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Going Off Course with Melville and Liebling

By (February 1, 2009) One Comment

Herman Melville had a propensity for what A.J. Liebling calls “labyrinthine digressions,” a tendency Liebling shares. Too many readers, I believe, mistake Melville’s elaborate discursiveness for a weakness, but the digressions are not beside the point – they are the point. I witnessed failures to follow Melville in a group of friends who met regularly, for a time, to talk about books. Before discussing Moby-Dick, the book club showed signs of inevitable dissolution. Though Melville did not wreck the book club, he certainly helped to sink it.

When possible, the group met at places relevant to the month’s reading. To talk about a novel set partially on Coney Island, for instance, we converged at a bar on the boardwalk in the shadow of the Wonder Wheel. When Pride and Prejudice was the assignment, we met at a restaurant specializing in English food. I don’t think of Jane Austen as a fish and chips fan, which I took as working in the venue’s favor. I cannot read her books without hoping her insipid characters’ villages burn down and their horses run away. These outings introduced a social element that did not always lend itself to serious discussion, and members’ ideas of what was worth reading diverged significantly anyway. In retrospect I’m surprised a majority ever voted to select Moby-Dick, which we discussed in Battery Park, near the part of Manhattan where the novel opens. Returning to the novel after at least a decade since last reading it, I enjoyed the winding journey of the Pequod more than I had remembered. Few shared my enthusiasm. One pulled out a condensed version of Melville’s irreducible novel, igniting envy in some others who thought Moby-Dick needed a severe editor to keep its narrator focused. I knew our group would not last much longer, at least not with me as a member.

I would agree that Melville’s expansive style proved less successful on some of his earlier excursions. Mardi can be trying, and Redburn does read like just one damn thing after another. But with Moby-Dick – with its quests not just for a certain whale but also for knowledge itself – he found the problem to match the writerly solution he devised.

The many chapters that strike some readers as extraneous – the ones cut from that indefensible shortened edition – are what make Moby-Dick more than a simple seafaring yarn. Certainly it can be read as an adventure story of a crew led by an intensely driven, perhaps crazed, captain in pursuit of the white whale that had ripped off his leg. But all the chapters that don’t directly advance that story are what make the novel so much more: a skeptic’s consideration of belief in god, a look at race and slavery in the United States, a chronicle of industrialization and man’s attempt to conquer and harness nature, a depiction of burgeoning American imperial activities and, ultimately, a portrait of men hunting for spermaceti and revenge but also meaning. The confrontation and contest with the limits of human knowledge hold the story together like a sturdy chain. Removing those parts – those digressions – ruins the thing.

Bored readers in my now long-defunct book club have an ally of sorts in Nathaniel Hawthorne. In a journal entry from 1856, Hawthorne describes his last meeting with Melville, which occurred in Liverpool, where Hawthorne was serving as American Consul. Although Hawthorne does not specifically discuss Moby-Dick, he describes is former neighbor’s restless mind and unsatisfied search for meaning in a manner that relates directly to what Melville does in his best-known novel (and merits quoting at length):

Herman Melville came to see me at the Consulate, looking much as he used to do (a little paler, and perhaps a little sadder), in a rough outside coat, and with his characteristic gravity and reserve of manner…. Melville has not been well, of late; … and no doubt has suffered from too constant literary occupation, pursued without much success, latterly; and his writings, for a long while past, have indicated a morbid state of mind…. Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had “pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated”; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists – and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before – in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.

Melville’s ceaseless philosophizing evidently wearied Hawthorne. While he expressed admiration for the Moby-Dick, which Melville dedicated to him, Hawthorne would probably sympathize with readers who tire of the many chapters that don’t propel its story straightly forward. I imagine the author of The Scarlet Letter feeling relief when his voluble old friend finally left his office.

Unwilling readers also receive backing from a less, well, diplomatic critic. Clive James says he enjoys “narrative flow.” Attempting to endure Moby-Dick, he found “Melville’s ocean clung like tar.” In his own wildly digressive book Cultural Amnesia, James, in a piece nominally about Jose Luis Borges, says “there is surely a case for saying that the story of Captain Ahab’s contest with the white whale is one of those books you can’t get started with even after you’ve finished reading them.” If Moby-Dick bears traces of the morbidity Hawthorne finds in its author, it also enlivened by an unbound exuberance which James overlooks. There’s gloom and there’s humor. Melville makes any and every aspect of whaling an opportunity for “wandering to-and-fro,” for pursuing the elusive loose-fish of truth.

Ishmael and Ahab share Melville’s questing tendencies but direct them to radically different purposes. As narrator, Ishmael gets lost in his reveries as he ponders philosophy, nature, art and whale taxonomy. Ahab, the man of action, is motivated by revenge; his search has a definite object. Both characters use “diving” as a metaphor for their quests for answers. “Beneath this wondrous world upon the surface” there is “another and still stranger world”; satisfaction with surface appearance means embracing ignorance. “Of all divers, thou has dived the deepest,” Ahab says to a sperm whale, as though the creature might possesses the answer to his nagging question. Ishmael uses “diving” as a metaphor for learning when expostulating on whaling’s eventful tradition, one of the innumerable subjects he plunges into.

The idea of diving for truth leads Ishmael to associate land with the known and water with the unknown, which makes going to sea an education. He finds parallels between the outer world and mental processes:

Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?

But in landlessness alone reside the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God – so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than to be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety.

Pursuing knowledge requires confronting the unknown and perhaps unknowable, which can involve both physical and mental dangers:

[C]onsider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!

Although their individual responses to life’s risks may differ, humans risk sharing the plight of Pip, who when he jumped from a boat was left treading water as “another lonely castaway” until, by chance, he was rescued by the Pequod. Confronted with the “intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity,” Pip goes mad.

In addition to the metaphysical musings that exhaust James and other reluctant readers, Ishmael conveys concrete, earthy ideas. Material concerns counterbalance abstract thought. Indeed, Ishmael connects philosophy and indigestion. “So soon as I hear that such or such a man gives himself out for a philosopher, I conclude that, like the dyspeptic old woman, he must have ‘broken his digester.’” He regards religion along the same lines: “Hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling….” Ishmael may remain unsure about the meaning of life, but he does have some definite convictions, such as this bit of advice: “if you can get nothing better out of the world, get a good meal out of it, at least.” (James, who throughout Cultural Amnesia admires aphorisms, misses Melville’s talent for them.)

Ishmael, who gets so caught up in his thoughts that he forgets his duties as a crewmember, sometimes expresses skepticism about the relevance of philosophy and religion to daily life. “Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance.” He remarks on Christian hypocrisy: “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian”; “Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.” He observes that “a man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world another.” The same note is struck by the narrator in White Jacket, the book Melville wrote immediately before Moby-Dick: “For after all, philosophy – that is, the best wisdom that has ever in any way been revealed to our man-of-war world – is but a slough and a mire, with a few tufts of good footing here and there.” In later work, Melville focuses intently on the day-to-day uses of philosophy, rather than capital-t Truth. The Confidence-Man sees characters questioning what information can be trusted and how it can be exploited, precisely the issues that concern Ahab.

Whatever Ishmael’s misgivings about philosophy, he never abandons it. He likens whale heads hanging on either side the Pequod to Kant and Locke, only to then suggest that philosophy is useless: “Oh, ye foolish! throw these thunderheads overboard, and then you will float light and right.” However, a few pages later, the love of wisdom regains importance for Ishmael, who again finds philosophical aspects in whale heads: “This Right Whale I take to have been a Stoic; the Sperm Whale, a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his latter years.” Alas, not everyone sees the humor in such asides.

The chapter in which Ishmael explores the reasons why “it was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled” him does not directly advance the story of the Pequod’s final whaling expedition, which only Ishmael survives. However, the brilliant digression about the struggle for understanding is vital to Moby-Dick. Of the whiteness, Ishmael wonders,

Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?

The whiteness of the whale serves as a screen onto which various narratives and interpretations are projected. Yet a screen can also conceal; behind it there may be nothing but the void that unhinged Pip. As Hawthorne said of Melville, Ishmael is troubled by the meaninglessness of the universe as he perceives it, but is also unwilling to stop studying it. He does not stop speculating, or reconsidering. He continues to dive. He does so knowing he will never catch any ultimate meaning.

While both Ishmael and Ahab dive in pursuit of answers, they differ in their attitudes towards the knowable and unknowable. In chapter 89, “Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish,” seizing property is described in a manner that resembles Marx’s discussion of the primitive accumulation of capital. Slaves, mansions, the salary of a wealthy preacher and colonies are fast-fish – property snatched by the powerful. India was a loose-fish made fast by England, and the United States would make a fast-fish of Mexico. When Ahab reveals his intentions to harpoon one particular whale, Starbuck responds by stressing that the voyage is a business venture, one literally about capturing prey for profit: “I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? It will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market.” Business matters arise when Pip jumps from Stubb’s whaling boat. By leaving Pip floundering in the water, “Stubb indirectly hinted, that though man loves his fellow, yet man is a money-making animal, which propensity too often interferes with his benevolence.” Ishmael’s distinction between fast and loose fish, which does not move Ahab any closer to the white whale, stresses the very real consequences of the pursuit of knowledge.

The narrator suggests that meaning is a loose-fish. Presuming, like Ahab does, that it can be made fast will produce tragic results. Though the captain will not abandon his search for Moby Dick, Ishmael accepts that some fish simply cannot be made fast, that some questions cannot be answered. Ishmael’s digressive narrative amounts to a massive refutation of Ahab’s single-mindedness.

Ahab struggles in his own way with philosophical issues. As Ishmael says of his captain, “he strove to pierce the profundity.” Ahab himself wonders: “What things real are there, but imponderable thoughts?” Melville may have asked Hawthorne the same question in Liverpool. After announcing the Pequod’s mission to slay the white whale, Ahab explains his reasons:

All visible objects, man, are but pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing put forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is the wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.

Like Ishmael, Ahab wants to peek beyond the surface, although he too sometimes thinks there is nothing behind it. However, Ahab would not only look behind the mask; he would destroy it if doing so served his aim. Ishmael construes Ahab’s hope for a rematch with Moby Dick as involving more than a desire for vengeance. Ishmael believes that Ahab sees the whale as representing “intangible malignity”:

Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung.

Moody Ishmael may move back and forth between gloomy reflection, quasi-scholarly analysis and jocularity, but morbid Ahab, with half a leg, steadfastly rages at his frustration. His “monomania” sets him apart from Ishmael, who also wants to know but can navigate the sort of uncertainty Ahab cannot. Ahab is willing to tolerate the commercial pursuits that concern Starbuck only so long as they do not interfere with his objective. For Ishmael, the chase is better than the catch, especially if it goes off course, stops, starts again and circles back. While I would not say my old friends from the book club share Ahab’s mindset, they could countenance obliterating what confounds them if it meant getting to the end of Moby-Dick sooner. The captain also would prefer the straight-to-the point approach to story-telling, if he were the novel-reading type.

Yet Melville made the quest of the narrative far more complex and, to my way of thinking, more interesting than a restrained, refined, and streamlined fishing tale ever could have been. People create, destroy, argue, work, eat, fart, philosophize, die and, yes, even digress, though not necessarily in that order. They at least try to delve beyond the surface world of manners and fussy conventions. Hawthorne found Melville’s persistence in reasoning over life’s imponderables “strange.” That strangeness and its manifestation in a flexible literary method are part of the fascination.

A.J. Liebling also takes the roundabout way for similar reasons, admittedly less ambitiously or intensely than his fellow New Yorker from the century before. Liebling appreciated the value of going off course in pursuit of education. He filled two volumes with essays on boxing, most of which relay what occurred at a particular event – just as Moby-Dick depicts a particular whaling voyage – but which often dwell on seemingly ancillary matters. Liebling surrounds discussion of fights with descriptions of visits to boxers’ training camps; routes taken to bouts and where he sat once he arrived; conversations with trainers, managers, boxers, reporters, bartenders and fans before and after the main events; what subsequently viewed films confirmed or revealed regarding what he had watched live; and recollections of his earlier experiences with the sport.

Once as I read another boxing enthusiast’s book, a fellow New York subway passenger interrupted me. He asked if I knew the author, a trainer and commentator well-known in boxing circles. As it happened, I had been to the writer’s house to interview him years before. Did I remember that fighter the autobiographer had guided to the heavyweight champions ship? Of course I did. Concluding (correctly) that I was not a boxer who would train there regularly, he wondered if I had ever been to one of the local gyms where the boxers’ chief second worked with his fighters. Again, yes.

Liebling could fill half a New Yorker piece describing random encounters like these. Readers who merely wanted to know the outcome of fights could turn to the daily paper’s sports page.

Liebling mixes boxing with other subjects that interest him. The author of Between Meals often mentions what he ate. (He agreed with Ishmael on the importance of eating well.) He intertwines boxing with history and art. For instance, when writing in The Sweet Science of the 1955 match between Rocky Marciano and Archie Moore, he speculates that the challenger, after having knocked the champion down but failing to knock him out, “may have thought that perhaps he had not hit Marciano just right; the true artist is always prone to self-reproach. He would try again.” Liebling relishes the ways those in boxing speak. “In ring language, the verb ‘to cut’ is often passive in sense,” he explains in A Neutral Corner. In combining his thoughts on subjects he connects with the sport, he seeks to do more than just cover the fights.

Like Ishmael, Liebling tells tales of learning. “The process of an education, whether that of a candidate for the Presidency or that of a candidate for the heavyweight championship, always interests me,” he says in an earlier essay on Marciano also included in The Sweet Science. Having followed many fighters over the length of their careers, Liebling charts what they learn over the years. For instance, Marciano succeeded in his quest for the championship by throwing “the kind of punch he wasn’t supposed to know how to use.” He showed that he’d done his homework.

Looking for such discrepancies between expectations and actual occurrences, Liebling learns lessons from boxing, just as Melville depicts characters, like Ahab, searching for knowledge that might give them an edge. While Liebling expresses curiosity about fighters’ fistic educations, he also undertakes his own schooling. He ponders the meaning of Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson’s 1959 meeting. Based on prior observations of Johansson, including some dating back to when the fighter was an amateur, Liebling thought the Swede had no chance against Patterson. Johansson’s victory leads to ruminations on the deceptive nature of experience, events contradicting perceptions and – again – others’ capacity for learning. Liebling had dismissed Johansson as a limited fighter unable to punch powerfully with his right hand. When a “marvel” of a blow with that fist puts Patterson on the canvas in the first of several knockdowns, Liebling concedes that Johansson displayed “a combination of a rare talent and an acquired knack.” In this same essay, “A Reproach to Skeptics” (a title Melville could have used for a chapter in The Confidence-Man), Liebling declines to discuss a preliminary bout because it was “without educational value.”

Liebling’s affinity for the Melvillean digression can be seen in his piece on Marciano-Moore, in which he likens Moore aiming for the heavyweight championship to Ahab “honing his harpoon for the White Whale.” Liebling does describe the fight, of course, but also notes what he had as a post-fight repast after leaving the stadium (a smoked salmon sandwich on an onion roll). Johansson’s victory furthered Liebling’s education, and Moore’s loss also offers lessons. In this instance, Moore may have been the more intelligent and skillful athlete, but he could not withstand the crude but stronger Marciano’s relentless onslaught. “It was a crushing defeat for the higher faculties and a lesson in intellectual humility, Liebling writes, “but he had made a hell of a fight.”

Of course, Moby-Dick also contains a hell of a fight. But Ishmael’s digressions elevate the novel from being an account of Ahab-White Whale II. As Libeling writes in his musing on Moore: “What would Moby-Dick be if Ahab had succeeded? Just another fish story.” Impatient readers don’t get the full impact of that struggle if they decline to dive into all that surrounds and interrupts it.

John G. Rodwan, Jr.’s work has appeared in publications such as The Mailer Review, Spot Literary Magazine, California Literary Review, Slow Trains, The Brooklyn Rail, American Writer, Free Inquiry, the Humanist and the International Labor Office’s Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety. He has lived in Portland, Oregon; Brooklyn, New York; Geneva, Switzerland; and Detroit, Michigan.