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  • A Double Prelude on Melville’s Moby-Dick: “Etymology” & “Extracts”
  • Athanasius C. Christodoulou

Melville placed “Etymology” and “Extracts” at the opening of his novel for two reasons: to indicate indirectly the main theme of the work and to give, indirectly as well, some basic instructions to readers about how they must read the book in order to conceive its deeper meaning. I say “indirectly” because Melville carries into effect his intentions with ingenious literary devices that must be decoded.

For example, the Usher and the Sub-Sub-Librarian, the two ostensible heroes of the opening “Etymology” and “Extracts” chapters, are not strictly “persons.” They are personifications of a formless and bodiless being that dwells in the flesh of every human. They are two theatrical masks that externalize the secret life and the unknown activity of this being which henceforth I will call “mind,” without meaning what common language intends by this term.1 The true protagonist is the “inostensible mind.” Its role is that of its true self. This interpretation is the main theme of the two introductory chapters.

The features of both the Usher and the Sub-Sub-Librarian allude to and summarize the true characteristics of what I term the “inostensible mind.” For example, the Usher’s sticking to the etymology of only one word and the Sub-Sub-Librarian’s sticking to the collection of literary quotations with only one theme indirectly refer to the monomania of this being, which is linguistic and literal and so exhausts its entire life and activity. The similarity of features between these twinned actors (Usher/Sub-Sub-Librarian) alludes to the double nature of the unseen protagonist who is self-destroyed by an incurable disease and is always hidden behind a deceptive mask.

The same doubleness applies to the author’s instructions that are not given directly but incorporated in the two small stories of the first paragraphs as elements of their myths. For example, the title “Etymology” is not only a simple term that refers to the kind of work of the monomaniac Usher, but also a double hint that the secret theme of the Usher’s discourse is the true logos (etymon-logos), the true nature of the mind.2 At the same time, this theme is brought to prominence not by the literal meaning of this term, but by its etymology, a destructive process that breaks up the word “etymo-logy” in (two) [End Page 5] pieces. In other words, the two extracts (etymon logos) come from the etymology of the term “etymology”—from its self-bisection (or its self-destruction)—and they reveal the subject of the Usher’s monomania, which is also the subject of Ahab’s monomania and the main theme of the entire work. One way for us to read this enigmatic book correctly is to break the words, as I have done with “etymology,” and try to see in the extracts signs or masks of their original root: reliefs of the true mind.

The same doubleness could be asserted for the term “extracts,” the title of the second chapter. It not only names the nature of the following quotations, but also implies the fragmentary constitution of the true mind (etymon-logos), of a being that is not unipartite but a double-natured and eternally incomplete “extract.” At least two extracts constitute etymology, not only because the concept “etymology” is a product of the combination of two extracts, but also and conversely because each etymology completes its work by breaking a word into (at least two) extracts. “Etymology,” either as a term or as an operation, cannot exist without these extracts.

The titles of both chapters are a double indirect testimony that the being called “mind” is not a complete concept but a double extract; and that this extract, which is the main protagonist in all the book’s lines and pages, is hidden in the words, paragraphs, and chapters.

The excerpt from Hackluyt in “Etymology” is another indirect instruction from the author concerning the creative role that this extract plays in the formation of the true meaning of the book’s words and ideas, as we will see analytically below.

When the author...


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