I. In this riff, Chapter 99 of Moby-Dick — “The Doubloon.”
II. Moby-Dick is a big big book stuffed with big big themes. One of those themes is perspective and interpretation, and Ch. 99, “The Doubloon,” showcases that theme, as various characters stop to inspect and reflect on the coin that Ahab hammered to the masthead back in Ch. 36, “The Quarter-Deck.” This gold piece is the prize for the first man to sight Moby Dick, and thus already symbolically overdetermined in the narrative. It becomes a thing that the sailors translate into ideas, for, as Ishmael points out (again prefiguring William Carlos Williams), “some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher, except to sell by the cartload.”
III. Here is Ishmael’s description (not interpretation) of the coin:
On its round border it bore the letters, REPUBLICA DEL ECUADOR: QUITO. So this bright coin came from a country planted in the middle of the world, and beneath the great equator, and named after it; and it had been cast midway up the Andes, in the unwaning clime that knows no autumn. Zoned by those letters you saw the likeness of three Andes’ summits; from one a flame; a tower on another; on the third a crowing cock; while arching over all was a segment of the partitioned zodiac, the signs all marked with their usual cabalistics, and the keystone sun entering the equinoctial point at Libra.
IV. Enter Ahab, pacing the quarter-deck, as he often does. On this particular morning, “turning to pass the doubloon, [Ahab] seemed to be newly attracted by the strange figures and inscriptions stamped on it, as though now for the first time beginning to interpret for himself in some monomaniac way whatever significance might lurk in them.”
V. Ishmael repeatedly describes Ahab as a “monomaniac.” The crippled captain focuses only on the hated whale. Ahab’s perspective is limited and constrained. Ahab sees and interprets in mono, unlike the whale, who, as Ishmael reminds us in Ch. 74, “The Sperm Whale’s Head—Contrasted View,” sees in stereo. The whale’s eyes are on either side of its head. Ish wonders if the whale “can at the same moment of time attentively examine two distinct prospects, one on one side of him, and the other in an exactly opposite direction.” The passage again recalls Keats’s notion of Negative Capability—to hold two possibly contrasting views in one’s consciousness “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
VI. But Ahab holds only one vision, one mania. He interprets the doubloon (“not unobserved by others,” Ishmael double-negatively observedly informs us):
“There’s something ever egotistical in mountain-tops and towers, and all other grand and lofty things; look here,—three peaks as proud as Lucifer. The firm tower, that is Ahab; the volcano, that is Ahab; the courageous, the undaunted, and victorious fowl, that, too, is Ahab; all are Ahab; and this round gold is but the image of the rounder globe, which, like a magician’s glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own mysterious self.
In his monomania, Ahab sees himself in the coin. It’s a mirror for a man on a Luciferian quest.
VII. Perspective shifts then to Starbuck, who states, “He goes below; let me read,” as Ahab descends. Starbuck, the good Christian counterbalance to Ahab’s satanic awe—
VIII. —but look, wait. I think I have to stop here a moment and point out again, amid this riff on a chapter of perspective and seeing and being seen and interpreting and outright voyeurism—I feel the need to point out again that Our Dear Ishmael is an Omnipresent Voyeur, a first-person consciousness who attends and interprets the private thoughts of his fellows. How? How? But anyway—
IX. So perspective shifts then to Starbuck, who first interprets Ahab’s interpretation: “The old man seems to read Belshazzar’s awful writing.” Christian Starbuck here refers to Chapter Five of The Book of Daniel, the main message of which has come to us colloquially as The writing on the wall. But it’s really Starbuck who reads the impending doom—he reads Ahab reading the coin.
X. And Starbuck reading the coin:
A dark valley between three mighty, heaven-abiding peaks, that almost seem the Trinity, in some faint earthly symbol. So in this vale of Death, God girds us round; and over all our gloom, the sun of Righteousness still shines a beacon and a hope. If we bend down our eyes, the dark vale shows her mouldy soil; but if we lift them, the bright sun meets our glance half way, to cheer. Yet, oh, the great sun is no fixture; and if, at midnight, we would fain snatch some sweet solace from him, we gaze for him in vain! This coin speaks wisely, mildly, truly, but still sadly to me. I will quit it, lest Truth shake me falsely.
Again, he reads and interprets the sign through his own lens of wisdom, mildness, truth, and, ultimately, sadness. But he elects to “quit it” before he stares too long into its abyss.
XI. Cruel conniving sardonic Stubb then enters the scene, spying his captain and first mate. “I’d not look at it very long ere spending it,” he says of the doubloon, adding, “Humph! in my poor, insignificant opinion, I regard this as queer.” Stubb riffs a bit on the many gold coins he’s seen, complaining that it’s odd—queer—that anyone would take the time to inspect this one: “What then should there be in this doubloon of the Equator that is so killing wonderful?”
XII. Stubb decides to “read it once,” and immediately discerns, “signs and wonders truly.” He gives the following Zodiac reading, which I can’t help but share in full. In the reading, Stubb converts the ideas, the avatars, the signs, into things—people, places, events—life:
Look you, Doubloon, your zodiac here is the life of man in one round chapter; and now I’ll read it off, straight out of the book. Come, Almanack! To begin: there’s Aries, or the Ram—lecherous dog, he begets us; then, Taurus, or the Bull—he bumps us the first thing; then Gemini, or the Twins—that is, Virtue and Vice; we try to reach Virtue, when lo! comes Cancer the Crab, and drags us back; and here, going from Virtue, Leo, a roaring Lion, lies in the path—he gives a few fierce bites and surly dabs with his paw; we escape, and hail Virgo, the Virgin! that’s our first love; we marry and think to be happy for aye, when pop comes Libra, or the Scales—happiness weighed and found wanting; and while we are very sad about that, Lord! how we suddenly jump, as Scorpio, or the Scorpion, stings us in the rear; we are curing the wound, when whang come the arrows all round; Sagittarius, or the Archer, is amusing himself. As we pluck out the shafts, stand aside! here’s the battering-ram, Capricornus, or the Goat; full tilt, he comes rushing, and headlong we are tossed; when Aquarius, or the Water-bearer, pours out his whole deluge and drowns us; and to wind up with Pisces, or the Fishes, we sleep.
XIII. Stubb then plays stage manager, ushering in the next interpreter, Flask, and declares that he will hide behind the boilers to audit the scene unseen: “here comes little King-Post; dodge round the try-works, now, and let’s hear what he’ll have to say. There; he’s before it; he’ll out with something presently. So, so; he’s beginning.”
Flask’s interpretation of the thing is purely economic and transactional—or really, what I want to say, thing based: “I see nothing here, but a round thing made of gold, and whoever raises a certain whale, this round thing belongs to him.” He interprets its thingness in terms of other things: “It is worth sixteen dollars, that’s true; and at two cents the cigar, that’s nine hundred and sixty cigars.”
XIV. Melville-Ishmael-narrator-voyeur-Flask in this moment announces the next player: “But, avast; here comes our old Manxman.” The old Manxman (a “hearse-driver, he must have been, that is, before he took to the sea,” ominously foreshadows Flask) reads the doubloon: “If the White Whale be raised, it must be in a month and a day, when the sun stands in some one of these signs. I’ve studied signs, and know their marks.”
The Manxman underscores the chapter’s theme of textual interpretation: “There’s another rendering now; but still one text. All sorts of men in one kind of world, you see.”
XV. Stubb then announces the next interpreter: “Dodge again! here comes Queequeg—all tattooing—looks like the signs of the Zodiac himself. What says the Cannibal?”
Here, the narrative voyeurism remains at a distance—we do not get into Queeg’s consciousness. Instead, whiteman Stubb reports the scenario: “As I live he’s comparing notes; looking at his thigh bone; thinks the sun is in the thigh, or in the calf, or in the bowels, I suppose, as the old women talk Surgeon’s Astronomy in the back country. And by Jove, he’s found something there in the vicinity of his thigh—I guess it’s Sagittarius, or the Archer.”
The I guess there is key—Melville gives us Ishmael giving us Stubb eading the inscrutable zodiac-tattooed other, Queequeg, reading the doubloon, the central sign of the chapter, nailed to the phallic mast.
XVI. Stubb also delivers his interpretation of the otherly-othered Fedallah’s inspection of the coin: “But, aside again! here comes that ghost-devil, Fedallah; tail coiled out of sight as usual, oakum in the toes of his pumps as usual. What does he say, with that look of his? Ah, only makes a sign to the sign and bows himself; there is a sun on the coin—fire worshipper, depend upon it.”
He cannot read Fedallah, who “only makes a sign to the sign” — but that in itself is a reading.
XVII. And then:
Ho! more and more. This way comes Pip—poor boy! would he had died, or I; he’s half horrible to me. He too has been watching all of these interpreters—myself included—and look now, he comes to read, with that unearthly idiot face. Stand away again and hear him. Hark!
Recall now that Stubb is the author, or at least co-author, of Pip’s “idiot face.” He’s “half horrible” to Stubb because Stubb abandoned him.
And mad sane wonderful abject Pip delivers a grammar of interpretation:
“I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look.”
Pip traces the mantra three times—this is interpretation, this is reading:
“I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look.”
This is what Melville nails to the mast in this chapter (the nail is a ghost nail)—perspective, perspective, perspective.
We look, we interpret, we read.