Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 13

ENGLISH 368

Melvilles Taxonomy
Building & Blurrying Boundaries
Stephen Portsmouth 4/15/2014

Abstract: Introduction |The functions of classification| Melvilles Classifications |Implications of Classification / Blurrying of Boundaries | Conclusion

Portsmouth

Moby-Dick was written by Herman Melville in 1851, and the book now is known as one of the finest literary creations of its time. Moby-Dick functions as much more than an epic tale of man against animal; there are unlimited ways to read and interpret the work that manifests in its own undefined type of literary genre. Moby-Dick is a work that is difficult to classify; it clearly is a story with a plot, but it also contains a sizeable amount of biological information, extracts, and even a play. Herman Melville possibly wanted his work to be devoid of classification, but he classifies nearly every living organism within his text. Using his classification as a source of analysis yields multiple insights into why Moby-Dick was written. The books unique form has been the source of vast amounts of literary criticism, and the criticism has also focused on topics of race, class, sex, and identity. All these issues can be analyzed by taking a look at Melvilles use of classification, his own taxonomy. Herman Melville not only attempts to provide taxonomy for the whale, but he also classifies characters in a variety of ways. It is easy to dismiss these classifications as arbitrary in a book, that is in many ways a story with a plot, but Melville does not provide vivid descriptions of each living animal and human only to further his story. Instead, Melville classifies organisms so that he can blur boundaries established in society. To fully comprehend Moby- Dick and its, at times, discrete sociopolitical undertonesparticularly ones regarding classificationthe reader must immerse themselves within the taxonomy of Melville and understand how Melville uses classification to blur boundaries rather than reinforce them. In order to analyze Melvilles own taxonomy, one must understand what exactly taxonomy is and what purpose does taxonomy serve. Encyclopedia Britannica defines taxonomy as the science of classification, but more strictly the classification of living and

Portsmouth

extinct organisms the methodology and principles of systematic botany and zoology and sets up arrangements of the kinds of plants and animals in hierarchies of superior and subordinate groups (Cain 1). Essentially taxonomy is a system of organization, but it is important to note Cains usage of the words superior and subordinate because Melvilles classification does not establish or enforce a hierarchy, but instead it blurs the boundaries established by societys hierarchies. Melville clearly utilizes a methodology of zoology in Moby-Dick, a methodology he had been polishing for years. Tyrus Hillway, author of Melville as Amateur Zoologist, points out that Melville had been developing a zoology methodology, which at first failed, before he was able to masterfully portray his zoologist classification skills in Moby-Dick. Hillway notes that in Typee, Omoo, and Mardi, which were authored from 1846 to 1849, just years before Moby-Dick, Melville failed at to accurately classify sea creatures. Hillway analyzes Melvilles classification of the swordfish in which Melville seeks to impress upon his reader what he pretends is a very intimate acquaintance with the species, including its zoological nameWhen we examine Melvilles knowledge of the species in question, we find it rather less than he would have us to believe (Hillway 159-60). Hillway then continues to state that Melville was able to master his methodology of zoology in Moby-Dick, stating Though he was later, in Moby-Dick, to show a surprising mastery of cetological information (Hillway 164). Clearly Melville had an interest in the taxonomy of sea creatures, and his taxonomy flourishes in Moby-Dick. Melville devotes an extensive amount of time to define the sea creatures that Ishmael and the others encounter during their epic whale hunt. Harold J. Morowitz, who authored Herman Melville, Marine Biologist , points out Melvilles extensive use of biological fact in

Portsmouth

Moby-Dick. He posits that Melville was so concerned with the biological aspects of creatures appearing in the story that he uses 17 of the books 135 chapters to specifically analyze the great whale being hunted by Ahab, Ishmael, and the rest of the crew aboard the Pequod (Morowitz 83). Morowitz also notes that the analysis includes descriptions of the whale and other sea creatures anatomy, ecology, ethology, and physiology (Morowitz 83). One section that Morowitz is referring to is the chapter titled Cetology. In this chapter, Melville discusses what separates the great whale from other fish. He states the difference is, lungs and warm blood; whereas, all other fish are lungless and cold blooded (Melville 135). While Melville is creating a boundary between the whale and all other fish, he is also blurring the boundary between the whale and man; when one thinks lungs and cold blooded, they often will think of man. So while Melville is establishing boundaries, he also is blurring them. Melville continues to blur the boundary between man and animal later in Cetology, when he states, Almost any one must have noticed that all the fish familiar to landsmen have not a flat, but vertical, or upand-down tail. Whereas, among spouting fish the tail, though it may be similarly shaped, invariably assumes a horizontal position (Melville 135). So again, Melville is separating the whale from other sea creatures, but noting that it has a vertical tale, much like the position of humans who are bipedal and stand vertically. Cetology is just one of the seventeen chapters Melville devotes to animal classification. Melville also blurs boundaries through his animal taxonomy in chapters 75, 86, and 103. Chapter 75, The Right Whales Head- Contrasted View, blurs the boundary between whale and land animal as well as between whale and man. Melville analyzes the bones that are inside of the whales mouth. Melville discusses descriptions of these bones provided by people from

Portsmouth

various cultures. The bones are referred to as hog bristles, fins, whiskers, and even blinds (Melville 301). These comparisons to other creatures, creatures that are from different classes of the animal kingdom, work to show that animals are in fact divided by boundaries, but animals also have similar features and cannot be completely separated from one another. Melville also uses chapter 75 to covertly blur the boundary between the whale and the men aboard the Pequod. Melville discusses how the whale has eyes on each side of the head, as opposed to humans having both eyes on the front of their heads. He then calls on his audience to consider how different this viewpoint may be. This is an interesting way to blur boundaries; the whale cannot see what is in front of it, much like the ships crew cannot yet find the white whale that eludes them. Next, in chapter 86, The Tail, Melville makes even more blatant moves to unite human beings and the whale. The width of the whales tail is cited to approximate the girth of a man (Melville 335). Melville notes the whales tail never wriggles, which is both a sign of weakness in animals and humans (Melville 336). Not only does the whales tail abstain from wriggling, it also can produce a crashing sound similar to that of a gunshot, which only humans can fire (Melville 337). Melville is blurring the boundary between man and animal by giving the whales tail agency very similar to human agency. Melville then enters into a chapter of pure taxonomy. Chapter 103 provides Melville with a perfect specimen for analysis and classification. The chapter, titled Measurement of the Whales Skeleton is exactly as the name would lead one to believe; Melville measures the whales skull, ribs, spine, and vertebrae, and while measuring he compares the specimen of the sea to the built-environment. The skeleton is compared to a ships hull, and notes that certain tribes use the whale bones for foot path

Portsmouth

beams (Melville 398-9). Melville uses taxonomy to blur both the boundary between man and animal, but also between nature and the built-environment. Herman Melville had shown an interest of animal classification in prior works. It seems he was passionate about nature especially anything in the ocean, which was and still is an area of the world that remains a great mystery. The Herman Melville Encyclopedia includes a chronology of his life, and Melville took part in numerous sea voyages (Gale xv-xvi). Melville classifies humans as well in Moby-Dick and his classification, as Gale points out, may have stemmed from a label he relentlessly worked to escape. Melville was born in solid economic standing, but his fathers business was hit hard by the Depression, and never truly recovered (Gale 277). Herman bounced from job to job in attempts to regain economic prowess and in an attempt to escape his label based on class. Lets take a look at how Melville embraces labels and classification only to work against the psychology behind them. Melville uses taxonomy to classify the whale and other creatures he encounters, and he also classifies all the human characters in the work. Each character is labeled and placed within a strict hierarchy accompanied by firm boundaries established by society. The first main character Melvilles audience encounters is Queequeg. Before Queequeg even enters the fold, firm labels are placed upon him by the proprietor of the Spouter-Inn. Ishmael then extrapolates these labels in an attempt to classify his soon-to-be-bedmate. The landlord tells Ishmael that the harpooner he will share a bed with is a dark complexioned chap [who] eats nothing but steaks, and likes em rare (Melville 32). Without pause, Ishmael becomes suspicious of this dark complexioned harpooner (Melville 32). After further inquiry, Ishmael labels the harpooner as a cannibal, about as rigid a label that one could possibly place on another they

Portsmouth

have never even met. After spending a night in the same bed, a bed in which Melville leaves readers believing much more than sleep occurred in the bed, Ishmael still defines Queequeg as a savage (Melville 42). The word savage has intense undertones as Justin Edwards reminds us. Edwards states, savagefunctions as a projection of Western constructions of Otherness by forcing a taxonomous system of that which civilized and that which is uncivilized (Edwards 69). Melville then destroys the boundary normally placed around savages by having Ishmael be awed by Queequegs commendable ritual of cleaning and prayer (Melville 43 -44). Ishmael instantly sees there is more than meets the eye with this savage man. Queequeg is not the only character who is classified by Melville. Ishmael and Queequeg eventually determine which ship they will call home during their desired whale hunt. Melville then introduces us to the owners of the Pequod, Peleg and Bildad. Both men are given a class distinction because they have enough wealth to own a large ship, and even Ishmael states he is looking for someone who appears to have authority (Melville 79). Peleg and Bildad are also classified by their religion. Both men are Quakers, a religion noted for its acceptance of pacifism and renouncement of violence, but Melville blurs the boundary of religion by having the men own a ship devoted to the killing of whales. It is important to note that the ships owners never inform Ishmael of their religious standing, he simply deems th em as such by analyzing the style of the ship (Melville 80-1). Melville uses Ishmael as an instrument of classification, and this manifestation continues once the Pequod has set sail. The infamous Captain Ahab is classified as a disabled person who is also slightly insane. Captain Ahab has a wooden leg, a souvenir from his first encounter with Moby-Dick. Unfortunately, in American society, those who are disabled are often unfairly judged and

Portsmouth

classified into a lower hierarchy of taxonomy, but this is not the case for Ahab. Ahab is in charge, and the expeditions crew readily accepts orders from their crippled leader. Because Ahab lost his leg from an epic battle with the whale, he commands the respect of the crew. This is because Ahab actually has personal experience battling the great whale, an experience the others are hoping to live out as well. This near-death-experience provides Ahab with agency because it left Ahab with intense hatred of the whale and his outrage compensates for his vulnerability, rendering him both a sublime and a threatening version of the disabled figure (Mitchell 8). Mitchell also points out that the crews acceptance of the disabled Captain Ahab is symbolic of the time period. Mitchell states, The reasons behind the novels singu larizing explanation of Ahabs physical loss can be traced directly to nineteenth-century attitudes about bodily differences and physical incapacities. Unlike previous historical moments which ascribed physical anomalies to a sinful fate bequeathed from God or as the surface of satanic possession, the Victorian period witnessed a rise of increasingly medicalized ethos and ideology of the body (Mitchell 8). Essentially Ahabs taxonomy as disabled and leader is a portrayal of societys blurring of the boundary between disabled and able. Captain Ahab leads an entire crew of men who are all classified based off their unique features, primarily their ethnicity. The ship is departing from the East Coast of the United States, but one who never guess that once they learn about the origins of the men aboard the Pequod. Ahabs first, second, and third-mates are named respectively: Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask. Melville makes certain that we know each mans heritage and roots. Starbuck is from Nantucket, Stubb is a native of Cape Cod, and Flask is a Native of Tisbury (Melville 117-121). When the crew spots a whale, each of these three men scurry to smaller boats, on which they

Portsmouth

are the commanders, that are sent out to actually kill a whale. Melville briefly enforces the boundary of race, which at the same time he is breaking, by making all the officers aboard the ship white males. It doesnt seem these white males earned their title, but rather they were simply allotted the title by universal prescription (Melville 121). Melville furthers his taxonomy of race and ethnicity and their correlation to class through the introduction of the rest of the characters aboard the ship. If Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask are commanders of the smaller whaling ships, there must exist subordinates who they command. Melville uses the titles knights and squires to classify their relationships. Starbucks subordinate, who is also his harpooner, is Queequeg, who was previously noted to be a native of Kokovoko and therefore not white. Stubbs subordinate harpooner is Tashtego, who is defined as an unmixed Indian from Gay Head (Melville 121). Finally, Flasks subordinate harpooner is Dagoo, who is classified as a gigantic coal-black negrosavage (Melville 122). While all these men are subordinate among the ship because of their ethnicity, they are actually the ones aboard the ship with the most agency. As the ships acting harpooners, only they can actually deliver the blow that will kill the great white whale, only they can ensure that the voyage is a success, only they can end their Captain Ahabs mania, and only they can bring Ishmaels adventure quest to a satisfied close. The taxonomy of the harpooners as lesser is blurred by their overwhelming agency aboard the ship. Even the narrator of the tale, Ishmael, is classified in his own unique way. Ishmael is not thoroughly classified in the same terms as the other characters. Primarily, it would not make a whole lot of sense if Ishmael began by defining his own ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality in the classic taxonomy jargon that he embraces to initially describe

Portsmouth

others. It would seem arbitrary and would drive readers away. Instead all we learn is that Ishmael has shunned land-locked society in hopes for something more enriching, empowering, and exciting aboard a whaling vessel. Ishmael poetically admits his life on land is lackluster and he personally needs a change: whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking peoples hats off -then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I canalmost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me (Melville 21). From this statement one can gather a few pieces of information; Ishmael is depressed and Ishmael is not too fond of society the way it exists on land. Ishmaels rejection of society and acceptance of the melting pot aboard the Pequod is a blurrying of boundaries; he wants to empower and enrich his life, but he will do so outside of societys established boundaries and aboard a ship that blurs boundaries in every way imaginable. Winifried Fluck acknowledges this which is why she states: the usefulness of the Pequod to function as a metaphor for a new society lies in the possibility it offers to bring together a wide range of different regions, races, and cultures (Fluck 210). By rejecting society and embracing the multi-cultural crew of the ship, Ishmael classifies himself as an objective and unbiased taxonomist. Melvilles taxonomy of both animals and humans has been analyzed, and it should now be clear that Melville was not embracing Linnaeus style of rigid taxonomy, but instead a form of taxonomy that works to blur boundaries rather than enforce. Linnaeus worked to organize information and to place organisms into a family then genus then species that best fit the

Portsmouth

organisms features. Melvilles taxonomy has very different objective than those of Linnaeus. Most importantly, as Chad Luck from Indiana University points out, Melvilles taxonomy allows Melville to trouble conventional epistemological boundaries (Luck 6). Lucks analysis rings true; Melville introduces both the animals and characters within rigid boundaries including those of race, ethnicity, class, gender, only to shatter those boundaries and the preconceived notions that enforce them.

Portsmouth

Works Cited
Cain, A.J. "Taxonomy." Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. 2012. 1-10. Washington State University Libraries Article Free Pass. Web. 17 Mar. 2014. Edwards, Justin D. "Melville's Peep Show: Sexual and Textual Cruises in "Typee"" ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 30.2 (1999): 61-75. Google Scholar. Web. 31 Mar. 2014. Fluck, Winfried. "Cultures of Criticism: Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Expressive Individualism, and the New Historicism." The Historical and Political Turn in Literary Studies. 20728. Google Scholar. Web. 19 Mar. 2014. Gale, Robert L. A Herman Melville Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995. Print. Haberstroh, Charles. Melville and Male Identity. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1980. Print. Hillway, Tyrus. "Melville as Amateur Zoologist." Modern Language Quarterly 12 (1951): 15964. EBSCOhost Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 Mar. 2014. Luck, Chad. "The Epistemology of the Wonder-Closet: Melville, Moby Dick, and the Marvelous." The Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies 9.1 (2007): 3-23. Wiley Online Library. Web. 31 Mar. 2014. Melville, Herman, John Bryant, and Haskell S. Springer. Moby-Dick. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. Print

Portsmouth

Mitchell, David. ""Too Much of a Cripple": Ahab, Dire Bodies, and the Language of Prosthesis in Moby Dick." The Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies 1.1 (1999): 5-22. Wiley Online Library. Web. 30 Mar. 2014. Morowitz, Harold J. "Herman Melville, Marine Biologist." The Biological Bulletin (2011): 83-85. Highwire Press Marine Biological Laboratory. Web. 17 Mar. 2014.