A very precious perishing | Moby-Dick reread, riff 19

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff: Chapters 76-80 of Moby-Dick.

II. Ch. 76, “The Battering-Ram.”

Yet another hyphenated chapter title; yet another horny chapter title.

In this chapter, the titular battering ram is the sperm whale’s head—or, more accurately, the middle space of its huge head, that “dead, blind wall, without a single organ or tender prominence of any sort whatsoever.” Ishmael implores us to consider “this whole enormous boneless mass…as one wad.”

Ish continues, pointing out that the whale’s brain—and consciousness? soul?—are protected by this battering ram:

Now, mark. Unerringly impelling this dead, impregnable, uninjurable wall, and this most buoyant thing within; there swims behind it all a mass of tremendous life…So that when I shall hereafter detail to you all the specialities and concentrations of potency everywhere lurking in this expansive monster; when I shall show you some of his more inconsiderable braining feats; I trust you will have renounced all ignorant incredulity, and be ready to abide by this; that though the Sperm Whale stove a passage through the Isthmus of Darien, and mixed the Atlantic with the Pacific, you would not elevate one hair of your eye-brow. For unless you own the whale, you are but a provincial and sentimentalist in Truth.

That’s a long paragraph! Forgive! Ish ends it thus:

But clear Truth is a thing for salamander giants only to encounter; how small the chances for the provincials then? What befell the weakling youth lifting the dread goddess’s veil at Lais?

This last allusion refers to a Friedrich von Schiller poem, “The Veiled Image at Sais.” Isis’ veil here recalls the “hooded” whale heads aboard The Pequod. The “weakling youth” is forever mortified at this dare for truth. From Merivale’s translation:

But what he saw, or what did there befall,

His lips disclosed not.

Ever from his heart

Was fled the sweet serenity of life,

And the deep anguish dug the early grave:

“Woe, woe to him”—such were his warning words,

Answering some curious and impetuous brain,

“Woe—for she never shall delight him more!

Woe,—woe to him who treads through guilt to Truth!

III. Ch. 77, “The Great Heidelburgh Tun.”

“Now comes the Baling of the Case,” declares Ishmael, and then proceeds to explain how the “most precious of all his oily vintages…the highly-prized spermaceti, in its absolutely pure, limpid, and odoriferous state” shall be extracted from the sperm whale’s head. He tells us that,

A large whale’s case generally yields about five hundred gallons of sperm, though from unavoidable circumstances, considerable of it is spilled, leaks, and dribbles away, or is otherwise irrevocably lost in the ticklish business of securing what you can.

Moby-Dick is a Freudian field day.

IV. Ch. 78, “Cistern and Buckets.”

The Pequod’s crew, led by Tashtego, begin extracting the spermaceti from the whale’s head. The whole thing is a very phallic business:

Towards the end, Tashtego has to ram his long pole harder and harder, and deeper and deeper into the Tun, until some twenty feet of the pole have gone down.

Get a bucket and a mop.

In this slippery business, our man Tash falls into the hole in the whale’s head. Daggoo jumps into action, but the whale’s head falls from all but one hook, echoing “The Monkey-Rope,” the perilous, tenuous link of life between fellows. Luckily—repeating his actions way back in Ch. 13, “Wheelbarrow,” superhero Queequeg saves the day. Proud wife Ishmael proclaims, “my brave Queequeg had dived to the rescue.”

Tash’s rescue is announced as another resurrection in this novel of resurrections: “we saw an arm thrust upright from the blue waves; a sight strange to see, as an arm thrust forth from the grass over a grave.” Zombie vibes! It’s a tough resurrection though: “Tashtego was long in coming to, and Queequeg did not look very brisk.”

The rescue is coded as a birth scene:

And thus, through the courage and great skill in obstetrics of Queequeg, the deliverance, or rather, delivery of Tashtego, was successfully accomplished, in the teeth, too, of the most untoward and apparently hopeless impediments; which is a lesson by no means to be forgotten. Midwifery should be taught in the same course with fencing and boxing, riding and rowing.

The chapter ends with Ishmael praising the notion of drowning in a whale’s tun of spermaceti:

…had Tashtego perished in that head, it had been a very precious perishing; smothered in the very whitest and daintiest of fragrant spermaceti; coffined, hearsed, and tombed in the secret inner chamber and sanctum sanctorum of the whale.

V. Ch. 79, “The Prairie.”

Ishmael turns to pseudoscience: “To scan the lines of his face, or feel the bumps on the head of this Leviathan; this is a thing which no Physiognomist or Phrenologist has as yet undertaken.” By the end of the chapter though, Ish insists that “Physiognomy, like every other human science, is but a passing fable.” Still, his project remains the same—we are to read the whale—and the mystery of the whale—as Moby-Dick’s main text. He gives us the head: “I but put that brow before you. Read it if you can.”

VI. Ch. 80, “The Nut.”

Pseudoscience continues with phrenology, which Ish uses as a description, but not an answer to his driving question, What is the whale. “The Nut” concludes with the hump:

This august hump, if I mistake not, rises over one of the larger vertebræ, and is, therefore, in some sort, the outer convex mould of it. From its relative situation then, I should call this high hump the organ of firmness or indomitableness in the Sperm Whale. And that the great monster is indomitable, you will yet have reason to know.

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