Uncommon Bulk.

From Chapter 104, “The Fossil Whale,” of Moby-Dick:

Since I have undertaken to manhandle this Leviathan, it behooves me to approve myself omnisciently exhaustive in the enterprise; not overlooking the minutest seminal germs of his blood, and spinning him out to the uttermost coil of his bowels. Having already described him in most of his present habitatory and anatomical peculiarities, it now remains to magnify him in an archaeological, fossiliferous, and antediluvian point of view. Applied to any other creature than the Leviathan – to an ant or a flea – such portly terms might justly be deemed unwarrantably grandiloquent. But when Leviathan is the text, the case is altered. Fain am I to stagger to this enterprise under the weightiest words of the dictionary. And here be it said, that whenever it has been convenient to consult one in the course of these dissertations, I have invariably used a huge quarto edition of Johnson, expressly purchased for that purpose; because that famous lexicographer’s uncommon personal bulk more fitted him to compile a lexicon to be used by a whale author like me.

I had forgotten how funny Melville can be.

Comments

  1. People say that the first sentence of Moby Dick is “Call Me Ishmael.” But the true first sentence – and the second and third – are:

    ETYMOLOGY.

    (Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School)

    The pale Usher–threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him
    now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer
    handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all
    the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it
    somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.

  2. The first true sentence we encounter in the authorized tome is actually, ” In token of my admiration for his genius, this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne,” and, although there are thousands of words between that initial sentence and the beginning of Chapter 1 Loomings, that business about Ishmael there is the proper start of the yarn about Moby-Dick we’ve come for, and legitimately the first sentence of the thing as people understand it.

  3. I think, Peter Ramus is right here. Moby Dick properly begins with “Call Me Ishmael.”, but it is hard to articulate a general principle. In Russian literature (with which I’m more familiar then with English one), I think we are very much secure with saying that Pushkin’s Ruslan and Lyudmila begins with preface (У лукоморья дуб зелёный), but Eugene Onegin with the first stanza (Мой дядя самых честных правил). Probably, preface is rarely considered as part of the literary work, but exceptions are notable. What is the proper start of Romeo and Juliet? Well, if “Two households, both alike in dignity” is routinely read from the scene than the answer is obvious, but is it?

  4. George Gibbard says:

    It is routinely read from the scene.

  5. What is the proper start of Romeo and Juliet? Well, if “Two households, both alike in dignity” is routinely read from the scene than the answer is obvious, but is it?

    It is read or announced, to ritual howls of “Spoilers!”.

  6. Whereupon the pro- and anti-spoiler sections of the audience draw their swords, “Havoc” is cried, and the dogs of war are let slip.

  7. Jeffry House says:

    The Gregory Peck movie started with the words “Call me Ishmael.” That affects out expectations!

  8. David Marjanović says:

    Whereupon the pro- and anti-spoiler sections of the audience draw their swords, “Havoc” is cried, and the dogs of war are let slip.

    Thread won, I can go to bed. 🙂

  9. Peter Ramus – I agree that the yarn begins, “Call Me Ishmael.” The novel, however, begins “The pale Usher – threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain…” The pale Usher is a fictional character, and a comic character at that (which is why I brought him up).

  10. If you start at “Call me Ishmael” then you reach the end slightly more quickly than you would otherwise, so I’ll go for that.

    Similarly, of course, the last line of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is not “He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother”. It is the far more hopeful “It was chiefly in order to allow time for the preliminary work of translation that the final adoption of Newspeak had been fixed for so late a date as 2050.”

    Note “had been” – not “has been”. That difference in tense, along with the whole tone of the appendix, gives the novel a sort-of happy ending…

  11. I regret to say that I think you are reading too much into this. The book is in the past tense, so that it appears to look backward on its fictional 1984 as we now look backward on the actual1984. Further, it is not only in Oldspeak (Modern Standard English), it could not have been written in Newspeak. However, this is mere verbal convention: the past tense is used throughout almost every fictional work written before about 1970, and does not imply that the narrator is looking backward from a time after the overthrow of Ingsoc, when 1940s Oldspeak has returned as the normal language of literature.

    Furthermore, the appendix like Tolkien’s appendixes is fictional-factual, not fictional. It tells you things about the secondary world of the book, but from the perspective of a truth-teller, not a storyteller. Wikipedia calls Robert Sobel’s excellent For Want of a Nail a novel, but it is nothing of the sort: it is an undergraduate history textbook for a history that didn’t happen, complete with hundreds of references to entirely imaginary sources. It too is written in the past tense, not by convention, but because it is a history of what happened rather than (in a timeless sense) what happens, to use Aristotle’s handy distinction.

    I note that a number of critics, including Atwood, disagree with me here. Tant pis.

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