All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks | Moby-Dick reread, riff 16

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff: Chapters 58, 59, and 60 of Moby-Dick.

II. Ch. 58, “Brit.”

With all of Ishmael’s metaphysical flights into philosophy, as well as the intrigue of Ahab’s revenge quest, it can be easy to lose track of just where in the watery world the Pequod is. Ishmael gives us our bearings again in the opening of “Brit”:

Steering north-eastward from the Crozetts, we fell in with vast meadows of brit, the minute, yellow substance, upon which the Right Whale largely feeds. For leagues and leagues it undulated round us, so that we seemed to be sailing through boundless fields of ripe and golden wheat.

The image of “boundless fields of ripe and golden wheat” seems out of place in these antarctic climes. It ties the sea back to the land—ever a concern of Ishmael, who posits his reader as the “landsman” afloat with him in alien waters.

III. And yet Ishmael, despite his sympathies, occasionally condescends landlubbers. He suggest that “to landsmen in general, the native inhabitants of the seas have ever been regarded with emotions unspeakably unsocial and repelling,” which may be more or less true. Ish continues:

…we know the sea to be an everlasting terra incognita, so that Columbus sailed over numberless unknown worlds to discover his one superficial western one; though, by vast odds, the most terrific of all mortal disasters have immemorially and indiscriminately befallen tens and hundreds of thousands of those who have gone upon the waters; though but a moment’s consideration will teach, that however baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make; nevertheless, by the continual repetition of these very impressions, man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

III. Ishmael then evokes the infinite apocalypse of the seventh chapter of Genesis:

 Yea, foolish mortals, Noah’s flood is not yet subsided; two thirds of the fair world it yet covers.

IV. Ch. 59, “Squid.”

Ishmael again situates us geographically. The Pequod is now near Java. There, they behold “The great live squid, which, they say, few whale-ships ever beheld, and returned to their ports to tell of it.” At first though, the crew believes that the “great white mass” is Moby Dick. Starbuck mutters that he would have preferred to meet and battle the White Whale than glimpse the giant squid, which is an ill omen to him.

Ishmael retreats from superstition and heads instead into scientific speculation:

Whatever superstitions the sperm whalemen in general have connected with the sight of this object, certain it is, that a glimpse of it being so very unusual, that circumstance has gone far to invest it with portentousness. So rarely is it beheld, that though one and all of them declare it to be the largest animated thing in the ocean, yet very few of them have any but the most vague ideas concerning its true nature and form; notwithstanding, they believe it to furnish to the sperm whale his only food. For though other species of whales find their food above water, and may be seen by man in the act of feeding, the spermaceti whale obtains his whole food in unknown zones below the surface; and only by inference is it that any one can tell of what, precisely, that food consists. At times, when closely pursued, he will disgorge what are supposed to be the detached arms of the squid; some of them thus exhibited exceeding twenty and thirty feet in length. They fancy that the monster to which these arms belonged ordinarily clings by them to the bed of the ocean; and that the sperm whale, unlike other species, is supplied with teeth in order to attack and tear it.

V. Ch. 60, “The Line.”

“The Line might be a good example of what turns many readers off in Moby-Dick. Ishmael riffs for a few pages on rope. Like, the qualities, textures, durability of different types of rope.

At the end though, our Ishmael turns the rope into a metaphor:

All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

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