A White Whale, a Gold Doubloon, How Would You Interpret This?

Ethnographers, deconstructors, believers in powers inherent in things, here be a pretty problem for you. The following is taken from the chapter titled "The Doubloon" from Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Captain Ahab has nailed a gold doubloon to the Pequod's mast and said that it is for whoever first spots Moby Dick, the great white whale that is Ahab's obsession. Just for the sake of argument, assume that this is an ethnographic field note. What can you say about it? What can you, from whatever theoretical perspective you prefer, add to what the novelist tells us?

But one morning, turning to pass the doubloon, [Ahab] seemed to be newly attracted by the strange figures and inscriptions stamped on it, as though now for the first time beginning to interpret for himself in some monomaniac way whatever significance might lurk in them. And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher, except to sell by the cartload, as they do hills about Boston, to fill up some morass in the Milky Way.

Now this doubloon was of purest, virgin gold, raked somewhere out of the heart of gorgeous hills, whence, east and west, over golden sands, the head-waters of many a Pactolus flows. And though now nailed amidst all the rustiness of iron bolts and the verdigris of copper spikes, yet, untouchable and immaculate to any foulness, it still preserved its Quito glow.Nor, though placed amongst a ruthless crew and every hour passed by ruthless hands, and through the livelong nights shrouded with thick darkness which might cover any pilfering approach, nevertheless every sunrise found the doubloon where the sunset left it last. For it was set apart and sanctified to one awe-striking end; and however wanton in their sailor ways, one and all, the mariners revered it as the white whale's talisman. Sometimes they talked it over in the weary watch by night, wondering whose it was to be at last, and whether he would ever live to spend it.

Now those noble golden coins of South America are as medals of the sun and tropic token-pieces.Here palms, alpacas, and volcanoes; sun's disks and stars; ecliptics, horns-of-plenty, and rich banners waving, are in luxuriant profusion stamped; so that the precious gold seems almost to derive an added preciousness and enhancing glories, by passing through those fancy mints, so Spanishly poetic.

It so chanced that the doubloon of the Pequod was a most wealthy example of these things.On its round border it bore the letters, REPUBLICA DEL ECUADOR: QUITO. So this bright coin came from a country planted in the middle of the world, and beneath the great equator, and named after it; and it had been cast midway up the Andes, in the unwaning clime that knows no autumn.Zoned by those letters you saw the likeness of three Andes' summits; from one a flame; a tower on another; on the third a crowing cock; while arching over all was a segment of the partitioned zodiac, the signs all marked with their usual cabalistics, and the keystone sun entering the equinoctial point at Libra.

Before this equatorial coin, Ahab, not unobserved by others, was now pausing.

"There's something ever egotistical in mountain-tops and towers, and all other grand and lofty things; look here,—three peaks as proud as Lucifer.The firm tower, that is Ahab; the volcano, that is Ahab; the courageous, the undaunted, and victorious fowl, that, too, is Ahab; all are Ahab; and this round gold is but the image of the rounder globe, which, like a magician's glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own mysterious self.Great pains, small gains for those who ask the world to solve them; it cannot solve itself. Methinks now this coined sun wears a ruddy face; but see! aye, he enters the sign of storms, the equinox! and but six months before he wheeled out of a former equinox at Aries! From storm to storm! So be it, then.Born in throes, 't is fit that man should live in pains and die in pangs! So be it, then! Here's stout stuff for woe to work on. So be it, then."

"No fairy fingers can have pressed the gold, but devil's claws must have left their mouldings there since yesterday," murmured Starbuck to himself, leaning against the bulwarks. "The old man seems to read Belshazzar's awful writing.I have never marked the coin inspectingly. He goes below; let me read. A dark valley between three mighty, heaven-abiding peaks, that almost seem the Trinity, in some faint earthly symbol.So in this vale of Death, God girds us round; and over all our gloom, the sun of Righteousness still shines a beacon and a hope.If we bend down our eyes, the dark vale shows her mouldy soil; but if we lift them, the bright sun meets our glance half way, to cheer. Yet, oh, the great sun is no fixture; and if, at midnight, we would fain snatch some sweet solace from him, we gaze for him in vain! This coin speaks wisely, mildly, truly, but still sadly to me. I will quit it, lest Truth shake me falsely."

"There now's the old Mogul,"' soliloquized Stubb by the try‐ works, "he's been twigging it; and there goes Starbuck from the same, and both with faces which I should say might be somewhere within nine fathoms long.And all from looking at a piece of gold, which did I have it now on Negro Hill or in Corlaer's Hook, I'd not look at it very long ere spending it.Humph! in my poor, insignificant opinion, I regard this as queer.I have seen doubloons before now in my voyagings; your doubloons of old Spain, your doubloons of Peru, your doubloons of Chili, your doubloons of Bolivia, your doubloons of Popayan; with plenty of gold moidores and pistoles, and joes, and half joes, and quarter joes.What then should there be in this doubloon of the Equator that is so killing wonderful? By Golconda! let me read it once.Halloal here's signs and wonders truly! That, now, is what old Bowditch in his Epitome calls the zodiac, and what my almanack below calls ditto. I'll get the almanack and as I have heard devils can be raised with Daboll's arithmetic, I'll try my hand at raising a meaning out of these queer curvicues here with the Massachusetts calendar.

Here's the book. Let's see now. Signs and wonders; and the sun, he's always among 'em. Hem, hem, hem; here they are—here they go—all alive:—Aries, or the Ram; Taurus, or the Bull and Jimimil here's Gemini himself, or the Twins.Well; the sun he wheels among 'em. Aye, here on the coin he's just crossing the threshold between two of twelve sitting-rooms all in a ring. Book! you lie there; the fact is, you books must know your places. You'll do to give us the bare words and facts, but we come in to supply the thoughts. That's my small experience, so far as the Massachusetts calendar, and Bowditch's navigator, and Daboll's arithmetic go.Signs and wonders, eh? Pity if there is nothing wonderful in signs, and significant in wondersl There's a clue somewhere; wait a bit; hist—hark! By Jove, I have it! Look you, Doubloon, your zodiac here is the life of man in one round chapter; and now I'll read it off, straight out of the book.Come, Almanack! To begin: there's Aries, or the Ram—lecherous dog, he begets us; then, Taurus, or the Bull—he bumps us the first thing; then Gemini, or the Twinsthat is, Virtue and Vice; we try to reach Virtue, when lo! comes Cancer the Crab, and drags us back; and here, going from Virtue, Leo, a roaring Lion, lies in the path—he gives a few fierce bites and surly dabs with his paw; we escape, and hail Virgo, the Virgin! that's our first love; we marry and think to be happy for aye, when pop comes Libra, or the Scales—happiness weighed and found wanting; and while we are very sad about that, Lord! how we suddenly jump, as Scorpio, or the Scorpion, stings us in rear; we are curing the wound, when whang come the arrows all round; Sagittarius, or the Archer, is amusing himself. As we pluck out the shafts, stand aside; here's the battering-ram, Capricornus, or the Goat; full tilt, he comes rushing, and headlong we are tossed; when Aquarius, or the Water-bearer, pours out his whole deluge and drowns us; and to wind up with Pisces, or the Fishes, we sleep.There's a sermon now, writ in high heaven, and the sun goes through it every year, and yet comes out of it all alive and hearty. Jollily he, aloft there, wheels through toil and trouble; and so, alow here, does jolly Stubb.Oh, jolly's the word for aye! Adieu, Doubloon! But stop; here comes little King-Post; dodge round the try-works, now, and let's hear what he'll have to say.There; he's before it; he'll out with something presently. So, so; he's beginning."

"I see nothing here, but a round thing made of gold, and whoever raises a certain whale, this round thing belongs to him. So, what's all this staring been about? It is worth sixteen dollars, that's true; and at two cents the cigar, that's nine hundred and sixty cigars. I wont smoke dirty pipes like Stubb, but I like cigars, and here's nine hundred and sixty of them; so here goes Flask aloft to spy 'em out."

"Shall I call that wise or foolish, now; if it be really wise it has a foolish look to it; yet, if it be really foolish, then has it a sort of wiseish look to it.But, avast; here comes our old Manxman—the old hearse-driver, he must have been, that is, before he took to the sea.He luffs up before the doubloon; halloa, and goes round on the other side of the mast; why, there's a horse-shoe nailed on that side; and now he's back again; what does that mean? Hark! he's muttering—voice like an old worn‐ out coffee-mill. Prick ears, and listen!"

"If the White Whale be raised, it must be in a month and a day, when the sun stands in some one of these signs. I've studied signs, and know their marks; they were taught me two score years ago, by the old witch in Copenhagen.Now, in what sign will the sun then be? The horse-shoe sign; for there it is, right opposite the gold. And what's the horse-shoe sign? The lion is the horse-shoe sign—the roaring and devouring lion. Ship, old ship! my old head shakes to think of thee."

"There's another rendering now; but still one text.All sorts of men in one kind of world, you see. Dodge again! here comes Queequeg—all tattooing—looks like the signs of the Zodiac himself.What says the Cannibal? As I live he's comparing notes; looking at his thigh bone; thinks the sun is in the thigh, or in the calf, or in the bowels, I suppose, as the old women talk Surgeon's Astronomy in the back country.And by Jove, he's found something there in the vicinity of his thigh—I guess it's Sagittarius, or the Archer.No: he don't know what to make of the doubloon; he takes it for an old button off some king's trowsers. But, aside again! here comes that ghost-devil, Fedallah; tail coiled out of sight as usual, oakum in the toes of his pumps as usual.What does he say, with that look of his? Ah, only makes a sign to the sign and bows himself; there is a sun on the coin—fire worshipper, depend upon it. Ho! more and more. This way comes Pip—poor boy! would he had died, or I; he's half horrible to me.He too has been watching all of these interpreters—myself included—and look now, he comes to read with that unearthly idiot face. Stand away again and hear him. Hark!

"I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look."

"Upon my soul, he's been studying Murray's Grammar! Improving his mind, poor fellow! But what's that he says nowhist!"

"I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look."

"Why, he's getting it by heart—hist! again."

"I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look."

"Well, that's funny."

"And I, you, and he; and we, ye, and they, are all bats; and I'm a crow, especially when I stand a'top of this pine tree here. Caw! caw! caw! caw! caw! caw! Ain't I a crow? And where's the scare-crow? There he stands; two bones stuck into a pair of old trowsers, and two more poked into the sleeves of an old jacket."

"Wonder if he means me?—complimentary!—poor lad!—I could go hang myself.Any way, for the present, I'll quit Pip's vicinity. I can stand the rest, for they have plain wits; but he's too crazy‐ witty for my sanity. So, so, I leave him muttering."

"Here's the ship's navel, this doubloon here, and they are all on fire to unscrew it.But, unscrew your navel, and what's the consequence? Then again, if it stays here, that is ugly, too, for when aught's nailed to the mast it's a sign that things grow desperate. Ha, ha! old Ahab! the White Whale; he'll nail ye! This is a pine tree. My father, in old Tolland county, cut down a pine tree once, and found a silver ring grown over in it; some old darkey's wedding ring.How did it get there? And so they'll say in the resurrection, when they come to fish up this old mast, and find a doubloon lodged in it, with bedded oysters for the shaggy bark. Oh, the gold! the precious, precious gold!—the green miser 'll hoard ye soon! Hish! hish! God goes 'mong the worlds blackberrying. Cook! ho, cook! and cook us! Jenny! hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, Jenny, Jenny! and get your hoe-cake done!"


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No takers? For what it's worth, Moby Dick can be read as great ethnography as well as great literature. It is rich in detailed description of technologies (ships, boats, harpoons, stoves and kettles for rendering blubber, etc.), the animals on whom a community's livelihood depends (a treatise on whales and their varying descriptions over time), social structures (the offices and roles that governed life on a whaling ship), the economics of the industry and how its rewards are parceled out, religious views and values that inform the characters' motivations. A better holistic description of a community alien to most readers is hard to imagine. That Melville also anticipates and illustrates the ambiguities of symbolism and the problems of interpretation should, IMHO, make Moby Dick a must read for any aspiring anthropologist and—the point I am making here—a marvelous test case for theoretical or methodological propositions. If we could take the riches of the data that Melville provides and add something to them, we would, I believe, be making serious progress, instead of spinning in circles or sinking in pursuit of our own white whales.

I've always believed that a novel, even if its about a talking fish or a dancing tree, can tell us about culture, the culture of its novelist.  Reading Allende, for example, will give a reader insights about superstitious beliefs and sensual worldviews in Latin America even though the genre of her work is magic realism.  The problems are our definition of scholarship and our practice of citation that limit our sources of knowledge.  We tend to forget that fictions originate from facts.  Experience, imagination, and memory of  any writer are facts.  Fictions, therefore, are masked facts. 

I would agree, in so far as any work of fiction can be taken as data for ethnographic or other analysis. But about Moby Dick I am making a stronger claim, that the book is not only a great work of literature but also a great ethnography. Its depiction of the 19th century whaling industry and life and work aboard a whaling ship is accurate, detailed and, in many respects, far more comprehensive than most ethnography is. In my own library, the only work that matches or possibly exceeds it in these respects is Malinowski's Coral Gardens and Their Magic. As in the case of Coral Gardens, the descriptions are rich enough to support reanalysis using new theories or methods. Like Coral Gardens, Moby Dick is a work that can only be added to— it cannot be replaced.


Thanks for this edifying extract, John - a brilliant episode from a book that brims with them.


I completely agree that Moby Dick can be read as great ethnography. (Keith once said something similar in his Anthropology of Fiction discussion.)  


I suppose that the most obvious thing about this episode - with the whalers engaging in their sailorly semiotics - 'I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look'  - is that it points up the slippery operation of interpretation itself. Although 'some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth', then the problem is how to read the signs right. And further, the difficulty of fixing our definitions, of 'nailing' our interpretations as securely as a coin hammered to a main- mast.


An aside, but Victor Turner brilliantly draws on Moby Dick in his account of the Chihamba ritual of the Ndembu. In particular, he compares Melville's account of the ambiguous meanings evoked by the whiteness of the whale with the different significations given to the whiteness of spirits in the Ndembu ritual...  



Philip, thanks for the reminder about Chihamba and the White Whale, as well as agreeing with me that Moby Dick can be read as a great ethnography. Could I ask you to go a bit further and suggest how current theory might enrich or more clearly articulate the points that Melville makes so well? I wonder, for example, of what it means to you to "read the signs right"? Is there anything here to be read except for the words that Melville puts into the mouths of the sailors? 




Thanks John.


I'm slightly hesitant to suggest how theory might illuminate some aspect of this episode from Moby Dick, partly because it seems to me that the novel, as ethnography, is capable of generating its 'own' theories, as it were, or at least, that it has this inverse capacity to illuminate theory.


I only read the book for the first time last year (the shame of it!) but I remember being struck by how the following passage - with its understanding of the sensuous assemblage of men and materials, affects and capabilities, seemed in certain ways to anticipate Actor-Network Theory (made famous by Latour):


'They were one man, not thirty. For as the one ship that held them all; though it was put together of all contrasting things - oak and maple, and pine wood; iron, and pitch, and hemp - yet all these things ran into each other in the one concrete hull, which shot on its way, both balanced and directed by the long central keel; even so, all the individualities of the crew, this man's valor, that man's fear; guilt and guiltiness, all varieties were welded into oneness, and were all directed to that fatal goal that Ahab their one lord and keel did point to.'  


So, sticking to this idea - of the novel's potential to produce theories - what I love about the passage you've introduced to us that it's plainly about interpretation: with the various whalers reading this single, nailed doubloon in diverse ways - This coin speaks wisely, mildly, truly, but still sadly to me - Signs and wonders, eh? Pity if there is nothing wonderful in signs, and significant in wonders! - So, what's all this staring been about? - I've studied signs, and know their marks - There's another rendering now; but still one text. But if this episode is about interpretation then it interprets itself, as it were, because the lesson it seems to teach concerns the risk that interpretation carries when one is engaged in the business of whaling. (The cabin boy Pip's apparently crazy repetition of that conjugation - I look, you look, he looks... - stands, I suppose, as a kind of meta-commentary on this situation of interpretation, in so far as he looks at all the looking that is going on about him.)


Reading the signs right is vital, I guess, because ocean-going interpretation carries such great risk, as well as reward. The whalemen have acquired a kind of physiognomic knowledge - of reading signs from surfaces: from the wind, the weather, the waves, and ultimately, of course, from the whales and their distant spoutings. 


But if the whalers' modes of knowing are mobile and adaptable, they're also knowingly partial. I defer to Ishmael, who says of the whale's tail, 'I do deplore my inability to express it...In an extensive herd, so remarkable, occasionally, are these mystic gestures, that I have heard hunters who have declared them akin to Free-Mason signs and symbols', but Ishmael admits that, like such signs to the uninitiated, they 'remain wholly inexplicable'.       

Phil, when you write that "the novel, as ethnography, is capable of generating its 'own' theories," I find myself scratching my head. I can see how the novel, or more precisely the passage in question, can, as data, suggest theories. I can also conceive of Melville writing in ways that embody an author's theories. But "generating"? I know what that means if we are talking about electrical power plants or, more to the point, generative grammars, where a set of primitives and postulates are sufficient to define an infinite set of possible sentences, a.k.a., theorems provable given the primitives and postulates in question. But neither of those senses makes sense to me as a reading of the proposition that a novel generates its own theories.

Then, I reflect, "theory" as applied to interpretation may mean something different from "theory" applied to scientific explanation. If we take the goal of explanation to be closing down the range of possible conclusions, ideally to one, then the goal of interpretation could be seen as precisely the opposite, to open up the range of possible conclusions by insisting on ambiguity, polysemy, and contradiction as elements inherent in what we see that preclude a single conclusion. If explanation is a function f(x)=y, where x is a set of data that may, in fact, include a variety of different types of data, interpretation is, in effect, an infinitely repeatable assertion that closure, i.e., a final solution to the function is not possible.


If I am right, what "theory" becomes in the context of interpretation is not a set of explanations but, rather, a set of what Andrew Abbott calls methods of discovery, i.e., heuristics. In other words useful theories point us to things that we haven't seen before or considered carefully enough and suggest directions for constructing more detailed and thus more compelling interpretations.


Thus, for example, If I approach the passage about the doubloon with the pointers and concepts I learned from Victor Turner, I assume that the doubloon, conceived as a symbol, can be usefully described as having both a sensate and a cognitive pole, with feelings evoked by the tangible qualities clustered at the sensate pole and ideas clustered at the cognitive pole. I will also assume that both feelings and ideas are polyvalent, possibly contradictory,and only potential until some subset of them is realized in the words or acts of particular individuals whose relations with each other are strongly determinative of which subset they appear to perceive and act on.


Thus, step 1 in interpreting the doubloon would be to catalogue all of various feelings and ideas that Melville mentions and combine them to map the structures of thought and feeling within which the various characters respond as they do. Step 2 is to consider the relations of the characters to each other, including both their structural positions in the Pequod's crew and what Melville has told us elsewhere about their temperaments and personalities. Step 3 is to draft a tentative interpretation based on the results of steps 1 and 2 and compare it against the template that Turner's ideas suggest, to check for possibly relevant information that Melville or, more likely, I have omitted. I may at this stage discover that some of Turner's ideas have become problematic for me. The sensate pole turns out to be a tricky business. Yes, gold is one tangible quality to which all of the characters seem to respond; but as Melville describes how they talk about the doubloon, the gold itself may be less important than the various symbols engraved on the doubloon, which suggests the need for a recursive delving into what these constituent symbols of the dominant symbol, the doubloon, might mean....


Thus, Phil, the challenge is not to explain the passage, which I take to be an impossibility, but, rather, to pick a theory, Marxist, structuralist, post-structuralist, whatever, and to show how it functions as a heuristic in shaping an interpretation of what the passage means. It might complement the analysis a lá V. Turner that I have sketched above. It might offer a whole new angle that that sort of analysis fails to incorporate. If so, I'd like to see how that's done.


I agree that my 'generate theories' was too much loose talk. What I was trying to convey was that Moby Dick is a book swimming with big ideas and so we might consider how it itself may illuminate theory, rather than the other way around.  

It would be both interesting and illuminating to offer a 'marxist', or a 'psychoanalytical' (etc) reading of the world that Moby Dick discloses, or the particular situations in it. But equally interesting - if we assume that the book is 'ethnographic' - to consider the whalers' world on its 'own' terms, as it were, to try to understand the whalers practices, their modes of knowing, and so on - to try to get to grips with their idiom.


Maybe the latter project is something one would have to do anyway before attempting the former, but I guess I'm wondering what would happen were we to attempt, as far as possible, to hold off from applying theory, and attempt instead to fathom, as far as we can, the world of the whalemen in order to see whether their ideas might have something to say to ours.


Perhaps this is to some extent a conceit. But the book itself (or, more properly, Ishmael the narrator) seems to warn against the dangers of taking on too much exterior theory. After the sailors have caught and killed a sperm whale and a right-whale, the whales' heads are, one after the other, hung dripping on either side of the Pequod, balancing the ship. Ishmael is prompted to say:


'So, when on one side you hoist in Locke's head, you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant's head and you come back again; but in very poor plight. Thus, some minds forever keep trimming boat. Oh, ye foolish! throw all these thunder-heads overboard, and then you will float light and right.' 


This isn't to say, of course, either that all theory should be cast away, or that all of it is fishy!

Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!


But what about our friends whose jobs and careers depend on theory?


And what about the possibility that theory illuminates something in a way that the sailors' "own terms" don't? I think again of Bahktin's "Letter to Novy Mir" and the observation that cultural understanding has to be dialogical, since all of us have blind spots into which only others can see. 

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