Well, there it is, the most famous opening line in all of lit’rature. Personally, I never found it all that impressive. It’s been quite over-exposed, removed of all context. Whatever power it once had has been dispersed throughout our general culture. It’s more of a Thing that you’re supposed to Respect, rather than an organic piece of writing, anymore.
Moby-Dick; or, the Whale has an interesting, very unusual structure. It doesn’t tell the story of the voyage of the Pequod straight through, nor does it really tell the story of Ishmael. There are two distinct types of chapters: narrative chapters, and non-narrative chapters, this one being one of the latter. There’s not really any action, or characters, in this bit. Later on, we’ll go back and forth regularly, once the voyage gets properly underway. After this little intro, we’ll be following Ishmael for a while, so it makes sense to take a little time and get acquainted.
What can we say about this mysterious man, who gives what is quite probably a pseudonym from the outset? Well, we can say that he’s not a rich man, and has to work for his living. He describes New York in pretty intimate terms. He suffers from depression, described using the delightful old-fashioned term “hypos” in the opening paragraph. Apparently, a shortening of “hypochondrias”, which is an archaic term for melancholia, an archaic term for morbidity, an archaic term for depression. Language is fun.
Melville seems to have been quite interested in this phenomena. Another of his most famous works, Bartleby the Scrivener, features an extensive examination of it.
Ishmael copes with his bouts of low spirits by taking to sea, rather than doing anything rash. I really must say, for how much I don’t feel anything, in particular, for the opening line, the rest of that paragraph is just incredible. I’m just gonna post it for your enjoyment.
Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
You can already see our good buddy Ishmael growing agitated by simple points he wants to make, leaning in to his rhetoric, so to speak. This is the kind of writing that is especially enjoyable to read aloud, to declaim in a powerful voice. Another interesting theme here is Ishmael saying everyone, really, would go to sea if they knew what it was actually like. This leads directly in to the next section of his argument, which is about: water.
The rest of this chapter is broken up into a bunch of arguments, almost like an old five-paragraph essay you learned to write in high school. He makes use of various colorful analogies, and more wonderful bits of prose here and there. First off, he argues that everyone loves water, loves lookin’ at water, being near water. Even the most inveterate landlubbers love to, of an afternoon, stand near the most convenient body of water and gaze off into it, in a reverie.
It is blown out to an almost ludicrous degree, of course. Everyone wants to, at some point, go to sea, so sayeth our narrator. Water is this mystical force that draws thinkers to it, by some strange sympathetic vibration. It was worshiped by the ancient Persians, and deified by the Greeks! Ishmael will often build up to big, classical allusions like this, as an appeal to their authority.
This sets the pattern for many of the non-narrative chapters, building up towards big torrents of examples, culminating with big proclamations of his true thesis. In this case, that is: “It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.” Everyone is interested in water, because of the images reflected in it. That is why it is so connected to philosophy and thought, to rumination and personal reflection.
The next argument presented is a pretty fun one, I think. Ishmael insists that he only ever goes to sea employed as an ordinary sailor, never an officer of any sort or a cook, and certainly not a passenger. Despite being :something of a salt”, Ishmael just doesn’t care for the responsibility of leadership, so doesn’t ever aspire to officerhood.
We get here the first couple of many references to the common, poorer man having an easier, more comfortable, more pleasant existence than the rich and powerful. Ishmael finds that passengers are often too prone to fighting (and don’t get paid), officers have to breathe bad, second-hand air. The common seaman gets to enjoy being on a boat, without having to worry about anything, except being ordered around.
I must take a moment to report another one of my absolute favorite quotes from this book, not to mention this chapter. Ishmael is talking about why he doesn’t ever ship out as a cook:
And as for going as cook,—though I confess there is considerable glory in that, a cook being a sort of officer on ship-board—yet, somehow, I never fancied broiling fowls;—though once broiled, judiciously buttered, and judgmatically salted and peppered, there is no one who will speak more respectfully, not to say reverentially, of a broiled fowl than I will. It is out of the idolatrous dotings of the old Egyptians upon broiled ibis and roasted river horse, that you see the mummies of those creatures in their huge bake-houses the pyramids.
Judgmatically is an incredible word, I encourage you to add it to your common vocabulary. Also, this is the first mention of Egypt and pyramids, which will come up much, much later. Keep it in mind!
There’s nothing fun about being ordered around, Ishmael admits, but everyone gets ordered around by someone, at the end of the day. So, there’s nothing wrong with being obedient, when it’s necessary. And to keep that in mind, when you have to order people around. He appeals to the reader, and says that everyone should just go easy: “[…]and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.”
Next up, why does Ishmael decide to go on a whaling ship, rather than the typical merchant ships he’s been on many times before? Well, it was fate, he tells us, quite bluntly. Which is to say, many little things pushed him towards it, which he can only now recognize, in retrospect. There’s a bit of a Calvinist in old Ishmael in this section. Everything was fore-ordained by Providence, and he only thinks he had any say in the matter.
Finally, though, Ishmael does admit that there was a sort of more grand philosophical motive: The Idea of The Whale. This is going to come back again and again in the non-narrative chapters, the notion of whales as this great, big, huge, mysterious… something. Out there in the world, waiting to be discovered, and learned about.
Perhaps the biggest thing we learn about Ishmael here is his philosophical nature. He’s a thinker, a dreamer, a pontificator. He is attracted to all mysteries, all strange occurrences and places. The mystery of these whales is just too much for him to resist, so he decides to go see them for himself.
The final paragraph leaves us with a bit of foreshadowing, speaking about all the whales he is to encounter on his voyage: “[…] and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.”
One other thing I’d like to note, just as a bit of fun, is the excerpt of a stereotypical (literally) newspaper that Ishmael references in this chapter. He is referencing his own fate being laid out as a minor footnote, among the great events of history:
“Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.“WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL. “BLOODY BATTLE IN AFGHANISTAN.”
How things change!
Hoo boy, there was almost too much to properly cover in this chapter. I may have to come back around to some things. As always, you can read along in a number of digital formats here. Next time, we begin the narrative properly!