The mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable | Moby-Dick reread, riff 17

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff: Chapters 61-73 of Moby-Dick.

II. Ch. 61, “Stubb Kills a Whale.”

In this chapter, Stubb kills a whale.

III. Ch. 62, “The Dart.”

In this chapter, Ishmael argues that harpooneers should not have to row so that their throwing arms are not fatigued when the time comes to lance a whale.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

IV. Ch. 63, “The Crotch.”

Ishmael begins this chapter by noting his propensity toward a discursive narrative style: “Out of the trunk, the branches grow; out of them, the twigs. So, in productive subjects, grow the chapters.”

He then suggests that “The crotch alluded to on a previous page deserves independent mention.”

I’m reminded of the time I made a list of smutty-sounding chapter titles in Moby-Dick.

V. Ch. 64, “Stubb’s Supper.”

Stubb eats some of that whale he killed a few chapters back.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

VI. Ch. 65, “The Whale as a Dish.”

Ishmael riffs on eating whales—sperm whales in particular—and concedes that they are generally too unctuous for the palates of landlubbers. He’s all for eating the brains:

In the case of a small Sperm Whale the brains are accounted a fine dish. The casket of the skull is broken into with an axe, and the two plump, whitish lobes being withdrawn (precisely resembling two large puddings), they are then mixed with flour, and cooked into a most delectable mess, in flavor somewhat resembling calves’ head, which is quite a dish among some epicures…

VII. Ch. 66, “The Shark Massacre.”

Sharks eat at Stubb’s whale too, which has been tied to the side of The Pequod overnight. Queequeg kills some of the sharks, and hoists one on deck to take its skin. It almost bites his hand off.

VIII. Ch. 67, “Cutting In.”

Another one of Ishmael’s technically-oriented chapters, with little in the way of philosophy. He describes the process by which the crew strips the blubber from the whale.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

IX. Ch. 68, “The Blanket.”

Another one of Ishmael’s philosophically-oriented chapters. Here, he ponders, “what and where is the skin of the whale?” Ishmael notes that over the whale’s blubber there is an “infinitely thin, transparent substance, somewhat resembling the thinnest shreds of isinglass.” He says that this “isinglass,” when dried, makes a good bookmark for his “whale-books”

It is transparent, as I said before; and being laid upon the printed page, I have sometimes pleased myself with fancying it exerted a magnifying influence. At any rate, it is pleasant to read about whales through their own spectacles, as you may say.

Ultimately though, this isinglass is but the “skin of the skin” and the whale’s blubber is his “blanket.”

It is telling that Ishmael reads whale books through a whale lens. Indeed, his whole mission is to read the whale, and in “The Blanket” he turns the whale’s body into a text beyond his ciphering, noting that the body of the sperm whale is “all over obliquely crossed and re-crossed with numberless straight marks in thick array.” He continues::

But these marks do not seem to be impressed upon the isinglass substance above mentioned, but seem to be seen through it, as if they were engraved upon the body itself. Nor is this all. In some instances, to the quick, observant eye, those linear marks, as in a veritable engraving, but afford the ground for far other delineations. These are hieroglyphical; that is, if you call those mysterious cyphers on the walls of pyramids hieroglyphics, then that is the proper word to use in the present connexion. By my retentive memory of the hieroglyphics upon one Sperm Whale in particular, I was much struck with a plate representing the old Indian characters chiselled on the famous hieroglyphic palisades on the banks of the Upper Mississippi. Like those mystic rocks, too, the mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable.

X. Ch. 69, “The Funeral.”

The whale’s corpse is cut loose to endure the mocking “funeral” of every scavenger of the sea and sky.

Thus, while in life the great whale’s body may have been a real terror to his foes, in his death his ghost becomes a powerless panic to a world.

Are you a believer in ghosts, my friend? There are other ghosts than the Cock-Lane one, and far deeper men than Doctor Johnson who believe in them.

The last two lines of the chapter—quoted above—again point to the idea that perhaps our Ish is himself a ghost.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

XI. Ch. 70, “The Sphynx.”

The crew decapitated Stubb’s whale and kept it on deck. In another one of those How is Ishmael witnessing this wait is he like a ghost or something? scenes, Ish manages to overhear Captain Ahab’s batshit soliloquy to the dead head:

It was a black and hooded head; and hanging there in the midst of so intense a calm, it seemed the Sphynx’s in the desert. “Speak, thou vast and venerable head,” muttered Ahab, “which, though ungarnished with a beard, yet here and there lookest hoary with mosses; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid this world’s foundations. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there, in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home. Thou hast been where bell or diver never went; hast slept by many a sailor’s side, where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them down. Thou saw’st the locked lovers when leaping from their flaming ship; heart to heart they sank beneath the exulting wave; true to each other, when heaven seemed false to them. Thou saw’st the murdered mate when tossed by pirates from the midnight deck; for hours he fell into the deeper midnight of the insatiate maw; and his murderers still sailed on unharmed—while swift lightnings shivered the neighboring ship that would have borne a righteous husband to outstretched, longing arms. O head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!”

XII. Ch. 71, “The Jeroboam’s Story.”

Ahab’s interrogation of the whale’s head is cut short when the call goes up that another ship—the aptly named Jeroboam—is in hailing distance. Our boy Ahab just has to get some news about his White Whale.

The crew of The Jeroboam elect to keep their distance from The Peqoud. Their Captain Mayhew suggests they have a plague of some kind on board, but it becomes evident that the plague might be a kind of madness. The crew of Mayhew’s ship are under the sway of a Shaker sailor who believes himself to be the Archangel Gabriel. Anyway, it turns out that The Jeroboam has encountered Moby Dick; in fact, Mayhew’s chief mate Macey died hunting the great beast—all while Gabriel chanted prophecies of doom. Symbolically underlining the foreshadowing in this episode, The Pequod carries aboard a letter for Macey from his wife, who does not yet know she is a widow. And in even more symbolic foreshadowing, when Starbuck attempts to pass the letter to Mayhew,

…as if by magic, the letter suddenly ranged along with Gabriel’s eager hand. He clutched it in an instant, seized the boat-knife, and impaling the letter on it, sent it thus loaded back into the ship. It fell at Ahab’s feet. Then Gabriel shrieked out to his comrades to give way with their oars, and in that manner the mutinous boat rapidly shot away from the Pequod.

To steal a line from Melville’s later short masterpiece Bartleby: “Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?”

XIII. Ch. 72, “The Monkey-Rope.”

In this chapter—another chapter with a hyphenated title!—in this chapter, Ishmael goes back to some technical business of whaling, explaining that while hauling in Stubb’s whale, Queequeg had to insert the blubber hook into the whale—which means he had to be over the side of the boat, on the whale itself. In this process, Queequeg and Ishmael are connected by a “monkey-rope” — a rope tethering the two between belts.

“It was a humorously perilous business for both of us,” Ishmael notes, a line that again underscores Moby-Dick’s compounding — hyphenating — modes of comedy and terror. The chapter also again reminds us that Ish and Queeg are like a married couple: “for better or for worse, we two, for the time, were wedded.” As is often the case, Ishmael goes into a philosophical reverie:

So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death. …still further pondering, I say, I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only, in most cases, he, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals.

XIV. Ch. 73, “Stubb and Flask Kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk over Him.”

In this chapter, Stubb and Flask kill a right whale and then have a talk over him.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

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