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Viola Sachs

American Identity and the Counterfeit Whale

Viola Sachs


Selon le jugement sévère de Washington Irving, le logos souvent dépourvu de sens constitue un élément essentiel de l’identité nord-américaine. Avec l’édition américaine de Moby-Dick ; or, The Whale, qui suit de trois semaines l’édition anglaise parue sous le titre The Whale, Melville donne une forme littéraire à cet aspect de l’identité américaine.

Le texte américain diffère de celui publié en Angleterre par le changement du titre ; il contient un texte chiffré truffé d’erreurs. Les nombreuses références au langage, aux langues étrangères, aux traductions, lexiques, dictionnaires, grammaires, écriture, chirographie, lettres d’alphabet, hiéroglyphes, tatouages, nombres et sens cachés deviennent dans ce contexte des signes et symboles d’une écriture ésotérique qui trouve son incarnation dans les signes cabalistiques inscrits sur le doublon d’or cloué au mât central du navire et qui symbolise le nombril de la cosmogonie melvillienne. Ce doublon aux signes dépourvus de sens est une contrefaçon comme l’est ce livre traduisant l’absence d’une identité propre des Etats-Unis. Moby-Dick ; or, The Whale, la baleine blanche et le cachalot ne seraient que des faux, pareils aux fausses monnaies et faux billets qui abondaient à l’époque.

Les erreurs intentionnelles présentes dès la première page du livre suggèrent l’erreur de la création des Etats-Unis, et même de la Création tout court.

Texte intégral

  • 1 See in bibliography, La Contre-Bible de Melville (1975) and The Game of Creation (1982).

1I propose to argue that in Moby-Dick; or, The Whale Melville questions the very identity of the United States of America, and more particularly its claim to be essentially different and new in relation to England and the Old World. This emerges through a careful reading and confrontation of the author’s definitions, formulations, information of all sorts and ciphered code which I shall not directly deal with here1.

  • 2 Washington Irving, "Salmagundi”, VII in E. A. Duyckinck, ed., Works, New York, 1860, vol. 22; my it (...)

2In 1807, Washington Irving described the government of the United States as “a pure unaldulterated logocracy, or government of words... a huge mass of words, meaning nothing”. According to him “Nations have each a separate characteristic trait, by which they may be distinguished from each other. The Italians fiddle upon everything; the French dance upon everything; and the windy subjects of the American logocracy talk upon everything.”2

  • 3 See Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker, eds., Moby-Dick, W. W. Norton, New York, 1967, pp. 471-498
  • 4 Moby-Dick, ed. Harold Beaver, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1984; unless otherwise indicated, quota (...)

3With Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, that is, with the American edition which differs greatly from the English edition The Whale published only three weeks earlier in London3, Melville gives a literary form to this feature of national identity. He does so by creating a very elaborate ciphered book whose signs are inscribed upon something that has no existence. They are, to use Irving’s expression, full of wind – winds of all sorts – “head winds” and “winds from astern” (ch. I, p. 97)4, as says Ishmael. It seems that the hidden text which draws largely upon “Pythagorean” signs is made up mostly of winds from the rear.

4While interpreting the cabalistics and queer curvicues inscribed upon the gold doubloon, Stubb finds a clue and exclaims: “Book! you lie there” (ch. 99, p. 543). He is reading the signs by a “Massachusetts calendar”, but no such almanach existed at that time. The pun on the word “lie” is clear – the meaning of the book lies in a lie and it is being read by a non-existing article of reference.

  • 5 See Alan Taylor “The Early Republic’s Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northe (...)
  • 6 See John L. Brooke, “’Of whole nations being born in one day’: Marriage, Money and Magic in the Mor (...)

5The proliferation of counterfeiting in the North-East in the early nineteenth century5 must have given Melville the idea to turn a gold coin into the navel of the cosmogony created by his art. Counterfeiting, as historians have recently brought to light, was in popular North-Eastern culture closely connected with Rosicrucian occult symbols brought over by German immigrants. Joseph Smith, author of The Book of Mormon came from a family of three generations of alchemists and counterfeiters6. Unintentionally, he produced a counterfeit book; the golden plates with their “reformed hieroglyphs” which he pretends to have seen and to translate do not exist. Yet being a mystic, he probably believed in their existence, while Melville wilfully uses the gold doubloon – symbol of his double text – as the sign of his counterfeit book. This book stands as a symbol and sign of the United States which he depicts as a nation without identity, as a counterfeit nation pretending to be something that it is not.

6A reader of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale cannot help being struck by the proliferation of references to language, other tongues, translations, lexicons, dictionaries, grammar, writing, script, chirography, letters, syllables, hieroglyphs, tattooings, signs, cabalistics, to which should be added such words as “meaning”, “significant”, “insignificant”, “enigma”, “clue”, “cypher”. References to geometry, mathematics, arithmetics and the abundance of numbers in all sorts of forms, both overt and covert, should also be noted.

7The text abounds with incongruous use of capital letters, of signs of punctuation, hyphens, asterisks; it is rich in typographical signs ranging from different use of prints, through their disposition on the page to typographical blanks.

  • 7 See Norton Edition, p. 477.

8The American edition even contains a “Postscript”, in the form of an additional chapter (ch. 25) for no such chapter exists in the English edition. The title “Post/script” might be taken as a hint of the changes introduced in the final stage of composition of the American edition of the book. This hypothesis appears quite plausible given the fact that it follows a reference at the end of ch. 24 to the writing of the book. A striking instance of the changes introduced by the author concerns “Etymology" and “Extracts" placed at the end of the three volume English edition7.

  • 8 Cf. ch. 58 “Brit”: “though we know the sea to be an everlasting terra incognita, so that Columbus s (...)
  • 9 As a valise word “lexicon” conceals the latin lex, legis, another valise word containing “leg”.

9The first page, “Etymology”, opens with the “Usher” ushering us straight into the world of signs and language. He is “dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world” suggesting that other unknown nations remain to be discovered8. Nation, lexicons9, and language emerge as a cluster; follows a quotation by Hackluyt which indeed figures in Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary, 1848 edition. Hackluyt discusses the importance of the letter H in the word whale “in our tongue” (with all its implications of other tongues). The page ends with a list of the name whale in 13 different languages.

10Paintings, sculptures, prints, so important in the book can also be considered as signs and in fact three entire chapters are devoted to them. Yet, the print upon which the whole hidden structure of the text rests, Melencolia by Albert Durer, is missing. Minus one is a Melvillean sign: “minus a leg” (p. 676), minus one print, minus one word – the word White in the title of the book. Minus one can range from a long footnote (present only in the English edition of chapter 87 “The Grand Armada”) to minus one letter – the letter i in the title of chapter 79 “The Praire”. The letter missing in the title corresponds to the Hebrew “iod” which is the first letter of the name of God in Hebrew. The quotation – “God: done this day by my hand” (p. 453) – inserted in this chapter allows us to read the missing letter as signifying the missing God, or the God that Melville has done away with.

  • 10 For the feminisation of the whale, see my article (1988) “The Breaking Down of Gender Boundaries”. (...)

11Still more striking are the concealed or invisible signs of all sorts; such as, for instance the measurements of a chapter. Chapter 23 “The Lee Shore” does away with the character of Bulkington of no use as far as the plot is concerned. It says: “This six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington” (p. 202) who as we were told before comes from the Alfeganian Ridge in Virginia (ch. 3, p. 107). It does measure six inches in the original American edition; or rather double 3 for it is laid out on two pages. Does this sign bear a reference to Christ’s age when he was crucified? Whatever it be, a sign can be concealed in the length of a chapter. Is the sign meant to suggest that the hieroglyph of the leg concealed in “Etymology” (see figures 1 and 2) can among others refer to the Virgin?10

12The text carries hieroglyphs. The printing lay-out of the title-page of the original American edition evokes the shape of a coffin. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale is indeed a coffin; like Tashtego the reader risks being “coffined, hearsed, and tombed in the secret inner chamber and sanctum sanctorum of the whale” (ch. 78, p. 452), that is, of Herman Melville’s secret words and signs, (see figure 3)

  • 11 I am indebted to Professor Emory Elliott for calling my attention to the concealed hieroglyph of th (...)

13We even have a leg. Could the original leg be in “Etymology"? In the American edition it is shaped by the typographical lay-out of the word whale in 13 different languages, which because of its so called printing error (the typographical blank, the repetition of the title “Etymology” on different levels) has not been reproduced by the major editions. The outline of the sperm whale’s head emerges in the blank between the 13 names for whale and the enumeration of the different languages11.

14These signs transpose into script the dialogue that occurs between Ishmael and Captain Peleg in chapter 16 “The Ship”, with its insistence on sight, whale and leg:

“I want to see what whaling is. I want to see the world." “Want to see what whaling is, eh? Have ye clapped eye on Captain Ahab?”...
"Clap eye on Captain Ahab, young man, and thou wilt
find that he has only one leg."
“What do you mean sir? Was the other one lost by a
“Lost by a whale!... it was devoured, chewed up, and
crunched by the monstrousest parmacetty that ever chipped a boat!” (p. 167)

15The double heading of the title “Etymology” with the one on the left-hand side page lower than or beneath the title on the right side page can be read as a sign of a double text which requires a backwards reading, an inverted direction, from right to left instead of left to right. Is that the way that Melville’s tale should be read? Chapter 86 “The Tail » ends on the word “face” with Ishmael denying the whale the existence of a face:

Thou shalt see my back parts, my tail, he seems to say, but my face shall not be seen. But I cannot completely make out his back parts; and hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face. (p. 487)

A backwards reading from right to left leads us to “The Tail” which Ishmael celebrates and describes in details.

16The number sign 13 concealed through the name whale in 13 different languages simultaneously refers to the age of the biblical Ishmael when God made the Covenant with his father Abram in token of which the letter H was introduced into his name, and to the original 13 states of the United States. This sign ties into one whale, that is, the book entitled Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, the biblical story and identity of the narrator and the Covenant, so fundamental for the elaboration of the concept of the Chosen People and of such weight in the foundation of America. The three enigmatic lines of chapter I with their varied rich typography make this connection quite clear:

“Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States. (Melville’s italics)
whaling voyage by one ishmael.

17Only one other mention of the United States appears in the narration.

18Errors figure among the most significant of Melville’s signs. In fact, through error a glimpse of truth can be found, the error of Creation, be it God’s creation of the world, the creation of the United States or the creation of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. The Newberry Library carries in its files a long irate dissertation by a sea captain familiar with the waters of the South Pacific lashing out against Melville the sailor for getting all his directions of the winds wrong. In fact, Melville inverts the winds as he does the directions “eastward” for westward (p. 346) in “The Town-Ho’s Story”, another mistake corrected by all editors.

19Poor Flask, the third mate does not seem to be able to master his elementary arithmetics. Looking at the doubloon he says:

"I see nothing here but a round thing made of gold. 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”, (ch. 99, p. 544)

20The error evokes the economic instability of the thirties which so deeply affected Melville’s family in his early youth. But Flask also goes by the name of “King-Post” (p. 544) suggesting that the architecture of Melville’s double text of which the doubloon is a sign is built upon errors.

21Chapter 12 “Biographical” (read bio/graph signs of life) intrinsically links the signs, the script of the book and the Cannibal:

Queequeg was a native of Kokovoko, an island far away to the West and South. It is not down in any map; true places never are. (p. 150)

Kokovoko becomes Rokovoko in the next chapter; another printing mistake that most editions correct, though Melville leaves no doubts as to his intentions. His playful allusion to "Peter Coffin’s cock and bull stories” (p. 151) conceals a pun on Peter – the name signifying rock – and on cock. Kokovoko become Rokovoko seems to say ‘upon this rock (rock of errors) I build my coffin/whale’ in a hilarious parody of St. Peter’s “upon this rock I build my church”. It should be kept in mind that all these signs refer to a place that has no existence.

  • 12 See note on p. 856 in Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, eds., Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker and Thomas T (...)

22Arguing and discussing the distinction between fish and whale in his famous chapter “Cetology” (read logos of the cetus/whale) Ishmael quotes Linnaeus’s “System of Nature, A. D. 1776”. Though Linnaeus’s book ran into many editions, no edition was published in 1776, date of the creation of the United States12. No other instance of this date appears in this book so full of dates. The discussion of the nature of the whale conceals the question of whether the United States have an identity of their own:

The uncertain, unsettled condition of this science of Cetology is in the very vestibule attested by the fact, that in some quarters it still remains a moot point whether a whale be a fish. In his System of Nature, A. D. 1776, Linnaeus declares, “I hereby separate the whales from the fish.” But of my own knowledge, I know that down to the year 1850, sharks and shad, alewives and herring, against Linnaeus’s express edict, were still found dividing the possession of the same seas with the Leviathan, (p. 230)

23According to this, whale – the late-comer – and fish are one. Is that, among other reasons, why Ishmael chooses to define erroneously the whale as "a spouting fish with a horizontal tail » (ch. 32, p. 231, Melvilles’s italics). And what are we to make of the golden figure of the Right Whale engraved upon the spine of the English edition The Whale? Is it an error of the English publisher who quite plausibly did not know the difference between a Right Whale and a Sperm Whale? or was the figure suggested or sent by Melville?

24If so, then he wilfully abolishes the distinction between the Sperm Whale and the Right Whale.

25In “Cetology”, we read:

Some centuries ago, the Sperm Whale was almost wholly unknown in his own proper individuality... in those days spermacetti, it would seem, was popularly supposed to be derived from a creature identical with the one then known in England as the Greenland and Right Whale, (p. 232)

In Melville’s “cetological System” (p. 241) divided into three Books, the description of the Right Whale which comes second after the Sperm Whale, affirms that:

Among the fishermen, he is indiscriminately designated by all the following titles: The Whale; the Greenland Whale; the Black Whale; the Great Whale; the True Whale; the Right Whale, (p. 232)

26“Titles” evokes the title of the book; the only instance of the use of capital letter in the definite article “The Whale” points again to a relation with the title Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.

27Very different is the wording for the Sperm Whale:

This whale, among the English of old known vaguely as the Trumpa whale and the Physeter whale and the Anvil Headed whale is the present Cachalot of the French and the Pottsfich of the Germans and the Macrocephalus of Long Words, (pp. 231-232)

No such name as Trumpa exists – it suggests a translinguistic game on the French tromper – to cheat, to trick. The spelling mistake Pottsfich for Pottfisch plays upon the German personal pronoun ich.

  • 13 For further illustrations of this translinguistic game see Sachs (1991), “Melville’s Black Whale”; (...)

28The whole passage is a concoction of the author. We are invited to play a translinguistic game between French and English. Do not all these Long Words of the author’s Sperm Whale/Cachalot (.cache French for hide) hide a lot, hide the absence of existence of the Sperm Whale13.

29If so, then for all the changes and the elaborate signs in the American edition, there would be no essential difference between the American book Moby-Dick; or, The Whale and the English The Whale. In fact, I tend to think that the changes might not be partly due to an expurgation by Richard Bentley, the English publisher, but were introduced by Melville into the American edition in its almost final stage of composition. The aim would be to signify that the difference between the identity of the late-comer (the Sperm Whale) and the original ruler of the seas (the Right Whale) that is, between the United States and England concern only the surface.

30If we follow these clues, then Moby-Dick; or, The Whale is “the Black Whale”. The word white is strikingly absent in this title so carefully worked out. The proof page reproduced on the back of the Northwestern-Newberry edition indicates that the title of the American edition was also meant to be “The Whale”. The change to the title as it now stands must have occurred in the final stage of composition. This absence of the word white functions as a sign of what the text says when Ishmael wonders whether “a white man were anything more dignified than a white-washed negro” (ch. 13, p. 155).

31The essence is black, that is why no chapter deals with The White Whale. The famous chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” (not the White Whale) follows the one entitled “Moby Dick”. Should we not take the suggestion made in “The Hyena” (ch. 49), another name for “The Black Fish”, literally? It says “this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object” is “like this whole universe nothing but a vast practical joke” (p. 329). The joke is meant to be God’s at the expense of his creature, that is, man but also the author’s at the expense of the reader of his Creation.

32Is that the meaning of the typographical blank that faces the thirteen instances of the word whale into which we read the enactment of the Covenant and the creation of the United States? It reminds us of Ishmael’s warning in chapter 42 “The Whiteness of the Whale” that “all these chapters might be naught” (p. 287). Melville’s double text, like its sign, the gold doubloon with “its strange figures and inscriptions” might itself “be but an empty cipher” (ch. 99, p. 546), and Moby-Dick; or, The Whale a text whose “sounds are full of leviathanism signifying nothing” (ch. 32, p. 241).

33“Hark!” apparently a short insignificant chapter, as far as the plot is concerned, follows “Moby Dick” and “The Whiteness of the Whale” and precedes the chapter entitled “The Chart” which can be read as the chart to the hidden text of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. The sounds we are invited to listen to are: “a cough”, the noise made by “two or three sleepers turning over” in their sleep; “three biscuits turning over” in the insides of the sailor and finally the “knitting needles” of the very knotty text. The chapter opens with the exclamation “Hist” and ends upon “Tish! The bucket!” (pp. 296-97), “hist” and “tish” being anagrams of shit. This olfactory sign translates Stubb’s exclamation – “How like all creation it smells!” (ch. 91, p. 514).

34With Melville’s creation, Irving’s “windy... American logocracy” achieves very elaborated and sophisticated signs which, in the final instance, amount to little else than “winds from astern”. For all its intricacy, Melville’s “formal whaling code... whose admirable brevity necessitates a vast volume of commentaries to expound it” (ch. 89, p. 505) is so small that it could be engraved on a “Queen Anne’s farthing”.

35No such coin was minted during Queen Anne’s reign. Melville’s “bio/graphical” signs inscribed upon a farthing/far thing that does not exist bring to mind the “far away” island of Kokovoko which also has no existence.

36Melville carries the relation national identity-language-signs to its extreme, but this pattern which generates specific constructions of form runs with important variations throughout mythic American writings, that is, in texts that deal with the myth of America as a New World, a New Cosmogony, the World re-created anew. In this sense, as a repetitive pattern, it constitutes a unique literary phenomenon on the new continent.


1 See in bibliography, La Contre-Bible de Melville (1975) and The Game of Creation (1982).

2 Washington Irving, "Salmagundi”, VII in E. A. Duyckinck, ed., Works, New York, 1860, vol. 22; my italics.

3 See Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker, eds., Moby-Dick, W. W. Norton, New York, 1967, pp. 471-498.

4 Moby-Dick, ed. Harold Beaver, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1984; unless otherwise indicated, quotations refer to this edition; italics are mine.

5 See Alan Taylor “The Early Republic’s Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780-1830”, American Quarterly, vol. 38, Spring 1986, pp. 6-34.

6 See John L. Brooke, “’Of whole nations being born in one day’: Marriage, Money and Magic in the Mormon Cosmos, 1830-46”, Social Science Information, vol. 30, n° 1, 1990, pp. 107-132; also David M. Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World Views, Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1987.

7 See Norton Edition, p. 477.

8 Cf. ch. 58 “Brit”: “though we know the sea to be an everlasting terra incognita, so that Columbus sailed over numberless unknown worlds to discover his own superfical western one” (p. 379); there could be a correspondence between the “superficial western world” and the surface English text.

9 As a valise word “lexicon” conceals the latin lex, legis, another valise word containing “leg”.

10 For the feminisation of the whale, see my article (1988) “The Breaking Down of Gender Boundaries”. In ch. 81 “The Pequod Meets the Virgin” the whale, sick with a stomach-ache, is described as having “adverse winds... holding mad Christmas in him” (p. 459). On this point, see J. Dove “The Gams” in The Game of Creation (Sachs, 1982).

11 I am indebted to Professor Emory Elliott for calling my attention to the concealed hieroglyph of the sperm whale’s head.

12 See note on p. 856 in Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, eds., Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker and Thomas Tanselle, Evanston and Chicago, Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1988. It states: "In wording, Melville’s quotations correspond to his source – the article on ‘Whales’in the Penny Cyclopaedia... except that the opening ’I hereby’ is not part of the wording attributed to Linnaeus... The date of Linnaeus’s work given as ‘1776’ in A [American] and E [English] edition is emended here to ‘1766’, since this date appears in the Penny Cyclopaedia, and no 1776 edition has been located.”

13 For further illustrations of this translinguistic game see Sachs (1991), “Melville’s Black Whale”; also Vatanpour in the present collection.

Table des illustrations

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