Whale of a Tale on the Trail . . .
The writer, critic, and editor Verlyn Klinkenborg, in "A Back-Seat Narrator by the Name of Ishmael" (New York Times, January 26, 2013), asks a couple of questions after a road trip across the US from New York State to Los Angeles, California with a friend and also 'Ishmael':
Is there a stranger figure in American literature than the narrator of "Moby-Dick"?Why this question? Because:
He says, "Call me Ishmael" -- the very first words of the book -- but that isn't exactly the same as saying "My name is Ishmael." He could be anyone, of any name, but Ishmael is what the reader must agree to call him before the book can get under way.Such is the first question and its reason. Perhaps Klinkenborg is right in his implied answer, namely, no stranger name than "Ishmael." And 'Ishmael' remains a stranger no matter how much we discover about him, for he has a very strange story to tell. Moreover, though he begins as Ishmael, one whom the Bible in Genesis 12:16 calls "a wild man," untameable, he appears at the tale's end as a servant, possibly, but we'll see about that in a moment. For now, the second question:
Why does Ishmael survive in italics?I'd never noticed, but Klinkenborg must be right, so the question is a worthy one, and he notes:
The rest of the book is set in roman type, but the epilogue is not. What manner of being is this italicized survival?That sounds like a third question, but what does Klinkenborg mean by "being"? Does he mean entity . . . or state? Anyway, I'm interested in the answers to these two -- or three -- questions because I allude to Melville's strange masterpiece in my novella, The Bottomless Bottle of Beer, quoting from the ending of Moby Dick:
And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.That's also a quote from the King James Version of Job chapter one, a line repeated in verses 15, 16, 17, and 19, and it seems to imply that the one in each verse delivering the message of disaster to Job is one of Job's servants. The citation of this line at the end of Moby Dick perhaps implies that the one who called himself Ishmael -- or, rather, suggested that we call him that -- is no longer the wild man but a mere servant . . . except that in reporting the story of disaster, the first thing he tells us is to call him Ishmael. Moreover, the passage in Job does not explicitly refer to the one delivering the message of disaster as a servant, but as a messenger, literally a "mal'ak," a word that can also mean "angel." Was Melville aware of all this? He does offer the Hebrew word for "whale" in his etymologies, but he gets the Hebrew wrong. We are left with more questions.
Here's yet another: Was I aware of these things when I quoted from Job in part six of my story as a way of referring to both Melville and Job, within the context of a cursed canoe, a legend of old Quebec? Read my story to find out. There's a preview here, and if that interests you, the book can be ordered here.
Anyway, dear readers, any thoughts as to the answers to Klinkenborg's questions?