Etymology & Extracts: Lord Help Me, I’m Back on My Bullshit Again

The book Moby Dick, or to give it’s proper, full title, Moby-Dick; or, the Whale, is my favorite piece of writing that exists. I think that if you give it a chance, you’ll find that it is not the chore that it initially appears. Indeed, from the very beginning, it’s positively brimming with character, crackling with folksy energies.

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My plan is to do a series of blog posts taking a journey through the book, chapter by chapter. I’ve read it many times, in the past half-decade or so, and this is just a little something to spice things up. Encourage a closer reading of the book, take a step back and really absorb what it’s doing, to appreciate its grandeur and melody more perfectly.

So, let us start right from the beginning, as is customary. Moby Dick kicks off a couple of alliterative little pseudo-chapters, titled “Etymology” and “Extracts”. The first contains a couple of definitions and partial etymologies of the world “whale”, as well as how it is written in a handful of the most important classical languages. The second, a hilariously exhaustive list of quotes about whales from an incredibly wide variety of sources.

This, in and of itself, is not that special or interesting, for a book from the 19th century. They often started with quotes that would turn out to be pertinent to the story about to be told, a sort of thematic preview of things to come. But what Melville does here is interesting, in two ways. He makes sport of this common practice, first by adding character to the sources of this scholarship, and second by their sheer volume.

Moby Dick

Both the Consumptive Usher and the poor Sub Sub Librarian are poetically described in full glory of their shabbiness. The latter moreso, with Melville really flexing his prose skills right from the get-go:

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, and in not altogether unpleasant sadness—Give it up, Sub-Subs!

He emphasizes the miserable character of the scholars, and the random, meaningless, insufficient nature of the material they have gathered. But then, what follows in an incredibly torrent of quotes, from an incredibly wide variety of sources. From the Bible. to Shakespeare to modern commentaries from whalers all over the world.

What’s going on here? Why, it’s the establishment of one of the major Themes of this whole book, as far as I see it. That is thus: It is impossible to know everything about anything. The world is so vast and mysterious that scholarship is a fool’s errand.

The “Extracts” is a thematic preview of the more philosophical chapters that come later in the book, which feature Ishmael reciting everything that is known about whales, and then declaring it all, in the end, useless.

Speaking of Ishmael, I found on this reading that his voice is quite apparent here, even before that famous first line. His sort of meandering, dramatic, friendly, folksy old voice is instantly recognizable. It really comes into full effect in the first chapter, but you get a good taste of it in the short paragraphs describing the poor scholars.

So, even before the book as truly begun, we get a neat little preview of one of the themes, a taste of Ishmael, and a whole lot of quotes about whales. But I think the biggest takeaway, for one of my personal theories about this work, is the very fact that these chapters are also a part of the fictional world of the book itself.

It is often the case that early novels, of the 18th and 19th century, were presented as found documents. Much like the modern genre of “found footage”, a found document means that the whole thing is supposedly real, a collection of papers or letters that fell into the lap of some archivist, who is in fact the real author. Normally, there is a sort of framing story, think of the story of the arctic explorer in Frankenstein, that explains how these documents were found and put into a book.

But, in Moby Dick, there isn’t that extra layer. The whole dang thing, from the table of contents on, is the work of the character Ishmael, in the fictional world of the book itself. This is, then, presumably, a book that was published by him later in life, after his many adventures in the world of whaling. I’ll get back to that later, when it comes to the question of Old Ishmael vs Young Ishmael.


I’ll try to do one or two of these a week, but I enjoyed writing it, as I hope you enjoyed reading it. If you’d like to read along, you can find the version of the book I’m reading here, available in a wide variety of formats. Until next time, shipmates!

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