Emoticon, Or The Whale

Everyone thinks Moby-Dick begins “Call me Ishmael,” but everyone is an idiot. It actually begins like this:

ETYMOLOGY (Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School) The pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever 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. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality. ETYMOLOGY “While you take in hand to school others, and to teach them by what name a whale-fish is to be called in our tongue leaving out, through ignorance, the letter H, which almost alone maketh the signification of the word, you deliver that which is not true.” —HACKLUYT “WHALE. … Sw. and Dan. HVAL. This animal is named from roundness or rolling; for in Dan. HVALT is arched or vaulted.” —WEBSTER’S DICTIONARY “WHALE. … It is more immediately from the Dut. and Ger. WALLEN; A.S. WALW-IAN, to roll, to wallow.” —RICHARDSON’S DICTIONARY תנים (TaNiYM), Hebrew. XnTos (kpTos), Greek. CETUS, Latin. WHÆL, Anglo-Saxon. HVALT, Danish. WAL, Dutch. HWAL, Swedish. WHALE, Icelandic. WHALE, English. BALEINE, French. BALLENA, Spanish. PEKEE-NUEE-NUEE, Fegee. PEKEE-NUEE-NUEE, Erromangoan.
So what does whale in Danish have to do with Ahab’s hunt for Moby-Dick? Throughout the book, Ahab’s obsession with Moby-Dick is rivaled by Melville’s own monomania to describe the essence of the whale. In the end, both are impossible pursuits. Moby-Dick destroys the Pequod and Melville learns that there are a million ways to hint at “whale” but no word or hundred thousand words to capture its meaning. This is the existential struggle of communication. So lately, I’ve decided to embrace the futility of language by using emoticons. I usually hate when people use colons, semi-colons and parentheses to describe their feelings. But sometimes, the meaningless of “:)” is its value. Recently, a friend of mine lost a family friend. Her death was unexpected and, as is usually the case, unfair. Speaking to another friend about this over IM I wrote, “Death is :(” Of course “:(” is a terrible description of death, but no worse than sad. Death is so much more than either expression, but “:(” at least hints at the much larger and indefinable emotional experience. And in that ambiguity lays some meaning. Or something like that, ;)