Monday, August 31, 2009

How Graceful is Melville's Whale?

Rockwell Kent, "The Chase"

I've tentatively begun re-reading Herman Melville's masterpiece, Moby-Dick, and one word kept puzzling me, preventing me from making progress: חן.

This word, "chen," looked like the Hebrew word for "grace," but Melville defined it as "whale." I couldn't dredge up a whale for that, so I finally pulled my Gesenius Hebrew dictionary from its shelf and checked. Only "grace."

So . . . what's this about a whale, I wondered.

I went to Google Books and found a snippet of explanation:
[The] most accurate Hebrew word for whale was תנין, used in Genesis i,21 and Job vii,12, which is transcribed in the Roman alphabet as tannin. What Melville apparently wrote was תן (tan), the hypothetical singular, which did not occur in the Old Testament. (Melville, Moby-Dick, University of Michgan, 1952, with introduction by Nathaniel Philbrick, page 579)
Mystery solved . . . or is it? This snippet implies that Melville got it right but an editor got it wrong. But perhaps Melville inadvertently misperceived "sea monster" (תן = tan) as "grace" (חן = chen), mistaking the letter "tav" (ת) for the letter "heth" (ח). Or did Melville perhaps intentionally conflate "grace" (חן = chen) with "sea monster" (תן = tan) in some deeper irony? Such is the opinion of Michael West:
Moby-Dick begins with a bogus Hebrew etymology, causing editors no little confusion, but it is perhaps no accident that the Hebrew characters Melville supplied form the word not for whale but for grace. (West, Transcendental Wordplay : America's Romantic Punsters and the Search for the Language of Nature, Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2000, page 333)
West cites pages 1-6 of Neal Schleifer's article "Melville as Lexicographer: Linguistics and Symbolism in Moby-Dick" in Melville Society Extracts (Volume 98, September 1994), which can be read in full online. Schliefer's analysis is speculative but intriguing, for he notes on page 2 that the letter "heth" (ח) of the word "grace" (חן = chen) introduces an "h," and he suggests that a quote from Hackluyt supplied by Melville shortly prior to the erroneous "grace" offers a clue that the 'error' is intentional:
While you take in hand to school others, and to teach them by what name a whale fish is to be called in our tongue, leaving out, through ignorance, the letter H, which almost alone maketh up the signification of the word, you deliver that which is not true.
Is Schliefer correct? Possibly, given the Hackluyt quote, but Schliefer's following, overly ingenious reading of Melville's 'erroneous' Greek as a miswritten "Christos" is about as hard to swallow as the story of Jonah.

So who is right, and where lies the truth? Such questions never end . . .

Labels: , , ,


At 9:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My view is that the record of Jonah and the great fish (not necessarily a whale), is hard to swallow because of the supernatural element.

There are fish, including certain whales, one called the jewfish, and possibly others, that are sufficiently big enough, to swallow and transport Jonah to the shore.

I contend that Jonah actually died, then was swallowed and transported, burped out, then revived (Jonah, ch. 2).

This would require miraculous intervention. As would the destruction threatened to Nineveh, the shady vine that died.

Not so hard to swallow if you believe in a God of creation, able to perform miracles, in any way He chooses.

I was able to enjoy Melville's tale, even without laboring over hidden introspections.


At 9:49 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, I was making a wordplay rather than a serious point there on "swallow" . . . but my serious interest is Melville's use of the great letter "H" in his etymologies.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 11:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suspect an answer to this would be as long as Moby Dick. To conflate "whale" and "grace" is odd to say the least. Leviathan has always carried evil connotations, unless the suggestion is that "grace" is known through "evil" i.e that you have to know the whale/evil to be able to recognise the opposite grace/goodness. Something very Miltonic about this.

At 4:51 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, Melville strikes me as very much like Milton in his literary interests -- though he may have aimed at 'unjustifying' the ways of God to men.

His peculiar use of the whale as image of 'evil' seems to be bound up with his critique of a Calvinist conception of God . . . but I've not read enough literary criticism on this to be certain of just what Melville was up to.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 10:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Much to be done of late, more rapidly approaching so...

Jonah attained "grace" (bear with me) by being swallowed then uh burped out. Ahab of course didn't get the burped treatment.

Call me Ismael but I think perhaps Melville engaged in a bit of wordplay himself as allegory betwixt pursuing "grace" and something quite different. Very intentionally.

First time in months I've missed Gypsy or three days running.


At 11:48 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Could be JK, and I'll be considering it as I re-read Melville.

Good to have you back.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


Post a Comment

<< Home