Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly | Moby-Dick reread, riff 21

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff: Chapters 84-86 of Moby-Dick.

II. Ch. 84, “Pitchpoling.”

Another chapter that starts out horny and ends in death.

Our Man Ish lets us know that many whalers love to “grease the bottom” of their boats to make them run faster against the water, for “oil is a sliding thing.” Queequeg greases up his boat’s keel, “rubbing in the unctuousness…in obedience to some particular presentiment.” The presentiment presents in yet another whale sighting. Tashtego spears one, but it nevertheless starts to evade the whale boats. The solution? Pitchpoling:

Of all the wondrous devices and dexterities, the sleights of hand and countless subtleties, to which the veteran whaleman is so often forced, none exceed that fine manœuvre with the lance called pitchpoling. Small sword, or broad sword, in all its exercises boasts nothing like it. It is only indispensable with an inveterate running whale; its grand fact and feature is the wonderful distance to which the long lance is accurately darted from a violently rocking, jerking boat, under extreme headway. Steel and wood included, the entire spear is some ten or twelve feet in length; the staff is much slighter than that of the harpoon, and also of a lighter material—pine. It is furnished with a small rope called a warp, of considerable length, by which it can be hauled back to the hand after darting.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

Stubb executes the pitchpole lancing with success, and celebrates his kill in a fit of patriotic bloodlust:

“That drove the spigot out of him!” cried Stubb. “’Tis July’s immortal Fourth; all fountains must run wine today! Would now, it were old Orleans whiskey, or old Ohio, or unspeakable old Monongahela! Then, Tashtego, lad, I’d have ye hold a canakin to the jet, and we’d drink round it! Yea, verily, hearts alive, we’d brew choice punch in the spread of his spout-hole there, and from that live punch-bowl quaff the living stuff.”

Stubb has proven himself a callous soul to this point. He is a jocular anti-Starbuck—and an anti-Ishmael, perhaps—and his suggestion that his crew “quaff the living stuff” from the whale he’s just lanced seems particularly cruel against the sympathetic portrait of whales that Ishmael has sketched over the last few chapters. He’s a figurative bloodsucker here, drawn first as a zany comic, but in a deeper reading, he is the Ugly American.

III. Ch. 85, “The Fountain.”

Here, Ishmael puts on his scientist’s cap again to puzzle out whether the whale spouts water or air.

He begins in an exacting mode, giving us the current date and time in the voyage:

…down to this blessed minute (fifteen and a quarter minutes past one o’clock P.M. of this sixteenth day of December, A.D. 1850), it should still remain a problem, whether these spoutings are, after all, really water, or nothing but vapor—this is surely a noteworthy thing.

(My darling wife’s birthday is December 16, although this has no bearing on this chapter, even if it bears a bit on my riff. In any case, Ishmael gives us a chance to get our temporal bearings here. Unless I’m wrong, the date suggests that The Pequod is almost a year out from its initial departure from Nantucket on Christmas Day of the preceding year.)

IV. “The Fountain” is one of those chapters (of which there are many) that might turn readers off from Moby-Dick—and yet it’s the sort of chapter that underlines the novel’s excellence. Ishmael is on a quest to know an unknowable thing, to describe it, analyze it, evaluate it, synthesize it into his own consciousness, and, perhaps ultimately thereby define it. Ch. 85 sees him at that task: “Still, we can hypothesize, even if we cannot prove and establish. My hypothesis is this: that the spout is nothing but mist.”

As always though, Ishmael’s own prejudices in favor of “the great inherent dignity and sublimity of the Sperm Whale” color any hypotheses he might draw. Indeed, for Ishmael, the sperm whale is a figure of genius:

He is both ponderous and profound. And I am convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings, such as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the act of thinking deep thoughts.

Ishmael finds—or, maybe more accurately projects—a fellow thinker of deep thoughts in the great whale. He tells us that

While composing a little treatise on Eternity, I had the curiosity to place a mirror before me; and ere long saw reflected there, a curious involved worming and undulation in the atmosphere over my head. The invariable moisture of my hair, while plunged in deep thought, after six cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August noon; this seems an additional argument for the above supposition.

The lines are both ironic, metatextual, but also sincere and sweet. Of course our man Ish might spy a bit of mist in his tiny humid attic—but could it not also be the physical manifestation of his own genius of the metaphysical—his “little treatise on Eternity” (by which paradoxical title I take to mean Moby-Dick).

In the end of the chapter, Ishmael tries to reconcile his physics with is metaphysics:

Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.

(The line again recalls John Keats’s notion of Negative Capability.)

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

V. Ch. 86, “The Tail.”

Our boy Ish is all about the tail here:

Other poets have warbled the praises of the soft eye of the antelope, and the lovely plumage of the bird that never alights; less celestial, I celebrate a tail.

This chapter sees Ishmael again playing scientist, but also aesthete. His first problem is to figure out just where, exactly, the tail of the whale begins. (In Ch. 90, “Heads or Tails,” he will concede that, in the whale, like the apple, “there is no intermediate remainder” between head or tail—the part that is not head is tail and the part that is not tail is head.)

VI. (Ishmael is more concerned, ultimately, with the power of the tail—and I don’t think Melville is above some punning symbolism here. We are a’whaling and wailing, and tailing and telling tales.)

VII. Every-horny Ishmael is horny (natch) for the whale tail:

Real strength never impairs beauty or harmony, but it often bestows it; and in everything imposingly beautiful, strength has much to do with the magic. Take away the tied tendons that all over seem bursting from the marble in the carved Hercules, and its charm would be gone. As devout Eckerman lifted the linen sheet from the naked corpse of Goethe, he was overwhelmed with the massive chest of the man, that seemed as a Roman triumphal arch. When Angelo paints even God the Father in human form, mark what robustness is there. And whatever they may reveal of the divine love in the Son, the soft, curled, hermaphroditical Italian pictures, in which his idea has been most successfully embodied; these pictures, so destitute as they are of all brawniness, hint nothing of any power, but the mere negative, feminine one of submission and endurance, which on all hands it is conceded, form the peculiar practical virtues of his teachings.

Our boy Ish might be a bit hot and bothered for Michelangelo’s Sistine God!


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