Books and Code · A Miscellany

Etymology and Extracts: An Overview


“Call me Ishmael.” is one of the most iconic and well-known first sentences in English letters. And it is a lie.

Chapter 1 is a beautiful piece of writing and an evocative introduction to our narrator, but the true first line of Moby-Dick: Or, The Whale is:

The Pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now.

For the book begins not at Chapter 1, but with a short explication of the etymology of the word “whale” and a compilation of excerpts from other works that mention whales as prepared by a “pale usher” and “sub-sub-librarian.” Most readers, if they read them at all, don’t put much thought into the significance of these sections. The few that do might simply conclude that Melville is trying to situate his book within a grand or epic scope. While that may be true, I think there is more going on here.

The excerpts include bits and pieces from the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Latin classics, political treatises and legal texts, historical works, travelogues, folk songs and poetry. The only common thread at all is the mention of whales. Can it be that the point of all this is simply to observe that humans have noted the existence of whales throughout history?! Big deal!

Taking these sections seriously as part of the narrative means recognizing that they add an additional layer to the story. Each section has a short preamble explaining how its contents came to be. Are these in the voice of Ishmael, Melville, or someone else? However you answer, simply asking that question has the effect of imbuing the text with a “meta-ness” akin to that provided by J.R.R. Tolkien’s conceit of the Red Book of Westmarch for The Lord of the Rings. It tells the reader that in the universe of Moby-Dick, the narrative has had the effect on prior readers of pushing them to search their inherited stock of cultural wisdom for a coherent significance behind its symbols. But why? What is it about what we are about to read that evokes this feeling?

We are told that the Pale Usher “loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.” The poor Sub-Sub who compiled the extracts to be “entertaining” will nevertheless “forever go thankless” for his efforts. Like the dust that collects on the Usher’s old grammars, the extracts collect on the pages of this narrative to remind the reader not only of his mortality but of the futility of the effort to extract significance from the accumulated attempts to understand a thing. “Give it up, Sub-Subs!”

That is the mindset Melville wants the reader to have as he embarks.