I. In this riff, Ch. 101-105 of Moby-Dick.
II. Ch. 101, “The Decanter.”
Ishmael praises the “famous whaling house of Enderby & Sons; a house which in my poor whaleman’s opinion, comes not far behind the united royal houses of the Tudors and Bourbons, in point of real historical interest.” He claims that, years after sailing on The Pequod, he enjoyed a “fine gam” with the crew of The Samuel Enderby. The claim interests me, as it seems like pretty clear evidence that Ishmael is not a ghost, which is an idea (namely, Ishmael is a ghost) that I’ve been playing with in these riffs. However, I mean—he could be the ghost at that feast though, right? Maybe?
“The Decanter” is another one of those “transition” chapters in Moby-Dick, where Ishmael subtly shifts from the events of the narrative proper into some other story, only to go back to his quest to measure the whale. Which brings us to—
III. Ch. 102, “A Bower in the Arsacides.”
Ishmael tells us that “it behooves me now to unbutton [the whale] still further.” He will dissect the beast to get to its “unconditional skeleton.”
The word dissect in the previous sentence is not merely metaphorical:
I confess, that since Jonah, few whalemen have penetrated very far beneath the skin of the adult whale; nevertheless, I have been blessed with an opportunity to dissect him in miniature. In a ship I belonged to, a small cub Sperm Whale was once bodily hoisted to the deck for his poke or bag, to make sheaths for the barbs of the harpoons, and for the heads of the lances. Think you I let that chance go, without using my boat-hatchet and jack-knife, and breaking the seal and reading all the contents of that young cub?
Reading all the contents of that young cub—again, Moby-Dick is not about whales; it is a book about reading the phenomenal world (with the aid of the whale as a major, slippery, impregnable metaphor).
IV. How does Ishmael know the measurements of adult whales?
And as for my exact knowledge of the bones of the leviathan in their gigantic, full grown development, for that rare knowledge I am indebted to my late royal friend Tranquo, king of Tranque, one of the Arsacides.
In his “Arsacidean holidays with the lord of Tranquo,” Ishmael is able to take the measure of a sperm whale skeleton which washed up dead on the beach after a storm. The skeleton is a kind of religious relic, surrounded by “a grand temple of lordly palms [which] now sheltered it.”
Ishmael extends the image for us:
The ribs were hung with trophies; the vertebræ were carved with Arsacidean annals, in strange hieroglyphics; in the skull, the priests kept up an unextinguished aromatic flame, so that the mystic head again sent forth its vapory spout; while, suspended from a bough, the terrific lower jaw vibrated over all the devotees, like the hair-hung sword that so affrighted Damocles.
It was a wondrous sight. The wood was green as mosses of the Icy Glen; the trees stood high and haughty, feeling their living sap; the industrious earth beneath was as a weaver’s loom, with a gorgeous carpet on it, whereof the ground-vine tendrils formed the warp and woof, and the living flowers the figures. All the trees, with all their laden branches; all the shrubs, and ferns, and grasses; the message-carrying air; all these unceasingly were active. Through the lacings of the leaves, the great sun seemed a flying shuttle weaving the unwearied verdure.
Ishmael then makes the leap from the physical to the metaphysical world. He addresses god the weaver:
Speak, weaver!—stay thy hand!—but one single word with thee! Nay—the shuttle flies—the figures float from forth the loom; the freshet-rushing carpet for ever slides away. The weaver-god, he weaves; and by that weaving is he deafened, that he hears no mortal voice; and by that humming, we, too, who look on the loom are deafened; and only when we escape it shall we hear the thousand voices that speak through it.
Ishmael ends the paragraph by invoking “great world’s loom,” recalling the title of Moby-Dick’s famous opening chapter “Loomings,” and points back And he ends the novel by escaping—alone—from the wreck of The Pequod, and returns to us to bear witness to and channel the “voices that speak” through the world’s looming.
V. Ch. 102 concludes as a kind of prequel to the next chapter:
The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics.
Ishmael attests that he didn’t record the inches though—he was saving room for a poem on his skin: “I did not trouble myself with the odd inches; nor, indeed, should inches at all enter into a congenial admeasurement of the whale.”
The note is interesting—up until now we did not know that Ish was tattooed, like his brethren Queequeg. His tattoos are again a form of writing about the whale’s body, and this writing is inscribed on his own body. It’s doubly body writing.
VI. Ch. 103, “Measurement of the Whale’s Skeleton.”
I’ve tried to point out in these riffs (and even in this riff) that Moby-Dick constantly moves between the physical and the metaphysical in its attempt to read the whale, by which I mean read the world of observable phenomena. Ch. 103, as its title suggests, is a very physical, numerical chapter, and I will not remark on it at any length, except to suggest that there is something of a parable in its last paragraph:
There are forty and odd vertebræ in all, which in the skeleton are not locked together. They mostly lie like the great knobbed blocks on a Gothic spire, forming solid courses of heavy masonry. The largest, a middle one, is in width something less than three feet, and in depth more than four. The smallest, where the spine tapers away into the tail, is only two inches in width, and looks something like a white billiard-ball. I was told that there were still smaller ones, but they had been lost by some little cannibal urchins, the priest’s children, who had stolen them to play marbles with. Thus we see how that the spine of even the hugest of living things tapers off at last into simple child’s play.
VII. Ch. 104, “The Fossil Whale.”
“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme,” Ishmael declares in this gigantifying chapter about old whale bones. Ish moves from the physical/empirical to the historical (and historical adjacent); the chapter’s gigantism extends to a kind of kitchen-sinkism. Ishmael declares himself a geologist (he tells us he’s been “a great digger of ditches, canals and wells, wine-vaults, cellars, and cisterns of all sorts.”)
Ultimately, the whale remains a god to Ishmael, a metaphysical physical god that prefigures and postdates humankind:
Who can show a pedigree like Leviathan? Ahab’s harpoon had shed older blood than the Pharaoh’s. Methuselah seems a school-boy. I look round to shake hands with Shem. I am horror-struck at this antemosaic, unsourced existence of the unspeakable terrors of the whale, which, having been before all time, must needs exist after all humane ages are over.
He leaves us to worship in the “Afric Temple of the Whale.”
VIII. Ch. 105, “Does the Whale’s Magnitude Diminish?—Will He Perish?”
What a title on this one—and what a chapter ironized by the next century’s endangering of the species Ishmael attests “must needs exist after all humane ages are over.”
Perhaps the chapter’s final paragraph points to the landlubber’s peril of rising oceans and rising temperatures though:
…we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality. He swam the seas before the continents broke water; he once swam over the site of the Tuileries, and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin. In Noah’s flood he despised Noah’s Ark; and if ever the world is to be again flooded, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies.
I hope we might all, we living things, physical things, spout some defiance, frothed or otherwise.