- Literature, Disaster, and the Enigma of Power: A Reading of Moby-Dick
As a study of the privileged role literature plays in the transmission of cultural trauma, Literature, Disaster, and the Enigma of Power extends well beyond the realm of Melville scholarship. In an elegantly conceptualized argument, Peretz contends that only in and through literature as a performative act can disaster "be fully heard, witnessed, and uttered in a way which will do justice to it." His reading sheers away from current trends of historicizing in favor of an engagement that casts itself forward, employing Moby-Dick's timeless "scene of utterance" and the "wounding strangeness" of American literature as a testimonial to the destruction of European identity. By seeing Melville's narrative as a paradigmatic textual prefiguration of twentieth-century disaster, Peretz launches his subject into contemporary discussions of trauma, the embodiment of history, and—most propitiously—the worth of literature at a time when some see it as an "orphaned" adjunct to nonliterary discourses.
Peretz begins, with a nod to Antonin Artaud, by drawing resonant parallels between Ishmael's encounter with the whale and Freud's [End Page 795] encounter with art, detailing the act of witnessing the traumatic, epistemologically fraught occurrence that Peretz calls a "white event." In such an encounter, the overwhelming event manifests as a riddle invoking the collapse of knowledge, the resort to a "vocabulary of power," and an imperative to transmit the event to the future. While his analysis of power revisits the terms of previous scholarship, Peretz transcends traditional accounts of the political struggle between Ahab and Ishmael (provided here by the Cold War critics via Donald Pease) by questioning what demands the use of the vocabulary of power in the first place.
Answering this question involves addressing a complex relationship encompassing testimonial language, fabulous language, and the nature of linguistic address, authority, and meaning. Peretz convincingly elucidates these associations at multiple levels. The exposure of Ahab's vulnerable body and its reorientation consequent to physical wounding permit the introduction of "a dimension of meaning or sense"; this irruption in turn calls for the vocabulary of power when that of knowledge proves epistemologically inadequate. The substituted language, one of excess, then becomes the vehicle for enigma. The enigmatic white event questions and implicates Ishmael as well, Peretz argues, and Ishmael's breathless 468-word account of Moby-Dick's whiteness relates an encounter as wounding to him as physical mutilation is to Ahab. According to Peretz, a disastrous encounter such as that with the whale precipitates a crisis of authority and comprehension not only for Ahab and Ishmael, but also for the novel's readers. "The wound, the cry, and whiteness have to be thought together," Peretz writes, in an assertion characteristic of both the study as a whole and its attendant strength: a conceptual alignment of trauma, witnessing, and address placing Moby-Dick and its strategies at the heart of any cultural self-understanding we might glean from the story of catastrophe that is the long twentieth century.
Peretz's recasting of intertextuality as "a category of witnessing" productively qualifies the Bloomian anxiety of influence. It also leads to curious, haunting conclusions: "white events" like the disastrous sinking of the whaling ship Essex survive only as literary events, and this contextless narrative, "[testifying] avant-la-lettre to the horrors . . . of the twentieth century," discloses the meaning of its future historical context as incomprehensibility itself. His point—that the patterns, if not the particulars, of Moby-Dick reverberate into our time—merits elaboration. Yet Peretz relegates the single extended example of a modern literary-historical relationship to his copious endnotes, which raises a pair of related difficulties. [End Page 796]
First, more such explorations (implicitly promised in the introduction) would have gratifyingly extended what is, in this respect, a tantalizingly brief book. Second, and more unsettling: his conclusion that Moby-Dick testifies equally to literary and historical disasters, and that "[b]oth kinds of events actually address us in a similar manner," could be misconstrued as a...