Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Book Review from 31.1

Dan Beachy-Quick. A Whaler’s Dictionary. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Editions, 2008. $20.00 paper (ISBN: 978-1571313096), 330 pages.

Reviewed by Nina Mamikunian

Perhaps I should start by admitting that I have never read Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The weighty tome somehow slipped through the cracks of my four years as an English major in my undergraduate education, and I have gotten through half of graduate school knowing only the basics: “call me Ishmael” and Captain Ahab’s relentless pursuit of a white whale. So what drew me into Dan Beachy-Quick’s A Whaler’s Dictionary, a work of philosophy, essay, and criticism inspired by and directly commenting on Moby-Dick, was not an interest in the nineteenth century novel but rather this book’s own claim to exist in the “margins” and attempt to “record what glimmers remain of thinking impossibly realized before the thought is vaguely lost.” True to its title, it is written in a dictionary format with cross-referenced entries and is not meant to be read linearly. The entries are more like prose poems. For example, in the entry “Chaos,” Beachy-Quick writes:

We tend to think of the chaotic as the noisome, but in doing so betray the deeper chaos the world brings: a yawning gape or abyss, a child’s mouth before a tooth has broken through the gums. That original chaos…has not a single harsh sound…but merely, as in a child’s mouth, vowels carried upon the breath that voices them.

One of the many impressive aspects of A Whaler’s Dictionary is that it does not presuppose or necessitate anything more than a basic knowledge of Moby-Dick. Beachy-Quick handles Melville’s character relationships, plot points, and symbolism (for example, Queequeg’s tattooed body or the role that Pip plays on the ship) with such deftness and clarity that having read Moby-Dick (or any of the other authors and critics that Beach-Quick expounds upon) is by no means a prerequisite. More importantly, it becomes very clear early on in the book that A Whaler’s Dictionary is not actually about Moby-Dick at all; it only uses Moby-Dick as a way to talk about something much larger and harder to put into words.

Beachy-Quick’s main task is to “[offer] a series of interlaced meditations to bring a reader near to the white squall of meaning that is Moby-Dick.” However, he makes no thesis statement or grand argument that he sets out to prove or disprove. Beachy-Quick positions himself as the “you” addressed in the famous first line “Call me Ishmael” and intimately so. Beyond that, he grants all readers access into both the “you” that Ishmael addresses and the “I” that does the addressing. He goes so far as to include himself as one of those readers plumbing for meaning, not only of Moby-Dick but also of reading and words themselves. Many of his entries relate directly to language (such as “Aleph” and “Bet” and “Hieroglyph” and “Inscribe,”) and he finds ways to talk about reading even through entries like “Flames” and “Eyes” and “Duplicates.” The connections he draws between whaling and reading/writing are most clear in the entry for “Line,” where he uses the word “line” to refer to both a whale line (a length of rope tied to a harpoon) and also:

…the most basic unit of verse. A poem is a line winding from margin to margin until the poem is done. A book is composed of dark lines. A book pursues in lines the meaning it desires to understand or convey. A metaphoric stretch can claim for the poetic line the same dangers as the whale line. The reader and the whale are in the same boat.

In entry after entry, Beachy-Quick shows us that books, language, thought, and even the very act of creating through voicing or writing bear more similarity to whales and whaling than one would first think. The whale becomes thought itself, the ocean obscures meaning, Captain Ahab’s own forehead has as many lines as a book might, and Queequeg cannot decipher the marks on his own body. Beachy-Quick makes it clear:

Ahab pursues a whale; we catch a book…The Whale escapes and the book escapes, and they both flee along the same line by which we drew near their forms—almost comprehensible, almost tangible, almost legible. The book in our hand contains a depth and holds its breath. Reading and writing are impossible work.

It is fitting then that Beachy-Quick begins not with an author’s note but with an apology. He begins by recognizing Ishmael’s “failed cetological endeavor” and acknowledges that he “simply repeats the failure in a different guise.” In this way, Beachy-Quick acknowledges the failure of all words. All dictionaries, whether it be Ishmael’s or A Whaler’s Dictionary, fail because the gaps between text and meaning, signifier and signified, are nearly impossible to bridge. The only thing that words can do is circle back on themselves and endlessly refer to one another and chase the list presented at the end of an entry, the “see also,” which is never ending. The connections between entries create lines themselves, but those lines are as shaky and deceiving as the spider webs from Jonathan Edwards’s sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” that Beachy-Quick cites in entries like “Faith” and “Void,” cross-referenced with “Expression” and “Silence.” The pursuit of uncovering true meaning is as much a mad pursuit as chasing a white whale. Beachy-Quick, however, in the artistry of his prose and poetics, shows us that the pursuit—and the books that are the material evidence of those pursuits—is worthwhile.

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