Friday, March 24, 2006

The Whiteness of the Whale: Simulacra and Metonymy in Moby-Dick


One of the most enticing aspects of Melville’s Moby-Dick is the broad range of symbolic interpretations to which the text lends itself. Perhaps Melville was aware of this, and that is the reason he wrote “The Doubloon” chapter, realizing that the interpretations of such a symbolically rich work would vary as abundantly as the multiple species of whale that he documents. It would seem then, that the more fruitful route of critical interpretation is not in aligning Melville with any political ideal (such as Marxism), but rather understanding the apparatus of his symbolism. That is, raising the central symbols to meta-symbols, understanding Melville’s work as a commentary on the nature of symbol and metaphor in his own work.
Defined, a symbol can represent and conjure many images in the mind of the reader. The white whale can mean many things to many people, and thus it constitutes a symbol. But if one is to propose an interpretation of Moby-Dick, then the white whale must be a metaphor, representative of a more singular concrete idea. Melville is undeniably a symbolist, but it seems that he was aware his work would be interpreted in a multitude of ways. This paper will suggest that Melville was aware that readers were going to insert themselves into the text, and this awareness shows through in his writing. This paper will discuss the central symbol of whiteness as a metaphor for metonymy (which is demonstrated to be simulacrum). It will also discuss the whale as a metaphor for the text itself. Utilizing Baudrillard’s idea of “simulacra,” it will discuss the metonymy of whiteness and justify this interpretation. It will prove that Melville’s Moby-Dick is, in part, a meta-commentary on itself and that it is a meta-narrative about the very composition of the text.
Jean Baudrillard describes simulacra as something which is neither completely imaginary nor completely real. He talks about simulacra in terms of language: “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself” (Baudrillard 2). Baudrillard gives the example of a hostage situation. If the reader were to pretend to hold a bank hostage, entering a bank with weapons and showing forth all the signs of a hostage situation, the authorities would act as if it were a real hostage situation. Even though the reader is only simulating a hostage situation. He says “In brief, you will unwittingly find yourself immediately in the real, one of whose functions is precisely to devour every attempt at simulation, to reduce everything to some reality: that's exactly how the established order is, well before institutions and justice come into play” (Baudrillard 13). As he says elsewhere, “The simulacrum is true” (Baudrillard 1). There are echoes of this idea in “The Doubloon” chapter. Following Ahab’s egotistical interpretation of the images on the doubloon, Starbuck makes his own interpretation. Yet he refuses to take any stock in his own interpretation of it, saying “I will quit it, lest Truth shake me falsely” (Melville 360). Starbuck understands that if he is to take his interpretation as truth, he would draw hope from it and act accordingly. But he understands that his interpretation is pure simulacrum, a “truth” that will show forth later only to be a masking of the absence of truth. The doubloon is simply a coin with no significance, though Melville’s narrative framing would have us interpreting it as a symbol. On an interpretive level, the “Doubloon” chapter suggests that symbol is simulacrum.
The symbol can be interpreted as simulacrum in the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” also. In it, Melville discusses at great length the significance of the fact that Moby-Dick is white. He is delving here into the many possible symbolic meanings of this whiteness. He says “whiteness refiningly enhances beauty as if imparting some special virtue of its own” (Melville 163). There is, of course, the racial whiteness, which Melville is extremely conscious of throughout the novel, and thus the idealization of the whale might be an idealization of the white man. There are many possible religious interpretations, each stemming from various religious traditions that feature white as a prominent symbol. There is also the image of “marble pallor” (Melville 166) of a dead person; the whale could possibly be a symbol of death. The possible symbolic interpretations of the whiteness of the whale are too numerous to count. But then Melville suggests something intriguing:
…is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and a 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? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues—every stately or lovely emblazoning—the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of the young girls; all these are but subtile [sic] deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely pains like a harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within. (170)
Whiteness suggests nothing at first to the viewer, yet seems full of meaning somehow. It is deceptively complex in that while seeming to lack color, white actually contains all colors. And Nature’s colored garments, which convey a fullness of life, are penetrated only to reveal a complete lack of life: the absence of the “basic reality” that it purports to convey.
Melville’s text also explores the metaphor as simulacra. To understand this, though, it helps to look at Baudrillard’s progression of simulacra:
1 It is a basic reflection of reality.
2 It masks and perverts a basic reality.
3 It masks the absence of a basic reality.
4 It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum. (Baudrillard 5)
Consider the central image of whiteness in terms of this progression. The basic narrative reality of the text is that the Moby-Dick is being hunted. In “The Whiteness of the Whale,” Melville attaches whiteness inextricably with the whale. White becomes metonymical[1] for the whale and its significance in the text, both to the reader and the characters within the narrative. So white comes to reflect the basic narrative reality of the text; whiteness evokes the central mission. But in it does not simply reflect the simple mission. Through symbolic interpretation (see “The Whiteness of the Whale”), it brings its own significance, and intertwines that significance with the basic narrative reality of the text; it “masks and perverts” that basic reality. In the new understanding of whiteness, the whale is absent; it is a blending in the reader’s mind of the text’s basic narrative reality and the symbolic suggestiveness of whiteness. Thus, the term “white” is pure simulacrum. When Melville uses the description of white, or speaks of things that are white, the term itself is hollow, in that there is no such reality that is a blend of Moby-Dick’s narrative reality and white symbolism.
With this new understanding of “whiteness” in mind, consider now the many things in the text that are white. One particular object to consider is Ahab’s white leg, carved from the bone of a sperm whale. Through the simulacrum of whiteness, it evokes the simple narrative drive to capture the white whale, and also the philosophical implications implied in the symbolism of the “Whiteness of the Whale.” The significance of the fact that Ahab lost his leg to Moby-Dick and has it splintered by the white whale again in the final chase is magnified by the simple descriptive term “white.” That is, something being white calls attention to it as serving a significant narrative and symbolic role. Additionally, the cycle of simulacra is compounded: the narrative and symbolic significance of Ahab’s white leg is attached to “whiteness.” It is, just as Baudrillard says, “not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference” (5).
Pulling back from the endless series of mirrors that is simulacra, one must realize the important thing that Melville has done here: “whiteness,” whose symbolic significance is simulacrum, functions as simulacrum. Regardless of authorial intent, the text is clearly making some sort of meta-commentary on itself. If Whiteness is simulacra, and they are pursuing a white whale, they are pursuing a structure of simulacrum, in essence. The question then, appropriately enough, must be our original question: what is the whale symbolic of? What is the structure of simulacrum? The text clues us in:
Genius in the Sperm Whale? Has the Sperm Whale ever written a book, spoken a speech? No, his great genius is declared in his doing nothing particular to prove it. It is moreover declared in his pyramidical silence….Champollion deciphered the wrinkled granite hieroglyphics. But there is no Champollion to decipher the Egypt of every man’s and every being’s face. Physiognomy, like every other human science, is but a passing fable. If then, Sir William Jones, who reads in thirty languages, could not read the simplest peasant’s face in its profounder and more subtle meanings, how may unlettered Ishmael hope to read the awful Chaldee of the Sperm Whale’s brow? I but put that brow before you. Read it if you can. (293)
Melville tells us to treat the white whale as if he were a text. He tells us to decipher what we are able. Moby-Dick, it seems, is symbolic of Moby-Dick. If this is the case, then Melville is Ishmael, the narrator. Or perhaps Melville is Ahab, driven by monomaniacal desire to pursue a text of pure simulacrum. For Ahab, it was a mission that was ultimately fruitless. Perhaps it was also this way for Melville.
[1] see Cuddon 507

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

a sonnet

O round and unknowable, unrhymable,
thick skinned, full of letters, spongy and porous,
O you, of whom I write this sonnet-chorus,
whom challenged fingers struggle to be able
to find their way beneath the colored surface,
through flesh, then rug, and to the pulpy center
(but first it takes a knife to pierce and enter):
O are you worth my eighty five cent purchase?

If I should hold you forth in my left hand palm,
and plunge my right hand fingers in your navel,
and rip away the layers between your heart
and mine, would you try your best to do your part,
kiss my lips with citrus and the love I long
to hear from someone’s mouth. O are you able?

Sunday, March 05, 2006

untitled story

Tall buildings shake,
voices escape, singing sad, sad songs.
~Wilco

Who told you that numbers are cold and unemotional? All you need to do is watch the New York Lotto drawing one night and you will know whoever says that is wrong. Some people make the mistake of believing it’s only the humans who bring emotion to the lotto. The truth is that the numbers are emotional. Maybe it’s fate or God behind the numbers, working, toying, loving.
If I said I could understand numbers, mathematicians would laugh at me. I use “gambler’s math,” which says if a certain set of numbers hasn’t come up in a while, it will come up soon. It’s like flipping a coin; fifty percent of the time it’s going to be heads. A mathematician, of course, would explain that there is no guarantee one hundred flips will be exactly fifty-fifty, because the law of averages doesn’t guarantee a percentage within a certain number of flips. You could flip a coin like Rosencrantz and never get anything except heads. But at some point, tails is going to come up, and what I do is try to guess when. I also guess combinations. The lotto drawing is never a simple either/or. It’s strings of numbers; it’s combinations.
In truth, though, there is little method to my work. I don’t crunch numbers. Crunching numbers is for calculators and idiot-savants. I am not logical. I intuit patterns. I am creative. I am an artist, crafting from reams of numbers. The truth is I laugh at the mathematicians. They see nothing when they watch the lotto. I see beauty. I see humanity. I see meaning.
* * *
“Turn on the TV, man.”
“Huh? Who is this?”
“Quick! Turn it the fuck on!”
I reached under my bed sheets and grasped blindly for the remote with my right hand and limply grasped the phone with my left. I found it near my ankles and pulled it out to turn on the TV. The TV lit up with the image of one of the Twin Towers smoking. As my mind began to understand the image, a plane flew into the second tower. I heard someone say “holy shit” and I realized there was a busy signal coming from the phone in my hand.
* * *
I run a small website that makes lottery recommendations. Believe it or not, I have several thousand members, and they all swear by me. Of course, none of them win all the time. I don’t give the winning numbers, I just make recommendations for what would be best to play. To be honest, I don’t actually play the lottery myself. I used to, but I never won. That doesn’t stop me, though. Does it stop the writer from writing if he never writes the perfect story? The artist has the drive to create, and that’s why they do it; not because they think they can accomplish artistic perfection. The artist creates because he must. The truth is that it’s not about the money. It’s about the numbers. When I predict sevens on the odds and they come up, I feel the same expressive satisfaction a poet does when he reads his finished poem aloud.
* * *
I was lucky. I caught the last ride to the financial district, and I emerged just in time to see the first tower collapse, like a train speeding downwards, puffing soot in all directions. I tried to escape the cloud, but it overtook me. The soot was the building and all its inhabitants in gaseous form. I inhaled it. It smelled mostly like dust, but there was the faint smell of burnt human hair.
For a while, I couldn’t see, and I made my way along by grabbing onto cars and trying to work towards the faint light I assumed was the direction away from the tower that had fallen. The soot covered everything. Whatever my hands touched collapsed; the caked soot crumbling away to reveal the actual object beneath: a car, a lamppost, a bicycle.
* * *
I used to watch the Lotto drawings when I worked as a security guard. That’s where it began. For years I drew no contentment from my work. I went from job to job with little grounding because of an overwhelming dissatisfaction with each one. It was a dissatisfaction I could never pinpoint and the security job was only the latest on a long list of jobs. My shift began at six at night and went until seven the next morning. One night I happened to turn the TV to the New York Lotto drawing. It’s not that I hadn’t seen a lotto drawing before, but this one struck me. The numbers made sense to me; it was like I knew they were going to come up. I didn’t care that I could have won money. It was with these numbers my life finally began to find its expression: 08, 13, 26, 35, 45, 51.
* * *
I saw people jumping out of the second tower before it went down. They fell out of the windows like sacks of potatoes, lifeless in their plunge. The people standing around me were silent. There were no gasps when the north tower fell. The people watched in a numbed reverence. I imagine it was the only time New York City was quiet.
* * *
On the subway home one day a woman told me she takes pills for her sickness. “Sometimes I take them because I’m sick, and sometimes I take them to help me die.” When I got home, I recommended double threes for tragedy. Some guy told me later he won $750 on that recommendation. I’d like to think that the people who view my web site see the art of the numbers that I see. I know they believe in it, because they keep coming. I guess it takes a belief, a hope? that these things I predict are somehow expressive of something. Maybe through it I can connect, and begin to put together all the particulars of my life.
* * *
It took four showers to finally wash all the soot off my body. I had to return to work the next day. The numbers for September 12th were: 08, 13, 26, 35, 45, 51. I still remember the lotto drawing that night and what was said after calling out those numbers: “The prayers of the New York State Lottery Family are with those who were lost in yesterday’s tragedy.”

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Icarus Love Poem


“Remember well,”
she told me,
“Icarus flew
before he fell.”
“Yes I know,
I took Greek,”
I said
as we put weights
on our feet
and hid
heavy memories
and books in our pockets
while I thought a thing
I already knew,
Icarus fell
before he flew
.