|Chapter 1:||Inscribing the Past: A History of Chinese History|
Inscribing the Past: A History of Chinese History
“Speak thou vast and venerable head,” muttered Ahab, “which, though ungarnished with a beard, yet here and there lookest hoary and with mosses; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee.”
In his work, Moby Dick, Herman Melville (1819–1891) narrates a monologue by Captain Ahab as he stares at the suspended head of a recently slaughtered whale. Ahab muses over the life and experiences the whale must have had over the course of its life and how little can be seen of its now-decapitated body. In his final utterance, he exclaims, “O head! Thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!”16 If the whale could speak, then Ahab could understand it entirely. But this cannot be, for the whale, as Ahab realizes, is dead, incomplete, and out of its natural habitat. In effect, it can only be partially apprehended. This is perhaps the best we can hope for as historians or scholars of ancient literature—to see the past in fragments that are irreversibly out of their contexts.