The best thing I’ve ever read on this front comes from R.P. Blackmur’s The Lion and the Honeycomb. Blackmur is pretty tough on Melville as a writer. The author’s problem, he says, is that “he did not write of characters in action; he employed the shells of stock characters, heightened or resounding only by the eloquence of the author’s voice, to witness, illustrate, decorate, and often as it happened to impede and stultify an idea in motion.” The truth of Blackmur’s assertion should be obvious to anyone who has spent any time attempting to decode the myriad symbols in Moby-Dick. Melville attempts to write an allegory here, but he fails:
Successful allegory—La Vita Nuova and Pilgrim’s Progress—requires the preliminary possession of a complete and stable body of belief appropriate to the theme in hand. Melville was not so equipped; neither was Hawthorne; neither was anyone in nineteenth century America or since. That is why Melville’s allegorical devices and patterns had to act as if they were agents in a novel; and that is why we are compelled to judge Melville at his most allegorical yet formally as a novelist.Putting aside the question as to whether there is something intrinsic in the American character—then or now—that keeps us from having that “complete and stable body of belief,” I think that Blackmur has it absolutely right here. Moby-Dick is an allegory without a key to decoding, a mass of signifiers without steady signifieds behind them; it is, perhaps, the first poststructuralist novel.
I am generally suspicious of the type of reading—enormously popular in the 1970s and ‘80s, the tragic heyday of Critical Theory—that would claim that a given text is not about what it appears to be about at all but is instead all about the act of literary production and the attempt to interpret it. This is typically lazy reading, in my opinion, a refusal to engage with the author and a violent overlay of fashionable criticism over his or her work.
But there’s no way around it here. The author’s intention in writing Moby-Dick was clearly to demonstrate that the author’s intention doesn’t matter. Moby-Dick is such a glorious, sprawling mess, covering dozens of genres and hastily thrown together, that any attempt to map it out based on Melville’s autobiography or personal philosophy is bound to fail. It contains too much for such an approach to be at all effective. The novel deals with so many subjects and yet is “about” none of them that it can reasonably be said that what it is “about” is the concept of being “about.”
And we’re clued in on this from the very beginning. Moby-Dick does not begin at sea or even in New Bedford but rather in a library, in a series of other books. We’re given eleven pages or so of quotations about whales, presented to us by a “sub-sub librarian” —a person lost in the depths of the library, lost in a vast series of words and pages, just as the reader will shortly be. He gives us a variety of sources on whales: symbolic, literal, mythic, and so forth. But he can’t pin down the whale; nor can the reader of Moby-Dick, who could spend a lifetime concocting various signifieds for the signifier of the white whale and never get any closer.
When our actual narrator, the enigmatically named “Ishmael,” shows up, he, too, presents us with a catalogue, though in his case it is not about the whale but about the various types of people who are drawn to the ocean. His catalogue, however, has the effect of simplifying rather than complicating our interpretation—he’s making a universal case for the importance of the ocean, a universalizing moral point.
This should provide comfort and a structure for interpretation, but it doesn’t—Ishmael’s overarching point about the power of the ocean is quickly lost in the maze of genres and narratives that follow it. He doesn’t even make it to sea until ten chapters later, demonstrating that land is in fact just as important as the sea. His point has been overthrown, and Ishmael moves from being an infallible guide of the sort to which readers are used to being a voice among voices, no more important than Father Mapple or Captain Ahab or Queequeg.
And even when he does try to act as our guide, Ishmael can’t resist teasing us with the knowledge to which he is privy and we are not. For example, he refers to “an old writer—of whose works I possess the only copy extant.” He advocates a sort of Gnosticism, a secret knowledge that only he can access; the reader cannot look for real guidance to an unfriendly speaker like him.
But the early image that best serves as an emblem for the novel itself is the painting at The Spouter-Inn. Ishmael is taken in by it, is fascinated by it, but he cannot for the life of him figure out what it’s a picture of. Then he figures it out—it’s a whale destroying a whaling-boat (a rather grim image for an inn for whalers). The painting retains its mystery, however, and in this it mirrors the novel itself.
Ishmael’s attempt to make sense of it resembles the task that critics have faced in reading Moby-Dick for decades, and Ishmael’s statement about interpretation—“at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture’s midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain.” But because Melville’s allegory is at the very best slippery, that thing in the middle, the meaning of the white whale, will never be truly found out, and the rest of the picture/novel will never be plain.
This is the power and the frustration of Moby-Dick, perhaps America’s first great novel and a production wholly singular in the history of literature. But to be fair, Melville tips the reader off from the very first page that this novel will not be a sign to be interpreted but rather a series of words and images, thrust together violently until they make your head spin.