Success in Circuit Lies: Deconstructing Comprehension

I’ve spent far too long this summer revising my seminar paper deconstructing “speak” as it appears in discussions about autism and autistic people.  While I’m continually reminded of the need to publish it (especially by posts like this one at Emma’s Hope Book), I keep finding myself “stuck” in an unspoken assumption buried somewhere in the sub-sub-text of ideas like “speak,” “listen,” and “communicate.”

Today, I think I can finally start to articulate it: it’s an expectation about comprehension.  It’s an expectation not only about sensory intake, but processing and output.  It’s subtle, and it’s pernicious.

Here’s what I mean.  Today, in my ballet class, I was watching my instructor demonstrate a tricky bit of choreography.  I was really focusing; there was something about the way she was doing it that was obviously not the way I was doing it, and I was trying to pinpoint the difference so I could imitate it.  

The harder I looked at her feet, though, the less I was understanding; I understood what was going on only when the center of my vision was slightly off to the side, and I was watching my instructor’s feet with my peripheral vision.  I said to myself, “I can’t see things when I look right at them.”

That’s not literally/physically/structurally true.  There’s nothing wrong with the center of my visual field.  Light enters my eye and focuses on my retina just fine when I look directly at a thing, and the information gets transmitted through my optic nerve to my brain without any apparent trouble.

What I meant when I said to myself “I can’t see things when I look right at them” is that I find it exponentially more difficult to comprehend things when I look right at them.  The eye works fine, but whatever goes on in my brain to make sense of the information finds itself significantly impeded when my eyes are focused directly on a thing.  It works much better when I’m looking at the thing with my peripheral vision, as with my instructor’s feet.  Once I stopped watching her directly I understood exactly what she was doing.

(In Somebody Somewhere, Donna Williams mentions that this “peripheral comprehension” is a trait many autistic people seem to share.)

This is what’s been tripping me up in the paper: the unspoken assumption of comprehension behind words like “speak,” “listen,” and “communicate.”  I had gotten as far as realizing there was an unspoken assumption of communication behind “speak” and “listen,” but the crux of the problem is a step further back than that, for “communicate” implies (mutual) comprehension.  This is particularly true in the case of autism discussions, where people who insist those tragic people-with-autism can’t communicate at all can talk right past people who insist that all behavior is communication (and vice versa), neither party hitting on the fact that what they’re really talking about is not a “communication” problem, but a comprehension one.  

There seems to me to be a more compassionate way out of the fight in this concept, but also a significant pitfall in the form of the question of “comprehension.”  How does one measure comprehension?  We’ve been doing it by quality of output, which is why “active listening” (for instance) involves so damn much speaking, and why lack of (comprehended) output has led so many researchers to erroneously assume lack of comprehension on the part of autistic people.  But we – autistic people particularly, but also those who are learning to comprehend us – know that mutual comprehension is, at best, a tool to measure comprehension in either one of the parties.  It is not comprehension itself.  And in “comprehension itself” seems to lie all the sticky danger of assuming autistic people don’t have “souls,” or are less than human, or whichever fairy story one prefers.

 

And I suppose I shouldn’t be quite so impatient with myself in revising this paper.  Deconstruction, like water, is a universal solvent.  It’ll wear away anything eventually, but “eventually” is the key word.

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How to Start Running If You Have Never Run Before and Are Not Even Sure You Can Run: A Guide for Academics and Others

I have always envied runners.

Despite the fact that running is a grueling, miserable, punishing, largely bullshit sport that makes runners wonder why they were ever born (so I am told by runners), running is also the best thing that could ever possibly happen to a human being short of being assigned to captain the USS Enterprise (so I am also told by runners).  When I drive past people who are running, I deliriously want to be them; it looks powerful and tenacious and…dare I say…fun?

But for most of my life, I’ve faced considerable barriers to running.  I have juvenile primary fibromyalgia syndrome, which is a fancy way of saying “I was born with fibro and was seriously in my twenties before I learned that most people don’t walk around in a constant haze of pain and fatigue that has made any high-impact sport impossible.”  I’m an academic and used to be a lawyer, so my job has long called for considerable stretches of butt-in-seat.  And several times in the past, when I tried to run, I did it at the worst possible time: when I was already crushed under the weight of some major project that was sapping every bit of my mental and physical reserves.

All of which is to say: I get it!  Taking up running is not easy!

But I’ve recently started trying to run yet again.  And now that I’m finally succeeding at doing so, here is a six-step guide to starting running even if you have never run before and aren’t even sure you’re physically capable of running.

0.  “But wait!  Why do I, an academic (or not), even care if I can run?”

Because:

  • Instant +10 mental concentration and stamina.  I can get more research and writing done in one hour after a half-hour run than I can in two hours of just staying in the chair.  This is because….
  • RUNNING FEEDS YOUR BRAIN.  Your brain needs extraordinary quantities of oxygen and free glucose, delivered by the most efficient circulatory system you can muster.  Running tunes up said circulatory system and packs it with oxygen and free glucose (remember to eat, yo!).  This is why…
  • All the smart kids run.  I first got envious of runners in law school, because there is a distinct and obvious direct correlation between The People Who Are The Best At This Law Stuff and The People Who Are Always Out Running.  I personally know attorneys who don’t even interrupt their running habit on days they argue in front of the Supreme Court; in fact, they say this is the most important day to get their early-morning run, so they’re properly focused during oral arguments (which, if you’ve never had the pleasure, are like playing intellectual dodgeball with Deep Blue).  I find that fewer academics run than lawyers, and I don’t know why, since I also find that academics do more brain-heavy-lifting overall than lawyers.
  • Live long enough to enjoy your tenure/retirement.  If you even have tenure/retirement.  If not, live long enough to actually get that book published.
  • Half an hour a day (or more) of absolutely nobody bothering or interrupting you about anything – and you don’t even have to sleep to get it.  (Also, sleep better.)  YOU KNOW YOU WANT THIS.

Now that you’re sold, where to start?

1.  Get the medical stuff out of the way.

Some medical conditions actually do prevent you from running, or will enact terrible vengeance upon you if you try to run.  These include, but are by no means limited to, degenerative joint-cartilage conditions, heart conditions, and breathing problems.  Some of these can be addressed with the right equipment or medications; others can’t.  Your doctor should know which is which.

If you have one of these or think you might, see your doctor before you take up running.  If you have Mysterious Unexplained Symptoms You Haven’t Bothered to Get Checked Because You Only Just Got You Some Obamacare and You Were Really Hoping To Get This Dissertation Chapter Finished First, see your doctor before you take up running.  (Actually, think twice about taking up running; see “2. Work Up To It,” below.)  If you have no unexplained symptoms but just haven’t seen a doctor in forever, see your doctor before you take up running.

Probably you should see your doctor, is what I’m saying.

2.  Work up to it.

As alluring as “Couch to 5k” sounds, the fact is that a lot of people can’t get off the couch and run a 5k.  This is especially true if you have one of those medical conditions that will let you run, but only if you pay it its dues first.

If you’ve tried some running and it is Just Not Happening, consider “running-lite” for a while.  This might mean walking or taking on some running-similar, lower-impact activity like the elliptical.

Patience helps.  I actually “ran” on the elliptical for eight months before I began trying to actually-run on actual land.  The low impact helped mitigate the effects of the fibromyalgia, and the practice let me build up some stamina and reap the benefits of brain-feeding before I hit the pavement.  If you have access to a gym, start here.

Also, weight training can be a huge help for developing stamina.  HUGE.  I lifted for six months before I started trying to run-on-land, and I highly recommend it for a major deep-relaxation boost and hella core strength.  I can lift household objects over my head now that I couldn’t pick up at all a year ago.  HELLS YEAH.

If you are currently in the middle of a major stressbomb: Consider not taking up running until it’s finished.  The potential stress relief of running may not be enough to compensate for the pummelling your adrenal glands are already taking.  Trust me on this one: I once tried to start running during my last semester of law school and once while trying to finish the Largest Defamation Case That Ever Lived, and both ended badly.  Show your body and brain love by giving them only one hurdle at a time: finish your thesis, defend your dissertation, get tenure, or close on the house, then take up running.

(A note for fellow fibromites: My secret for determining whether exercise is going to be fine or cause a flare-up?  I check my pulse one minute in.  If I’m proceeding nicely toward the heart rate training zone, I’m fine.  If it’s 160 or above, I’m headed for a flare-up and must stop.  This metric has been both accurate for me and independent of how my body actually feels – I’ll have Dead of Pain and Fatigue days where running actually restores me, and Feelin’ Fine days where running knocks me on my butt.  The pulse always tells which is which.)

3.  Choose your route.

The good news is that college towns are often prime real estate for running, especially in places with unterrible weather.  The bad news is that college towns vary greatly on where and how their prime-running-real-estate works.  Here are a few places I’ve lived and their layouts:

  • The Liberal Enclave.  The best running is right on and/or through campus.  Campus itself may be integrated with and indistinguishable from town (the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor), or it may contain large preserves of prime running territory (UM; also Michigan State, Lansing).
  • In Town But Not Of It.  Campus is either laid out terribly or the neighborhoods immediately surrounding it seem not exactly safe for running (Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo), but prime running territory can be found within walking distance of campus or within a short drive or bike ride (Westnedge Hill and Oakwood, the Kalamazoo Valley River Trail).
  • Anywhere Is Everywhere.  Town is so small that you’ll run every street twice just to get 10k out of it, but nothing is actually dangerous so that’s cool (Ferris State University, Big Rapids).

Your route:

  • Should be a manageable distance.  My current route is 2.11 miles, because that’s what I can walk in half an hour.
  • Should probably only be one route to start.  It’s easier to track your actual running progress if you stick to one route for the first month or so.  If you get too bored, do it backwards.
  • Should be reasonably safe.  Stick to places with lighting, sidewalks, and enough people that you can probably find someone if you need help.
  • Should be “on file” with a friend or family member so people know where to look for you in case of emergency.

4.  Camouflage.

Ever wanted to start running, but hesitated because surely all those toned, Spandex-clad gazelles out there do not want to see your sweating, floppy, lumbering behind?  There are clothes for that!

When you start running, you want to split the difference between two schools of thought: the “I’d rather not be on display, thanks” school and the “I’d rather not be smeared by a car, thanks” school.  This means being bright enough to be seen but not seen.

If you’re like most students or just-got-done-being-students, you probably have a nontrivial portion of wardrobe consisting of:

  • Yoga and/or slouchy pants and shorts that you can’t really wear to teach in and you don’t really wear while grading papers or reading, because who wears pants when they grade that’s seriously just like compounding the pain, and
  • T-shirts from defunct student organizations you joined or advised, events you attended once, etc., that you couldn’t turn down because free clothes but you really don’t ever wear except when it is too cold to grade papers naked.

Congratulations!  You have running camouflage!

If you are going to be running in dark or dark-ish conditions, slap some reflective tape on those fugly shirts and pants.  Otherwise, seriously just run in them.  Don’t waste your money on the svelte Spandex getups until you’re pretty sure you’ll be sticking with this running thing and you’ve worn through your last Defunct Student Org shirt.  Save those pennies for a pair of running shoes with good arch support.

And if you’re still unsure about this whole “clothing” thing, here’s a confession:

I scope out runners.  Men, women, both, neither, other, indeterminate: LOVELIES, I AM SCOPING YOU.  And I can guarantee you this: EVERYONE WHO IS RUNNING IS BEAUTIFUL.

Yes.  Every single person.  You are running?  YOU LOOK AAAAHHHMAZING.  And I envy you. So put on your fugly shorts and let’s go.

To run, you really only need clothing and shoes.  I do, however, recommend a pedometer.  Newer iPods have them built in (I love mine), and there are free phone apps everywhere.  They’re a super-easy way to track the time and distance you’re covering, and stumbling back into your apartment sweating and breathless to learn you just completed a whopping 4,665 steps is a nice little ego boost.

(If you are one of those beautiful people who loves how you look in Spandex and doesn’t care who knows it, then ignore this entire section except the parts about making yourself sufficiently visible to oncoming motorists, and rock on with your beautiful, beautiful self.)

5.  Never say you’re sorry.

Here’s the Moment of Truth: time to go on your first “run.”

You know what?  It will probably be a walk.  In fact, it probably should be mostly a walk, especially if you are just getting off the couch.

When I started the most recent incarnation of Me Running, I seriously ran the length of four blocks in the entire 2.11-mile route.  That’s not four blocks at once, either.  I walked six blocks, ran the length of one block, huffed my way walking through four blocks, ran the length of another block, puffed my way walking through four more, ran two, and then walked the entire way back home (about 12 blocks) because holy crap what did I just do to my poor lungs that last two blocks was the worst idea ever OMG EVERRRR.

The next time, it was two blocks running, two blocks walking, for a total of ten blocks of running.  The third time, it was the same as the second time, because my body was all “nooo, this is what we do today.”  The time after that, it was about 40 percent running and 60 percent walking.

There are, basically, two big secrets here:

  • Listen to your body, and
  • Exercise both “chickening out” and “sucking it up” in moderation.

Think that if you walk up this small incline, you’ll be able to run down the straight, level part of the sidewalk twice as far as the length of this incline?  Go for it.  Next time, run up the damn incline and walk the street.  Challenge yourself to go just five sidewalk squares more, but not if you’re going to fall on your face the moment you hit the crosswalk.  You want to establish a nice, challenging run/walk mix, but not a self-killing one.

This is okay, and anyone outside your head or in it who tries to tell you otherwise is full of it.  Imagine squashing those thoughts under the heels of your walking-today-running-more-tomorrow shoes.

Remember: You are doing this because it makes your brain and body feel awesome.  If it does not make your brain and body feel awesome, you’re doing it wrong.  This is the only way you can possibly do it wrong.

6.  Shower.

You’ll probably want to as soon as you’re done sweating up a storm with your walk/run.  But in case you were picturing yourself running two miles to campus and immediately walking in to teach Intro to Yourfield: don’t.  There is currently no “wavy stink-lines” icon on RateMyProfessor.com (as far as I know), and you do not need one invented in your honor.

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Two (and a Half) Things That Concern Me About Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

Like a large portion of Americans, I spent a good chunk of my day reading Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.  The opinion is astonishingly broad, badly reasoned in several places, and skips any number of good, clean, judicially-restrained “outs” in favor of the holding it does give.  Such a broad opinion naturally gives rise to broad concerns, of which these are my top two (and a half):

1.  Can my employer now refuse to pay me in money if making payments in money violates the religious beliefs of a shareholder, partner, or director?

Contrary to popular belief and its titular descriptor, health insurance is not a “benefit” or gift bestowed by a benevolent employer on an employee.  It is compensation, paid to an employee who has earned it with his or her labor.  

Prior to the ACA, health insurance was a “benefit” only in the sense that employers could choose whether or not to offer it as one of the types of compensation by which they paid their employees.  Post-ACA, however, employers of a certain size no longer have that choice; they must pay at least part of the compensation of their full-time (as defined by the ACA) employees in health insurance form.

Can the federal government require employers to pay their employees in certain forms of compensation?  Well, yes.  Before religion gets into it, a “you must pay compensation in X form” law only has to have a “rational basis” for existing.  Requiring that part (not all) of an employee’s compensation be paid in health insurance rationally furthers a legitimate state interest: when people have coverage, they get treatment for illnesses and injuries, reducing the costs and burden on public health systems and the risk of things like pandemics.  The government could require that part of an employee’s compensation be paid in any form, as long as the government could demonstrate a rational basis for that requirement.  (Requiring that employees be paid in legal tender has a pretty obvious legitimate state interest: money is fungible, and people who can buy their own needs don’t need the government to feed them.  Requiring that employees be paid in turnips, however, might not, especially if there’s no freaky surplus of government turnips or similar extenuating circumstance.) 

Burwell holds, however, that the stakeholders in a closely-held corporation did not have to provide contraception coverage to employees if it violated their sincerely-held religious beliefs to do so.   In other words, the employer does not have to pay compensation to its employees in the form of health insurance, because some of that health insurance might be converted into contraceptives (after a private conversation between the employee and her physician) and the employer’s (owners’) religious beliefs prohibit contraception.

The problem here, of course, is that you can replace “contraception coverage” with literally any other form of compensation in the above statement and the Burwell argument still follows.  The problem is not the form of compensation but the existence of a religious belief proscribing compensation in that form.  So if, say, I belong to a religion that proscribes the possession of images of the human face (and there are several that do), I could argue that I should not have to pay compensation to my employees in the form of cash – and, since other forms of money transfer like check or wire can be converted into cash (after a private conversation between the employee and his or her banker), I could also argue that I should not have to pay compensation in any monetary form, because my religious beliefs prohibit the possession of images of the human face, which of course appear on all or nearly all U.S. currency.  The logic is the same.

But even if we can distinguish “I shouldn’t have to pay in health insurance” from “I shouldn’t have to pay in cash,” we still have a compensation problem.  And that is….

2.  What else can my employer tell me I cannot buy with the compensation I earned from working?

Health insurance coverage provides payments for a wide range of health-related services: office visits, testing, surgeries, hospital stays, emergency medical services, and yes, prescriptions.  Which ones any individual employee purchases tends to depend not so much on the employee’s preferences as on the employee’s medical needs, but even an employee in a medical bind still has some choice.  An employee who opts for medication for a non-life-threatening condition has more options and more time to try them out – and, as anyone who has ever been on antidepressants knows, sometimes you try out a lot of options before you find the one in the class that works for you.

And yes, one of the many things an employee might choose to buy with the health insurance portion of the compensation she earned by working is birth control.  If my employer’s (owners’) sincerely-held religious beliefs allow my employer to forestall me from using some part of the compensation I earned to buy contraceptives, what prevents my employer’s (owners’) sincerely-held religious beliefs from forestalling me from using some other part of the compensation I earned to buy something else that offends my employers’ (owners’) beliefs?
In short, if my employer can prevent me from using the “health insurance” part of my compensation to buy contraceptives, what else can my employer prevent me from using some part of my compensation to buy?  Books?  D&D paraphernalia?  Mission trip supplies?  Sex toys?  Food?
I would not expect a carte blanche “you may not buy pork or alcohol with that paycheck,” for instance, to stand up in court.  But if it failed, it would fail for reasons of politics, not for reasons of logic.
(and a half).  Do the words “conservative” and “judicial restraint” mean anything anymore?
Burwell v. Hobby Lobby charts some previously-uncharted waters in Constitutional jurisprudence.  Just a few days ago, in NLRB v. CanningJustices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas and Chief Justice Roberts concurred just to say that they think the recess-appointments rule is “outdated” and that they’d prefer to eliminate it entirely.
NOW WAIT A MINUTE.  I thought “conservatives” were supposed to be pro-upholding the status quo against the rushing onslaught of frivolous change.  I thought they were the defenders of tradition, precedent, “heritage,” and doing things because that’s the way we’ve always done them therefore AMERICA.  Yet, in just two days we get “judicial restraint” that does things never before done in First Amendment or corporate jurisprudence and “conservatives” who want to change a longstanding rule – that governs the other two branches of government, no less – because it’s “outdated.”
How is logic?  What is words?  Who meanings?

 

(Note: I use “she” throughout to refer to the contraception-purchasing employee for convenience, although I am aware that not everyone who uses HBC identifies as female and not everyone who identifies as female has a use for HBC.)

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The Whale Is Still a Lie: Now With Timeline

After rereading my last post, I realized that my argument about Ishmael screwing up his timeline is…pretty screwed up.  So here it is again, with helpful images.

The core of the argument is this: because Ishmael demonstrates a knowledge of practical whaling at points in the novel where he should have no such knowledge, we can infer that he’s not actually the whaling n00b he claims to be.

To begin, it helps to have a basic timeline of the novel.  Moby-Dick is written in the first person; the narrator is Ishmael, telling us the story of this one time he went whaling and it ended badly.  I’ll use “now” to refer to “the point in time at which Ishmael is telling us the story”:

ishmael timeline 1

Because Ishmael is telling us about his voyage on the Pequod and what happened to it, we can assume that “now” is later than any of the events involving the Pequod.  For better understanding later in this argument, I’ll break down “the events involving the Pequod” into three main parts: Ishmael’s decision to ship on the Pequod, the time he spends on the ship (in red), and the ship’s destruction:

ishmael timeline 2

What happened before Ishmael boarded the Pequod?  We don’t know much, but we do know the following things:

  • He served on merchant ships, but never a whaling ship,
  • He got periodically depressed,
  • He (apparently) read a lot of natural history about whales,
  • He (may have) taught primary school.

We don’t have specific points in time for any of these events, so we’ll fill them in on the left side of the timeline generally:

ishmael timeline 3

After the Pequod, Ishmael served on at least one other ship, making at least one stop in South America on the way (where he tells the tale of the Town-Ho to some sailors).  He does not say whether or not this was a whaling ship.  However, since at “now” Ishmael describes his time in the whaling business as a “solo interlude” between the events in his life before the Pequod and the events afterward, let’s assume that the post-Pequod ship was another merchant vessel and not a whaler:

ishmael timeline 4

At “now,” Ishmael has all the practical knowledge of whaling he gained on the Pequod.  His hands-on experience isn’t comprehensive; he was just a sailor, not a harpooneer or specksynder.  But he has a good working knowledge of just about everything that goes on in the process of hunting sperm whales, even if he is very bad at remembering to draw our attention to details that matter to the plot of his story as opposed to details that merely interest or amuse him.

Ishmael also has this knowledge at all the green points on the timeline – after he survives the wreck of the Pequod and while he’s serving on some other ship.  During the red points on the timeline, he is learning this knowledge.  He has, we can assume, almost none of it when he leaves port on the Pequod, and all of it when he’s floating around on the life-buoy after the Pequod has been destroyed.

At the blue points on the timeline, of course, Ishmael has zero working knowledge of whaling.  He knows something about ships, having served on merchant vessels, but he doesn’t know anything about whaling ships particularly.

Then Things Get Weird

This is where the argument gets a bit trickier.

In one sense, Ishmael is telling the entire story “now,” after he’s gathered all his practical whaling knowledge.  While the story unfolds, however, Ishmael frequently tells it from his point of view at the moment the events he’s describing happened.  So, even when Ishmael is telling us the story “now,” he’s also telling it “then” – as it’s happening.

“Now,” Ishmael knows all the stuff he knows about whaling.  “Then,” however, he doesn’t know it yet – he’s learning it.  So when “then” Ishmael talks about whaling as if he’s actually an old hand at whaling, something seems off.  He becomes more difficult to trust, because “then” Ishmael can’t possibly know the stuff that “now” Ishmael knows.  So if Ishmael is using his “then” voice but talking about whaling stuff he knows “now,” he begins to sound like he’s had practical whaling knowledge all along – even at the times in his life during which he claims he was completely new to the business.

Warning: Objects in Analogy May Be Murkier Than They Appear

Perhaps the easiest literary parallel to draw is that of the distinction in the Commedia between Dante the Poet and Dante the Pilgrim.  Dante the Poet is the guy writing Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.  He knows where the whole journey is going.  When various characters provide advice or warnings, Dante the Poet already has a context and interpretation ready for them.

Dante the Pilgrim, by contrast, doesn’t know anything Dante the Poet knows.  He’s discovering Hell/Purgatory/Paradise for the first time.  When characters in these places prophesy, say, the fall of the Guelphs or Dante the Pilgrim’s eventual exile from Florence, Dante the Pilgrim is either shocked or doesn’t understand the reference.  Dante the Poet, of course, recognizes all of them.  He’s writing “now,” after the political events that are “foreshadowed” to Dante the Pilgrim, so he knows full well that he’s about to be driven from Florence in disgrace.  But these things have not happened to Dante the Pilgrim yet – he’s still at “then.”

Dante never, in the Commedia, accidentally conflates “now” Dante (the Poet) and “then” Dante (the Pilgrim).  Ishmael, however, either regularly conflates “now” Ishmael (experienced whaler) and “then” Ishmael (n00b whaler), or he’s lying about his whaling experience.  And if he’s lying, it’s in some way and to some end – my argument in the previous post being that that way is by being a literary persona of Ahab (much as Dante the Pilgrim is a literary persona of Dante the Poet) and that that end is to process Ahab’s feelings of trauma, revenge, and guilt (much as Dante the Poet uses Dante the Pilgrim to process his own feelings of betrayal and hopelessness).

 

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Camping

Camping

The husband took this photo of me up in the Boyne Highlands. I love it.

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The Whale is a Lie

Sperm whale jumping off the Azores. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Moby-Dick starts with the line “Call me Ishmael,” which most Americans immediately recognize even if they know almost nothing else about the book (“it’s about a whale!”).  In saying “Call me Ishmael,” the narrator implies that “Ishmael” isn’t his real name; it’s what he wants to be called.  There’s not a lot of evidence to suggest what his actual name is, but I’m about to argue for one:

Ishmael is Ahab.

“But wait!” you’re probably thinking.  “Isn’t Ahab [SPOILERS] killed off by Moby-Dick?  Doesn’t Ishmael only get to tell this story in the first place because he was the only one who survived the wreck?”

Yes!  But I’d argue the text also supports this reading: that the narrator is Ahab simultaneously working through the trauma of losing his leg and the guilt triggered by his vengeful urges clashing with the inevitable disaster that would follow from them.

Here’s why:

(Note: throughout, I refer to the first-person narrative voice as “Ishmael,” although I’m arguing that “Ishmael” is a persona of Ahab, the one-legged captain.)

[Image: on the open ocean, a large black whale surfaces underneat a small rowboat, which is in the process of breaking into splinters and sending four or five people hurtling into the ocean. A sailing ship sits off in the distance.] Image via Wikimedia Commons.

1. Ishmael tells the whole story from his point of view…and Ahab’s.

Most of Moby-Dick is told by Ishmael from a first-person point of view, with zero insight into the thoughts or mental states of the other characters or their behavior when they’re out of Ishmael’s sight.  Even when Ishmael purports to know how other characters think or feel, he makes it clear that he is speculating based on what he knows or observes, not that he is reporting others’ experiences in the way those others actually experienced them.

Except when it comes to Ahab.  Throughout the book, we’re given repeated (and increasingly frequent) glimpses into Ahab’s thoughts, usually in situations where Ishmael is not present and lacks the information required to make an educated guess – as when Ahab is holed up in his cabin, ostensibly plotting the ship’s course but actually seething about his prior experiences with the White Whale.

When we finally get the point of view of someone other than Ishmael or Ahab, the point of view we get is Starbuck’s, as the first mate considers shooting Ahab in order to save the ship and crew from his surely-disastrous pursuit of Moby-Dick.  In particular, Starbuck considers shooting Ahab with the same gun Ahab threatened Starbuck with in a previous scene – a scene that took place in the closed cabin, with only Ahab and Starbuck present, and to which Ishmael was neither privy nor capable of extrapolating from the deck.  (In fact, Ishmael doesn’t report it as if he’s extrapolating from outside the scene, but as if he’s there.)

This sudden shift to Starbuck’s perspective, though, is consistent with a narrator (Ahab) struggling with a fierce desire to court death that conflicts with his duty to his ship and crew.  The original dispute is over whether the crew ought to hoist the oil-casks to determine which is leaking (Starbuck) versus whether they ought to damn the casks full speed ahead (Ahab).  Starbuck’s position, which is consistent with the duty of a whaling ship’s captain, eventually prevails, but not until after Ahab points a loaded gun at his first mate.

Starbuck’s meditation on killing Ahab to save the ship, then, reads as a foil concocted by a guilty captain/narrator who knows his desire for vengeance places him firmly in the wrong.  It’s also consistent with Starbuck’s role as Ahab’s foil in a number of other guilt-related ways; the narrator reminds us several times that both Ahab and Starbuck are married men with young children, for instance.

The introduction of Starbuck as a point-of-view character also heralds the beginning of the end of the novel.  Bad omens become obsessively heavy-handed, and point of view becomes erratic, even paranoid – as it should, if our narrator is drawing ever closer to thoughts that, for reasons of trauma or of treason, should not be thought.

2.  Ishmael omits details about himself and Ahab that he includes about everyone else.

The Pequod’s owners, Peleg and Bildad, have carefully-explained Biblical names.  So does the “prophet” who attempts to warn Ishmael not to ship with the Pequod (Elijah) and the ship that rescues Ishmael after the Pequod‘s demise (the Rachel).  Ships without Biblical names (the Town-Ho, the Rose-bud, the Samuel Enderby) also have their names carefully explained by Ishmael, as do various inns (the Spouter-Inn, the Try-Pots) – even inns Ishmael never actually enters (the Trap).  Peleg and Bildad’s carelessness in recording Queequeg’s name incorrectly in the Pequod‘s manifest is so carefully described by Ishmael that we are obviously meant to understand it as an omen.  The owners’ religious affiliation – Quaker – is also carefully explained, as Ishmael takes as much pains to explain how he understands they’re Quakers as he does to explain everything else.

So ubiquitous and careful are Ishmael’s attempts to explain everyone’s name, origin, and religious affiliation that his failure to explain two of them is glaringly apparent.  Ishmael never explains himself at all, and he utterly fails to explore either Ahab’s name or the fact that Ahab is also a Quaker, even though Ahab demonstrates all the same personal qualities on which Ishmael bases his estimation of Peleg and Bildad’s religious affiliation: the quaint Old Testament name, the characteristic clothing, the use of “thou” instead of “you.”

It’s easy enough to forget to describe your own personal quirks while describing the quirks of others.

3.  Ishmael keeps screwing up his timeline.

Ishmael attempts to excuse his own jumbled timeline in the very second sentence of the book: “Some years ago – never mind how long precisely….”  This sentence arguably accounts for some timeline aberrations, like how Ishmael becomes fond of recounting certain scenes of the Pequod’s voyage in the same fashion in which he has previously told them to other ship’s crews, implying that enough time has passed between the Pequod and the “now” in which Ishmael is telling the tale for him to have shipped on at least one other vessel.

However, what this sentence does not account for are any of the multiple instances in which Ishmael alludes to knowledge about whaling that he has procured on previous whaling voyages.  By “previous,” I mean not only “previous to when he is telling the Pequod‘s story” but also “previous to his actually shipping on the Pequod,” since many of these instances involve Ishmael describing himself on the Pequod applying this previously-learned information.  It’s previously-learned information he could not have gotten from books (unlike, say, his constant misquoting of natural-history tomes on whales) and that he is in fact proud of not having gotten from books.

But we know that the Pequod is Ishmael’s first-ever whaling voyage; prior to shipping with her, Ishmael’s only sailing experience is on merchant vessels (much to her owners’ dismay), so Ishmael should have no whaling-specific experience when he’s talking about his perspective on board the Pequod.  He should also have no whaling-specific experience gained since the Pequod either; Ishmael describes his adventures on the Pequod as a “solo interlude” between other phases of his life, implying that he’s only ever been on one whaling voyage.

Nothing in the narrative accounts for Ishmael’s utter abstraction when it comes to showing off his whaling knowledge.  If Ishmael is in fact Ahab, however, the pieces fit.  Ishmael/Ahab would have firsthand practical knowledge of whaling gained from voyages before the fatefully-imagined voyage recounted in Moby-Dick, as well as firsthand practical knowledge of whaling gained from voyages before the voyage in which the whale bit his leg off – which, for lack of a better anchor, I’d argue is the voyage on which Ishmael’s experiences on board are based, spliced perhaps with general scenes from Ahab’s early life as a mere mast-hand.

Ahab would also find it nearly impossible to keep that knowledge out of the narrative, even if he were trying to tell it from the point of view of a “total innocent” to whaling.  And telling the story from that point of view seems like the most powerful approach if what the narrator really wants to do is to convince himself that pursuing vengeance upon this whale is not only deadly but morally reprehensible.

4.  Ishmael knows too much…and not enough.

Ishmael knows an awful lot about whaling for someone who claims to have been on only one whaling voyage, and his in-story self knows an awful lot about whaling for someone who claims to have been on no whaling voyages.  Yet his information is wrong at least as often as it’s right.

There’s a line from Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing With Dragons (an otherwise wholly unrelated book) that I find apt here:

“He can’t talk about anything but tourneys, and half of what he does say he gets wrong.”

Ishmael is, as far as I can tell (Nantucket whaling not being among my special interests), fairly accurate about the parts of whaling that actually take place on the boat.  But he screws up every single time he tries to quote natural history or talk about the “academic” parts of whaling, like whether whales are mammals or fish.  And it’s not just ignorance; he’s clearly read the naturalists who argue that whales are mammals.  He just doesn’t agree with them.

What I haven’t linked up yet is how this demonstrates he’s actually Ahab, since we know absolutely nothing about Ahab’s schooling or interest (if any) in natural history.  It does, however, imply to me that Ishmael is not in fact an itinerant schoolmaster, as he claims to be in the first part of the novel.  He’s read a lot of books; he just doesn’t understand their contents at all.

Moby-Dick is one of those books that people can and have built their entire careers around.  It’s a book one could read for one’s entire life, over and over.  While this may or may not be a mark of its quality (I can’t stop reading Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl but I’d argue it’s not a great work of literature), it is certainly a mark of its complexity.

Ishmael is a highly unreliable narrator.I’d argue that he may be unreliable because he, his ship, and the events of the book are the secondary workings-out of trauma and guilt, not because we are supposed to believe any of the characters “actually” lived through them.

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BRB, Questioning Every Assumption I Ever Made About Moby-Dick

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Melville’s first mistake: Calling it “The Whale” makes casual readers assume the book is actually about a whale.  No wonder this book didn’t sell.

I first read Moby-Dick in tenth grade, when I was fifteen.  We were given a list of “classic novels” and told to choose one from the list for each semester (two if the page count for one of them added up to fewer than 250 pages).  I could have read something juicier, like The Scarlet LetterIvanhoe, or even Madame Bovary, but I chose Moby-Dick for the same reasons I chose For Whom the Bell Tolls*: the book was more than 250 pages long, and my parents owned a copy.

Eighty pages in, I gave up actually trying to read Moby-Dick and started skipping anything that didn’t contain either dialogue or a reference to the eponymous whale.  So it’s a minor miracle that I did actually read Chapter LX, “The Line” – the chapter that falls in the dead center of the book and that, in many ways, encapsulates it.

The Line” is one of what, at fifteen, I called “the whaling-manual parts.”  It contains no dialogue, no exposition, and no perceptible consequence to the plot.  It is, rather, a three-page description of the “whale-line,” the several hundred feet of rope that connect the harpoon to the whaling boat.  It’s not the most superficially boring of the whaling-manual chapters in the novel’s first half (I’d argue that that distinction goes to “The Specksynder“), but its dryness is only emphasized by the fact that “The Line” is preceded by five chapters of whaling-manual and followed by one of the most exciting, busy, and sensory-intense chapters in the book, “Stubb Kills a Whale.”

I do not remember now why my fifteen-year-old self even bothered with “The Line.”  I do know this: bothering with “The Line” saved my fifteen-year-old self when it came time to write the required paper on my novel of choice.  Without giving away the ending (though, really, it was published in 1851), I’ll just note that “The Line”‘s lack of perceptible consequence to the plot provides no clue whatsoever to its actual consequence to the plot.

This summer is the first time I’ve picked up any of Melville’s work since I was in undergrad (where we were not expected to read Moby-Dick but practically memorized “Bartleby the Scrivener,” a text I would recall during my years at the law firm with a wry and savage glee).  And I’m now questioning every assumption I ever made about Moby-Dick.  It’s not just that I don’t trust my fifteen-year-old self’s judgment in literature**; it’s that, culturally, we are wrong about pretty much everything we think we know about Moby-Dick.  This is a book about trauma, about temporality, about memory and projection and narrators telling so much truth they can’t possibly be relied upon.  The whale is incidental, and yet without the whale there is no novel.

Moby-Dick might be the most complex American novel ever written.  It is maddening in every sense.  And, so far, it’s turning out to be one of the best decisions my fifteen-year-old self ever made.

Given that I couldn’t be trusted to match my socks at fifteen, that’s saying something.

*Let me tell you about the lifelong hate-fascination with Hemingway that decision cost me….

**Though really, fifteen-year-old self: Hemingway?

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