Certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life | Moby-Dick reread, riff 13

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff, Ch. 49-53 of Moby-Dick.

II. Ch. 49, “The Hyena,” begins with this wonderful paragraph, which I will share in full:

There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life whIIen a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke. There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy; and with it I now regarded this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object.

“The Hyena” is a fitting name for this chapter. Ishmael is recovered from near-drowning, his boat–Starbuck’s, Queequeg’s boat too—was left for dead by The Pequod.

Ishamael’s hyena-wail here points toward modernist literature’s realization that comedy and terror amount to absurdity.

III. At the end of the chapter, Ishmael again underlines Moby-Dick’s themes of death and resurrection:

Besides, all the days I should now live would be as good as the days that Lazarus lived after his resurrection; a supplementary clean gain of so many months or weeks as the case might be. I survived myself; my death and burial were locked up in my chest. I looked round me tranquilly and contentedly, like a quiet ghost with a clean conscience sitting inside the bars of a snug family vault.

A quiet ghost, our narrator.

IV. Ch. 50, “Ahab’s Boat and Crew. Fedallah.”

Ishmael’s largeheartedness extends not to Fedallah and the rest of his Filipino crew. They are the outsiders among a crew of outsiders, sanctified stowaways charged with Ahab’s secret mission before the crew of The Pequod proper. Ishmael firsts sees them as “phantoms” and extends his unfortunate exoticism in this episode, which culminates in his racist suggestion that “the Oriental isles to the east of the continent” are descended from devils mating with humans: “according to Genesis, the angels indeed consorted with the daughters of men, the devils also, add the uncanonical Rabbins, indulged in mundane amours.”

V. Ch. 51, “The Spirit-Spout.”

I should’ve started a tally of hyphenated chapter titles in Moby-Dick.

Another chapter where our “quiet ghost” narrator Ishmael is able to inhabit the private thoughts of others—here, glimmers and glimpses of Ahab’s mind, but also full access to Starbuck’s consciousness: “Terrible old man! thought Starbuck with a shudder, sleeping in this gale, still thou steadfastly eyest thy purpose.”

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

VI. Ch. 52, “The Albatross.”

The Pequod meets The Goney, a ship named for the enormous white bird, the albatross. Ahab bellows out to ask if they’d encountered the white whale Moby Dick, but The Goney, speeds away from The Pequod “at the first mere mention of the White Whale’s name.”

Insulted Ahab bellows again, this time telling his crew to send The Pequod “off round the world!”

Ishmael worries in a final paragraph that again foreshadows the novel’s disastrous climax:

Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.

VII. Ch. 53, “The Gam.”

Here, Ishmael lays out how strange it is that The Goney refused to hail The Pequod: the whaling tradition of the gam. Ishmael claims that the word is not defined in dictionaries: “Dr. Johnson never attained to that erudition; Noah Webster’s ark does not hold it.” So, our chronicler does his best:

GAM. NOUN—A social meeting of two (or moreWhaleships, generally on a cruising-ground; when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boats’ crews: the two captains remaining, for the time, on board of one ship, and the two chief mates on the other.

The Oxford English Dictionary currently gives seven entries for gam as a noun or verb (and one for -gam the suffix).

They date from

-1508

 n. In plural. Teeth, esp. large, misshapen, or irregular teeth (also gam teeth). Formerly also (occasionally): †jaws (obsolete).

-1785

n. slang.  A person’s leg. Frequently in plural.

-1827

n.  Amongst tribes in northern India: a headman, a chief.

-1831

n. colloquial. Originally: a social meeting among whalers at sea. Later more generally: a social gathering, a ‘get-together’; a chat, a gossip. Chiefly U.S. regional (New England) in the extended sense.

This definition cites Moby-Dick:

What does the whaler do when she meets another whaler in any sort of decent weather? She has a ‘Gam’.

And then Mark Twain’s 1866 “Letter from Hawaii”—but also refers to a 1831 citation from something called Sailor’s Mag.

-1849 gives us gam as a verb, both transitive and intransitive:

Nautical colloquial

(What is the nautical colloquial fashion look, and where can I get it?)

-1910

v. transitive. To perform oral sex on (a person, originally esp. a man).

This definition cites Moby-Dick’s later brother, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow:

1973  T. Pynchon Gravity’s Rainbow i. 35   Knowing Bloat, perhaps that’s what it is, young lady gamming well-set-up young man.

-1971

n. British slang. An act of fellatio.

VIII.

Teeth

Leg

Chief

Meet

Head.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

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