What's Eating Ahab? The Logic of Ingestion and the Performance of Meaning in Moby-Dick.
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.  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.  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.  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.  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. Ishmael himself becomes a great agent of interpretation, and through his struggles to understand what transpires in the world about him, he gives the reader a virtual encyclopedia of what is knowable through interpretation of that world. As active interpreter, Ishmael shines in such chapters as "The Whiteness of the Whale," in which he explores numerous connotations for the color of the whale, ranging from its "freakishness" as an albino, "more strangely hideous than the ugliest abortion," to its uncanny "supernaturalism," which it owes to its having "the pallor of the dead" (166). In other chapters, such as "The Sphynx," "The Fountain," and "The Nut," Ishmael unfurls the impressive standards of scientific observation and historical interpretation for the various phenomena he witnesses. In Melville's epistemological drama, Ishmael clearly becomes the act of interpretation incarnate, and he plays his role to the fullest.
First to admit that he can only understand a thing in relation to other things, the narrator explains, "Nothing exists in itself" (55).  Evident in almost every chapter of the book, his astonishing ability to metaphorize and interpret upon the slightest provocation goes into overdrive when he is faced with what is to him the sheer incomprehensibility of Moby-Dick. The whale spouts too much meaning and always escapes his interpretive nets. Unable to deal with the animal's brute existence as a whole, Ishmael focuses on a part of the animal, its whiteness, as the cause of his own consternation: "It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me. [...] Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty" (163).  And although Ishmael's tone throughout this chapter conveys understanding, his extended deliberation on possible reasons for the unsettling effects of whiteness, as such, reveals he cannot account for "the supernaturalism of this hue" (168).  He notes, for inst ance, that "from that pallor of the dead we borrow the expressive hue of the shroud in which we wrap them. Nor even in our superstitions do we fail to throw the snowy mantle round our phantoms; all ghosts rising in a milk-white fog" (166). But he also considers, "The Albino is as well made as any other men. [...] yet this mere aspect of all pervading whiteness makes him more strangely hideous than the ugliest abortion" (166). To the New England sailor regarding the Antarctic seas, he claims the color generates a "fear that one would lose oneself in such inhuman solitudes" (168).
But if Ishmael cannot account for that which disturbs him, neither can he let it go. He continues:
Lima has taken the white veil; and there is a higher horror in this whiteness of her woe. Old as Pizzaro, this whiteness keeps her ruins for ever new; admits not the cheerful greenness of complete decay; spreads over her broken ramparts the rigid pallor of an apoplexy that fixes its own distortions. (168)
Moreover, the whiteness is "the very veil of the Christian's Deity" (169). And to travelers in Lapland, it is "a blinding [...] monumental white shroud" (170). The sheer number of explanations that Ishmael gives speaks of desperation in the tenacious narrator's search for understanding. And this scene occurs not as an isolated instance; Ishmael's obsessive (and insufficient) interpretive method of apprehension saturates the text.  Whether it he Queequeg's embalmed head or the white whale itself, things invested with meaning consistently defy the narrator's understanding.
True, Ishmael presents both encyclopedic and exhaustive knowledge to the reader. But the extensiveness of Ishmael's interpretations reveals the limitations inherent in the process of interpretation; ultimately, explanations cannot account for the significance carried in an object materially invested with meaning (like Queequeg's trophy or Moby-Dick), and through sheer fecundity, Ishmael exhausts the vitality of interpretation. The significance attached to the object in the text, however, remains. If the interpretive nets of Ishmael are not enough to secure the significant object in Moby-Dick, Melville, nonetheless, fashions a method for harpooning the meaning-beast. Conceiving a mechanism at once more sophisticated and more primitive than interpretation, he creates an epistemology based on physicality--a knowing through partaking--a discursive strategy one might call philological trophyism.
From its beginning, Melville saturates Moby-Dick with images of trophies. Upon entering the town of New Bedford, where he plans to embark on a whaling ship for the first time, Ishmael seeks refuge in the Spouter Inn. Immediately inside the dark threshold of the establishment, two walls compete for his attention. One displays an ominous painting of a whale leaping onto a three-masted ship, a painting that the narrator, in what will become classic Ishmaelian fashion, interprets in numerous and inconclusive ways. Across from this wall, however, looms another:
The opposite wall of this entry was hung all over with a heathenish array of monstrous clubs and spears. Some were thickly set with glittering teeth resembling ivory saws; others were tufted with knots of human hair; and one was sickle-shaped, with a vast handle sweeping round like the segment made in the new-mown grass by a long-armed mower. You shuddered as you gazed, and wondered what monstrous cannibal and savage could ever have gone a death-harvesting with such a hacking, horrifying implement. Mixed with these were rusty old whaling lances all broken and deformed. Some were storied weapons. (21)
The two walls establish two contending modes of knowing in Moby-Dick. Whereas Ishmael is able to interpret the painting, he is unable to interpret the wall of trophies and so remains blind to its meaning.
Ornamented with the jaws of a whale, ornately carved benches, and a bar in the shape of a right whale's head, the Spouter inn conveys a portentous atmosphere, but it does much more than that.  This place of trophies hosts Ishmael's first encounter with a mode of signifying that remains incomprehensible to him for the rest of the adventure. When Queequeg, his assigned bunkmate for the evening, arrives in their shared room, he carries another trophy, a human head, that horrifies Ishmael. Queequeg's appearance with "the New Zealand head" announces several key aspects of the novel's materially-based logic of signification. First, it introduces an excellent example of the trophy and stresses Ishmael's inability to comprehend the meaning of such a "ghastly thing" (29). Moreover, in his initial impression of Queequeg, the narrator also defines the harpooner as "a wild cannibal" (Melville will use cannibalism in this text to model communication of the significance contained in and the knowledge generated by inves ted objects or trophies). Furthermore, like the two opposing walls at the inn, Ishmael's meeting with Queequeg at once highlights two competing ways that meaning can be approached in this novel and their mutual incompatibility.
In addition to his human head, Queequeg has other objects as well. The most significant to him is his small wooden "Yojo." After watching the cannibal stow his preserved head in a sack, the narrator realizes with dismay that the evening's roommate carries an idol:
he fumbled in his pockets and produced at length a curious little deformed image with a hunch on its back, and exactly the color of a three days old Congo baby. Remembering the embalmed head, at first glance I almost thought that this black manikin was a real baby preserved in some similar manner. But seeing that it was not at all limber, and that it glistened a good deal like polished ebony, I concluded that it must be nothing but a wooden idol, which it indeed proved to be. (30)
Although Ishmael belittles the image as "nothing but a wooden idol," it, like the whiteness of the whale, proves harder for the narrator to dismiss than he asserts. Queequeg's objects have talismanic power, and while Ishmael senses the power in them, he does not understand it. As a sign of respect for Ishmael, Queequeg tells the narrator that he will ceremoniously accept him as a brother, giving him half of all that he owns in the world.  Ishmael accepts the "cannibal's" trust and some fifteen dollars in silver, but when Queequeg asks Ishmael to join him in paying reverence to his wooden god, Ishmael balks.
Realizing he must show respect to "the cannibal," that he "turn idolater" for a moment, the narrator makes motions of deference to the Yojo, but these he does with condescension: "So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salaamed before him twice or thrice; [and] kissed his nose" (54). Mock worshipping the idol and rationalizing his actions to himself that the true God would indulge him, in this case, he rhetorically asks: "Can you imagine that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth--pagans and all included--could possibly be jealous of a piece of wood?" (54). Ishmael recognizes that the object has a power that unsettles him. But his inability to apprehend the object as a validly meaningful form of knowledge will inevitably lead him (and the reader who follows his interpretations) to misread the objects and figures and language materially invested with meaning in this text.
Significantly, Melville garishly arrays the ship, the Pequod, that Ishmael signs aboard the following day with the bones of its kills:
She was apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory. She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies. All round, her unpanelled, open bulwarks were garnished like one continuous jaw, with long sharp teeth of the sperm whale, inserted there for pins, to fasten her old hempen thews and tendons to. Those thews ran not through base blocks of land wood, but deftly traveled over sheaves of sea ivory. Scorning a turnstile wheel at her reverend helm she sported there a tiller; and that tiller was in one mass, curiously carved from the long narrow lower jaw of her hereditary foe. (68)
A prominent feature of this text, trophies conspicuously adorn the Pequod, as well as its crew. Page after page, chapter after chapter, Melville packs the hold of his text with talismanic objects."  Additionally, the etymology of "whale" and the citations beginning the novel--along with those that explicitly occur throughout the text--are, in effect, trophies with which Melville has returned from his own literary forays. Supplying valuable knowledge and validating his enterprise as a worthy one, the souvenirs also display the author's own literary prowess: Melville has ranged about in Rabelais and Shakespeare, sailed through Lamb, coursed through Cowper, and, indeed, returned from his hunts bearing Milton's "gills" and Dryden's "gaping jaw" (4). Further textual trophies come in the forms of entries like dictionary definitions of whales, encyclopedic descriptions of various facets of whaling as a craft, and exhaustive references to the literary, scientific, folkloric, and mythological histories of whales. Given as allusions, metaphors, asides, and notes by the narrator, or suddenly and somewhat spontaneously showcased in the text, the literary trophies often serve important interpretive functions; nevertheless, they also function as textual trophies, invested objects of significance.
Like Melville's literary trophies, writing is manifested as object within the text as well. The benches at the Spouter Inn, ubiquitous whale teeth, the deck of the Pequod, Queequeg's coffin (as well as his flesh), Ahab's leg--all these find themselves written or inscribed upon. "Curious markings" (61) decorate the Pequod; "large, blackish looking squares" (28) cover Queequeg's skin; the brows of both Ahab and the whale he hunts become curiously lined, ribbed, and creased. As writings, hieroglyphics, carvings, paintings, tattoos, drawings, scars, and so forth, inscriptions invoking the investment of meaning in objects occur throughout the text; the list is extensive. Melville makes the object of inscription, as a trophy, a focus here, separate from and resistant to the act of interpretation.
Aware of the power of the inscribed, Ishamels finds, however, that he can neither understand the invested object or being in itself, nor can he separate its meaning from its physical manifestation. The first lasting acquaintance Ishmael makes in the story is the ink-inscribed "cannibal." After setting down his embalmed head in their shared apartment, Queequeg turns to the narrator, into the light, and reveals his own physical inscriptions:
[He had] black squares on his cheeks. They were stains of some sort or other. At first I knew not what to make of this; but soon an inkling of the truth occurred to me. I remembered a story of a white man--a whaleman too--who, falling among cannibals, had been tattoed by them. [...] Meanwhile, he continued the business of undressing, and at last showed his arms and legs. As I live, these covered parts of him were checkered with the same squares as his face; his back, too, was all over the same dark squares. [...] Still more, his very legs were marked, as if a parcel of dark green frogs were running up the trunks of young palms. (29)
Ishmael finds his bed mate's markings startling, but it is not the tattoos themselves that disturb him; it is their mute and incomprehensible significance, and their relationship to cannibalism, that he finds challenging.  Melville later reveals that Ishmael has no aversion to tattoos, and apparently is covered by them himself. The narrator mentions that he later had the skeletal dimensions of an unusually large whale casually inscribed into his own flesh in order to remember them, because at the time of the monster's measuring he lacked paper and pen:
The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattoed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics. But as I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing--at least, what untattoed parts might remain--I did not trouble with the odd inches. (376)
The passage shows that far from having an aversion to tattoos, Ishmael rather likes them, but on him the markings carry no great significance: they simply convey information. To those, like Queequeg, who understand how the inscribed and materially invested object functions, however, such engravings carry more power. Ishmael relates his adventure with the owner of the giant skeleton, the King of Tranquo: [B]eing gifted with a devout love for all matters of barbaric virtu, [the king] had brought together in Pupella whatever rare things the more ingenious of his people could invent. [. . .] Chief among these latter was a great sperm whale. [. . .]
The ribs were hung with trophies; the vertebrae were carved with Arsacidean annals, in strange hieroglyphics; in the skull, the priests kept up an unextinguishable aromatic flame, so that the mystic head again sent forth its vapory spout. (374)
The skeleton of the whale is itself inscribed upon and hung about with trophies and the head of the whale retains the power present in all Melville's cranial trophies.  Clearly, the natives of Melville's text prize the inscribed-upon and meaning-invested object. In his own use of tattoos, Ishmael reveals a difference in perspectives between himself as a distanced observer and interpreter and those who see inscription and invested objects as having talismanic value.
Inscriptions of significance are, of course, not limited in Moby-Dick to dead whales alone. Ishmael notes that "Don Miguel! thou Chilean whale [are] marked like an old tortoise with mystic hieroglyphics upon the back!" (177). Moreover, when Moby-Dick eventually appears, he "breaches from the bottom of the sea a bouncing great whale, with a milky-white head and hump, all crows' feet and wrinkles" (365). The power of talismanic markings--whether they appear on bones, teeth, skin, or pate--derives from their conjoining of inscription and the material object in a context that fosters the recognition of such unions as holding significance and power. Melville gambles, by extension, that Moby-Dick expresses power in its own physio-philological form--in its construction as unique, material language. The inscription constituting the whole of Moby-Dick--physical, material, and leviathan--thus inherently defies interpretation as much as it fosters it, and that is why Ishmael (and the critic who follows his lead) unders tands only part of what is happening around him.
Due to the very nature of the enterprise and because Melville must show that literary works perform their meanings, the author employs trophies (objects that recognizably carry their meaning with them) to show an analogous process of signification at work in his own writing. In other words, Melville cannot explain his writing process because it works not through explanation, but through demonstration. Melville bedecks the Pequod with trophies because that is the nature of the Pequod's existence; he hangs invested objects all over the text of Moby-Dick because trophies are central to the nature of its existence.
The text not only explicitly evidences this materially rooted epistemology through trophies, but performs it through acts of ingestion as well. Melville foregrounds head hunting (as the securing of the trophy) and cannibalism (as the act of physically partaking of the invested object), in order to model his process of communicating material significance. In rendering the Pequod, Melville builds on the connection between "the trophy" and "the cannibal" established in Ishmael's meeting with Queequeg. It is no accident that the vehicle of the hunt for the White Whale is "a thing of trophies [. . .], a cannibal of a craft" (67).  Within Melville's trophy-based logic, understanding occurs through partaking of an object's physicality.  Because the nature of that participation is a material one, the trophy is the manifestation of significance and cannibalism is the performance of how that significance travels. Although Ishmael does not understand how the system works, he recognizes it exists, describing Que equeg and the other pagan harpooners, Stubb, Ahab, the Whales, the Pequod, and Moby Dick as connected to a "universal cannibalism of the sea" (235).
Of the myriad of trophies taken in Moby-Dick, one type, the head, clearly stands Out. While Queequeg's embalmed head is the first example we see, many more follow. Stubb, we find, understands Ahab's magnetism immediately, for he claims "when I clapped my eye upon his skull I saw it" (149). The beheading of a sperm whale-"It should not have been omitted that previous to completely stripping the body of the leviathan, he was beheaded" (292)--dominates an entire chapter and is followed by a chapter on the beheading of a right whale; both chapters note their respective physiognomic traits and invoke, of course, the phrenological and physiognomic giants, Gall and Lavatar. The connection between the collecting of the head, that ultimate trophy, and the whaling industry is explicitly stated by the narrator, even though he doesn't understand its significance, "And as for pirates, when they chance to cross each other's crossbones, the first hail is-'How many skulls?'--the same way that whalers hail--'How many barrels ?"' (292). Moby-Dick prominently features the hunting of heads, and Melville explicitly links it with cannibalism in order graphically to show how the conveyance of material significance works.  Consumption (cannibalism) becomes Melville's vehicle for understanding how an epistemology based on the trophy (the hunted head) works.
The easiest way to acquire the significance of an invested object is to ingest it. When Stubb kills his first whale of the voyage, he is intent upon getting it back to the ship and eating of his prize. Ishmael relates that "Stubb's whale had been killed some distance from the ship. It was calm; so forming a tandom of three boats, we commenced the slow business of towing the trophy to the Pequod" (279). Moreover, like the appearance of the white whale and the Yojo, this chain of consumption incites Ishmael to consider it thoroughly in the pages that follow Stubb's feast: "That mortal man should feed upon the creature that feeds his lamp, and, like Stubb, eat him by his own light, as you may say; this seems so outlandish a thing that one must needs go a little into the history of it" (254). Ishmael's general ruminations on the connectedness of eaters and the eaten immediately evolves into a lengthy discussion of the food chain, a system he refers to as "universal cannibalism." Yet while Ishmael's own logic lea ds him to the conflation of ingestion and cannibalism, he again shows that he is not privy to the insight he bears.
The act of ingesting material significance, however, goes far beyond what occurs on the Pequod's deck. The image of cannibalism created and the existence of the process as it is precisely manifested in the specific words Melville writes and has Ishmael utter--"that mortal man should feed upon the creature that feeds his lamp"--function on a textual level within the narrative in the same manner that the steak does; the utterance's singular construction carries its significance, of which the reader partakes. There is power in this talismanic phrase--"That mortal man should feed upon the creature that feeds his lamp, and, like Stubb, eat him by his own light." That Ishmael himself speaks but cannot comprehend the phrase is emphasized by the ineffectuality of the narrator's immediate attempts to tame the phrase. He does this first by digressing into a history of whale consumption--"It is upon record, that three centuries ago the tongue of the right whale was esteemed a great delicacy in France" (254)-and then by a gloss on whale butchering techniques: "The casket of the skull is broken into with an axe, and the two plump, whitish lobes being withdrawn (precisely resembling two large puddings), they are then mixed with flour, and cooked into a most delectable mess, in flavor somewhat resembling calves' head" (255). But neither the brief history of whale epicurianism nor the survey of culinary practices can tame the talismanic phrase. Ishmael, therefore, tries to temper its effect by assigning a concept to it and applying that concept to contemporary critical practices:
But Stubb, he eats the whale by its own light, does he? and that is adding insult to injury is it? Look at your knife handle, there my civilized and enlightened gourmand dining off that roast beef, what is that handle made of?--what but the bones of the brother of that very ox you are eating? (256)
Ineffectually competing with the talismanic phrase that he himself uttered, Ishmael's response to the phrase is simply overmatched by the power of the significant utterance. And this is precisely Melville's point-Ishmael (and interpretation) cannot translate or even approximate an understanding of the knowledge contained within the thing, as it materially exists, even if that material is language.
Using the objects and the performance of the experience to do so (trophies and cannibalism, respectively), Melville frames knowledge based on the significance of materiality, on a logic of consumption, particularly cannibalistic consumption. Thus Melville gives the reader the directions and the means for reading his text apart from Ishmael. Melville's description of the whale being eaten by its own light holds as well for what he hopes will be the self-evidencing and performing rhetoric of Moby-Dick: "[L]like a plethoric burning martyr, or a self-consuming misanthrope, once ignited, the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body" (353). 
Eating and being eaten play such a large role in Moby-Dick that even if Ishmael doesn't understand it, he must acknowledge its presence. The sharks that descend upon the carcasses of the slaughtered whales, for instance, fascinate him: "Peering over the side you could just see them (as before you heard them) wallowing in the sullen black waters, and turning over on their backs as they scooped out huge globular pieces of the whale of the bigness of a human head" (249). That the signal trophy of the human head illustrates the ingesting going on around the Pequod is, again, no coincidence. And highlighting the virtual feeding frenzy occurring throughout this text, Melville devotes entire chapters to whales feeding on brit, sharks and people feeding on whales, and people feeding on people.
Ishmael recognizes this universal process at work around him and sees its significance in Stubb's eating the whale by its own light. His own utterance animates this phenomenon, but still it remains incomprehensible to him. He rushes to define what has fallen from his lips, to historicize the utterance, to moralize upon it, only to find that cannibalism and the ingesting of meaning cannot be understood through explanation. Indeed Ishmael's self-appellation as outcast is apt, for he stands alone among a crew grown wild in the grips of a barbaric consumption of which he cannot partake. 
Their tawny features, now all begrimed with smoke and sweat, their matted beards, and the contrasting barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, all these were strangely revealed in the capricious emblazonings of the works. [. . .] and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastedly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in its mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul. (353)
Ishmael rightly divines that this "cannibal of a craft," the Pequod, is connected to Ahab; but the ship does not exist, however, as a counterpart to his commander's soul, rather, the ship and Ahab abide contiguously, each a part of the same chain of significance that ever feeds upon itself. Ahab proclaims to his crew: "All your oaths to hunt the White Whale are as binding as mine; and heart, soul, and body, lungs and life, old Ahab is bound" (410).
Ahab's words bring us to the heart of the text and of the matter. Commanding this plethoric cannibalistic venture, Ahab remains incomprehensible to Ishmael, for he flies in the face of Ishmaelian reason, morality, and spiritual order.  Part man, part trophy, Ahab devours his crew as his quest devours him, as Stubb devours his steak. The very crux of the text, the catalyst, Ahab constantly invests everything about him with material significance, and he voraciously consumes anything of significance that crosses his path. The very conflation of man and material, exhibited by the seam joined in a scar running from his head to his foot. Ahab is not a creature of interpretation, but an invested being, a walking, ranting trophy carrying his significance with him--a rhetorical man-thing that has the power to invest with meaning whatever he physically or rhetorically touches.  Like the ship's smith before his forge, Melville has fashioned in Ahab an emblem of living, powerful prose straining to be self-eviden cing. In opposition to Ishmael's interpretive methods of generating significance, Ahab materially creates significance through rhetorical and physical contact: "Look ye! d'ye see this Spanish ounce of gold?"--holding up a broad bright coin to the sun--"it is a sixteen dollar piece, men,--a doubloon. D'ye see it? Mr. Starbuck, hand me yon top-maul."
While the mate was getting the hammer, Ahab, without speaking was slowly rubbing the gold piece against the skirts of his jacket, as if to heighten its luster, and without using any words was meanwhile lowly humming to himself, producing a sound so strangely muffled and inarticulate that it seemed the mechanical humming of the wheels of his vitality in him. (142)
Ritualistically humming and rubbing a coin, he prepares it to absorb the power of his rhetoric before he nails it up to the mast:
Receiving the top-maul from Starbuck, he advanced towards the main mast with the hammer uplifted in one hand, exhibiting the gold with the other, and with a high raised voice exclaiming "Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw; whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with three holes punched in his starboard fluke--look, ye, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys."
The captain invests the doubloon with significance, with talismanic power. He does not simply offer a bounty on the whale, a reward for its sighting; he physically transforms a coin into the whale's trophy. The doubloon is thus joined to Ahab and joined to the whale; and as the quest for Moby-Dick is a part of Ahab, so too does it belong to the coin, "For it was set apart and sanctified to one awe-striking end; and however wanton in their sailor ways, one and all, the mariners revered it as the white whale's talisman" (359). Ishmael senses the coin's importance, and as he ponders what the doubloon might mean to various members of the crew, he characteristically supplies several interpretations of the coin's significance. But Ishmael is not privy to Ahab's relationship to the coin, to how, once it becomes the whale's talisman, it begins to consume the captain. Certainly not needing the money, nor favoring the coin for sentimental reasons, Ahab does something that Ishmael can only see as insane: he has himself hauled up in a sling in order to raise the whale himself. Yet in Melville's trophy-based logic this action is reasonable. Ahab rhetorically and physically invests the coin with significance. It becomes the talisman of the whale, materially marking the sighting of the whale is its power. Thus, in order to raise the whale, Ahab must act to possess the object; and he knows this: "I will have the first sight of the whale myself [...] Aye! Ahab must have the doubloon" (439).
The captain views the object and its significance as inextricably bound to one another: they cannot be separated. Because Ahab knows how the logic of ingestion works, he acts to raise the whale: "[T]he doubloon is mine, Fate reserved the doubloon for me. I only; none of ye could have raised the white whale first. There she blows!" (446). The captain understands the logic of material significance. Similarly, to kill Moby-Dick, he forges the harpoon, the only one reasonably capable of doing so. From ancient weapons and his own straight razors, Ahab hammers the steel of this terrible lance himself. Consecrating it with rhetoric, Ahab invests the harpoon with meaning just as he invests the doubloon, thereby binding the weapon to him and to the whale.
Due to his self-conscious relation to meaningful material, Ahab has a tremendous power over the investment of objects and, by extension, over men who are controlled (or bound) by logics of material significance. He uses his power of investing substance with significance over whatever threatens to separate him from the object of his quest. When the needle on the Pequod's compass turns, for instance, and his crew threatens to interpret this turning as an omen against Ahab's project, the captain fashions his own compass--striking a new needle and chanting over it, "Look ye, for yourselves, if Ahab be not lord of the level loadstone! The Sun is East, and that compass swears it!" (425). Throughout the narrative, numerous events challenge Ahab's power precisely because they are open to interpretation by the crew. To control these omens, Ahab rhetorically and physically reaches out, grabs them, and conquers them with his own form of significance. Such happens with the turning of the compass, and it happens the nigh t he extinguishes St. Elmo's fire. "'And that you may know to what tune this heart beats [Ahab claims]; look ye here; thus I blow out the last fear!' And with one blast of his breath he extinguishes the flame" (418). Things are significant in this text, but nothing, from Ahab's perspective, is transcendent--beyond the reach of material power. He claims, "I'd strike the sun if it insulted me, for could it do that, could I not the other [...] since there is ever a sort of fair play here in" (144).
Ahab's logic inverts sublimation; he refuses to recognize a difference between object and meaning. And in a manner similar to that in which he physically controls significance, so too does he control his crew:
"Advance, ye mates! Cross your lances before me. Well done! Let me touch the axis. [...]"
Forthwith, going from one officer to the other, he brimmed the harpoon sockets with the fiery waters from the pewter.
"Now, three to three ye stand. Commend the murderous chalices! Drink, ye harpooneers! Drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat's bow--Death to Moby-Dick." (146)
Both Ahab's epistemology and the power of that epistemology work through material meaning and material means; that is, meaning must be physically enacted--through rhetorical contact and consumption: "Drink and swear [...] Death to Moby Dick."
Aboard the Pequod, only one person poses a viable threat to Ahab's mission--the chief mate, Starbuck. As second in command, Starbuck holds a position of power. He is the only person on the ship who can challenge Ahab's authority, and, like the narrator, he too looks to reasonable explanation to make sense of the events around him (at least he does so for a while). Because the narrator, a lowly deckhand, cannot vie with Ahab's authority, it falls to Starbuck's lot to counter Ahab's power of material significance with the power of interpretation. Locking them together in a contest of wills, Melville thus aligns the two highest ranking figures on board the Pequod with the two competing modes of knowing and signifying explored by the text. From the moment Ahab declares his ambition to hunt and destroy Moby-Dick, Starbuck resists his superior, trying desperately to dissuade him from his venture through private arguments of reason and, when that fails, by loudly interpreting various events as omens of impending do om.
History, of the Melville-critical kind, has shown that Ahab's actions can be reasonably interpreted only as the actions of a monomaniacal, melancholic, madman. The proof of this is in the pudding, and Ahab neatly puts his insanity before Starbuck on the "Quarter-deck." In the captain's oft-cited oratory to Starbuck, it does appear that Ahab believes in a significance beyond the material world, and that Ahab, by extension, follows the same laws of reasoning that the mate and Ishmael do, even when he transgresses them. Ahab proclaims,
"All visible objects are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event--in the living act, the undoubted deed--there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting his hands through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough." (144)
Taken out of context, this speech makes it appear that Ahab believes in significance beyond materiality. But to take Ahab's words here, at face value is, in a sense, to play Ishmael and to be doomed to misunderstanding Ahab's larger textual existence.  The speech is an atypical utterance for Ahab. Binding the crew to him by raising their oaths and making them drink on it, Ahab has just succeeded in swaying all but two of the crew to his purpose through his normal rhetorical approach. Because Starbuck refuses to partake of this oath, Ahab draws him aside and speaks to him in an uncharacteristically lowered voice. Seeing that Starbuck cannot be moved to join him through his usual rhetorical means, Ahab attempts to explain his relation with Moby-Dick to the mate, in a fashion that Starbuck will understand. But Ahab cannot succeed precisely because he and his quest cannot be explained.
Because Starbuck raises a serious challenge to his captain on the quarter-deck, he constitutes a viable threat to the quest if the crew sides with him against Ahab.  In Melville's text, however, he is no match for the master of material significance. Frustrated by the mate's refusal to join him and by his own inability to explain himself in such a way that his chief officer willingly will come over, Ahab forces his adversary to partake of his reasoning by, in a sense, force feeding him: "Something shot from my dilated nostrils, he has inhaled it in his lungs. Starbuck now is mine." (144). Starbuck partakes of Ahab and is thereby shackled to him. Although Ishmael, the interpretive narrator, witnesses Ahab's effect on the mate, he does not recognize the logic that from this point on tethers Starbuck to Ahab. He sees that "Starbuck's body and Starbuck's coerced will were Ahab's, so long as
Ahab kept his magnet at Starbuck's brain," but he does not know that after the quarter-deck encounter, the same logic that materially binds the rest of the crew, who willingly drank and swore, to Ahab now binds Starbuck as well (183).
If Melville's material logic appears at odds with what might be described as the intellectual tone of the narration proper, this is only because the Pequod, the quest, and everything about the description of Ahab--his ill temper, his ranting, his seriousness--are a product of the perspective of one indulging in constant interpretation based on a certain realism, itself based on a naive assumption of what is reasonable.  Yet we do get more in the tale than Ishmael intends; Ishmael sees the captain as obsessed and melancholic, fighting a tragic battle he cannot hope to win against a brute beast that Ishmael thinks represents everything transcendental to the captain. But in this text, this is simply not how the captain operates. In the logic of his existence, Ahab has no choice but to hunt the whale, for it has snatched his leg for its own trophy. Indeed, not only was his leg taken, but "it was devoured, chewed up, crunched by the monstrousest parmacetty that ever chipped a boat" (69). Ahab must pursue Moby -Dick because he and it are tethered by a logic of consumption: the whale has eaten of him and thus has power over him. In turn, Ahab has inscribed the whale, marked him with his own weapons. They each have power over one another--the whale calls Ahab, and Ahab raises the whale.
His crew securely fastened to him and he lashed to the whale, Ahab destroys the ships's compass altogether, for he realizes he no longer needs tools of interpretation in order to meet the whale. As he is linked to the animal, Ahab knows he must physically apprehend the whale to apprehend its significance, just as he claimed the doubloon to impose its significance.  Ahab's hunt is insane only from Ishmael's point of view: to Ishmael the captain is the melancholic, isolated figure, bent on senseless revenge; to Ahab he is a man bound by a logic that binds him to his crew, to his ship, to the whale, and to his quest:
They were one man, not thirty. For as the one ship that held them all: though it was put together of all contrasting things--oak, and maple, and pine wood; iron, and pitch, and hemp--yet all these ran into one another in the one concrete hull, which shot on its way, both balanced and directed by the long central keel; even so, all the individualities of the crew, this man's valor, that man's fear; guilt and guiltiness, all varieties were welded into oneness, and were directed to that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to. (454-55)
Ahab's rhetoric is not the fruit of dark, isolated dementia, but the exuberant display of rhetorical, material power. Once Ahab is understood as operating by a logic different from that of interpretation--and one opposed to Ishmael's kind of logic--the flavor of this text begins drastically to change.
Ahab, for instance, often plays the jester. One of the many signs of Ishmael's misreading of the captain is the narrator's inability to recognize the captain's sense of humor.  When Ahab, Starbuck, and Stubb stop before and ponder the remains of Ahab's whaling boat, Stubb laughs, and the captain cautions him against laughing too quickly at a wreck. But when Starbuck seconds Ahab's cautioning of Stubb and exclaims in a sober tone, "[it] is a solemn sight; an omen and an ill one," Ahab is put off by Starbuck's somber interpretation and rebukes him with a jest: "Omen? omen?--the dictionary!" (452). Criticizing Starbuck's need for interpretation, he laughingly points out, "If the gods think to speak outright to man, they will honorably speak outright; not shake their heads and give an old wive's darkling hint" (452). Soured on Ahab's quest, Ishmael consistently reads the captain's words as dark, portentous, but clearly Ahab's bombast is not overly-serious or foreboding, but rough, cuffing jibe.
When the Pequod crosses paths with the Samuel Enderby, Ahab hails the other boat's captain: "Hast thou seen the White Whale?" The other replies:
"See You this?" and withdrawing it from the folds that had hidden it, he held up a white arm of sperm whale bone, terminating in a wooden head like a mallet.
"Man my boat!" cried Ahab, impetuously, and tossing about the oars near him--"Stand by to lower!" (363)
Communicating through a display of trophies, the two captains inherently understand each other, and Ahab hurries to his counterpart--but not to commiserate: the other captain has had his ivory prosthetic fashioned into a cudgel signaling his own rough humor. With Ahab landed, the two captains immediately joke with one another:
With his ivory arm frankly thrust forth in welcome, the other captain advanced, and Ahab, putting out his ivory leg, and crossing the ivory arm (like two sword-fish blades) cried out in his walrus way, "Aye, aye, hearty! let us shake bones together!--an arm and a leg!--an arm that never can shrink, d'ye see; and a leg that never can run. Where did'st thou see the White Whale?--how long ago?" (364)
The captains understand each other because they both understand the logic of ingestion and the power of the trophy. Because Moby-Dick has partaken of them both, they are physically bound to the beast and to one another. Losing their limbs does not, however, result in mourning; on the contrary, both enjoy the humor of their positions as trophy bearers. These and other examples of Ahab's humor go unrecognized by Ishmael simply because the narrator's pathological reliance on interpretation has predisposed him to dismiss them. In taking examples of Ahab's speech and sifting them for meaning, Ishmael is bound to misunderstand his captain because the manner in which Ahab speaks carries the significance of his statements: Ahab's rhetoric speaks the materially invested, significant object. Ishmael does not follow what Ahab means because he does not accept the language and logic Ahab offers. Moreover, in the process, he misses how Ahab enjoys the power of his own rhetoric. 
This failure does not, however, concern the captain. Ahab cares not that anyone on board understands him. His exuberant diction does not evidence doleful monomania, but rather a self-indulgence in the pleasures and power of rhetoric. Ahab's interests lie in the rhetorical flourish, in speaking the greatest significance. It is here Melville that reveals his own interests in meaning-invested words or, more aptly put, in creating the significant text.
Part trophy himself, Ahab invests his speech with similar significance. When he judges his ivory leg unsound, or simply desires a new one made from a more recent kill, Ahab approaches the carpenter:
"Just in time, sir. If the captain pleases, I will now mark the length. Let me measure, sir."
"Measured for a leg! good. Well, it's not the first time. About it! There; keep thy finger on it. This is a cogent vice thou hast here, carpenter; let me feel its grip once. So, So; it does pinch some,"
"Oh, sir, it will break bones--beware, beware!"
"No fear; I like a good grip; I like to feel something in this slippery world that can hold, man. What's Prometheus about there?--the blacksmith I mean--what's he about?" (390)
Ahab's rhetoric is, itself, a talismanic incarnation--a self-evidencing material flourish. He knows that language has weight and density; he knows its physical significance and its power. This knowledge and its performance become the fabric and the weave of the fiery captain. On the second day of the final confrontation with the white whale, Ahab's latest ivory leg splinters, and he loses his harpoon in the flesh of Moby-Dick, but he rages on, his rhetoric at full tilt.
I feel strained, half stranded, as ropes that tow dismasted frigates in a gale; and I may look so. But ere I break, ye'll hear me crack; and till ye hear that know that Ahab tows his purpose yet. Believe ye, men, in the things called omens? Then laugh aloud and cry encore! For ere they drown, drowning things will twice rise to the surface; then they rise again to sink for evermore. So with Moby-Dick--two days he's floated--to-morrow will be the third. Aye, men, he'll rise once more,--but only to spout his last! D'ye feel brave, men, brave? (459)
Yoked to his quest and tragically bound, but not narcissistically, Ahab, in even the most dire of moments, calls on the superstitious omen followers and mocks them. His textual existence overflows with raw, passionate rhetorical enthusiasm; his life thrills with literary power.
In Moby-Dick, Ahab represents no more than he is, regardless of what the inexperienced mate makes of him. In sooth, "Ahab is Ahab"--a rhetorical construct idiomatically invested with significance, his exuberant agency inextricably bound to its specific textual configuration. The captain, the quest, the crew members, the ship they all sail on, the whale they hunt, and what in the text links them all in this venture--understanding all of this--depends on the reader's recognizing what Ishmael is unable to.
The logic of the text--of the material significance of the trophy and the logic of epistemological cannibalism--demands that Ahab fight the whale to the end and that the two depart together. He remains bound to the beast, and the nature of his existence dictates that he must be consumed in his quest. Recognizing the end, the captain meets it with the same rhetorical enthusiasm constituting his character from the start: "Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act is immutably decreed" (459). Ahab does not mourn his fate, and when his performance is over, he knows he must leave the stage. 
"Here some one thrusts these cards into these old hands of mine; swears that I must play them, and no others'. And damn me, Ahab, but thou actest right; live in the game, and die in it!" (413)
Ahab's textual demise befits his stature, and the whale, the Pequod, the crew, even Starbuck, those bound to the ranting, devouring trophy that is Ahab must follow him down like the chain that follows the anchor, while separate and alone, Ishmael and his interpretations remain above.
Mark Edelman Boren teaches at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His work has appeared Philological Quarterly, Studies in American Fiction, Lingua Franca, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. His book, Student Resistance: A History of the Unruly Subject, is forthcoming from Routledge in the spring of 2001.
(1.) In 1941, Matthiessen set the official interpretation of Ahab as corresponding to what Ishmael makes of his captain, announcing that the "monomaniacal master" is chained to his fate, "becom[ing] ever more excessive as he advances, both chasing and being chased to his deadly end" (449). Like most of the studies focusing on the figure, Matthiessen's assessment of Ahab derives from the narrator's. The critical assessment of Ahab as a madman, whose folly stems from a preoccupation that "eats out his own heart," and the reliance upon Ishmael for textual direction has continued to dominate criticism on Moby-Dick to the present day.
(2.) Melville plays with reader identification in a similar manner in The Confidence-Man, in which he explicitly critiques the act of placing confidence in narration; there is no reason not to assume he is making a similar, if less explicit, move in Moby-Dick. Indeed, the author of this story may not hold the
same viewpoint on anything transpiring in this book that his mouthpiece does; if The Confidence-Man, teaches us anything, it is that one can have no trust--in authors, characters, or narratives. For studies speaking to Melville's attacks on the gullibility of readers, especially in his later works, see Kenneth Pimple (passim); Cecilia Tichi (639-42).
(3.) In two studies, Ahab figures as the center of an epistemology different from Ishmael's. Dillingham argues that Ahab's gnosticism separates him from everyone else involved in the text (passim). Larson's study, methodologically closer to this essay, locates Ahab as a meditation on analogical linguistic structures. Larson argues that for the captain there "is no 'outside' to metaphor": "Ahab fails to signify Ahab so much as rhetoric" (25). Or, as Paul Ricoeur would state, "no nonmetaphorical standpoint [exists] from which [he might] look upon metaphor." (18). According to Larson, Ahab sees no difference between the figural and the literal, and the critic is correct in his observations up until the point where he claims Ahab seeks to escape materiality, deny his body, and become "what the whale represents"-- that "invisible referent behind all of 'harlot' nature" (27). Larson critiques Ahab from a poststructuralist position that ignores the pre-Derridean, preSaussurean phenomenological attributes of Ahab an d his language (and Melville's language as well). Larson presents an Ahab wishing "for the prelapsarian" in comparison to the "healthy" (more recognizably modern) Ishmael, who can make the "distinction between the figural and proper, between metaphor and body" (25). Ahab does deny a difference between the literal and the figural, but he does not wish to move beyond the material: language as material is power for Ahab, and Ahab, if anything, enjoys power. On historicizing the metaphysics of presence as it relates to literature, see Miendl (3-10).
(4.) Ultimately, Ishmael can be viewed as working to the same effect. After all, the figure of the narrator materially manifests the process of interpretation--Ishmael performs interpretation. Yet it takes much more to make apparent the invisible blinders of interpretation in this text, as this essay will show.
(5.) This phrase raises the specter of post-structuralism, difference, and the notion that indeed "Nothing exists in itself." The concept of linguistic difference may be the greatest theoretical challenge to Melville's physically-based way of knowing (the process will be outlined by this essay as a logic of trophyism), for if signifier and signified exist only in relation to other signifiers and signifies, and the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary, then the notion of the invested literary object is in trouble. Yet, in effect, certain literary objects have more significance than others, and even if, as the deconstructionists argue, everything is text, that does not mean that all signified corresponding to signifiers signify equally. In other words, even if everything is text and everything is metaphorical, some texts will always carry more weight than others. Derrida has shown that presence and immediacy are derived (there are only differences), but we need to remember that Melville pr e-dated post-Heideggerian theory and to historicize current critical perspectives if we are to open ourselves to Melville's other epistemologies (see note 3 above). To dismiss Melville's other than interpretive ways of knowing and all that he uncovers through them because modern critical inquiry privileges theories based on absence not presence throws the baby out with the bathwater, and what a baby it is. Derrida, Of Grammatology (141-64) and "The Supplement Copula: Philosophy Before Linguistics" (175-206).
(6.) Ishmael thus approaches the whale metonymically, or in psychoanalytical terms, he treats it as a fetish (see also note 10 below). But if the whale serves as a fetish object for Ishmael, then it seems to function for Ishmael as a way to control a trauma in the text associated with material significance (against, say, transcendental significance).
(7.) One can see how Ishmael's obsession with the whiteness of the whale tellingly conflates the color with the act of interpretation, neurotically performing how whiteness and western metaphysics go hand in hand.
(8.) Of course, Melville's development of the trophy and cannibalism as rhetorical model in Moby-Dick is similarly hyperbolic.
(9.) The right whale (Baleaenidae) was taken and its blubber is rendered for oil in the same way as that of the fat of the spermaceti, but unlike the latter, the right whale has no "case" in its head filled with spermaceti and oil. It was considered an inferior whale by whalers.
(10.) As another token of friendship, Queequeg makes a gift of his trophy head to Ishmael, which the narrator quickly ditches, passing on "the embalmed head to a barber for a [wig] block" (Moby-Dick 58).
(11.) David Simpson plunges Moby-Dick into psychoanalysis and reads the appearance of the trophy as the appearance of the fetish that stands for what is lacking. Predictably, Simpson reads the quest as a male "quest for completion, for the capture of what is lacking" (77). Castrated by the whale, Ahab monomaniacally wishes to lose himself in a prelapsarian state to regain what he lacks, which is understandable, Simpson argues, in light of what he lost.
(12.) Melville parallels Ishmael's fear of cannibal-related tattoos in Typee with Tommo's fears that he would be tattooed by the Typee who have captured him: "I now felt convinced that in some luckless hour I should be disfigured in such a manner" (293) Tommo realizes, as does Ishmael, that a relationship exists between the trophy and inscription, noting that had the village artist caught him, "What an object he would have made of me!" (294). Melville also raises the specter of cannibalism in "Benito Cereno," implying that Babo made a cannibalistic feast of Don Alexandro Aranda. For analyses of how cannibalism works in Typee, see McElroy (passim); Baines (passim).
(13.) I realize I'm playing fast and loose with such terms as trophies and cannibalism, but that is because I am following Melville's text, which most certainly does: for instance, the Marquesans were cannibals and ate the bodies of their dead enemies, but they did not (as Tommo discovers) preserve the heads of their victims in the manner of the Dyaks of Borneo. Tommo also erroneously claims that "the word Typee in the Marquesan dialect signifies a lover of human flesh" (Typee 60). Melville is, in Moby-Dick, clearly constructing an epistemology based not on actuality but on rhetorical need. There are (or were) almost as many different forms of cannibalism as there are (or were) cultures practicing it. On cannibalism, Marquesans, and Dyaks, see Askenasy (passim); Woodcock (passim); Sagan (passim).
(14.) Significantly, the Pequod is controlled not by a wheel that mechanically operates through a system of gears, pulleys, and cables and is artificially removed from the rudder and the sea, but rather is steered by a trophy tiller that acts as an extension of the arm of the one directing it. Ahab will pilot the Pequod by gripping the jaw of the whale.
(15.) Anthropophagy in Moby-Dick has been the subject of several studies, but they lead to radically different conclusions. Bohrer identifies cannibalism as a Gnostic-informed unifying process existing without any Gnostic conception of true divinity (65). Burns focuses on ingestion patterns as aspects of pantheism(5) and Zoeller argues that cannibalism is one of the constitutive metaphors of the book and examines in some detail the various sites of consumption (passim). More recently, Grain argues that Melville reveals homosocial intimacy through cannibalism (24), and Lyons suggests that cannibalism is the site of domination and imperialism (33-40).
(16.) In Moby-Dick Melville shamelessly blurs terms and practices that are better kept distinct in our more enlightened age: that he employs cannibalism, head hunting, trophies, talismans, and so forth, indiscriminately is clearly true (see note 13 above), but Melville is not concerned with historical accuracy; he uses the terms creatively, blurring them intentionally, to fashion his own epistemology. Moreover, the blending of whaling, cannibalism, headhunters, and such, is not without precedent. In his own sea voyages, Melville could not avoid running into tales of head hunting and anthropophagy; it was occurring or had occurred within short distances of almost every port where he stopped during his expeditions. For example, comparisons of the map captioned by Hayford and Parker "Melville's Voyages" (xix) with Loeb's world map that charts sites of cannibalism reveal ten such examples excluding sites passed up by Melville.
Cannibalism was also a prominent feature of nineteenth-century literature and ranges from fiction (Edgar Allen Poe's  "Narrative of A. Gordon Pym of Nantucket" and Mark Twain's  "Cannibalism in the Cars") to factual accounts. In Moby -Dick, Melville quotes directly from Owen Chase's Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, of Nantucket; Which was Attacked and Destroyed by a Large Spermaceti- Whale in the Pacific Ocean, an account of international notoriety in which survivors of a wreck were forced to cannibalize the weaker members of the crew. The cultural interest in shipwreck cannibalism is also addressed in popular nineteenth-century ballads treating the subject:
Her body then they did dissect,
Most dreadful for to view
And serv'd it out in pieces,
Amongst the whole ship's crew.
Eleven days more we did survive,
Upon this horrid food,
With nothing to supply our wants,
Save human flesh and blood.
"Ballad of the Brig George"
God Bless all poor Seamen their children and wives,
In trying to get their bread how they venture their lives
"The Shipwreck of the Essex"
For an excellent resource for popular nineteenth-century cannibalism esoterica (including ditties such as those above), see Brian Simpson (passim). To Melville, cannibalism, even if only in tale, was a strong facet of the whaling experience, and in Moby -Dick it becomes the means for understanding the significance of the tale. Although Melville claimed he did not wish to go down to posterity as "The Man Who Lived Among the Cannibals," Pribek shows that long after he finished writing novels Melville, in fact, marketed himself as such.
(17.) Unfortunately for Melville, the significance of Moby-Dick was not self-evident to the buying or reviewing public; his frustration with its popular and critical reception is thoroughly documented. See Pribek (19).
(18.) Ishmael does have an interpretive ally in Starbuck, for a while; but he soon loses him to Ahab's material power.
(19.) Ishmael completely misreads the captain: he sees Ahab as a tragic, melancholic figure suffering from a woe that can only be a form of madness. Projected onto Ahab, this assumed woe is a negative, self-destructive thing. Ahab, however, is not a living, realistic person, but a textual figure; Ishmael, the "realistic" narrator (himself a textual figure), cannot help but attempt to interpret and, inevitably, misread him. Simply put, the two textual figures function differently. Understandably, since the reader supposedly sees the expedition through Ishmael's eyes, he or she may misread Ahab and his quest.
(20.) An analogy can be made between a world of "real" objects and a world of signifiers, both with their corresponding spirit worlds, but we cannot simply read Ahab as an exemplar of the Saussurian linguistic sign and still appreciate his construction as the center of an alternate epistemology. Viewed from a phenomenologically-minded perspective, Ahab defies poststructuralist linguistic analysis, as ultimately all "meaty" literature does. In the act of such dissecting, physical rhetoric invariably seems to die, leaving the critic with lifeless prose and a lot of explaining to do.
(21.) Melville's passage is arguably the most quoted of Ahab's lines, and it mistakenly serves as the basis of almost every argument that Ahab's quest is a metaphysical one, that he is somehow tragically straining to reach abstraction or the spiritual. In this same passage, however, Ahab also rhetorically asks himself, "Who's over me?" (144).
(22.) Ahab's political savvy in handling his crew is further evidenced in passages such as the following: "I will not strip these men, thought Ahab, of all hopes of cash--aye cash. They may scorn cash now; but let some months go by, and no prospective promise of it to them, and then this same quiescent cash all at once mutinizing in them, this same cash would soon cashier Ahab" (184).
(23.) It is also characteristic that in the appraisal of his readers, Melville would align them with Ishmael's limited viewpoint. In The Confidence-Man, Melville will make a similar move, expecting his readers to be duped by the text and deriding them when they are (see note 4 above).
(24.) If Ahab's cannibalistic mode of apprehension appears dark and somehow evil, it may be due to our own enlightened privileging of interpretation and critical rejection of talismanic practices and knowledges. We must remember that Ahab is only a textual figure and the logic of his existence is a textual logic, lest like Ishmael, we judge too soon and doom Ahab's entire existence, not just his textual demise, to the tragic abyss.
(25.) The majority of Melville scholars miss this as well. David Simpson, for instance, notes Beaver's observation that Queequeg's idol Yojo is named as a "palindrome" (sic) of "Ojoy," but Simpson Immediately follows this observation with a discussion of "Ahab's inability to experience joy, which the whale perpetuates in refusing (so it seems) to kill him off when it first has the chance" (79). I argue the obverse: Ahab especially rejoices in the rhetorical trophies he produces (and in language so many critics love to quote). What is Ahab but the pleasure and joy of speaking full, meaty, "shake-in-your-boots" significance?
(26.) Again an analogy can be drawn to a scene in Typee in which Tommo, like Ishmael, recognizes but does not comprehend the materiality of language: "The dark figures around us leaped to their feet, clapped their hands in transport and shouted again and again the talismanic syllables, the utterance of which appeared to have settled everything" (116). In effect with Moby-Dick, Melville gives us Ishmael and Ahab, just as he gave us Tommo and the Typee (as representative of a talismanic system of symbols and syllables). But in Moby-Dick he explores how talismanic power works within language through Ahab.
(27.) Smith notes that Melville did "have a strong impulse to identify himself with Ahab, and only by a relatively narrow margin was [he] able to re-establish his control over his materials and achieve something like a catharsis at the end in the description of Ahab's death" (28). Smith implies that Melville almost succumbed to Ahab's madness (the dire results of which we can only guess) and was saved only by his killing Ahab off. Smith's concerns are extreme (14-15), but not isolated. See also Schneidman and Deats (passim).
Askenasy, Hans. Cannibalism: From Sacrifice to Survival. Amherst: Prometheus, 1994.
"Ballad of the Brig George." Cannibalism and Common Law. A. W. Brian Simpson. Ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984. 117.
Baines, Barbara. "Ritualized Cannibalism in 'Benito Cereno,'" ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 30.1 (Fall 1984): 163-69.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Ahab. New York: Chelsea House, 1991.
Bohrer, Randall. "Melville's New Witness: Cannibalism and the Microcosm-Macrocosm Cosmology of Mob y-Dick." Studies in Romanticism 22.1 (Spring 1983): 65-91.
Burns, Robert, "Moby-Dick: Cannibalism and 'The Mystery.'" Melville Society Abstracts 24 (1975): 5-7.
Cameron, Sharon. "Ahab and Pip: 'Those Were Pearls that Were His Eyes.'" ELH 48.3 (1981): 573-93.
Chase, Owen. Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, of Nantucket; Which was Attacked and Destroyed by a Large Spermaceti-Whale in the Pacific Ocean. New York: Gilley 1821.
Cram, Caleb. "Lovers of Human Flesh: Homosexuality and Cannibalism in Melville's Novels." American Literature 66.1 (1994): 24-53.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.
___. "The Supplement Copula: Philosophy Before Linguistics," Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982, 175-206.
Dillingham, William. Melville's Later Novels. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1986.
Larson, Doran. "Of Blood and Words: Ahab's Rhetorical Body." Modern Language Studies 25.2 (1995): 3-40.
Loeb, E. M. "The Blood Sacrifice Complex." Memoirs of the American Anthropological Association 30 (1923):
Lyons, Paul. "From Man-Eaters to Spain-Eaters: Literary Tourism and the Discourse of Cannibals from Herman Melville to Paul Theroux." Arizona Quarterly 52.2 (1995): 33-62.
Matthiessen, F. O. The American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. 1941. New York: Oxford UP, 1968.
McElroy, John H. "Cannibalism in Melville's Benito Cereno." Essays in Literature 1. (1974): 206-18.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick; or The Whale. 1851. Ed. Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker. New York: Norton, 1967.
___. The Confidence-Man. 1857. Ed. Tony Tanner. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.
___. Typee. 1846. Ed. George Woodcock. London: Penguin, 1986.
Miendl, Dieter. American Fiction and the Metaphysics of the Grotesque. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1996.
Pimple, Kenneth. "Personal Narrative, Melville's The Confidence-Man, and the Problem of Deception." Western Folklore 52(1992): 33-50.
Pribek, Thomas. "The Man Who Lived Among the Cannibals: Melville in Milwaukee." Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters 74(1986): 19-26.
Reynolds, David. Beneath the American Renaissance. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.
Ricoeur, Paul. The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language. London: Routledge, 1986.
Sagan, Eli. Cannibalism: Human Aggression and Cultural Form. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.
Schneidman, Edwin, and Sara Munson Deats. "The Suicidal Psycho-Logics of Moby-Dick." Youth Suicide Prevention: Lessons From Literature. Ed. Deats. New York: Plenum, 1989. 15-47.
"Shipwreck of the Essex." Cannibalism and Common Law. Ed. A. W. Brian Simpson. 316-17.
Simpson, A. W. Brian. Cannibalism and Common Law. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.
Simpson, David. Fetishism and Imagination. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982.
Smith, Henry Nash. "The Madness of Ahab." Yale Review 66(1976): 14-32.
Tichi, Cecilia. "Melville's Craft and Theme of Language Debased in The Confidence-Man." ELH 39.4 (1972): 639-58.
Tolchin, Neal. Mourning, Gender, and Creativity in the Art of Herman Melville. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.
Woodcock, George. Introduction. Typee. 1846. By Herman Melville. London: Penguin, 1986.
Zoeller, Robert. The Salt Sea Mastodon. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973.
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|Author:||Boren, Mark Edelman|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2000|
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