I. In this riff: Chapters 33-35 of Moby-Dick.
II. (Re: Above—I just finished Ch. 36 of Moby-Dick, “The Quarter-Deck,” which is like, too good. Too loaded. Ahab erupts. Up until now I’d just been riffing on what I’d read, trying to keep it simple, but “The Quarter-Deck” needs its own riff.)
III. Ch. 33, “The Specksnyder.”
Specksnyder is a strange word. Ishmael tells us that, “Literally this word means Fat-Cutter; usage, however, in time made it equivalent to Chief Harpooneer.” Its provenance is anglicized Dutch—another splicing in a novel of splices.
IV. Ch. 33 follows a pattern (initiates a pattern?) common to Moby-Dick: Ishmael begins his chapter with some facts and descriptions specific to whaling (in this case, the business of the Specksnyder), only to zoom out (or is it zoom in?) to larger philosophical matters.
V. In this case, those larger philosophical matters concern the psychological temperament of those who would assume the mantle of leadership. Ishmael notes that moody Ahab eschews the “shallowest assumption” of “elated grandeur.” Our captain is no faker, fraud, humbug, or poseur — “the only homage he ever exacted, was implicit, instantaneous obedience.”
VI. But Ishmael, ever the hedger of bets, ever the ghost who trades in double negatives, warns us that despite his leadership qualities, “even Captain Ahab was by no means unobservant of the paramount forms and usages of the sea…that behind those forms and usages, as it were, he sometimes masked himself; incidentally making use of them for other and more private ends than they were legitimately intended to subserve.” Foreshadowing!
VII. Ch. 34, “The Cabin-Table.”
Another chapter that begins with ship’s business but expands toward grander abstractions. Those abstractions help to shade and characterize Ahab, who has yet to give his first grand speech (that’s in Ch. 36, “The Quarter-Deck”). The ship’s business also points again to obeisance and command. We learn who descends to eat first, a kind of alpha dog Darwinism reconfigured as sea law. Ahab and his three mates go to table in silence. Starbuck is next to go to dinner after his captain. Flask is last: “hilarious little Flask enters King Ahab’s presence, in the character of Abjectus, or the Slave.” Then the three harpooneers eat, noisy, ravenous.
The two most interesting things about this chapter for me on this reread:
a. It is composed in the present tense, beginning: “It is noon.” While Ishmael has shifted into the present tense many times before, unless I am mistaken, this particular whole-chapter shift is a first. And—
b. We have another moment in the narrative where Ishmael witnesses behaviors, viewpoints, events that he should not be able to see. In other words, Ishmael, a lowly seaman has no business at the cabin table.
“The Cabin-Table” is another early moment in M-D that calls into question Ishmael’s witnessing—is he a ghost survivor, a kind of time traveler of consciousnesses? A spy or voyeur, peeking through holes? Or is it just a book, and this is how books work?
VIII. Ch. 35, “The Mast-Head.”
Man does Melville love hyphens. Hyphens in the title, hyphens in the chapter, hyphens at suppertime.
IX. Again we have a chapter that starts with some description and history of whaling and ship business. Ishmael waxes at length about assuming watch at the top of the mast-head, making sure to bring up ancient Egypt (always!), the Tower of Babel, Louis Bonaparte, Childe Harold, George Washington (et al.).
X. But again, Ish moves from particulars to abstraction. “The Mast-Head” reads as both an endorsement of and a warning against romantic transcendentalism. (This is a tale of ambiguities, hedging, and double double double negatives.)
XI. Ish relates the reveries to be had atop the mast-head. A watcher on the watery world will quickly lose a sense of self. His ego will fold into something grander, yet grander without clear object. In short, transcendentally-overwhelmed by horizonless horizons, he will forget to sight the whales he hunts.
In such cases, a watcher might be remonstrated:
‘Why, thou monkey,’ said a harpooneer to one of these lads, ‘we’ve been cruising now hard upon three years, and thou hast not raised a whale yet. Whales are scarce as hen’s teeth whenever thou art up here.’
But we sense that Ishmael was the dreaming lad
Perhaps they were; or perhaps there might have been shoals of them in the far horizon; but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Wickliff’s sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.
What a sentence! I thought about getting in there for a minute, but hell…what a sentence.
XII. (The word “vacant” above points towards Moby-Dick’s devastating “Epilogue,” where survivor (?) Ishmael assumes the “vacant post” of bowsman.)
XIII. But back to the marvelous conclusion of Ch. 35. Ishmael describes a moment of transcendence, of ego-loss, even ego-death. And then what happens:
There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!
Your identity comes back in horror.
Yeah, damn, heed.