From the opening words — not of the novel, but of chapter 1, “Loomings” — our narrator has moved fluidly from the present tense of the narration to the past tense of the story being narrated. To put it otherwise, Ishmael is a good storyteller. He often reminds us that he is telling a story, that he is spinning a yarn, and brings us to trust somehow more faithfully in his fiction. “Call me Ishmael,” he says. Because that is not his name? If so, he is being honest about his invention. But what if his name really is Ishmael? In that case he is laying bare the curious fact of all storytelling: even the truth is fictive when recalled. Then again, perhaps he is just asking us to let our guard down, to call him by his first name, to speak informally with him—he’ll do the same with us. (Or perhaps he just wants us to mind our Bible…)
In any case, he tells us to call him Ishmael, and then tells us: “Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” This is more or less what he tells Captain Peleg when seeking to sail on the Pequod. But notice the frame: some years ago… We are not to mind precisely how long ago, only that time has passed. He highlights his imprecision and tells us to forget about it in the same breath. Fairy tales begin once upon a time, but the imprecision is immediately grounded by narrative, for there was a princess. Ishmael’s tale, on the other hand, is left on loose footing: never mind how long precisely. The effect this has on me is manifold, but two important aspects: (1) I know I both cannot trust Ishmael and have no choice but to trust him (in other words, I know he is telling a story, and a fishing story, no less), and (2) my sense of time is, so long as I am hearing Ishmael’s story, in his hands. When he switches into the present tense to take me through this or that scene, the imprecise span of “some years ago” is reduced to zero. On the other hand, when he describes this-or-that premonition of dangers at sea, the span between now and then lengthens, whereas the span between the moment of the premonition and the moment foreseen is temporarily reduced.
We see a vague, ominous painting (apparently) depicting a whale violently attacking a whaling ship; we hear a biting sermon about Jonah’s catastrophe; we discover that eventually Queequeg will have taken “his last long dive;” and, shortly before we learn of Ahab’s horrific encounter with a certain whale, Ishmael himself says: “It’s ominous, think I. A Coffin my Innkeeper upon landing in my first whaling port; tombstones staring at me in the whalemen’s chapel; and here a gallows! and a pair of prodigious black pots too! Are these last throwing out oblique hints touching Tophet?” (Chapter 15, “Chowder.”)
These and other hints and premonitions are, I think it safe to say, signs of Ishmael’s capability as a storyteller. Let’s just presume for now that he never strays from the truth. Even so, it is impossible to tell a story without selecting what to tell and how to tell it. Some storytellers make these selections more intentionally than others, and some make these selections more skillfully than others, but every story told is a story re-constructed by the imaginative (and most often verbal) act that memory is. Ishmael remembers thinking, “It’s ominous,” but he also makes this memory present: “It’s ominous, think I.” It would be tedious to say, “It’s ominous, I remember thinking,” especially if one were to insert that caveat in every nook and cranny of one’s story. It’s better storytelling to just immerse one’s listeners in the moment being related, to pull them into the story and then push them back outside again, to force them to accept as their own the experience being re-imagined in narration, and then to remind them: you don’t know what’s coming because you weren’t there yet.
But I see something else in the accumulation of foreboding images and associations in the first chunk of Moby Dick. Perhaps Dostoevsky’s maddeningly unreliable narrators and Proust’s Proustiness have gotten too far under my skin, but Ishmael’s present-tense past premonitions tell me what I’ve already suggested: telling a story, even a true one, is inherently fictive, and remembering is only a more immediate form of storytelling.
“Call me Ishmael,” he says, because he’s already someone else.