Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) is a book that, once read, will never leave you. Its themes are as close as a book’s themes can be to the essence of being human. Its symbol – ‘symbol’ is a poor choice of word – of the great white whale will stalk your imagination, waking or asleep, for the rest of your life.
But Moby-Dick isn’t just about great abstractions. From its beginning it lives on detail – the detail of ships, whaling, sailors, weather and dozens of other practical things. The book breathes detail. Whole chapters are given over to topics like ‘Jonah historically regarded’, ‘of whales in paint; in teeth; in wood; in sheet-iron; in stone; in mountains; in stars’, ‘ambergris’, ‘the try-works’. Viola Meynell, in her introduction to my old Oxford edition of the novel, expresses well how Moby-Dick’s elemental dramas are underpinned by a deep infrastructure of particulars:
The infinite detail of the whale, its measurements, its blubber, its oil, its lashless eyes, its riddled brow – these are the reality with which the wild spirit of thought is interlocked. It is the opposite school from that which prefers to dispense with reality as a start for imagination …
The detail begins even before Chapter 1, ‘Loomings’, with its famous first sentence ‘Call me Ishmael’. Melville supplies two prefaces, each introduced by an imaginary, pitiable character. A ‘pale Usher – threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain’ gives us three quotations offering to explain the etymology of the word ‘whale’. He’s followed by an equally sorry figure, ‘a sub-sub-librarian’, who’s amassed a long anthology of 80 historical quotations, from Genesis to contemporary literature and song, about (sub-marine) whales. These ‘extracts’ are preceded by a picture of the ‘Sub-Sub’:
It will be seen that this mere painstaking burrower and grub-worm of a poor devil of a Sub-Sub appears to have gone through the long Vaticans and street-stalls of the earth, picking up whatever random allusions to whales he could anyways find in any book whatsoever, sacred and profane.
Melville warns his readers not to take these ‘higgledy-piggledy whale statements’ for ‘veritable gospel cetology’, merely as valuable or entertaining, a ‘glancing bird’s eye view of what has been promiscuously said, thought, fancied, and sung of Leviathan’. Then he turns back to the poor librarian, and bestows a benediction on the wretch:
So fare thee well, poor devil of a Sub-Sub, whose commentator I am. Thou belongest to that hopeless, sallow tribe which no wine of this world will ever warm; and for whom even Pale Sherry would be too rosy-strong; but with whom one sometimes loves to sit, and feel poor-devilish too; and grow convivial upon tears; and say to them bluntly, with full eyes and empty glasses – Give it up, Sub-Subs! For how much the more pains ye take to please the world, by so much the more shall ye for ever go thankless! Would that I could clear out Hampton Court and the Tuileries for ye! But gulp down your tears and hie aloft to the royal-mast with your hearts; for your friends who have gone before are clearing out the seven-storied heavens, and making refugees of long-pampered Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael, against your coming. Here ye strike not splintered hearts together – there, ye shall strike unsplinterable glasses!
I was once a Sub-Librarian – never, thank heaven, a Sub-Sub – and don’t find it difficult to recognise in myself, with some pain, the features of Melville’s character – his ‘grub-worming’ tendency, thin-blooded pallor, sad desire to please, and reluctance to indulge in the redder pleasures of life. The interesting thing, though, about Melville’s advice to the Sub-Sub, that he should lift his eyes from the printed pages to the skies, cease to study the dead and start to live, is not advice that he’s ready to take himself. Ishmael the encyclopaedist is at least as prominent as Ishmael the storyteller or Ishmael the philosopher. The narration of Moby-Dick is constantly dragged to a halt by wordy excursions and pedantic digressions to explain the technology of mast-heads or the physiology of the whale’s tail. Melville doesn’t quite elevate digression to an artform, like Sterne in Tristram Shandy (at least Moby-Dick reaches a conclusion), but for him detail is crucial – it allows him to build his great characters – the whale, the maddened Ahab and his ship the Pequod, Queequeg the tattooed harpooner – and his great white themes, in an incremental way, piling particular on particular until each of them builds into the appearance of an elemental and universal force.
I wonder, then, whether Melville was not a librarian manqué, a man who in part relished rather than rejected the patient and curious work of the desk scholar and collector and arranger of curious knowledge. What’s certain is that his interest in the ‘hopeless, sallow tribe’ of scribes, scholars and copyists was not a passing one. He himself had worked as a clerk, in a bank and then a store, after his father’s premature death (he was later a schoolmaster or ‘usher’). Not long after publishing Moby-Dick he published his short story Bartleby the Scrivener. The story’s narrated by an unnamed lawyer, who advertises for an additional clerk to copy out legal documents for him. The new employee, Bartleby, is highly competent, but whenever he’s asked to undertake additional work he responds, simply and repeatedly, with the words, ‘I would prefer not to’. Gradually he produces less and less work, until finally he produces none at all, rejecting every request with the same words, ‘I would prefer not to’. The narrator finds that Bartleby has begun to live as well as not-work in the office. At his wit’s end he transfers his business out of the building. Still Bartleby will not move and is later imprisoned, finally dying of starvation, having preferred not to eat.
‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ is one of the most terrifying stories I’ve ever read. Not because it deals in horror or terror (this is not Edgar Allan Poe). Nor because it analyses an extreme mental state (we never get close to the inside of Bartleby’s mind, or indeed discover anything about his life or background). Simply because, more than any other story before Kafka, it states, and restates, ad nauseam, the sheer frightening unknowability of other people, and therefore the impossibility of real communication. Bartleby’s radical passivity is unexplained and inexplicable. It unnerves the lawyer who employs him and induces behaviour in him that in some way mirrors Bartleby’s own helplessness.
Critics often gloss ‘Bartleby’ as Melville’s traumatic reaction to the complete commercial failure of Moby-Dick or the harsh critical response to his next novel Pierre (1852), or treat it as a study in clinical depression, even though the narrator shows little real curiosity in exploring Bartleby’s state. Could it be, on the other hand, that Bartleby is a reincarnation of the Sub-Sub-Librarian? Is he another member of the ‘hopeless, sallow tribe’ of scribes, one even more hopelessly enmeshed in the particulars of existence? This new Sub-Sub has failed to take Melville’s advice, to leave off his narrow life and aspire to the condition of angels. He sinks into a steep decline that can only end in self-destruction.
In his 2000 anthology The book of prefaces Alasdair Gray includes the preface to Moby-Dick alongside Nathaniel Hawthorne’s preface to his Twice-told tales, published in the same year. Gray suggests that, in his Usher and Sub-Sub, Melville is humorously trying to outparody his friend Hawthorne, whose own preface is full of crafty self-deprecation (‘the obscurest man of letters in America’). But if so, Melville’s humour may be deadly serious.