Moby-Dick we are talking about, after all--to resist any totalizing schema, even narrative aesthetics or therapeutic teleology.

In order to situate this argument about narrative in the ocean of criticism on MobyDick, I want first to name my navigational referents, particularly two contexts in which the novel's fragmentation has been understood. The first is scholarship that has regarded its multiplicity of voices as a record of Melville's compositional process, and the second is a reading of the text that finds in it a triumphant account of healing after trauma. …

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