Oblique hints | Riff 5 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (Nantucket/Chowder/The Ship)

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. Two short chapters followed by a rather long one, as we almost nearly maybe might head out on the great whaling voyage!

II. Ishmael and Queequeg arrive at their titular destination in “Nantucket,” Ch. 14.

Ish gives us a story—which I think is entirely fabricated, but I could be wrong—about Nantucket’s founding (emphasis mine):

Look now at the wondrous traditional story of how this island was settled by the red-men. Thus goes the legend. In olden times an eagle swooped down upon the New England coast, and carried off an infant Indian in his talons. With loud lament the parents saw their child borne out of sight over the wide waters. They resolved to follow in the same direction. Setting out in their canoes, after a perilous passage they discovered the island, and there they found an empty ivory casket,—the poor little Indian’s skeleton.

As I stated in my opening riff on rereading M-D, I believe that Melville’s novel can be read as a kind of grieving how against the genocidal scope of American culture. This genocide is frequently coded in infanticidal imagery, as well as images of lost children, orphans, and widows.

Ishmael’s (fanciful) version of the founding of Nantucket shows a US American emblem, the eagle, stealing and destroying an avatar of Indian futurity.

III. The motif of genocide shows up again (somewhat indirectly) in Ch. 16, “The Ship.” Queeg tasks Ish with choosing the ship they will sail on, and Ish chooses carefully (emphasis mine):

After much prolonged sauntering and many random inquiries, I learnt that there were three ships up for three-years’ voyages—The Devil-dam, the Tit-bit, and the Pequod. Devil-Dam, I do not know the origin of; Tit-bit is obvious; Pequod, you will no doubt remember, was the name of a celebrated tribe of Massachusetts Indians; now extinct as the ancient Medes. I peered and pryed about the Devil-dam; from her, hopped over to the Tit-bit; and finally, going on board the Pequod, looked around her for a moment, and then decided that this was the very ship for us.

The Pequod’s voyage symbolically re-enacts an American extinction agenda—an ill-fated, suicidal project with only one (apparent) survivor, saved in the end by the ship the Rachel, which, “in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”

IV. Ishmael chooses The Pequod because of her gnarly outfitting:

She was apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory. She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies. All round, her unpanelled, open bulwarks were garnished like one continuous jaw, with the long sharp teeth of the sperm whale, inserted there for pins, to fasten her old hempen thews and tendons to.

Ish notes that The Pequod is a “noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.”

V. Ish is a bit of a romantic, choosing his ship—and, significantly, his partner Queequeg’s fate—-because of its aesthetic.

As a romantic, he tends to read a bit much into the signs and wonders of the world. In Ch. 15, “Chowder,” Melville has ironic fun with Ish’s tendency toward foreshadowing and symbolic overdeterminism.

On a tip, Ish and Queeg head to the Try Pots for some grub and find—

Two enormous wooden pots painted black, and suspended by asses’ ears, swung from the cross-trees of an old top-mast, planted in front of an old doorway. The horns of the cross-trees were sawed off on the other side, so that this old top-mast looked not a little like a gallows. Perhaps I was over sensitive to such impressions at the time, but I could not help staring at this gallows with a vague misgiving. A sort of crick was in my neck as I gazed up to the two remaining horns; yes, two of them, one for Queequeg, and one for me. It’s ominous, thinks 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?

It turns out that this place has some delicious fucking chowder.

And, for the most part, all of the slight events at the Try Pots skewer towards comedy, ironizing Ish’s gloomy symbolic reading of the events of his journey thus far.

And yet!

Ish’s choice of words at the end of his forecasting is telling: “Are these last throwing out oblique hints touching Tophet?”

While “Tophet” (and, alternately, “Tophet,” “Topheth,” and “Topeth”) might generically be defined as “hell,” the meaning here is more distinct. For Ishmael, the giant pots signal the sacrificial roasting of children. “Tophets” were ancient infant burial grounds, but both legend and scholarship suggest these burials were the resort of ritual sacrifice. Infanticide again.

VI. And yet much of “Chowder” is comical and delicious. Ishmael, prompted with “Clam or Cod” by the owner of the Try Pots, showcases the horror we all face when failing to order correctly at some semi-famous local dive where we are not a local:

‘A clam for supper? a cold clam; is that what you mean, Mrs. Hussey?’ says I, ‘but that’s a rather cold and clammy reception in the winter time, ain’t it, Mrs. Hussey?’

Ish and Queeg devour the chowder.

VII. Mrs. Hussey is, unless I am mistaken, the first woman to speak in Moby-Dick. There are very few others. The novel is heavy-phallic, homo-horny, pricking stiff with spears and dripping in (whale) sperm. I hope it is not uninviting.

VIII. I remarked a bit above on Ch. 16, “The Ship,” mostly focusing on the nomenclature of The Pequod. It’s a long chapter and introduces two comical characters, the Quaker captains Peleg and Bildad, who own the majority shares in The Pequod.

IX. (As an aside, in response to the last bit of language above, id est, majority shares—look, Moby-Dick is full of economic metaphors and the language of commerce. It is a novel that reckons with American capitalism, repeating phrases like shares and insurance in a way divorced from actual dollars and cents—in Moby-Dick capitalism becomes some kind of extended metaphor that I haven’t fully thought through, but, if I had to say something now, as I type this in a bit of a rush, I might write something like, Melville ironically maps terms of American capitalism over transcendentalist ideology, e.g. Emerson’s “Over-Soul.” Not sure what that last sentence means, but there’s clearly a relationship between religion/soul and insurance/bodily life in M-D that I haven’t thought about much before this reread. I might riff more on these going forward.)

X. “The Ship” is full of humor but also dark foreshadowing. We get the name “Ahab” but no formal introduction. Still, Ishmael is put off by the name: “When that wicked king was slain, the dogs, did they not lick his blood?”

But Peleg puts Ish in his place: “Captain Ahab did not name himself,” he points out. We are all called into the world by signs and symbols that we neither created nor chose.

“Ahab has his humanities,” Peleg concludes, asking both Ish and we readers to find kernels of sympathy for the mad captain (“he ain’t sick; but no, he isn’t well either“).

XI. Let me close with Barry Moser’s wonderful diagrams of “The Ship”:

1 thought on “Oblique hints | Riff 5 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (Nantucket/Chowder/The Ship)”

  1. I have a horrible fascination with this book, which I have never read… but one of these days I feel I should confront it (I love whales with a passion – alive and not hunted).

    Like

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