Moby Dick: An Annotation
I should have annotated Moby Dick two summers ago. I had read the monstrous novel slowly, in pieces, allowing it to define those months of my life. I imagine I didn’t annotate it then for the same reason that I hesitate to annotate it now: the task frightened me. The purpose of these annotations is to talk about the ways in which certain pieces will influence or have influenced your own work. An implied purpose, at least for me, is to come to some kind of smart conclusion about the piece in question, a conclusion that might help me going forward, or at the very least might impress my advisor. The problem, of course, is that trying to say something smart about Moby Dick in six-hundred words or so is an almost absurd task. What can I possibly add to this conversation? It doesn’t help that Dan Beachy-Quick, one of our faculty members, has written multiple books relating to the novel, or that Justin Hocking, one of the program’s alumni, recently released a book about his own wrestling with the work.
At times like these my advice to my composition students would be to “focus;” perhaps I can say something useful and smart about a chapter, or paragraph, of the novel.
I’m going to ignore that advice. There are of course lessons to be learned in this kind of dissection. In rereading chapter 16, “The Ship,” in which the Pequod’s owners are introduced, I noticed that Melville, in his endless establishing of context for man and place, is a master of making his characters both types and individuals, which allows their actions and words to carry the weight of the particular and universal. This is a project Melville is engaged in throughout – turning particular lessons about first-mates, orcas, Quakers, whaleboats, etc. into lessons about the world, about complexity and meaning-making. At the same time he does this, he laughs at it. The tone for much of Moby Dick is humorous, pointing to the absurd contradictions of the world, inherent in any complex person and in the task of meaning-making.
But did I mention that DBQ wrote an entire dictionary about this novel, in some ways about this very complexity and meaning-making? So, moving on.
I think what I need and want to say about Moby Dick is going to be necessarily broad and stupid. Failing at the second part of the above purpose (say something smart), I will attempt the first part (say how this will be useful to your work).
Moby Dick is useful to me precisely in its scary, unwieldy scope. In his writings on aesthetic judgment, Immanuel Kant talks about an aesthetic reaction to a piece of art consisting of a kind of “free play” between the imagination and understanding. We might think of the imagination as a perceptive and creative force, and the understanding as a limiting and categorizing force. When I see an apple, my imagination forms that apple in my mind, and my understanding places that apple under the concept of “apple,” dismisses it (or files it away), and shuts the imagination down, its job done. When we see a piece of art to which we have an aesthetic reaction, however, the understanding is unable to engage in this kind of categorization; the piece does not fit into any familiar and easily understood concept, and so the imagination is not shut down, but instead engages in a kind of arresting cycle of free play with the understanding, as the latter tries to work on this new imagined thing.
I’m sure I’m over-simplifying this, but to put it another way: We might say this is what happens when, walking through an art gallery, you find yourself stopped in front of a particular piece of art, entranced a little, drooling, your mind simultaneously turning and absent of helpful language.
Which is all to say that this is how I feel when I think about Moby Dick. So much of the work we do in graduate school is about craft – we write exercises and stories to apply concepts of craft, and we read to see those concepts at work. Soon it becomes almost impossible to read without the understanding engaging in a constant kind of categorization and dismissal (“This story leans too heavily on its use of the second person;” “The dialogue here is doing too little.”). Kant might suggest that this is what the development of taste looks like. He’d be right. But as we develop this taste, our opportunities for aesthetic reactions, for the above-described free play between imagination and understanding, decrease. This is why Moby Dick is important to me. I would venture that this is why it’s a “classic,” why so many writers and artists return to it: in its complexity, meaning-making, and humor, it continues to arrest our understanding, to provide these aesthetic reactions. In doing so, it reminds us both why we love literature and what it is, when we write, that we’re striving for.