Face set like a flint | Moby-Dick reread, riff 27

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff, Chapter 100 of Moby-Dick — “Leg and Arm • The Pequod, of Nantucket, meets the Samuel Enderby, of London.”

II. I probably should’ve rolled this chapter into my last riff.Chapter 100 serves again to underscore Ahab’s monomaniacal monologuing, his inability to read the world through any lens but his singular quest to destroy the White Whale—and it does so by employing one of the novel’s thematic devices, negation. Here, Ahab (the absent, negative leg) meets Captain Boomer (the absent, negative arm). Both captains have lost their limbs to Moby Dick. However, their dispositions could not be more different. After losing his arm while attempting to harpoon Moby Dick, Captain Boomer of the Samuel Enderby runs into the whale two more times, but does not attempt to capture it, to Ahab’s disbelief. Why? Boomer answers jocularly, “ain’t one limb enough?

III. Indeed, the very spirit of “Leg and Arm” is the opposing attitudes of Ahab and Boomer. Ahab is all monomaniacal vengeance, but Boomer is more practical. Ahab is sundered from connection to his fellow man—even his mates limit their discourse with him—while Boomer is a genial and hearty joker. Much of “Leg and Arm” contrasts Ahab’s one-track mind with Boomer’s expansive loquaciousness. Ahab initiates the discourse with the Enderby with his regular hailing: “Hast seen the white whale?” — and the rest of his interrogation focuses solely on this end. He is not interested in conversing with Boomer, nor with Boomer’s first mate and surgeon, who attend their meeting.

The officers of the Enderby are a lively fraternity though, telling their tale with a chummy joy. Consider this exchange between Boomer and his surgeon Bunger:

“It was a shocking bad wound,” began the whale-surgeon; “and, taking my advice, Captain Boomer here, stood our old Sammy—”

“Samuel Enderby is the name of my ship,” interrupted the one-armed captain, addressing Ahab; “go on, boy.”

“Stood our old Sammy off to the northward, to get out of the blazing hot weather there on the Line. But it was no use—I did all I could; sat up with him nights; was very severe with him in the matter of diet—”

“Oh, very severe!” chimed in the patient himself; then suddenly altering his voice, “Drinking hot rum toddies with me every night, till he couldn’t see to put on the bandages; and sending me to bed, half seas over, about three o’clock in the morning. Oh, ye stars! he sat up with me indeed, and was very severe in my diet. Oh! a great watcher, and very dietetically severe, is Dr. Bunger. (Bunger, you dog, laugh out! why don’t ye? You know you’re a precious jolly rascal.) But, heave ahead, boy, I’d rather be killed by you than kept alive by any other man.”

“My captain, you must have ere this perceived, respected sir”—said the imperturbable godly-looking Bunger, slightly bowing to Ahab—“is apt to be facetious at times; he spins us many clever things of that sort. But I may as well say—en passant, as the French remark—that I myself—that is to say, Jack Bunger, late of the reverend clergy—am a strict total abstinence man; I never drink—”

“Water!” cried the captain; “he never drinks it; it’s a sort of fits to him; fresh water throws him into the hydrophobia; but go on—go on with the arm story.”

The scene’s quick-witted bonhomie stands in stark contrast to Ahab’s dour and fear-riddled relation with his own crew and mates.

IV. The episode concludes with Ahab finally snapping—he’s had enough of the Englishmen yapping away—enough of their conviviality. He demands to know which direction they last saw Moby Dick heading. Dr. Bunger tries to intervene, offering Ahab a medical examination, which is swiftly rejected. Ahab gets his answer and departs without a shred of civility:

“Bless my soul, and curse the foul fiend’s,” cried Bunger, stoopingly walking round Ahab, and like a dog, strangely snuffing; “this man’s blood—bring the thermometer!—it’s at the boiling point!—his pulse makes these planks beat!—sir!”—taking a lancet from his pocket, and drawing near to Ahab’s arm.

“Avast!” roared Ahab, dashing him against the bulwarks—“Man the boat! Which way heading?”

“Good God!” cried the English Captain, to whom the question was put. “What’s the matter? He was heading east, I think.—Is your Captain crazy?” whispering Fedallah.

But Fedallah, putting a finger on his lip, slid over the bulwarks to take the boat’s steering oar, and Ahab, swinging the cutting-tackle towards him, commanded the ship’s sailors to stand by to lower.

In a moment he was standing in the boat’s stern, and the Manilla men were springing to their oars. In vain the English Captain hailed him. With back to the stranger ship, and face set like a flint to his own, Ahab stood upright till alongside of the Pequod.

V. The final notation that “Ahab stood upright” is a significant detail. The Enderby is the only ship he meets with in person, and to board it, he must lower himself—quite literally. Ishmael devotes several paragraphs detailing how difficult it is for Ahab to board a ship from his boat. Indeed, the crew of The Enderby have to pull him up in a net. The whole process might be neatly summed up in the notation that, “Ahab now found himself abjectly reduced to a clumsy landsman again.” His abjection feeds his anger, but also shows that he’s willing to abase himself in his quest for the whale—but only for that quest. He will not lower himself to his fellow man’s warmth and empathy.

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