Mugging Melville

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

One of the speakers at this year’s Modern Language Association (MLA) meeting brought up a fascinating quote by William Wordsworth that may well be an indictment of the annual conclave of English professors: “To dissect is to murder.”

If that is so, much of the professoriat at the MLA meeting could be up on assault charges. If he hadn’t already passed away, Herman Melville might want to file such a complaint.

Melville, of course, is the author of Moby Dick. Many will probably recognize this as the one about a one-legged sea captain pursuing a great big whale. Yet and still, just about every year, MLA members want to read so much more into the saga.

At this year’s gathering, Paul B. Downes of the University of Toronto analogized “Ahab’s revulsion towards his ivory leg to capitalism’s revulsion at the source of its wealth.”

In this “dialectical or deconstructionist approach,” Downes avers, one can conclude that “Capitalism bites its own leg off.” Michael Jonik of the University of Sussex also made note of the “multifarious political ontology in Melville’s work.”

For her part, Branka Arsic of Columbia made note of “current ecological and epistemological preoccupations” in introducing the panel.

Photo by wolfgraebel


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  1. François-René

    January 11, 2017 11:59 am

    The real problem facing true fans or even simple appreciators of Melville is there wasn’t more of his work to chew over. I can’t begin to imagine what he would have to say about the warehouses packed with bale after rotting bale of such obsessive and useless claptrap.

  2. johngardner

    January 11, 2017 5:26 pm

    I am encouraged by your article, indicating as it does a likely openess to understanding the transgressive heart of Melville’s “Moby Dick”. I first proposed this in Alfred Kazin’s American Literature course at Berkeley during his visiting professorship there in the mid-60s. Kazin threw me out of his office before I could complete my presentation; however, I feel the modern MLA would treat it with the seriousness it deserves (perhaps while burning Kazin’s books)!

    Melville’s “Moby Dick” is a masterpiece (no pun intended) of the struggle by suppressed homosexuality for fulfillment and public acceptance. Except for the title, which needs no explication, the book is heavily if rather obviously “coded” for acceptance in the nineteenth century era which regarded queerness as “The love that dare not speak its name”. Hence the need to call his central character “Ishmael” (whose name “Is Male” signifies there is no shame or unnaturaness in being gay)

    For cognicenti, however, that the true subject has nothing to do with whale hunting is apparent early in the book when Ishmael, sharing a bed with Queequeg, literally “reads” the tatoos on his bedmate’s body in an obvious search for signs of a cultural background permitting or even encourageing gay lust, thus “framing” the story as a queer quest.

    No such joy is to be permitted under the homophobic Captain Ahab, however, whose missing member and its “peg” replacemrnt clearly reflect the stunted, twisted sexuality of society at large -– a society whose technolgy is single mindedly devoted to exterpating that symbol of gay consumation, the Great (i.e. “Gay”) White Whale. No fewer than nine ships encountered by the Pequod in its mission have been damaged by the Gay Whilte Whale, showing that the dominant straight society views killing gayness as both serious and heroic.

    In the end, of course, Moby Dick survives its encounter with Ahab, dragging the uncomplaining Captain off in the distance in what is perhaps a hint that Ahab has discovered his own suppressed gay tendencies. Ishmael is rescued and returns to the beach and sexual frustration.

    Ismael and Queequeg were simply born too soon to enjoy the tolerance and freedom enjoyed by moderns -– these days they would have jumped ship, gotten married and adopted children. Moby Dick stands as a warning of the darkness into which we could all too easily return!

    This is not, of course, the full paper. I await a generous MLA or University grant to enable its completion.

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