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There should be a warning on the cover of Moby-Dick. Beware, it should say, reading this will require blood.

Fair warning would only be fair. As it is, the word of caution comes too late. Melville only mentions this cost, this culpability, when one is already hundreds of pages in. It’s only mentioned after we know to call him Ishmael, after we’ve followed, fascinated, behind Queequeg the face-tattooed harpooner who carries his god in his pocket, after we’ve sat through a scary sermon, heard a beggars warning, met the crazy Quaker shipping company owners and boarded the Pequod with Ishmael. It only happens after we’ve watched the waters for whales, watched while the water’s impossibly calm, and after we’ve learned the customs and social structures of whaling ships, after we’ve met everyone and after we’ve seen the one-legged captain with his thumping and his obsession.

Then we’re told we’re doomed.

The structure of this moment — this too-late announcement that one is irrevocably involved — is, of course, the same for the reader as it is for the characters in Moby-Dick. This is what happens in the novel and what happens, at the same time, to the reader of the novel. It’s a metafictional moment revealing one’s ethical responsibility, revealing it not as a choice, but as a sentence.

This metafictional moment comes in a metafiction chapter of the novel, the chapter where Ishmael, the narrator, uses this genre to directly address the reader, directly address the nature of the narrative, the bookness of the book, and the question of the truth of the story. It comes in Chapter 45, “The Affidavit,” which starts out, “So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book…” The function of the chapter is the function of an affidavit, that is, to swear to the truth of something, and Ishmael does this by epistemological appeal to his own eye witness testimony, to the stories commonly known among those who know these things, and news accounts and written documents, where “A fact thus set down in substantial history cannot easily be gainsaid.” He swears and declares that what he says is the truth. He has, he says, “no more idea of being facetious than Moses when he wrote the history of the plagues of Egypt.”

To make this direct appeal on behalf of the truth of the narrative, the narrator has to step a step away, into metafiction, and in doing that directly addresses the reader. He warns that “they,” by which he means “landsmen,” by which he means us, “might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.”

Ostensibly this misinterpretation — which is, maybe, the most common interpretation seen in readings of Melville’s magnum opus — horrifies the narrator because it’s wrong, and because it remakes the horribly real into a nice little morality tale. It seems, though, that, in truth, the fear here is also that the readers, in making the whale into an allegory, in making the story a fable with a learnable lesson attached at the end, might exempt themselves from any moral responsibility. Swearing to the truth of what he has to say, by means of metafictional address, the narrator also in this moment manages to point out that the reader is always already ethically involved.

“Do you suppose,” the narrator says,

that that poor fellow there, who this moment perhaps caught by the whale-line off the coast of New Guinea, is being carried down to the bottom of the sea by the sounding leviathan — do you suppose that that poor fellow’s name will appear in the newspaper obituary you will read tomorrow at your breakfast? No: because the mails are very irregular between here and New Guinea. In fact, did you ever hear what might be called regular news direct or indirect from New Guinea? Yet I tell you that upon one particular voyage which I made to the Pacific, among many others, we spoke thirty different ships, every one of which had had a death by a whale, some of them more than one, and three that had each lost a boat’s crew. For God’s sake, be economical with your lamps and candles! Not a gallon you burn, but at least on drop of man’s blood was spilled for it.

This is a sort of shocking moment, for you are sitting there or I am sitting here, reading, quietly reading, for all intents and purposes innocent of the world’s blood and bother, its violence and tumult, and Ishmael comes right out of the page and accuses us of blood. Whether by not reading about our involvement, when we read the paper in the morning, or by reading about it here, we are not separate, he says. We are, in our actions and inactions, culpable.

Moby-Dick is, in one basic sense, an economics story. It’s about the kind of capitalistic colonialism America has always been involved in. Like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the story suggests that this system, this kind of colonialism, whereby we scour the world for resources to take, just assuming they’re ours for the taking, is pretty normal, pretty acceptable. The problem with the system, these novels propose, is that sometimes a crazy person, a Kurtz or an Ahab, takes the enterprise crashing over the edge into excess and insanity. It is, in this sense, a warning about a limit. Melville shows us, though, that it’s not just the crazy people, those who betray the fiducial interests of the mission, who are the problem. It’s also those who acquiesce.

When Ahab announces his insane mission, “And this is what ye have shipped for men …”, the harpooners all shout out “Aye, aye!” Starbuck alone resists, saying he’s there to do business, not vengeance, to make money, not mad revenge. Starbuck wants to focus on this normal business of capitalism, rather than waging war on the ontological, attempting to “strike through the mask!” of visible things through to the “inscrutable malice,” the “inscrutable thing” behind reality. Starbuck resists, but only for a second, and then he falls silent. He cannot separate himself from this, cannot opt out. In his silence, Starbuck acquiesces. “Aye, aye!,” Ahab says, “thy silence, then, that voices thee.”

We, the readers, in the same way, slip past the limit we are supposed to be aware of. If we are not reading, the narrator says, we have, in that, tacitly accepted the situation, and are involved. And if we are reading, well, look at the light we’re reading by: its oil we’re burning, oil that can only be got with this system, that always requires blood.

The metafictional moment acts as an ethical trap, and, more than 200 pages into the text, it’s sprung, a surprise, and we’re caught.

It’s a surprise, I think, because we think of reading as safe. Library posters and summer reading programs teach us that.

There is even a strain of thought that understands reading to be a kind of act of ethical resistance, as a way to ethically opt out, ala Slovoj Žižek’s promotion of politics of Bartleby, with Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener’s radical repeated refusal to participate. Reading, the idea is, is an act of passivity that exempts you from the hubbub of capitalism, the structural violence of our modern world. Reading is a moment wherein one is not a part of the machine. Reading, where one is so intensely turned inward, is a place where one is not acquiescing, by act of mere modern existence, to the system.

It’s a tempting thought precisely because reading feels so safe. It has, at least for me, been an existential refuge. As we become increasingly aware that our lives are entangled in structures and systems we didn’t choose, structures of race and class and economics, structures of global power, of ideologies invisible to us, of what the old Calvinists called sin and sin nature and our fallen state, and are always entangled in ways which can be to our benefit but also our damnation, of course we have wanted to find a safe place. And reading feels like a safe place. When I, by contrast, am standing in a grocery store, looking at the kinds of coffee on sale, I am caught up in the colonialism that made this possible, the environmental problems that this entails, the Cold War politics and third world policies of US, and the choice I have is not whether to participate or not, but how. When I interact with other races or don’t interact with other races, when I interact with other genders or don’t interact with other genders, when I step out my door with an American passport in my pocket, an American passport with its patriotically-themed pages printed in pale blue, I’m all ready involved. I don’t get to choose in the way I think I want to choose. In the way I was taught that ethical action is a kind of choosing. I’m just stuck with the responsibility and the question of how. Against this, though, reading has felt like it was safe.

Then Melville says: This costs blood.

There are a number of problems, of course, with conceiving of reading as an act where one isn’t ethically involved. As “ethical resistance.” What does that even mean? Another, the big one, for me, is that it is always this move of self-exemption that enables unethical behavior. We always, always, always find ways of making other people the bad people, and ourselves safe from moral responsibility. We disown our own responsibility and culpability with never-ending displacements that would rival a nursery rhyme, the cow takes the dog, the dog takes the cat, the cat a rat, the rat the cheese, and no one just stands alone with it. The search for the guilty party is always the search for other people. It’s displacement. Trying to find a way out of our ethical problems seems to always involve saying we never had them, they weren’t ours, we resisted, and this exactly repeats the structure of the problem. Actual ethical moments, it seems to me, can only come as this kind of shock that collapses the distance we place between ourselves and culpability.

Melville does this in this moment of metafiction. It’s one of the brilliant things metafiction can do, though it doesn’t always. The knock against metafiction is that it’s narcissistic, self absorbed, smart kids showing off. This can, in fact, be the case, but metafiction also offers us or can offer a real chance to see ourselves for what we are, to acknowledge our own responsibility.

Consider a work that is by no means a classic of the metafiction genre: Jud Süß, Oskar Roehler’s 2010 film about the 1940 Nazi film of the same name. Roehler’s film shows the original film, even integrating clips from Joseph Goebbels’ original into the story about a story. In one scene, Roehler shows Nazi soldiers watching the vicious, anti-Semitic film, zooming in on their awful, leering faces, and then he cuts, and shows the scene from the back of the theater, and we see their heads and shoulders as silhouettes, watching the movie. We see them, in that moment, in the same way we see the people in front of us, and the shot collapses the distance we might normally place between ourselves and those evil other people. We are watching them watching, and that visual stutter serves to point to the fact that we are sitting there as they are sitting there, leering at them leering, and we are not separate and distance from them. It isn’t, I don’t think, an act of moral equivalence, but simply serves to focus us on a question: How do we distinguish ourselves? How do we separate ourselves? How is that we’re different?

There is, in metafiction, a possibility for ethical realization. Moby-Dick isn’t metafictional, by and large, but a brilliantly shaggy, multi-genre work. When it is metafictional, though, in this chapter, “The Affidavit,” it manages to surprise, and to collapse the distance we so often put between ourselves any sense of culpability.

Hey you, he says. You. You’re involved in this.

Drawing courtesy of Matt Kirsh, who is drawing a picture for every page of Moby-Dick.

Herman Melville doesn’t announce the ambition of Moby-Dick directly. He kind of sneaks it in. It comes in late and sideways.

At the start the feeling is almost haphazard, and Ismael says, as if in afterthought, “I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery parts of the world.” It’s imagined as a minor event in “the grand programme of Providence,” a little headline lost between “Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States” and “BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN.” When the ambition is announced, it’s done almost obliquely. It’s done as if the narrator had lingered a little longer than necessary in the library, hoping somebody else would write the book so he wouldn’t have to: “As yet, however,” he says, “the sperm whale, scientific or poetic, lives not complete in any literature … As no better man advances to take this matter in hand, I hereupon offer my own poor endeavors.”

It’s more admission than announcement. It’s a cautious, carefully phrased version of what Walt Whitman wrote, when Whitman, the endless self-promoter, repeatedly claims in poetry and prose, essay and interview that his goal with Leaves of Grass was to put himself and his country, a whole living person and a wide, ever-undulating democracy, into a poem. Melville’s aim is no less ambitious, to put a whole living whale into a book.

Melville isn’t quite so brash to sing of himself, though, or to equate directly himself with the country as a whole. He worries, also, that his ambition will fail, that his picture of the whale will “remain unpainted at the last.” He is always aware he’s always on the verge of the whole thing breaking down, but the ambition is there. Beating underneath. It acts as the will to will it onward, the drive to make it work, a promise to try to do something great, the stakes that are high enough to make it worth while even if the whole thing fails.

Ambition, all by itself, makes the work a thing of value.

There’s so much out there, so much art that doesn’t promise anything. That makes no claim, and no attempt at anything. We’re awash in pop and flutter, blog and clutter. It’s not that little works can’t be great, whether they’re chapbooks or minimalist novellas or graffiti, and it’s not that least important texts of an era, its disposable and mass market texts, can’t actually be really interesting, but there’s no effort, no attempt so great I should yearn for it to succeed.

There are, of course, several very legitimate critiques of such ambition-driven books, of works that weigh this much and have this size. Feminists say phallus. Freudians say ego. Both comments can be kind of true, I think. Both are fair critiques. Megaworks can have the hubris of Manifest Destiny. But ambition, even by itself, even with nothing else sustaining it, can be, for me, a source of value. The scope and scale attempted, even if it fails, means, at least, there’s an attempt at something important, to be something significant.

Put it this way: If I read a single poem and it’s no good, all I can say, I think, is it’s no good. If I read Louis Zukofsky’s “A” and I hate it, at least I can say he was trying to do something important.

I’ve tried and failed to read Zukofsky‘s 803-page, 40-year poem several times. I don’t know that I’ve even gotten to the middle, though I flipped ahead far enough I know, towards the end, it devolves (?) into musical scores. The first time I picked it up and tried to read I was in a cafe and the waitress, an older lady, asked me if the sequel was B, which basically sums up the work for me.

I mean, I know there are passages in “A” I have found moving and meaningful and riveting –

“Love speaks: ‘in wracked cities there is less action,
Sweet alyssum sometimes is not of time, now
Weep, love’s heir, rhyme not how song’s exaction
Is your distraction — related is equated
How else is love’s distance approximated.”


“‘You write a strange speech.’ ‘This.’”


“– Clear music –
Not calling you names, says Kay,
Poetry is not made of such things,
Music, itch according to its wrongs,
Snapped old catguts of Johan Sebastian,
Society, traduction twice over.”

– and I find it interesting how World War II breaks out in the poem, and I can tell you something at least of why people who think it’s important think it’s important –

“Lower limit speech
Upper limit music


– but I don’t know that I can argue that it is. I read it, though, and try again because of the ambition, because, even if it fails, “A” seems like it’s trying to do something serious, something important, and because it seems like it’s making, as a work, a promise to be worth while to me. It is or has the air of a grand experiment, of something that can be believed in, invested in, even as it seems to falter and fail.

Even as I struggle with Zukofsky, I find I can believe in him based even on so slight of a thing as ambition. I find myself willing myself to want this experiment to endure, to want to believe, like Lincoln at Gettysburg, to make the comparison between the work and the nation, a comparison Walt Whitman would love, that something “so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

There’s something that’s consecrating about the struggle. There’s something worthwhile about the effort even if it fails.

Which is why, and I know I’ve come here the long way round, I’m disappointed with Sufjan Stevens. This album he’s released, Age of Adz, is not a bad album. It’s not. But it marks, for Stevens, an abandonment of a project that was Whitmanian in its ambition, that was, like Leaves of Grass and Moby-Dick, an ambitious attempt to put a whole country into a work of art. There are not a lot of efforts on this scale, but Stevens, this indie musician who was known, at one point, for wearing wings in concert and signing surprisingly religious songs, started something with his “Fifty States Project.”

With Michigan, in 2003, he started a work that promised to contain a country. A map of a place that is an idea and a feeling, a vision and an angst, our home, the place half known and half remembered and misremembered, mythologized and reinterpreted, the place where we are lost.

In Illinois, in 2005, he continued that. The map moved outward and Stevens started to show us the shape of the country he felt, beautiful and strange, scary, sad and mournful. I know, for me, part of my affinity for the work was the way what it described was the home I’ve known, the country I’ve lived in — this was no Whitman ebullience, but a county of serial killers to feel sorry for, of factories as empty as suicides, cities which were once great, and this was no Melvillian pursuit of transcendence, but a country of UFOs to wonder at and miss when they’re gone, of bible studies where we pray over people with cancer but nothing happens — but besides that, ignore that, the work was a promise of scale. This work was claiming to attempt to do everything that can be done with the art form, to be big enough to be important, to try, try to take the whole scope and scale of what we know, all fifty states of our experience, and put it in a series of albums.

Now he’s abandoned it. Two albums, a cycle of songs about an interstate, if you want to count that, and that’s it for the Fifty States.

It’s like the car broke down on the first day of a road trip.

Stevens is free, of course, to produce what he wants to produce, and if it was a gimmick, as he’s said, then it was a gimmick. But I was willing to trust, when it was clear he was trying to do something worth doing. I was willing to engage, when there was this promise of vistas. Without that effort, that attempt at greatness, that attempt to do what Whitman did or Melville did, to get a whole man, a whole whale, a whole life or country into a work, I don’t know that I’m convinced it’s worth my attention.

I thought Sufjan was trying to do something.

Drawing courtesy of Matt Kirsh, who is, ambitiously, drawing a picture for every page of Moby-Dick

I was fortunate enough to have a American Literature professor who blew off the typical survey class BS and just gave us some of the best literature of the 19th century: Hawthorne, Dickinson, Melville, among others… In that class, I read Moby-Dick for the first time. I believe I read most of it over the course of a few days. The rhythms of Melville’s language carried me through.

I’ve felt the old beast calling to me again lately. I found a free audiobook copy online. So far, the reader has been fantastic. Librivox probably has the book ,as well, but their (volunteer) readers can be hit or miss.

I have also been digging through PBS and CBC video archives (soon I’ll hit C-SPAN) to fill my time with whatever goodies are stuck in there. I came across this most recent episode of The American Experience on the American whaling industry. It includes many beautiful and meditative passages from Melville, and also shows how the dependence of America on the whaling industry (and the extremes to which it was driven to meet those demands) prefigured much of the modern era of oil. Perhaps it is ironic then that our most recent oil crisis involves millions of oil being spewed into the deeps of the gulf.

My wife and I visited Melville’s home in Pittsfield (where I grew up) over our honeymoon. Earlier that day, we had climbed Mt. Greylock. While sitting on the porch of Melville’s home (I love Melville, but I am not paying 12 bucks to do a 20 minute tour of his house), we could see Greylock just over the tops of the trees. Apparently, Melville looked to the mountain during the winter (when it was white) as inspiration for his whale.

One more program worth checking out is from Studio360 on Moby-Dick. The interview with Stanley Crouch is very much worth a listen.