Academic journal article Style

What's Eating Ahab? the Logic of Ingestion and the Performance of Meaning in Moby-Dick

Academic journal article Style

What's Eating Ahab? the Logic of Ingestion and the Performance of Meaning in Moby-Dick

Article excerpt

In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville describes Captain Ahab as "a man of greatly superior natural force, with a globular brain and ponderous heart [...,] one in a whole nation's census--a mighty pageant creature" (71). More than a century after the figure's conception, William Faulkner points to this one-legged hero as the most original character in American letters. Yet, for some reason, Ishmael, and not Ahab, has remained the darling of Melville critics. I believe that the privileging of Ishmael's perspective and interpretations over the sophisticated but oblique performances of Ahab is a serious critical blunder--a move that carries with it an unwarranted assumption that Ishmael's concerns correspond with the interests of the text.

The problem begins when there is an unquestioned epistemological alignment with Ishmael. His assumptions--that Ahab is mad and his quest is unreasonable--are too often quietly, trustingly adopted by readers, who may sense ironic distance between Ishmael and Melville, but who nevertheless accept Ishmael's descriptions of the captain and his motivations. [1] Such a tack in reading is critically valid and has stood a test of time, but it issues from a limited perspective. Placing confidence in Ishmael as witness to Ahab's monomania leads to a skewed reading of the text. [2] When we stop looking through the eyes of a lowly sailor who must have everything explained to him, and who must pathologically interpret his world to feel adequate to it, the rest of the text changes dramatically: the objects of Ishmael's study--the whales, the various whaling implements and trophies, the ship, the sailors around him--all mean differently. Likewise, Ishmael's own experiences change (that is, to the reader they change). Such is the case with Ishmael's assessment of Ahab. Granted, what we know of the captain comes by way of Ishmael, but Ishmael naively judges the man, and although Ishmael cannot understand Ahab on Ahab's own terms, we, as careful readers, can comprehend his existence as a life distinct from the narrator's.

Once we stop reading with Ishmael, it becomes clear that Ahab serves as the center of a highly developed epistemology that competes with and eludes the narrator's comprehension. [3] The trophies that appear throughout the text confound Ishmael. These invested objects of significance, which recognizably carry their meaning with them, are manifest examples of this other-than-interpretive system of knowing--exhibits of this system, if you will. And Melville uses the act of possessing trophies, particularly the act of eating trophies, to show graphically how this system works. If we stop looking through Ishmael's eyes, we can see Melville has developed a complex system of ingestion to show how a specific type of knowledge communicates. Ishmael cannot see that Ahab belongs to an epistemological system constructed on how meaning materially invests language and how language performs that meaning. [4] I argue that to understand Moby-Dick thoroughly, we must recontextualize Ahab and his entire textual existence and v iew him as operating within his own textual logic, one separate from Ishmael's, for as that Leyden jar of material rhetoric, himself, claims, "Ahab is Ahab"--Ahab is not Ishmael.

Philological and epistemological from the outset, Melville's nautical journey explores different ways that language signifies, that it generates knowledge. The tome aptly begins with a consideration of linguistic origins, with various etymologies for "whale." From this exploration, Melville proceeds to a collection of literary extracts concerning whales and whaling adventures ranging from the ancients to his contemporaries. All this occurs before the tale begins and establishes the context for this story before the narrator asks the reader to call him Ishmael. Melville's interest in the knowledge swirling about the subjects of his text does not, however, remain confined to the front matter only. …

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