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.