I promise nothing complete; because any human thing supposed to be complete must for that very reason infallibly be faulty. (31)
Since it first appeared in 1851, Moby Dick has puzzled and even dismayed readers. By the time most readers get to it, they are already familiar with the story of mad Captain Ahab and his chase for the white whale, the friendship between Ishmael and his tattooed Queequeg, and the sinking of the Pequod. These incidents, and many images from the book, have entered the culture and become mythological. What puzzles about the book, though, is that the story occupies little more than a third of the whole. Instead of the gripping, Treasure-Island-like yarn we expect, what the reader gets is a loose baggy monster in which the yarn is interrupted by endless boring pages of seemingly unnecessary expository writing on the history, culture and lore of whaling, detailed descriptions of the whale's anatomy, long arguments about the classification and naming of whales. Just when the story gets going, it's interrupted by another technical passage about a rope, or a description of how to strip blubber. Many readers just skip these bits; and adaptations for film, TV and children also focus only on the narrative element, gutting the novel in the same way that whalers gut Leviathan. The novel alternates between two kinds of writing, then: narrative, and expository. For many, the presence of these non-narrative elements means that Moby Dick remains a deeply flawed book, a failure. However, the expository passages are crucial for Melville's project. Not only because they provide the background for the events of the narrative, and put those events into a perspective (Ishmael calls this a side-light), but also because they contain the main burden of the epistemological enquiry of the novel.
In his famous essay on Hawthorn, written during the writing of Moby Dick, Melville writes about Truth. He says that Truth can only be revealed covertly and by snatches: Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands, and only by cunning glimpses will she reveal herself. In Moby Dick, the white doe in the woodlands is transformed into a white whale in the waters of the world. Ahab's quest for the whale is a quest for Truth, in which the whale becomes that Truth. However, this meaning of the book is not restricted only to the allegorical, surface level, in which Ahab and whale stand for something else (indeed, the narrator specifically warns against a purely allegorical reading of the novel). It is woven into the fabric of the entire text.
Melville's conception of the novel is epic: it embraces the world and creates a world. Which means it needs to present this world, describe it in all its realistic, economic, mechanical, historical, social, technical, cultural detail. Melville's imagination in Redburn and Moby Dick is omnivorous. He wants to include everything. Both novels include detailed descriptions of seafaring (Redburn of merchanting, and Moby Dick of whaling). In the expository passages, technical mysteries to do with whaling - in effect, arcana - are explained for the layman. For without a penetration of arcana, the reader's understanding of the story- of the world- is incomplete, diminished: ...without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory. (44)
Since I have undertaken to manhandle this Leviathan, it behooves me to approve myself omnisciently exhaustive in the enterprise... (103)
Melville's genius as an artist is that he explains arcana without ever stooping to didacticism.
Melville's choice of genre - the sea novel, the sailor's yarn - is important here. Redburn and Moby Dick are both united in their setting of the ship, a world apart from the everyday experience of the reader, a world in which knowledge of arcana, and the correct naming and using of them, have life and death importance, both for the characters in the narrative and for the success of the narrative itself in the mind of the reader. It's this which marks Melville out from the other 19th century giants, who, because they were describing a world familiar to the reader, did not have to provide long technical descriptions to create a contextual understanding of that world for the reader, while simultaneously describing a narrative taking place in that world. For it is only with a full appreciation of context that the narrative has full meaning: And taken with the context, this is full of meaning. (8)
John Locke writes in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding that his purpose is to inquire into the originality, certainty, and extent of human knowledge, together with the grounds and degrees of belief, opinion and assent. This is also the purpose of Melville in Moby Dick, as I shall hope to show in these notes.
What am I that I should essay to hook the nose of this leviathan!
The text is a series of antitheses:
land vs sea
fire vs water
landlubber vs seaman
ashore vs afloat
hunter vs hunted
mammal vs 'fish'
right whale vs sperm whale
democracy vs tyranny (which the text calls 'sultanism')
text vs 'reality'
book-learning vs practical experience
innate ideas vs empiricism
received opinion vs science
metaphysics vs materialism
warp vs weft
poetry vs prose
narrative vs exposition
fact vs fiction
realism vs the fantastic
Locke vs Kant
These antitheses, however, are not conceived of as opposites; they are not poles apart, but the weft and warp of a fabric.
The text abounds in references to weaving, and attention is given to fabric by the constant descriptions of clothes (and states of sailorly undress), the work of patching and mending with needle and thread, the repairing of nets and the weaving of mats. Weaving and looms are highlighted specifically by the text in three key places: the chapter title of the very first chapter; and the long metaphysical conceit Ishmael spins in his mind as he makes a mat with Queequeg in Chapter 46 The Mat Maker: The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course- its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that; free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions directed by free will, though thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events. What's significant for our purposes here is not the tenor of the metaphor, interesting though this is, but the vehicle of the metaphor: the presence of the loom and the warp and the weft. The third place where the loom is highlighted is Pip's madness, of which the text says: He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. (92)
The text is a veil, a net, in which to catch the elusive white doe or white whale of Truth. Both warp and weft have equal tension in the weaving, and neither one is privileged over the other.
...though of real knowledge there be little, yet of books there are a plenty. (31)
One of the key antitheses is that between knowledge as book-learning, knowledge from texts, versus knowledge from experience, knowledge from personal observation. This is the meaning of the Extracts with which the novel opens. They begin with Genesis, and end with a whaling song. Between these two we can mark a trajectory from the most general sighting of a whale, a creature so mythical as to be completely textual, in effect, unreal - Leviathan- to a particular - the real whale from Owen Chace's narrative of the disaster of the whaleship Essex, which formed part of the inspiration for Moby Dick. We also glimpse a/the white whale in these extracts. They reflect the themes and course of the narrative, but their purpose is to foreground the role played by book-learning in the formation of knowledge, and to map out in advance the journey from 'the book' to 'the world'.
The Extracts given at the front of the book are echoed later by those given at the start of the Cetology chapter, where the narrator remarks: Of the names on this list of whale authors, only those following Owen ever saw living whales, and but one of them was a real professional harpooner. This refers to the list of authors cited in that chapter, but it may be read as also referring to the Extracts. Like the Extracts, the list of authors cited in Cetology mark a trajectory from book-learning to practical experience.
Linnaeus regarded the whale as a creature which was not a fish, giving reasons connected to the biological classification of the animal (book-learning). When Ishmael shows this to two of his shipmates, they pour scorn on the idea, asserting that Linnaeus's classification is 'humbug', for the reason that it does not match the experience gained at sea. For whalers, a fish is any sea-going animal which is hunted for the economic benefit of its oil, and defined in these practical, experiential terms, the whale is undoubtedly a fish.
Of these two modes, be it noted here that the novel equates book-learning with the expository sections, and practical experience with the narrative sections. The reader is expected to evaluate the respective worth of both, using critical, scientific thinking in the expository sections of the novel, and imaginative, empathic thinking in the narrative sections. The irony here is that the narrative sections (practical experience) and the dramatic arc of the novel are heavily based on a text, that of Owen Chace's narrative of the wreck of the whale ship Essex.
So, when on one side you hoist in Locke's head, you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant's and you come back again; but in very poor plight. (72)
"Hast seen the white whale?"
The spirit of Locke fills the sails of this novel. When the Pequod encounters other whaling ships from the fishery, news is exchanged of sightings of a white whale. This raises two questions:
- Is this white whale the same white whale, or is it different white whales?
- Is this white whale Moby Dick, or another white whale?
These are essentially questions concerning categorisation (1) and naming (2), the basic activities of reason; and these are also the central concerns of Book 3 of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
The sorting of things is the workmanship of the understanding that abstracts and makes those general ideas.
Essay Concerning Human Understanding 3.3.12
Men, making abstract ideas, and setting them in their minds with names annexed to them, do thereby enable themselves to consider things, and discourse of them...
Essay Concerning Human Understanding 3.3.20
Briefly summarized, Locke's argument runs like this:
- perception is a twofold process which involves the operation of the senses in perceiving things, and the operation of the mind in forming ideas of those things
- the mind itself cannot perceive things in the world, it can only make ideas about the things in the world as they are presented to it by the senses, and then perceive those ideas
- things in the world give rise to ideas of those things in the mind
- words signify ideas in the mind of the speaker, not things in the world
- we cannot name (the idea of) every particular (every single leaf) with its own word: this would be impracticable due to the vast number of particulars in the world
- we have to sort particulars into categories first- the category of 'leaf'- and then name the category
- words therefore signify generalities, not particulars (only proper names, such as 'Alexander', are particular significations)
- for effective communication, words have to have clear, mutually agreed upon definitions
- which is the same as saying that categories have to have clear boundaries
- categorising (ideas of) things involves the correct understanding of their essences
- there are two kinds of essences: real essences, which are basically unknowable because they lie outside the realm of the mind; and nominal essences, which can be understood as the names we give to (ideas of) things
- the sorting of (the ideas of) particulars into general categories mirrors the process of forming complex, abstract ideas by combining many simple ideas
Locke himself summarizes categorising and naming thus:
That then which general words signify is a SORT of things; and each of them does that by being a sign of an abstract idea in the mind, to which idea, as things existing are found to agree, so they come to be ranked under that name, or, which is all one, be of that sort. Whereby it is evident that the essences of the sorts, or if the Latin word pleases better, SPECIES of things, are nothing else but these abstract ideas.
Essay concerning Human Understanding 3.3.12
Now, in the above description, substitute for the word 'leaf' the word 'whale' , and for 'Alexander' substitute 'Moby Dick', and the importance of Locke's ideas for Melville's project begins to come clear.
O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies; not the smallest atom stirs or lives in matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind. (69)
Moby Dick is obsessed with categorising and naming things. Apart from the taxonomic chapter Cetelogy - of which more later -, we are given detailed descriptions of other categories: pictures of whales, whiteness, classes and degrees of officers and harpooneers, categories of fast and loose fish; we are treated to debates on the borders between categories: the nature of the whale's spout -vapour or water? - the nature of the whale's skin, the boundary between the whale's head and the whale's body, and his tail. The importance of correct knowledge and naming of arcana which we noted earlier is reflected in the importance given to categories and naming, a typically Lockean concern.
Typee or Happar?
Consider the chapter titles in which objects are named, and the chapters in which these objects and their use are minutely described, anatomised and categorised:
Chapter 16 The Ship
Chapter 43 The Chart
Chapter 61 The Dart
Chapter 95 The Try Works
Chapter 96 The Lamp
Chapter 113 The Forge
Chapter 117 The Quadrant
Chapter 118 The Candles
Chapter 122 The Musket
Chapter 123 The Needle
Chapter 124 The Log and Line
Chapter 125 The Lifebuoy
Chapter 126 The Deck
I could do but little to help the rest, not knowing the name of anything...
Redburn Chapter 13
Chapter 62 The Crotch
Out of the trunk, the branches grow; out of them, the twigs. So in productive subjects, grow the chapters.
This enigmatic little snippet is an image of a taxonomic tree, of the kind created by Linneus, in his Systema Naturae, and by Locke, in his Essay. The Essay itself can be seen as kind of taxonomy of ideas, in which ideas are sorted into categories: mixed modes, relations, simple ideas, abstract ideas, and so on. Locke's argument in the Essay branches and crotches.
Now, it is a moot point whether, or indeed to what extent, Melville had studied Locke's Essay - and it's my contention that he knew it intimately- but the fact is that everywhere Moby Dick foregrounds the same problems that Locke discusses. Let's look at four examples.
First, the difference between real and nominal essences. Locke stresses that categorization is a mental activity, and that we classify things according to the ideas we have of them, not according to natural boundaries in the things themselves (which the mind cannot know). He sets up two contrasting modes of mental activity: one in which categorization and naming is carried out on our ideas of the things of the world, and one in which they are (mistakenly) carried out on the things of the world themselves. The former is easier and the latter more difficult: In determining the species of things by OUR abstract ideas, this is easy to resolve: but if any one will regulate himself herein by supposed REAL essences, he will I suppose, be at a loss: and he will never be able to know when anything precisely ceases to be of the species...
Essay Concerning human Understanding 3.3.14
I have given no small attention to that not unvexed subject, the skin of the whale. I have had controversies about it with experienced whalemen afloat, and learned naturalists ashore. (67)
In this chapter concerning the skin of the whale, Melville sets up a tension between these two modes of mental activity. On the one hand is the mental category 'skin', which is easy enough, but on the other is the real phenomenon of the whale's skin, which is a vexing matter. Thus, for one man, the skin of the whale is the blubber, while for another the skin is the transparent, 'isinglass substance' which covers the blubber. The category 'skin' as a real essence found in nature is highly problematic, but as a nominal essence, an idea, a mental construct, it is clear. As Ishmael says: what and where is the skin of the whale? (67) The skin is also an image for the boundary between in and out, and therefore an image of the boundary between categories.
Melville takes up Locke's warning that categorisation according to real essences - Melville's practical experience of reality- is more difficult and error-prone than categorisation according to previously established mental criteria - Melville's book-learning- and that these two modes of thought must never be confused for each other.
Second, the importance given to correct definitions. We have already seen how Linnaeus's definition of a whale is received by whalemen, and Ishmael offers his own definition of a whale in Cetology, as a spouting fish with a horizontal tail. Upon this definition he builds his system.
Locke says that simple ideas (whiteness, for example) cannot be defined, only complex ideas can. He gives the example of a blind man who defines the colour scarlet as 'like the sound of a trumpet'. Locke points out that this is not strictly a definition, but a simile or metaphor.
In Moby Dick, in Chapter 41 The Whiteness of the Whale, Ishmael, aware that whiteness cannot be defined, gives a category analysis of whiteness, using similes, metaphors, images, emotions and reactions, in order to approach a definition of whiteness in some dim random way... a task that Ishmael regards as both difficult and necessary: ...and then explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught. An understanding of whiteness is necessary but not to be arrived at through definition.
Third, words are sounds which signify ideas in the minds only by common usage, convention, assent. Which means that there is an arbitrary nature to the whole project of naming and categorizing. This then gives rise to a number of important questions concerning accuracy and authority:
- Who makes the boundaries of the sort or species? 3. 5.10
- Wherein consists the precise and unmoveable boundaries of that species? 3. 6.27
- Who of all these has established the right signification of the word..? 3.9.13
- Who shall determine in this case which are those that are to make up the precise collection that is to be signified by the specific name? 3.9.14
Towards the end of Book 3, Locke raises the suggestion that those engaged in the real pursuit of things, rather than those purely engaged in book-learning, may be the ones to turn to for authority and accuracy regarding categorising and naming:
Those ignorant men (he means those not versed in book-learning) who pretend not any insight into the real essences nor trouble themselves about substantial forms, (in other words, who do not trouble themselves with philosophical questions) but are content with knowing things one from another by their sensible qualities (i.e.: from what can be perceived through experience), are often better acquainted with their differences; can more nicely distinguish them from their uses (note the importance of practical usage), and better know what what they expect from each, than those learned quick sighted men (the philosophers - quick sighted is ironic) who look so deep into them and talk so confidently of something more hidden and essential. 3.6.24
We have already seen how Moby Dick establishes a warp and weft with the contrasting ideas of knowledge-from-book-learning, and knowledge-from-practical experience. Melville states again and again that the views of the whalemen regarding categorisation and naming are just as valid as the categories established by the learned taxonomists, many of whom who have never seen a whale. The novel privileges the view of the sailor, the harpooneer, the specialist in use, those who can more nicely distinguish things from their uses, and better know what what they expect from each. In the chapters listed above, the use of objects by those who know them is emphasized.
Pliny tells us of whales that embraced acres of living bulk...but will any whaleman believe these stories? No. ... And if ever I go where Pliny is, I, a whaleman, will make bold to tell him so. (104)
Pythagoras, that in bright Greece, two thousand years ago, did die, so good, so wise, so mild; I sailed with thee along the Peruvian coast last voyage- and, foolish as I am, taught thee, a green simple boy, how to splice a rope. (97)
Fourth, is the role played by the correct perception of data, the role played by looking. Locke is aware that the correct perception of sense data is affected by names we already have of them. He says that words interpose themselves so much between our understanding and the truth which it would contemplate and apprehend, that, like the medium through which visible objects pass, the obscurity and disorder do not seldom cast a mist before our eyes and impose upon our understandings. 3.9. 21. In fact, pure observation is one of the understated problems of empiricism, as purity of observation is well nigh impossible. Locke stresses that for a correct knowledge of certain things, words are inadequate, and only sight will do: leading qualities are best made known by showing, and can hardly be made known otherwise. For the shape of a horse or a cassowary (or a whale) will be but rudely imprinted on the mind by words, the sight of the animals doth it a thousand times better 3.11.21. He emphasises that the foundation of knowledge is the perception of the senses. For Locke, perception of sense data, ideas about sense data and the language we use to name these ideas are inextricably bound up and mutually limit the extent of our knowledge: the whole extent of our knowledge or imagination reaches not beyond our own ideas limited to our ways of perception. 3.11.23.
Moby Dick is full of incidents where looking and perception interact with ideas and naming. In Chapter 34 The Masthead, Ishmael's ability to see the spout of the whale and sing out is affected by his meditations on the problems of the world: Let me make a clean breast of it here, and frankly admit that I kept but sorry guard. With the problem of the universe revolving in me, (thoughts about the world) how could I- being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude- how could I but lightly hold my obligations to observe all whaleships' standing orders, "Keep your weather eye open (perception of the world), and sing out every time." (naming of the world)
Ahab's notion that Moby Dick is motivated by malice is a result of his own obsession and may not be a clear perception at all. The whale surgeon on board the Samuel Enderby points out that what Ahab perceives as malice may in fact only be awkwardness on the whale's part: He never means to swallow a single limb, he only thinks to terrify by feints (99). Ahab's obsession casts a mist before his eyes (to use Locke's own marvelous phrase) and his reading of the world is limited by his ideas of the world.
In Chapter 67 on the skin of the whale, Ishmael notes that the isinglass-like substance covering the whale can be dried, and used as a magnifying glass: It is pleasant to read about whales through their own spectacles, as you might say, an image of how those who seek knowledge of whales - and by extension, the things of the world - do so through the substance of their own interests and questions.
In Chapter 98 The Doubloon, an object - a doubloon nailed to the main mast - gives rise to a variety of readings in the minds of those who eye it. Starbuck sees in it a trinity of Death, God and Righteousness, Stubbs sees in it a Zodiacal almanac, Flask sees in it a source of cigars should he win it. For each member of the crew this round thing made of gold is the stimulus for an idea, and this idea is circumscribed by the scope of that man's obsessions and desires.
It is Pip who tells us what is going on this chapter, in an ironic comment, voiced three times: I look, you look, he looks, we look, ye look, they look. The choice of verb for Pip's conjugations is of course highly pertinent, but more than that is the presence of conjugation itself. It makes no sense to talk of conjugating English verbs, as English verbs are not inflected (except in the third person singular present simple), so that what we have is an imposition from Latin grammar - conjugating inflected verbs- onto English; in other words, an imposition from the world of book-learning onto a phenomenon of experience.
We note here that the limiting of perception by preconceived ideas or ideology is a typical Melvillian concern. It forms the main thematic and structural enquiry of Benito Cereno, for example.
Book! you lie there; the fact is, you books must know your places. You'll do to give us the bare words and facts, but we come in to supply the thoughts. (98)
At the end of Book 3 of the Essay, Locke proposes a dictionary of ideas compiled by those who have learned their knowledge from practical experience rather than through book-learning: It were therefore to be wished that men versed in physical inquiries, and acquainted with the several sorts of natural bodies would set down those simple ideas wherein they observe the individuals of each sort constantly to agree. 3.11.25 In one sense, Ishmael is a man versed in physical enquiries, and his narrative is just such a dictionary. Locke goes further, proposing that in such a dictionary, words standing for things which are known and distinguished by their outward shapes should be expressed by little draughts and prints made of them. 3.11.25 This will settle truer ideas in men's minds of those things than words can. Ishmael makes a similar point in the chapters where he describes the drawings of whales, another incidence of category making in the novel: I shall ere long paint to you as well as one can without canvas something like the true form of the whale as he actually appears to the eye of the whaleman...It is time to set the world right in this matter by proving such (monstrously inaccurate) pictures of the whale all wrong. (54)
The classification of the constituents of a chaos, nothing less is here essayed. (31)
All these Lockean splicings find their fullest and most concentrated expression in Chapter 31 Cetology, one of the most assured and original pieces of writing in Melville's career, and one of the highlights of the book (it's also the chapter where many, more narrative oriented, readers abandon the book), and it is to this which we now turn.
The title itself is laden with ironies, standing for the particular scientific field of cetology, which in turn represents all categorising and naming endeavours generally. At the same time, it also stands for Ishmael's own (satirical) classification system.
After emphasising the importance of understanding arcana for a full understanding of the story to follow, we are told that this field is in an uncertain, unsettled condition, testifying to the difficulties inherent in any classification activity. We are reminded of Locke's warning about the difficulties of classifying things according to their real essences, and of the issues of authority and accuracy that he raises.
In the best academic tradition Ishmael begins with a literature review, and in the best academic tradition, he rubbishes the attempts of previous classifiers, pointing out that most of the scholars he cites have never seen a whale (the importance of knowledge gained through practical experience). He then proposes a new system, based on his own definition (the importance of defining) of a whale as a spouting fish with a horizontal tail (the importance of looking).
He then offers his credentials as one of Locke's ignorant men...versed in physical enquiries, but also stressing that his knowledge is derived from practical experience and book-learning: I have swam through libraries and sailed through oceans, I have had to do with whales with these visible hands.
In a series of dizzying ironies, he cites Biblical evidence as the basis for his classification of the whale as a fish. This is disingenuous: his real criteria are the economic ones we mentioned earlier, and his use of a textual precedent rather than a practical one for his classification of the whale as a fish is an ironic juxtaposition of practical knowledge and book-learning, a juxtaposition that forms the basis of the chapter.
Then comes Ishmael's own taxonomy, which combines brilliantly, beautifully and hilariously book-learning and practical experience in the form of an extended metaphorical conceit (Melville, as we have seen, loves doing this) in which the things of the world (whales) are categorised in terms of book-learning (books: FOLIO, OCTAVO, DUODECIMO), and genus and species are compared with Book and Chapter.
Three things are significant in the entries in this bibliographical system:
Each entry ironically emphasises practical experience by highlighting 1) the economic reality underpinning Ishmael's classification of the whale as a fish (a sea animal hunted for the economic benefit of its oil): whale oil is an inferior article in commerce.... some of these whales will yield you upwards of thirty gallons of oil;
and, by highlighting 2) the interaction between man and whale in the hunt: He is never chased, he would run away with rope walks of line....gifted with such wondrous power and velocity in swimming as to defy all present pursuit from man.... I have lowered for him many times, but never yet saw him captured.
Each entry foregrounds the difficulties inherent in naming, and all possible names -as far as Ishmael is aware of them- are given for each species he describes: among the fishermen he is indiscriminately designated by all the following titles: The Whale, The Greenland Whale, the Black Whale, the Great Whale, the True Whale, the Right Whale. Ishmael, like Locke, points out the difficulties of categorising and naming: There is a deal of obscurity concerning the indentity of the species thus multitudinously baptized. He also comes up with a few names of his own to add to the confusion: You might call him the Elephant and Castle Whale... the Huzza Porpoise... the name is my own bestowal. Empty signifiers are also given, names for which no whale has ever been seen; and Ishmael mentions other naming systems in other languages common in the fishery.
Each entry emphasises the activity of looking by dwelling always on the shape of the whale, on what can be seen: From what I have seen of him at a distance...even if not the slightest other part of the creature be visible, this isolated fin, will, at times, be seen plainly projecting from the surface. Ishmael eschews a categorisation system based on knowledge of internal essences, espousing instead one based on shape and size: if you descend into the bowels of the various leviathans, why, there you will not find distinctions a fiftieth part as available to the systematiser as those external ones already enumerated. What then remains? Nothing but to take hold of the whales bodily, in their entire liberal volume and boldly sort them that way.
Thus, while the overall system represents book-learning, the details of that system emphasise practical experience, and they echo all the Lockean splicings we have mentioned above.
The chapter ends with Ishmael emphasising his system's incompleteness, and bemoaning his human limitations: Heaven keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but draught -nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash and Patience!
This so nearly echoes Locke's own description of his proposed dictionary, that one cannot help but come to the conclusion that Ishmael/Melville intended this chapter as an ironic fulfilment of Locke's proposal: Such a dictionary as I have above mentioned will require too much time, cost, and pains to be hoped for in this age...
Essay Concerning Human Understanding 3.11.25
It is by endless subdivisions based upon the most inconclusive differences that some departments of natural history become so repellingly intricate...(31)
So, what is the Truth that the net of Moby Dick catches? In one sense - a hideous, allegorical sense- Moby Dick is a Faustian parable, a warning, about the unfettered pursuit of knowledge, in which that knowledge finally catches up with the seeker and bites him in the leg.
But, in another sense, the novel expresses a profound disagreement with Locke's philosophy. Locke is fairly certain that the (ideas we have of the) things of the world can be sorted and classified, that knowledge can be tabulated, recorded, discoursed about. Locke's taxonomies proceed in a calm and ordered procession. Although he is aware of the propensity of language for distortion and abuse, he is untroubled by doubts as to the ultimate correctness of his ideas, of the ultimate possibility of understanding and knowing the world.
Melville profoundly disagrees with this. Moby Dick hints at a deep doubt about the possibility of knowing. Even simple things are beyond knowledge: My dear Sir, in this world it is not so easy to settle these plain things. I have ever found your plain things the knottiest of all. (84) The Truth Moby Dick expresses is that knowledge is ultimately impossible, illusory, tenuous, fleeting and incomplete. Knowledge gained from books is mere signs and wonders: you books must know your places (98). Knowledge gained though language is suspect, as language may only be mere sounds, full of Leviathanism, but signifying nothing (31). Even thought itself is suspect as a mode of knowing, for to think's audacity. God only has that right and privilege. Thinking is, or ought to be, a coolness and a calmness; and our poor hearts throb, and our poor brains beat too much for that.(135)
In the shortest chapter in the novel, Chapter 23, The Lee Shore, Ishmael sets up a contrast between the certainty of the land and the uncertainty of the sea. The certainty of the land (the illusion of knowledge) is treacherous, slavish, a lee shore which threatens to destroy the seaman; while the uncertainty of the sea is independence, indefiniteness, eternal mystery (the recognition that knowledge is impossible). Man's true condition, Melville says, in contradiction to Locke, is uncertainty, and we should embrace it.
Glimpses do you seem to see of that mortally intolerable Truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea, while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore. But as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God - so better is it to perish in that howling infinite than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee shore, even if that were safety. (23)
For unless you own the whale, you are but a provincial and sentimentalist in Truth. (75)
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.