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SPEECH IN MOBY-DICK Louise K. Barnett* To render the infinitely meaningful and mysterious universe of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville draws upon the languages of drama, exposition , narration, argument, exhortation, and prophecy, l all of which, in the crucible of his style, are steeped in the same rhetorical intensity and embellishment. This linguistic richness and exuberance match the wonders of the phenomenological world of the novel and everywhere assert the power of words to transmute the neutral stuff of reality, the passive beingness of nature, into subjective visions of meaning and order .2 As J. L. Austin writes, "Sensa, that is things, colours, noises, and the rest . . . are dumb, and only previous experience enables us to identify them. If we choose to say that they 'identify themselves' . . . then it must be admitted that they share the birthright of all speakers, that of speaking unclearly and untruly."3 This is the epistemological terrain of the novel: language, the text proposes, can provide a coherent perspective, a story that may be more or less authorized, but definitive explanation is beyond its reach—not because of its own inherent limitations but because the stuff of reality is ultimately intractable to the sensemaking process of language. In Melville's words to Hawthorne, "we incline to think that God cannot explain His own secrets, and that He would like a little information upon certain points Himself."4 Moreover, he speculates, "perhaps, after all, there is no secret,"5 a void of meaning that no effort of communication can overcome. In the face of the novel's many fictive voices and the meditated assault by Captain Ahab, nature remains silent and impenetrable, a condition more frustrating and enraging to Ahab than what he takes to be the wilfully inflicted blows of Moby-Dick. Malignity may be understood and responded to; inscrutability cannot. A man of action and eloquence, Ahab opposes an adversary whose "great genius" is "declared in his pyramidical silence." Society also presents serious difficulties to the ordering and expressive functions of language, but of a different sort from those in the world of nature; its ground is ethics rather than metaphysics. As hierarchy and institution, society is unfailingly flawed and coercive throughout Melville 's fiction, a collection of "civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits"; as community, a locus of shared purpose and feeling, it is fatally ambiguous. The same road to felicity that Ishmael extols in "A Squeeze of the Hand" *Louise K. Barnett is an Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University. She has published Swift's Poetic Worlds and numerous articles on American literature and is working on a book on language in the American novel. 140Louise K. Barnett disintegrates under the feet of Pierre, and Queequeg suspended on the monkey-rope is in equal danger from friend and foe. Seeing his tie to Queequeg here as a symbol of the human condition, which is "a Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals," Ishmael offers two further examples ofdependence: "Ifyour banker breaks, you snap; ifyour apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die."6 Whereas the labor of Ishmael and Queequeg is infused with mutual affection, these are instances of impersonal commercial transaction and thus susceptible to the additional hazards of performance divorced from feeling. This state of uncertain dependency is the Melvillian dilemma: isolation warps the spirit, but, through lack of caring, the collective existence can be uncharitable , unjust, and oppressive. Necessary human relationships are menaced by societal rigidity and individual egocentricity but menaced more by the difficulty of distinguishing exploitative forms of authority from those that create genuine community. It is both a "mutual, jointstock world, in all meridians" and a "wicked world in all meridians," but these partial views, held and harmonized by the noble savage Queequeg, become embodied in Ishmael and Ahab respectively. Of the two, the sociality and cooperation that Ishmael espouses as the ultimate good of existence, and the cosmic evil that Ahab envisions as the ultimate truth, the atypical nature of most speaking in the novel encourages the negative view that would come to dominate Melville's later fiction, that the world is a place where communication is suspect and perhaps impossible...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 139-151
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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