Friday, December 28, 2007

The ousia of whales

I learn stuff whenever I visit Hank's site, A Lake County Point of View, and today was no different. It was there that I read a fairly recent post of his, "The Ousia of Snow I." It's a ho-hum sort of post for Hank, which is to say, as I've said many times previously, that there's no one else out there (that I'm aware of) writing posts with such energy and wit and love of learning. Hank doesn't so much follow a train of thought as he casts a net and hauls up whatever he catches on the deck that is his blog and reveals connections between things/people/places you and I'd never know or even suspected existed. This one, as I said, is pretty ho-hum: It "only" discusses the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Aristotle's categories, proto-Indo-European language, Shakespeare, Grimm's Law, language convergence and linguistic divergence, a fascinating-sounding book called Snow in America (about the function of snow in the products of American culture) . . . you get the idea.

And snow. And, um, ousia: what prompts this post. Well, that, and the bit of thinking about Moby-Dick I've been doing, prompted by my previous post.

More, such as it is, below the fold.

Hank asks (and answers) the question I had when I saw his post's title (what follows is cut and pasted from Hank's place; the Roman numerals refer to his bibliography for his post (yes--really!):

So... what exactly is ousia? I'm not exactly certain. Philosophers have been arguing about it for ages. "Martin Heidegger [sic] maintained that the original meaning of the word was lost in its translation to Latin and subsequently to modern languages. For him it meant "Being" and not "substance"; that is, not some other thing or being that "stood"(-stance) "under"(sub-)."[vii] At any rate, ousia translated to Latin as both substantia and essentia.[viii] Not being a philosopher, this is quite good enough for me.

The ousia of snow is, more or less, somewhere between it's substance and it's essence.

That reminded me of this passage from Moby-Dick, on the first page of "Etymology," by Hackluyt:
"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 up the signification of the word, you deliver that which is not true."
One simple but (I think) useful way to think about Ishmael's post-Pequod quest in Moby-Dick is precisely the search for the H of the whale--that is, its ousia, if I'm understanding that term correctly. This is most evident in chapters 55-58, in which Ishmael examines various representations of whales and finds them more or less inadequate in their attempts to depict whales with accuracy. Here is the problem in a nutshell, as Ishmael takes it, from the last paragraph of chapter 55, "Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales":
[T]he great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last. True, one portrait may hit the mark much nearer than another, but none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness. So there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan. (emphases mine)
Ishmael is indulging in a bit of foreshadowing here, of course, regarding his narrative. But what's interesting to contemplate and speculate on a bit is that the very real dangers the whale poses to humans when alive and in his natural element may be at least part of his ousia. We cannot know him via paintings or sculptures, not even through his skeleton or his carcass, according to Ishmael; we can only know the H of the whale if we're willing to risk death.

In his post, Hank goes on at some length about the similarities among many different languages' words for snow; Ishmael's list of words for "whale" isn't as extensive, but it seems to make a comparable point:
CETUS, Latin
WHÆL, Anglo-Saxon
HVAL, Danish
WAL, Dutch
HWAL, Swedish
HVALUR, Icelandic
WHALE, English
BALLENA, Spanish
PEHEE-NUEE-NUEE, Erromangoan
Death--or, at least, the very real possibility of death--is about as transcultural an idea as one is likely to find; and snow and whales have collectively led or contributed to the deaths of thousands of people over the ages. Surely that risk figures, however unconsciously, into people's pondering of an object's ousia.


The County Clerk said...

Now this is a remarkable peek into something. Sadly, I have never gone cover-to-cover with Moby Dick, but I will NOW.

Yes... the ousia of wales... the ousia of a particular great white whale... the "H." I think you are right. The H of the whale... the ousia... the substance/essence. I agree with you... that IS interesing..

I am blown away by the connection between "language" and "thought" and LOVE the idea of Ishmael's search for the "H."

Are you, by chance, teaching your students about Moby Dick? You should. I wish I'd had teachers like you.

(Oh... and thank you for the nice words. I'd gotten the impression that this particular post (Ousia of Snow) was too tedious and a mistake. An error in judgement. But now we are into Melville. I am delighted. Between you and a couple of others, I am completeing an education. Thank you.)

R. Sherman said...

Much to think about here when I should be doing work. (I'm at the office.)

Your point of understanding coming only when one risks death or comes close to experiencing it, brings to mind mountaineers, and by that I mean those who continually risk death to scale the big peaks. Is it desire to grasp fully the "H" of the mountains, to get beyond Plato's shadows to glimpse true "mountainess?"

Hell, I don't know. At the moment, I'm trying to figure out why some clown in St. Louis thinks his client is entitled to a lot of money as a result of a 2 mph parking lot collision.


John B. said...

Thanks for the kind words, gents.

The following is directed to both of you, though in different ways: for American Romantic writers, the hieroglyph was an enormously evocative image: something--whether Hester Prynne's "scarlet symbol" or the Puritans' (and Transcendentalists') Book of Nature--that, one feels more or less certain, signifies something . . . if we could just get beyond the pasteboard mask (Ahab's phrase) to find that thing beneath it that nevertheless gives the mask its shape . . . or learn that there's naught beneath it. Moby-Dick is very much part of all that. At its most extreme--Ahab--there's not just risk but blasphemy: after all, like Job he is in search of the Meaning behind his suffering but unlike Job will not be happy to say that God's ways are beyond his ability to understand. The transcending of Language, the seeking of a pure, instinctual Understanding: what Randall suggests that mountaineers are after. The other extreme is Ishmael, whose loving dusting of his old grammars at the beginning of "Etymology" "somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality." Something more soul-crushing than even Jameson's prison-house of language.

A lot of the above is just off-the-cuff musing, you understand. Maybe some of it is right, or at least makes sense.