by Herman Melville
Moby-Dick Literature and Writing Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Chapter.Paragraph)
Champollion deciphered the wrinkled granite hieroglyphics. But there is no Champollion to decipher the Egypt of every man’s and every being’s face. Physiognomy, like every other human science, is but a passing fable. If then, Sir William Jones, who read in thirty languages, could not read the simplest peasant’s face, in its profounder and more subtle meanings, how may unlettered Ishmael hope to read the awful Chaldee of the Sperm Whale’s brow? I but put that brow before you. Read if it you can. (79.6)
This is supposed to sound as though Ishmael is daring you to interpret the whale as a symbol, daring you to try as hard as you possibly can to "read" the whale’s meaning. It’s also Melville daring you to make sense of this crazy novel. We know you’re up to the challenge!
The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics. But as I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing – at least, what untattooed parts might remain – I did not trouble myself with the odd inches; nor, indeed, should inches at all enter into a congenial admeasurement of the whale. (102.13)
Ishmael’s close association between composing a work of literature and the body reminds us that Moby-Dick continually interprets the body as a blank page on which events write themselves. Think of Queequeg’s tattoos, or Ahab’s whalebone leg, or Starbuck’s condensed leanness. Our bodies tell our stories, so why not tell our stories on our bodies? That’s how Ishmael thinks, anyway.
One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their out-reaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it. (104.3)
Ishmael (and Melville) are convinced that the whale itself, as a topic, makes Moby-Dick a grander and more momentous novel. Even the act of writing itself seems exaggerated by such a monstrous subject. In response, Melville creates another of those transcendent moments where man and the natural world seem to be dissolving into one another.