Prior posts have zeroed in on what a spoken or written statement means. There’s…
- linguistic meaning, as determined by the internal structure of the language and its vocabulary, grammar and syntax. There’s…
- referential or semantic meaning: what the words and phrases point to in the world. Then there’s…
- contextual meaning: the particular world in which the statement makes sense.
“There’s a fly in my soup” is a linguistically meaningful, well-formed English sentence. It’s meaningful referentially – we know what a fly is, what soup is, etc. As I sit typing this sentence, the fly-in-soup statement makes no sense: I have a cup of coffee in front of me but no soup, etc. I can, however, imagine a world in which I do have a bowl of soup: in that context the sentence is meaningful.
“Moby Dick is a great white whale.” This sentence has threefold meaning in the context of Melville’s fictional world. But that isn’t the end of it. What does Moby Dick mean? This isn’t a question about the meaning of the sentence: it asks about the meaning of the sentence’s subject: the sentence refers to Moby Dick, but what is Moby Dick about? This is a fourth kind of meaning, what might be called:
4. real meaning: the significance of the statement in making sense of the world to which the statement refers.
Moby Dick is a great white whale in Melville’s novel of the same name. Really, Moby Dick is the object of Ahab’s monomaniacal quest and his executioner, and so on.
It could be argued that, while Moby Dick himself has real meaning, the specific sentences referring to him don’t. But I think that’s wrong. Sure, I can construct an image of Moby Dick that’s independent of any particular sentence about him. However, I have no experience of Moby Dick independent of the book: my mental image is derived entirely from the sentences that Melville wrote about him (and doubtless also from sentences that other people wrote after having read Melville’s book). The reality of Moby Dick emerges from the sentences about him in the book, but his reality isn’t reducible to the sum of all the sentences. My image of him is grounded in the sentences of the text, but I also interpret the real meaning of any particular sentence based on a mental image of Moby Dick that’s separate from the sentences in the text.
Ishmael, the narrator, tells me that a sperm whale is longer than a whaling boat, that a whale can capsize a boat, that a whale can eat a man in a single bite. Ishmael tells me that Ahab had his leg bitten off by a whale, and not just any whale – it was Moby Dick. Ishmael gives me example after example illustrating the uncanny horror of white things. From the sentences of the book I assemble an image of Moby Dick: his raw physicality, the motive force he provides to the story, his near-mythic status as an object of awe and terror. When at last the Pequod arrives at its fated and fatal confrontation, the great white whale is enormous, imbued with layer upon layer of meaning that establishes the reality of that confrontation.
One of the curious things about Moby Dick is how it drifts along on currents and gets caught in eddies that distract the reader from the book’s dramatic development. There are chapters about boats and riggings, paintings of whaling scenes, the whale oil rendering process; Chapter 64 is entitled “The Whale As a Dish.” In Chapter 31, “Cetology,” Ishmael presents a taxonomic scheme for describing and categorizing every known type of whale. This chapter establishes the scientific reality of Moby Dick as representative of the largest and most formidable species of whale. Clearly we’re meant to take this chapter seriously, inasmuch as Melville includes several footnotes that he attributes explicitly not to Ishmael but to “H. Melville.” Why are Ishmael’s and Melville’s obsessions with cetology important to the present discussion? Because real meaning isn’t limited to narrative or metaphysical meaning; it can also be scientific. A scientific taxonomy is a mental construct for making sense of the specifics. The scientific reality of a taxonomic system, like the reality of a fictional character, is built up from specific instances, but it isn’t reducible to the sum of the instances. And by the way, the book’s emphasis on the sheer physicality of the whale keeps the reader from jumping with both feet into a mythic reading of the text… which will be the subject of the next post, I hope.