Jack’s Naughty Bits: Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Pin it

Jack's Naughty Bits

To know one thing truly is to know all things. I suspect this sentiment, which I’ve long believed, is the underpinning of many an aphorism now lost to my bourbon-addled memory. The logic behind the conceit presumes that, like Marvell’s drop of dew, each entity in this world reflects the entirety of the universe of which it is part. The truth of any one thing stands in direct analogy to the truth of all others. Vico claimed that man, seeing things through a human brain, could only understand man; cosmology is reduced to history. I see the reverse; as we can only know through our own selves, each perceivable thing becomes a mirror, or a canvas for painting our souls.


One is thus given the choice to arrive at the particular through the general or the general through the particular. The former is called encyclopedism, the latter anatomism, but the difference lies only in method. Literature has mimicked both forms: Flaubert’s comic and unfinished Bouvard et Pecuchet is the most literal embodiment of the encyclopedic impulse. On the other side, Burton’s great Anatomy of Melancholy can easily be understood as an encyclopedia of a single thing. Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine falls somewhere in between, retelling an escalator trip at such length and precision as to appear both anatomistic and encyclopedic. But nowhere is encyclopedism more sustained, more methodical and staggering than Melville’s singular, monolithic Moby Dick. It is said that the Babelites used bricks of stone to build their tower toward God; Melville uses the lore of whaling to build his.


Nor will it be toppled. God, apparently, is letting The Whale stand, testament though it is to human industry. And what industry! Compiling everything there is to know about whales, whaling and whiteness, Melville creates a symbolic tapestry as intricate as anything in the world on land. Seeking only to sketch a portrait of a now-dying industry, Melville rendered the bulk of human experience, seen through the salt-crusted lens of a collapsible eyeglass.


So while I might have excerpted from Ishmael’s curious night in Nantucket with the savage Queequeg, I opted instead for the passage on Moby’s big one. For if all things are analogous to one another, Melville’s great book sits, like Willy’s willy in the Pequod’s scuppers, dauntingly on the foredecks of world literature.

* * *  

From Moby Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville

Had you stepped on board the Pequod at a certain juncture of this post-mortemizing of the whale; and had you strolled forward nigh the windlass, pretty sure am I that you would have scanned with no small curiosity a very strange, enigmatical object, which you would have seen there, lying along lengthwise in the lee scuppers. Not the wondrous cistern in the whale’s huge head, not the prodigy of his unhinged lower jaw; not the miracle of his symmetrical tail; none of these would so surprise you as half a glimpse of that unaccountable cone — longer than a Kentuckian is tall, nigh a foot in diameter at the base, and jet-black as Yojo, the ebony idol of Queequeg. And an idol, indeed, it is; or rather, in old times, its likeness was. Such an idol as that found in the secret groves of Queen Maachah in Judea; and for worshipping which, King Asa, her son, did depose her, and destroyed the idol, and burnt it for an abomination at brook Kedron, as darkly set forth in the fifteenth chapter of the First Book of Kings.


Look at the sailor, called the mincer, who now comes along, and assisted by two allies, heavily backs the grandissimus, as the mariners call it, and with bowed shoulders, staggers off with it as if he were a grenadier carrying a dead comrade from the field. Extending it upon the forecastle deck, he now proceeds cylindrically to remove its dark pelt, as an African hunter the pelt of a boa. This done he turns the pelt inside out, like a pantaloon leg, gives it a good stretching, so as almost to double its diameter; and at last hangs it, well spread, in the rigging, to dry. Ere long, it is taken down; when removing some three feet of it, towards the pointed extremity, and then cutting two slits for arm-holes at the other end, he lengthwise slips himself bodily into it. The mincer now stands before you invested in the full canonicals of his calling. Immemorial to all his order, this investiture alone will adequately protect him, while employed in the peculiar functions of his office.


That office consists in mincing the horse-pieces of blubber for the pots; an operation which is conducted at a curious wooden horse, planted endwise against the bulwarks, and with a capacious tub beneath it, into which the minced pieces drop, fast as the sheets from a rapt orator’s desk. Arrayed in decent black; occupying a conspicuous pulpit; intent on bible leaves; what a candidate for an archbishopric, what a lad for a Pope were this mincer!

© Herman Melville