Dan Beachy-Quick, Four Essays From
AWhaler's Dictionary


            “The whale has no famous author,” says Ishmael. One might think that Moby-
presents Ishmael’s effort to fill that gap, but to think so might be misjudging our
narrator’s basic intent. Ishmael’s first attempt to become the whale’s famous author,
albeit abandoned, is to write a Cetalogical Dictionary. One of the notable aspects to
such an undertaking is that, of all literary endeavors, writing a lexicon is pointedly
unimaginative. A definition cannot be a fiction if a dictionary is going to be of use.
A dictionary offers the basic units by which any fiction functions—the agreed upon
community of common meaning. Ishmael says of himself, “I am the architect, not the
builder.” Our narrator sees himself as putting down the units of a vocabulary so that
we might understand an experience of which, without his Dictionary, we’d have no
possible knowledge—none, that is, save an imaginative one.
           Ishmael as a writer seems extraordinarily wary of imagination’s capacity for
distorting the world which it brings to light. One of his obsessive concerns in Moby-Dick
is in showing the inadequacies of the depiction of whales in paintings, lithographs, and
writing. Hidden within the criticism lurks a vaster critique of imagination. Ishmael sees
that imagination not only leads to error, but sees that the graver issue is that imagination
refuses to acknowledge the very error that elicits its activity. The cause that exists beneath
the varieties of representative errors in the depictions of whales is simple: what is being
shown remains unknown. The catalyst for much imaginative work is, to quote Keats, an
inability of an artist to remain “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable
reaching after fact & reason.” One use of imagination, or one sort of imagination, works
by throwing light into a substance whose invisible nature swallows illumination.
           The closer one comes to drawing upon experience for representative work, the less
imaginative errors occur:

     On Tower-hill, as you go down to the London docks, you may have seen a crippled
     beggar (or kedger, as the sailors say) holding a painted board before him, representing
     the tragic scene in which he lost his leg. There are three whales and three boats; and
     one of the boats (presumed to contain the missing leg in all its original integrity) is
     being crunched by the jaws of the foremost whale. Any time these ten years, they tell
     me, has that man held up that picture, and exhibited that stump to the incredulous
     world. But the time of his justification has now come. His three whales are as good
     whales as were ever published in Wapping, at any rate; and his stump as
     unquestionable a stump as any you will find in the western clearings.

It is telling that the actual absence of the sailor’s leg speaks to the accuracy of his painted
whales, as if the real made non-existent lends credence to the invisible made visible. The
missing leg speaks of experience, and here, accuracy is a measure of proximity to the actual
moment of encounter, to the actual life.
            But Ishmael’s understanding of experience is as complicated as his notions
regarding imagination. The very difficulties that mock the completion of any given definition
also amaze experience. The invisible denies the eye as deeply as mystery riddles the mind.
Experience does not stand in lieu of imagination. Not only does Ishmael claim “the great
Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last,” he also
says that “in a matter likethis, subtlety appeals to subtlety, and without imagination no man
can follow another into these halls.” The whale is a subject that demands but denies
experience, a subject that criticizes imagination even as it necessitates it.
            Ishmael forces his readers to be wary when imagination operates with too vigorous
anactivity, when imagination substitutes itself for experience. Likewise, he warns that
experienceunalloyed by an imaginative depth cannot dredge up the lees of its own most
difficult importance. Ishmael says, “you must be a thorough whaleman to see these sights.” In
part he writes his dictionary in order to allow us to speak as whalemen speak, and so bring us
closer to the ability torecognize the world he’s writing. More generously, in giving us a whaling
language, Ishmael allowsus to dismantle ouractive imagination’s refusal to let the unknown
remain unknown, and opens instead a receptive imagination. Such an imagination does not
extend vision, but receives vision—it puts experience to imaginative use. That use reveals
overlaps in appearance, meaning, memory—as when Ishmael seesrocks merge into Leviathan
butted by the waves of the wind-blown grass—and so makes possible metaphor. Such
imagination sees the inherent connection between unlike things, and in revealing theirsimilarity,
limns the faintest outline of that world that before seemed only unapproachable, only
evanescent. Experience gives us two names; imagination speaks them into one.



            Ishmael sets out to go whaling to experience the “wonder world.” One can ascribe,
perhaps safely, that all green whalers ship for the first time for some similar reason: to
experience. That experience manifests in different ways, some more useful than others. A man
learns to be a whaler, raises higher within the rigid hierarchies of the whalery, and by experience
may climb the throne to becoming Captain. Or, one has no such aims (as Ishmael doesn’t), and
wants to not merely see but participate in the dangers of the world. One wants to widen, so to
speak, one’s horizon.
            Ishmael claims such a desire to Peleg on the day he signs himself aboard the Pequod.
Peleg asks, “But what takes thee a-whaling? I want to know that before I think of shipping ye.”
And Ishmael answers, “Well, sir, I want to see what whaling is. I want to see the world.” Peleg has
two responses. The first bears a poignant mystery: “Want to see what whaling is, eh? Have ye
clapped eye on Captain Ahab?” And the second answer is broad mystery. He bids Ishmael to look
over the weather-bow and tell him what it is Ishmael sees.
            Ishmael sees “Not much, nothing but water.”


           Peleg’s two answers are haunting, foreboding, warning. He implies—and it’s telling that he
cannot speak more directly, but offers only gestures, insinuations, hints—that the last thing one
signs up for aboard a whale-ship, especially a whale-ship captained by Ahab, is experience. He
forces Ishmael to see that the ocean is infinite out to its horizon, and as you near that horizon,
it retreats. The horizon is the outermost circumference of the eye of the one who’s looking, and
its dimensions are subjective more than objective. Ishmael will see only as he sees: a single point
staring out into incommensurable distances. It is only in reversing the order of Peleg’s answers
that we may gain a sense of what he means when he asks if Ishmael has “clapped eye” on Ahab.
The initial and easier understanding is that Ahab is an example of the experience Ishmael is
naïvely pursuing. But that interpretation changes when seen through the lens of the breadthless,
depthless ocean. Peleg seems to warn that Ahab is not a man of experience, but that his damage
is the result of that which occurs outside of experience. That, Peleg might suggest, is Ahab’s
           The difficulty is in understanding what, if not experience, Ahab and Ishmael and the crew
entire live through when they are on the ocean aboard a ship hunting whales. More to the point,
what is their life when all are chasing not whales, but a single whale: Moby Dick. Martin Buber,
in I and Thou, helps clarify the mystery:

          Those who experience do not participate in the world. For the experience is “in
     them” and not between them and the world.
          The world does not participate in experience. It allows itself to be experienced, but
     it is not concerned, for it contributes nothing, and nothing happens to it.

When one is in the world, when one is participating with one’s existence in the existence
of the whole, it is not an “experience.” It is, as Buber claims, a relation. That relation does not
fragment along experiential lines, the simple grammar of pursuit: subject chasing object.
Moby Dick, perhaps, is for us the archetypal book of pursuit—but we understand the nature of
this pursuit in the shallowest of terms. We think as Starbuck thinks if we read Moby Dick as a
man seeking to catch and kill a whale. Our mistake then, as is Starbuck’s mistake throughout,
is in thinking in experiential terms rather than relational ones. The world of relation, unlike the
world of experience, fuses together all subjectivity and objectivity, cleaves binaries and so
destroys them, and the work of experience undoes that relational unity. Bulkington’s silence at
the Spouter-Inn, and far more significantly, his silent presence aboard the Pequod throughout
the novel, is not the residue of his experience, but the ongoing relation with the infinite realm
the ocean manifests. Experience speaks; a word is the end of relation into a baser, though
inevitable pursuit. Subject-verb-object is the shackles experience locks down upon our life.
           When the crew agrees to join the hunt for Moby Dick, they give up their claim to
experience. Such is the lower layer of Starbuck’s horror. For Ahab initiates them into his
relational pursuit of an object with which he is coterminous. To chase the whale madly is also to
chase his own mad self. Madness maddened. Stubb’s wise dream of the whale dressed up as, and
defending, Ahab is but one hint among many that Ahab and his object of obsession are a single,
chimerical one. Ahab infuses his crew with his purpose, making of many will a single will, making
of many a one that chase a one that is a many. For the White Whale is a deep and troubling
paradox. It dwells in the infinite ocean Peleg forced Ishmael to see before he signed away his
name. The infinite is the realm of relation, and that which exists in it also widens infinitely. The
ocean is the location of infinite possibility. The White Whale exists in it as infinite particularity.
Ahab chases that which is impossible and yet real: the single creature whose unspeakable name
is All.

I / I / “I”


           The Sub-Sub-Librarian, appearing in the voluminous prefatory material, does no
less ambitious work than the Usher, with his Etymology, does. The Sub-Sub gives us a
concordance of sorts, if we can turn the notion of concordance inside out. Instead of a
book that lists the usage of all words by a single author, we here have the usage by all
authors of a single word: Whale, or Leviathan. We begin with Genesis—“And God
created great whales”—and end in Anonymous Ballad:

     Oh, the rare old Whale, mid storm and gale
          In his ocean home will be
     A giant in might, where might is right,
          And King of the boundless sea.

In between we brush against fiction, biological tracts, cetalogical treatises, poems, fables,
captions below etchings, an entire panoply of written documents. The Sub-sub’s work,
which at first seems like an accumulation, actually functions in a far different, far more
disturbing way. The nature of the Extracts isn’t anthology, isn’t the positive recording of
utterance and lexical usage to be turned to as reference. It isn’t written in order to exist.
Rather, the Sub-sub’s work functions negatively, uttering to remove speech, recording to
erase reference. Just as, in modern astronomy, binocular telescopes can divide a single
star’s light into two beams that directed against each other cancel the same star’s light out
(and so find a planet reflecting that star’s light), the Sub-sub writes down every written
reference to Whale/Leviathan, to strike the words against themselves, using language to
cancel language. Whale is struck against whale; Leviathan spoken cancels out Leviathan.
To say all is to provide the blank space for a new speaking. One can only reach nothing
(a positive, almost Heideggerean space) by noting every instance of language that makes
nothing possible. Utter it all, and the blank page returns. Where we open when we open
Moby Dick is in echo of the tragedy to come. The silence after the Pequod has sunk and
all the men aboard her sunk, the silence out of which witnessing Ishmael speaks, is
related to the silence the book struggles to create in order to begin. The blank silence of
the novel’s end has the written silence of its beginning clenched in its mouth: an
Ouroburus (and the whale once thought a serpent), a circumference (and the whale
hunted on the equator). Silence must occur before creation does. “Call me Ishmael,” like
all first words, are spoken over the empty water, the silent page.  



           Ishmael’s work involves the impossible task of writing about a world that falls outside of
the realm of experience. He suffers silence, that mute residue of genuine crisis, and he
suffers in breaking his silence. Ishmael is an author. His work is to write a book. To do so
he must make a mark on a blank page; to do so he must mar silence and silence’s fecund
possibilities, and in picking up a pen, risk betraying the nature of what he wants to
express. Martin Buber describes the dilemma:

     This is the eternal origin of art that a human being confronts a form that wants to
     become a work through him. Not a figment of his soul but something that that appears
     to the soul and demands the soul’s creative power. What is required is a deed that
     requires that a man [do it] with his whole being.

The authorial crisis is in speaking of that world whose livingness occurs outsidelanguage’s grasp.
One betrays deeply what one loves by pulling its silent life up intospoken experience. But this
work is not merely accomplished by the will or imaginationof the author—or, more accurately,
it need not be. Writing—for an author such asIshmael—is a soul-full work. It is not so for
everyone who puts pen in hand to paper. Aristotle speaks of the virtue of such work. For a whaler
who is also a writer, for the man in whom both qualities are singular and fused, the work of
writing about whaling is also the “being-at-work” of the soul. This writing life is Ishmael’s active
life, his ethical life. He does not do it, as Ahab does not chase the White Whale, to simply
accomplish the end of the activity. Rather, as Aristotle has it in the Ethics, “it is clear that
being-at-work is something that happens, and not something that is present like some
possession.” This work of the world and the word is also self-work. “One will be literate, then,
only when one produces something literate, and does so in a literate way, that is, in accordance
with the art of writing within oneself.” The effort by which Moby-Dick exists (as narrated by
Ishmael-as-author) arises out of the work of attempting to know oneself in a world of
difficulty. One can hear the echo of Keats’s world as the “vale of soul-making.” One
writes out of the glancing wounds that are the conduits and consequences of actual
attention. The eye is also such a wound.
           Yet writing calls into question, into doubt—and doubt that can reach down to torment as
often as it reaches up to grace—both the self that dwells in the world and the world dwelt
in. Buber gives shape to the difficulty:

     The deed involves a sacrifice and a risk. The sacrifice: infinite possibility is
     surrendered on the altar of the form; all that but a moment ago floated playfully
     through one’s perspective has to be exterminated; none of it may penetrate into the
     work; the exclusiveness of such a confrontation demands this. The risk: the basic
     word can only be spoken with one’s whole being; whoever commits himself may not
     hold back part of himself; and the work does not permit me, as a tree or man might, to
     seek relaxation . . . if I do not serve it properly, it breaks, or it breaks me.

The work of the book may destroy both he who wrote it and the world he wrote. The
book must find a way to express a world without destroying either the world or the one
who writes of it. To do so, the book must fail, be open to failure; the book, too, must be
wounded. Melville understood such. He writes to Hawthorne of the courage to write
books “that fail.” He speaks of the nature of this writing work: “My dear Sir, a
presentiment is on me—I shall at last be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg-grater,
grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg.” The writer
worn out by the work of the writing. The world endless, but the self a mortal limit.
Ishmael, Melville’s other self or the mask he speaks through, also values failure: “For
small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave
the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book
is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.” Such failure allows one to put the
formless into form without sealing off the infinite possibilities by which it can
continually be expressed. The author is one who damages the work so as not to damage
the world.




           Ahab pursues a whale; and we catch a book. These outcomes are not unconnected.
The implication in Ishmael’s work is that the activity of writing and the activity of
whaling are parallel. From the mast-head Ishmael watches fins emerge as thoughts
spontaneously forming when they emerge from watery depths to surface air.

           When he classifies whales he names them as books.
           This is not simply wit.
           The whale escapes and the book escapes; they escape in the same way. They both flee
along the same line by which we drew near their forms—almost comprehensible, almost
tangible, almost legible. The book in our hand contains a depth and holds it breath.
Reading and Writing are impossible work. Buber writes: “The actualization of the work
involves a loss of actuality.” The impossibility of Ishmael’s impossible task is that
he must accomplish the work of form and the work of flight simultaneously. The book rises
and it dives back down.