FROM THE SINKING WHALEBROW
I read you –
you recognize me,
into the harpoon
“Do you know anything about your beginnings?”
♦ I was discovered abandoned in the emergency waiting area of the newly-built Henderson General Hospital in Hamilton, Ontario in the early summer of 1952. The birthdate inscribed on my documentation, 29 June, was arrived at by conjecture. Because the authorities made considerable, though vain, effort to establish the facts of my origin, I was not adopted or named until six months later.
♦ In “Hawthorne and His Mosses” Melville writes: “Would that all excellent books were foundlings, without father or mother, that so it might be, we could glorify them, without including their ostensible authors. Nor would any true man take exception to this.” (PT 239)1 What is the origin of great literature? What is its originality? And what can we mean by origin and originality, and how can we apply these terms to the work of a writer for whom “the names of all fine authors are fictitious ones… simply standing, as they do, for the mystical, ever-eluding Spirit of all Beauty, which ubiquitously possesses men of genius”? (PT 239) Perhaps, as Althusser suggested, “the function of the concept of origin, as in original sin, is to summarize in one word what has not to be thought in order to be able to think what one wants to think.”2 Perhaps, in other words, the idea of an origin is an ideological device providing a comforting closure to what is in fact a complex, difficult, overdetermined and indeterminate openness. A mystical estate, that is, like paternity itself.3
♦ Consider the problematic origins of some of Melville’s characters: the narrator of Moby-Dick will have us call him by the name of the illegitimate son of Abraham and Rachel, the errant patriarch of a lost tribe, Ahab is an orphan, having lost his widowed mother before he was a year old; the cadaverous Bartleby is “unaccountable,” nothing being known of his past other than the rumour of his clerkship in the Dead Letter Office. And “Billy Budd was a foundling, a presumable by-blow, and evidently, no ignoble one.” (BB 52)
Ahab remarks: “Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.” (MD 492)
A somewhat remarkable instance recurs to me.
I can tell a story. When I was about three and a half I entered hospital for an operation to correct a hearing impairment. My mother decided that this event afforded an excellent opportunity for a circumcision to be performed, something that for obscure reasons of her own she devoutly wished. She neglected to fill me in on the details. I connect my return home to the appearance in my bedroom of a bedspread, sheets, pillowcases and curtains, made for me by mother and resident paternal grandmother, who
We agree to obey in order that
a social field may be constituted
(the symbolic) within which
reason may apply itself as
a universal authority.
But reason is not LAW
Law is senseless, arbitrary
and violent. We accept the
order it entails so as to
constitute the social space on
which we can transform (us, it)
nurtured a lusty hatred for each other. These accouterments depicted characters and scenes from Moby-Dick: Ahab, Queequeg, the Spouter Inn, the Pequod, the White Whale, Ishmael clinging to the coffin-lifebuoy. Someone told me some version of the story. It was my first encounter with Herman Melville, and it followed in the wake of a surprising and upsetting wound. The mark of a covenant not with God, but with a book.
♦ I am proposing to write about what I take to be great writing. I suppose that I could do so in an impersonal, academic fashion, but I would prefer not to. I am deeply marked by Melville’s work, intimately marked, tattooed by it. It tasks me and heaps me. I have worshipped it in my own work. I plan to do so again.
♦ Melville’s writing fractures and obliterates. It grieves. It bursts the rule of the law of writing. It ruptures reading and it fails everywhere. It is a writing of foundlinghood and foundering. It is the principled and rigorously scattering experience of the sacred, if we understand “experience” in its etymology as “a perilous crossing.”4 A risky crossing threatening shipwreck, engulfment and loss – of self, of knowledge, of meaning. A perilous risky crossing of the terrible abyss of the sacred, subject to disaster and, passively and inevitably, leaving ragged remains. And what resolute impulse carries him?
♦ In his “autobiography” Goethe writes:
In Faith, I said, everything depends on the fact of believing; what is believed is perfectly indifferent. Faith is a profound sense of security for the present and future, and this assurance springs from confidence in an immense, all-powerful, and inscrutable Being. The firmness of this confidence is the one grand point; but what we think of this Being depends on our other faculties, or even on circumstances, and is wholly indifferent. Faith is a holy vessel into which everyone stands ready to pour his feelings, his understanding, his imagination as perfectly as he can. With Knowledge it is directly the opposite.5
Melville purchased this book in London on Christmas Day in 1849. The italicized passage he triple-scored in the margin of his copy.6 I imagine him reading the book during the sea voyage home to the room in which he would complete Moby-Dick, and I take it that his marginal marks indicate an affinity with the German poet’s view. Faith is not knowledge, is not knowable. It is pure form, but not in the sense of legal formality. For to be measured, form must have content, but as pure form Faith is entirely without content. Whatever content we, writers or readers, give it is wholly indifferent; it need not be “tinctured with the biblical element,” nor with the rule of any law, religious or otherwise. This idea of Faith is profoundly antinomian, deeply personal, decidedly mystical. In it resonate these lines of Hawthorne:
“Faith!” shouted goodman Brown, in a voice of agony and desperation; and the echoes of the forest mocked him, crying – “Faith! Faith! as if bewildered wretches were seeking her, all through the wilderness.7
Faith is a vessel uneasily bearing a mournful cargo of powerful feeling. I am saying that it is from athwart its keening deck that Melville writes tormented the “sane madness of vital truth.” (PT 244)
Plump upon Billy, Lieutenant Ratcliffe pounced. And him only he elected. Billy made no demur.
This slightly recut passage from Billy Budd, Sailor (which book will be my primary focus here) enunciates three important aspects of Melville’s Faith: the erotic; the singular; the passive.
Not without a sort of joy
♦ The erotic: obvious in the account of Billy’s beauty, Claggart’s desire, the spilling of the soup, etc. But I am more interested in the points at which it comes together with the sacred. The narrator’s speculation concerning the interview between Vere and Billy after the conviction and sentencing: Billy’s response to his impending sacrifice is supposed to be “not without a sort of joy” in respect of the Captain’s openness of address to him. The two men “radically sharing” a rare quality of intimacy, the older “melting back into what remains primeval in our formalized humanity,” the younger “caught… to his heart,” are seized on the brink of obedient surrender to “an exacting behest.”
But there is no telling the sacrament, seldom if in any case revealed to the gadding world, wherever under circumstances at all akin to those here attempted to be set forth two of great Nature’s nobler order embrace. There is privacy at the time, inviolable to the survivor; and holy oblivion, the sequel to each diviner magnanimity, providentially covers all at last. (BB 115)
Billy is prelapsarian Adam, adolescent Isaac, Jesus Lamb of God: every innocent slaughtered in the name of law or state or history or relation, but also that inevitable excessive blasphemous loss that obtains with every effort to make the ungraspable inescapable. He is the exaction demanded by that depravity hinged on the back of every insistent Calvinistic “delight.”
That signal object
♦ The singular: Billy is the strange attractor, the magnificent singularity about which everyone and everything is organized. Only he can be elect, alone possessing the unique mass of searing qualities that will guarantee the fracturing drama that impels the disaster of this text. The resonance with Ishmael’s orphanhooded “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee” is striking. Or George Oppen’s line: “the shipwreck of the singular.” Or Celan: “Poetry is by necessity a unique instance of language.” Or Melville, aged and forgotten, wandering in the portside quays or the pavements of Broadway. Jack Chase and Hawthorne and Malcolm and Stanwix lost to him forever, returning nightly to his desk to forge with resolution this lonely poem of solitary longing.
Without movement, he lay as in a trance
♦ The passive: In The Writing of the Disaster, Maurice Blanchot discusses Bartleby’s “preference not to” which “has none of the simplicity of a refusal”:
I would prefer not to. This sentence speaks in the intimacy of our nights: negative preference, the negation that effaces preference and is effaced therein: the neutrality of that which is not among the things there are to do – the restraint, the gentleness that cannot be called obstinate, and that outdoes obstinacy with those few words… Language, perpetuating itself, keeps still.8
It’s not just Billy’s passivity, his making “no demur,” that is at stake here. It is Melville’s faith in language, in the poetic language which he allows to perpetuate in his text. This faith also “makes no demur” in the face of its irretrievable foundering, of the loss and excess it articulates, of the impossibility of the reduction of its language to a stable and univocal meaning. Melville prefers not to write properly, but abides quietly in the disturbing torment of his covert and desperate books, pinioning his faith on their drift.
♦ Blanchot again:
we approach the night without darkness. This is the irreducible – the incompatible that which is not compatible with humanity… Human weakness, which even frailty does not disclose, betrays us since we belong, at each instant, to the immemorial past of our death – by virtue of being indestructible because always and infinitely destroyed. The infinity of our destruction, this is the measure of passivity.9
The drift of language subverts language’s law: it is antinomian. But drift risks destruction, disaster death. Of self, of world, of text. And this is Melville’s risk.
Get into X – , enter his labyrinth and get out again
Melville’s name and my name mean the same thing. Both are the names of towns and both derive from the obsolete French verb meler, meaning to come together, to meet, to intersect. So, Cartmell is a place where carts meet, a market town, and Melville is a town at a crossroads. I exhaustively translate them both as the letter “X” and all it suggests: crossroad, cross out, crossed up, the optical chiasma, the rhetorical trope chiasma, crossbones, crucifixion, an algebraic variable, something unknown, the prefix ex-, the signature of those who, like Queequeg, cannot write (or do not know) their names. I have made considerable fuss about this in some films. 10 Of course, Cartmell is not really my name, except by virtue of a sort of drifting of the patronymic. But maybe this is always the case.
All adrift to go?
Drift. Drive. Lacan suggested as a translation of Freud’s trieb (“drive,” but given as the notoriously inadequate “instinct” in the English translation) the French word dérive, which in addition to the obvious relation to the question of origin, means “drift.”11
I did not quite see the drift of all this.
In Ch. 11 the narrator drifts in to direct the reader indirectly across “the deadly space between” normal nature and the natural depravity of Claggart. “The point of the present story turning on the hidden nature of the master-at-arms has necessitated this chapter.” (BB 76-77) Is Claggart the point on which the story turns?
Though the man’s even temper and discreet bearing would seem to intimidate a mind peculiarly subject to the law of reason, not the less in heart he would seem to riot in complete exemption from that law, having apparently little to do with reason further than to employ it as an ambidexter implement for effecting the irrational. (BB 76)
This description may make Claggart sound like the antinomian Melville, but as the narrator’s necessary interruption shows, the master-at-arms is precisely subject to necessity, definition, nomination. Subject, in short, to his nature and subject absolutely. And that nature is his law, and such a law is inviolable. Like Ahab he can only say “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush!” (MD 168) The drift of Claggart cannot be seen because Claggart, unlike Melville, does not risk drifting.
life by shipwreck
♦ In my film Farrago I recount a dream I had around the time one of my intellectual heroes visited Toronto. In the dream this “wise man of Paris” visits me at home and offers to tattoo me: he has a miniature electronic tattooing needle in his wallet. He demonstrates on (his or my?) wrist that the number of passes necessary is determined by pressure and pain. He begins to tattoo my belly: there’s a diagram that he’s following but I can’t see it. When he’s finished I have to hold a special paper against the tattoo (blotting? hygiene?). He leaves, saying he’ll be back in two week to finish. Later, I look for the diagram, and find it. It resembles Freud’s diagram of neurone connections in the Entwurf, except it’s a negative image. I look at the tattoo: it appears to be almost finished. It’s a three-masted, fully rigged ship, like a whaler, in green, red and blue. There are two inscriptions in French: below it le livre de la mer and above a word I can’t quite decipher but which reminds me of “nautilus,” though that’s not it. Subsequently, I’ve decided that the word was naufrage or shipwreck.
♦ The word “naufrage” came into use in English during the 14th century. According to the O.E.D. it was used to designate shipwreck in the documents of marine insurers at least until the middle of the 18th century. It is listed in Webster’s. I believe Melville knew it.
♦ The first part of naufrage derives from a proto-Indo-European root word meaning boat, from which we get English nautical and naval terminology, more interestingly from my point of view, this root word also means death, exhaustion, distress and necessity, and is the origin for a number of northern European words for things like corpse, need, and boredom. 12 The shipwrecked text is one that is foundered and fragmented; exhausted and distressed; cast out, destitute, dispossessed. And it is also a text of difficult mourning, one which must grapple with the question (German: Frage – question; fragen – to ask, to question) of what is left after the vessel is sunk, the question of remains, that “swarming unaware blasphemous stuff that lacks the grace, decency and fidelity to follow value off the stage, to leave a respectable zero.”13
♦ Shipwreck is the disaster par excellence, lacking what Maurice Blanchot calls “the ruinous purity of destruction” which would eliminate any remainder. Blanchot enhances the nautical aspect of disaster by suggesting that it might mean “being separated from the star… the decline which characterizes disorientation when the link with fortune from on high is cut.”14 In other words, disaster is the result of being unable to navigate during a risky crossing, being alienated from or incomprehending of the bleak intractable otherness of Nature, that “excessiveness of uncodifiable law… to which we are destined without being party to it.”15 Part of the repellent necessity of Nature’s law is that fragmented residue around which we must, but cannot, navigate. For a writer like Melville, it is precisely the case that
to write is no longer to situate death in the future – the death which is always already past; to write is to accept that one has to die without making death present and without making oneself present to it. To write is to know that death has taken place even though it has not been experienced, and to recognize it in the forgetfulness that it leaves.16
Something suggestive of a mother
♦ “Supposing the story to open with the wreck.” In his letter to Hawthorne of 13 August 1852, Melville suggests that the facts of the case of Agatha Hatch Robertson might serve his friend as the basis for a story. “It has occurred to me that this thing lies very much in a vein, with which you are peculiarly familiar. To be plump, I think that in this matter you would make a better hand at it than I would.” However, sparked by a “lively interest” in “the great patience, & endurance, & resignedness of the women of the island (Nantucket) in submitting so uncomplainingly to the long, long abscences (sic) of their sailor husbands,” Melville proceeds to provide detailed instructions as to just how such a story ought to be written. Agatha is to be “active during the wreck” as the savior of her young husband-to-be (Melville tellingly refers to him as Robinson). The sea encroaches, its malignity placidly eyed by the innocent land. The wreck endures:
…she goes to pieces, all but her stern-part. This in the course of time becomes embedded in the sand – after the lapse of some years showing nothing but the sturdy stem (or, prow-bone) projecting some two feet at low water. All the rest is filled & packed down with the sand. So that after her husband has disappeared the sad Agatha every day sees this melancholy monument, with all its remindings.
♦ Like Bartleby’s, Agatha’s passivity comes to pertain to the spot. She is “feverishly expecting” a letter from her absent husband. For seventeen years she patiently attends “a post surmounted with a little rude wood box with a lid to it & a leather hinge.”
As her hopes gradually decay in her, so does the post itself & the little box decay. The post rots in the ground at last. Owing to its being little used – hardly used at all – grass grows rankly about it. At last a little bird nests in it. At last the post falls.
This shipwreck of letters drifts nicely into the scrivener’s rumoured employment in the Dead Letter Office:
Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling the dead letters, and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annual burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring – the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity – he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death. (PT 45)
“Presdestinated,” these letters never reach their destination, errantly drifting toward disaster. Bartleby, “a bit of wreck in the mid-Atlantic,” (PT 32) consigns these doomed and sacred missives to holocaustic fire. But something remains, reminds, remembers. Ashes; these texts.
now foundering in the deeps
♦ Derrida, writing of Jabès’ Book of Questions (a fragmentary, disastered, utterly shipwrecked text): “The fragment is neither a determined style nor a failure, but the form of that which is written.”17 Writing is always already rupture, interruption, interrogation; it stands in principle against totality, continuity, presence because what it writes, the experience, the subjectivity it inscribes, is never a totality, is never continuous or present. Blanchot’s view is similar:
The demand, the extreme demand of the fragmentary… traverses, overturns, ruins the work because the work (totality, perfection, achievement) is the unity which is satisfied with itself… Fragmentation is the pulling to pieces (the tearing) of what which never has preexisted (really or ideally) as a whole, nor can it ever be reassembled in any future presence whatever.18
For Blanchot, the disaster is that which makes the demand of the fragmentary upon the work, upon writing, and causes it to shipwreck, “to be lost, to capsize.”19 Always a scandal to the univocality of presence, writing can instead be recuperated as the guarantor of the instability and polyvalence of meaning.
You can never remember the irretrievable past that was never present; it is always a question of an oscillation between anamnesis and amnesia, the defense against or the surrender to oblivion, the engulfing sea of disaster. The writing of the disaster must itself constitute the remains to which it owes the obligation of mourning, must itself construct the very shipwreck it seeks to commemorate, and thus to relinquish. In order to do so, it must face its task with a serene passivity, proceeding by fits and starts, “little by little suddenly,”20 crossing perilously again and again the same experience, the same remembering, the same forgetting.
You see then, whither, prompted by duty and the law, I steadfastly drive.
Glanced upon by Billy Budd, the mere aspect of Captain Vere is enough to compel the foretopman to aver, “I have said all, sir.” (BB 108) Vere exists wholly within a field of meaning and, despite the fullness of his feeling for Billy, it is impossible for him to adopt an external attitude toward that field. There is no continuous passage from its inside to its outside; as Althusser put it, ideology has no outside. The screaming abyss of this vicious circle appears most purely under the guise of tautology: “law is law.” Like the expression “God is God,” the equation equivocates, forebodingly giving rise to an ominous reversal. “Law is… the guarantee of order, peace, harmony, tranquility; and… law is that governable lacerating cruelty that springs illegitimately from nowhere, cutting down every rosy-tanned innocent in the quick of his meek loving life. Vere will not, cannot veer from “strict adherence to usage.” (BB 117) It is precisely usage that antinomian Melville lurkingly subverts.
the first muffled murmur of its sloping advance
Under the open sky of a lifelong “night so luminous,” “upon the monotonous blank of the twilight sea,” Melville is one of those who “exposed in an unsuspected, terrifying way, carry their existence into language, racked by reality and in search of it.”21 He is attuned to the murmurous muffle of the torrent of love and rage, and tunes its muffled murmuring through Moss and Moby. He will not play the silver whistle.
his lurking defect
Writing a biography of his father, Julian Hawthorne visited Melville in the spring of 1883:
At first he was disinclined to talk; but finally he said several interesting things, among the most remarkable was that he was convinced Hawthorne had all his life concealed some great secret, which would, were it known, explain all the mysteries of his career.
I take it that when Melville speaks of Hawthorne, he’s really speaking of himself, and I call upon the “Mosses” essay to back me. Once Neil Schmitz said to me that stuttering was a form of Knowledge. I will claim that the stuttering evident in Melville’s stammering literary career is the hesitant signal of a patient Faith in the beyond of articulation. In the tormenting ecstasy of that beyond, of that “axis of reality.”
some vocal current electric
♦ Perhaps it is true that “it all finally has to do with the throat, SPEECH.”23 Melville speaks to me electric, utters my name. In “his grave bearing” I seek my paternity. I could say, with the gentle boy – “They call me Ibrahim, and my home is here.”24
♦ In these books, this fresh earth, these sacred plots.
Key to Melville Citations
BB: Billy Budd, Sailor (an inside narrative) (ed. Harrison Hayford and Merton Sealts Jr.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.
MD: Moby-Dick or the Whale (ed. H. Hayford, Hershel Parker, G. Thomas Tanselle) Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1988.
PT: The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces 1839-1860 (ed. H. Hayford, Alma MacDougass, G. Thomas Tanselle et al.) Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1987.
 The key to references given in the text can be found on the last page.
 Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar. Reading Capital (tr. Ben Brewster) London: New Left Books, 1970, p. 63.
 As Joyce would have it. See the Library chapter in Ulysses.
 See Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. La poésie comme expérience. Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1986. Quoted in Roger Laporte. “Readings of Paul Celan” (tr. Norma Cole) in Translating Tradition: Paul Celan in France ACTS 8/9 San Francisco, 1988, p. 224.
 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The Autobiography of Goethe. Truth and Poetry: From My Own Life (tr. A.J.W. Morrison) London: Bohn, 1848-49. Vol. 2, p. 15.
 See Walker Cowan. Melville’s Marginalia New York and London: Garland, 1987, Vol. 1, p. 564.
 Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Young Goodman Brown” in Selected Tales and Sketches (ed. M. Colacurcio) New York: Viking Penguin, 1987, p. 141.
 Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster (tr. Ann Smock) Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986, p. 145.
 Maurice Blanchot. “Discours sur la patience (en marges des livres d’Emmanuel Levinas)” Le Nouveau Commerce 30-31 (1975) p. 42.
 My series Narratives of Egypt (comprised of Prologue: Infinite Obscure, In the Form of the Letter X, Cartouche and Farrago) made between 1984 and 1987 is some kind of effort to deal with Melville cinematically.
 Lacan also gave a cinematic rendering of the drive: “Let me say that if there is anything resembling a drive it is a montage… The drive is precisely that montage by which sexuality participates in the psychical life, in a way that must conform to the gap-like structure that is the structure of the unconscious.” (Jacques Lacan. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (ed. Jacques-Alain Miller) (tr. Alan Sheridan) New York: Norton, 1977, pp 169, 176.)
 My source here is Calvert Watkins’ “Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans,” an account of the reconstruction of proto-Indo-European root words from contemporary Indo-European languages (esp. English) which is included along with a lexicon in William Morris (ed.) The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1969, pp1496-1550. For nau- see p. 1530.
 Mitchell Breitwieser. “The Great Gatsby: Grief, Jazz and the Eye-Witness” (unpublished ms. forthcoming in The Arizona Quarterly) p. 2 Breitweiser’s discussion of mourning in this paper, and in his book on Mary Rowlandson, have been of considerable value to my thinking about some of the issues explored here. See: Mitchell Breitwieser. American Puritanism and the Defense of Mourning: Relgion, Grief, and Ethnology in Mary White Rowlandson’s Captivity Narrative Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990, esp. the discussion of Hegel and Derrida on Antigone, pp30-49.
 Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster p. 2
 Ibid. p2
 Ibid p. 66 In a number of his works, Blanchot maintains a penchant for speculative, even catachrestic, etymologies which proceed “by affinity and no longer solely by affiliation.” (ibid. p93) My torturous efforts with naufrage take their cue from him.
 Jacques Derrida. “Edmond Jabès and the Question of the Book” in Writing and Difference (tr. Alan Bass) Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978, p. 71.
 Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster p. 60.
 Ibid. p. 46.
 Ibid. p. 34.
 Paul Celan. “Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen” in Collected Prose (tr. Rosemarie Waldrop) Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY: Sheep Meadow Press. 1986, p. 35.
 Julian Hawthorne. “Hawthorne at Lennox” Booklover’s Weekly Dec. 30, 1901. Quoted in Jay Leyda. The Melville Log New York: Gordian Press, 1951/1969, Vol. II, p. 782.
 Charles Olson. Call Me Ishmael San Francisco: City Light Books, 1958, p. 104.
 Nathaniel Hawthorne. “The Gentle Boy” in The Scarlet Letter and Selected Tales (ed. Thomas Connolly) Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970, p. 334.