I. In this riff: Chapter 87 of Moby-Dick.
II. Ch. 87, “The Grand Armada.”
In this chapter, The Pequod passes by “the long islands of Sumatra, Java, Bally, and Timor; which, with many others, form a vast mole, or rampart, lengthwise connecting Asia with Australia,” but never rows boats to a shore: “But how now? in this zoned quest, does Ahab touch no land? does his crew drink air? Surely, he will stop for water. Nay.” The Pequod is fully stocked for this particular revenge mission.
III. Anticipating what will come in this chapter, Ishmael informs us that,
Sperm Whales, instead of almost invariably sailing in small detached companies, as in former times, are now frequently met with in extensive herds, sometimes embracing so great a multitude, that it would almost seem as if numerous nations of them had sworn solemn league and covenant for mutual assistance and protection.
They soon come upon a great host of whales, which, “beheld through a blending atmosphere of bluish haze, showed like the thousand cheerful chimneys of some dense metropolis.”
IV. “The Grand Armada” plays out in the mode of one of Melville’s earlier romantic adventure. The stakes are heightened when a pirate ship of Malays (“these rascally Asiatics,” Ishmael sounds with a racist note) pursues The Pequod as The Pequod pursues pods upon pods of whales.
V. Ishmael, ever-large-hearted (despite his many faults), compares the whales to sheep, and then to the over-hunted buffalo of the American West, and then, finally, to humankind:
Had these Leviathans been but a flock of simple sheep, pursued over the pasture by three fierce wolves, they could not possibly have evinced such excessive dismay. But this occasional timidity is characteristic of almost all herding creatures. Though banding together in tens of thousands, the lion-maned buffaloes of the West have fled before a solitary horseman. Witness, too, all human beings, how when herded together in the sheepfold of a theatre’s pit, they will, at the slightest alarm of fire, rush helter-skelter for the outlets, crowding, trampling, jamming, and remorselessly dashing each other to death. Best, therefore, withhold any amazement at the strangely gallied whales before us, for there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.
The lines shift away from the chapter’s romantic tone, instead underlying the philosophical mode of Moby-Dick.
VI. But that adventurous mode returns—Ishmael’s boat—which is to say, Queequeg’s boat, which is to say, Starbuck’s boat—look, the boat the narrator’s in—a particular boat manages to lance two whales with something called a “drugg”:
All whaleboats carry certain curious contrivances, originally invented by the Nantucket Indians, called druggs. Two thick squares of wood of equal size are stoutly clenched together, so that they cross each other’s grain at right angles; a line of considerable length is then attached to the middle of this block, and the other end of the line being looped, it can in a moment be fastened to a harpoon.
A third drugg is unlucky though, striking a note of danger and foreshadowing the disaster at the novel’s conclusion:
But upon flinging the third, in the act of tossing overboard the clumsy wooden block, it caught under one of the seats of the boat, and in an instant tore it out and carried it away, dropping the oarsman in the boat’s bottom as the seat slid from under him. On both sides the sea came in at the wounded planks, but we stuffed two or three drawers and shirts in, and so stopped the leaks for the time.
VII. The scene shifts again. Queequeg’s “jerking harpoon drew out” (everything in this phallic novel is always jerking and pricking and penetrating) “and the towing whale sideways vanished.” Ishmael’s boat then “glided between two whales into the innermost heart of the shoal, as if from some mountain torrent we had slid into a serene valley lake.”
The scene that unfolds is one of the most tender in all of Moby-Dick. “Here the storms in the roaring glens between the outermost whales, were heard but not felt,” declares Ishmael. Remember, our narrator sets out to sea to assuage his homicidal, suicidal impulses. He still remembers the wolfish world in this moment of respite, but he does not feel it. He feels something else:
…we were now in that enchanted calm which they say lurks at the heart of every commotion. And still in the distracted distance we beheld the tumults of the outer concentric circles, and saw successive pods of whales, eight or ten in each, swiftly going round and round, like multiplied spans of horses in a ring; and so closely shoulder to shoulder, that a Titanic circus-rider might easily have over-arched the middle ones, and so have gone round on their backs.
VIII. The boat is walled in by the whales, but Ishmael is not fearful. The whales about them are gentle — “small tame cows and calves; the women and children of this routed host.”
…these smaller whales—now and then visiting our becalmed boat from the margin of the lake—evinced a wondrous fearlessness and confidence, or else a still becharmed panic which it was impossible not to marvel at. Like household dogs they came snuffling round us, right up to our gunwales, and touching them; till it almost seemed that some spell had suddenly domesticated them. Queequeg patted their foreheads; Starbuck scratched their backs with his lance; but fearful of the consequences, for the time refrained from darting it.
Violence is suspended here. And again, Starbuck, Queequeg, and Ishmael are coded as riders of conscience wrapped up in Ahab’s bloody quest.
IX. The scene intensifies. Actually, intensifies is entirely the wrong verb here, although, to be clear, the episode develops with a particular intensity—but intense seems to suggest anxiety, which here is suspended (even for the briefest of moments), as Ishmael’s boat encounters a “still stranger world” of calm:
But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;—even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulfweed in their new-born sight.
X. Queequeg then explodes, believing a whale darted and fastened with a line to a boat: ““Line! line!…him fast! him fast!—Who line him! Who struck?—Two whale; one big, one little!””
The image is of a different tethering though: Queequeg has mistaken a mother and child for two apparent victims:
Starbuck saw long coils of the umbilical cord of Madame Leviathan, by which the young cub seemed still tethered to its dam. Not seldom in the rapid vicissitudes of the chase, this natural line, with the maternal end loose, becomes entangled with the hempen one, so that the cub is thereby trapped. Some of the subtlest secrets of the seas seemed divulged to us in this enchanted pond. We saw young Leviathan amours in the deep.
And yet even after his lovefest, our sailors, our whalemen, will not be above general slaughter.
XI. The episode, as I’ve stated above, is one of the few in Moby-Dick wherein Ishmael overcomes the intense negative feeling he bears for his own world, and instead merges into a kind of Emersonian over-soul. “The Grand Armada” anticipates the novel’s greatest melding moment, Ch. 94, “A Squeeze of the Hand.” I’ve been quoting too much in this riff, but I can’t help it. Here is Ishmael’s joy:
And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.
And let us end this chapter and this riff with a bath of “eternal mildness of joy,” skipping over any predation its final pages might yield.