Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them | Moby-Dick reread, riff 32

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. I “finished” rereading Moby-Dick a few minutes before I started composing this riff.

I feel sad and a little deflated. Deflated here is maybe the wrong word. This is a novel of expansion and contraction, the physical and the metaphysical, the abstract exploding into the concrete. But the novel’s conclusion seems like an undoing to all of its elation—all of Ishmael’s evocation of brotherly-love, of the milk of human kindness, of finding transcendence through a reading of nature. (Maybe Ahab is a bad reader—maybe this is the point of Moby-Dick—that vengeance and pride lead to madness and death.)

II. It’s also possible that I feel deflated and sad because the last riff I wrote about Moby-Dick was on Ch. 112—a short minor chapter that I could’ve squared away in a sentence or two. Something like, Melville here parodies temperance-movement literature while at the same time anchoring the blacksmith’s backstory in an earnest core of fellow feeling and human sympathy—something like that. Only I didn’t; I wrote more fucking words on Ch. 112 than Melville wrote in Ch. 112.

III. Which is all a long way of saying that there’s something addictive about Melville’s rhetoric in Moby-Dick. It’s bombastic and purple and chews scenery; it twists metaphors and pokes at unresolved allegories; its a great big challenge of voices that repeatedly threatens to overwhelm the consciousness that seeks to apprehend it. Maybe comprehend it instead then. Maybe just go with its flow instead.

IV. (Blogging about Moby-Dick as I’ve reread it is an attempt to apprehend it, thus my feelings of deflated depression at the end.)

V. But let us move on; excuse my preamble.

VI. Ch. 113, “The Forge.”

We’ve met the blacksmith Perth and attended to his tale with sympathy. Anon. Let us to Ahab, who commands the poor fellow to smith him a new harpoon, “Fashioned at last into an arrowy shape.” Perth tells Ahab to bring a water cask by to temper the harpoon, but the mad captain insists instead on a satanic blood baptism:

“No, no—no water for that; I want it of the true death-temper. Ahoy, there! Tashtego, Queequeg, Daggoo! What say ye, pagans! Will ye give me as much blood as will cover this barb?” holding it high up. A cluster of dark nods replied, Yes. Three punctures were made in the heathen flesh, and the White Whale’s barbs were then tempered.

“Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!” deliriously howled Ahab, as the malignant iron scorchingly devoured the baptismal blood.

VII. Ch. 114, “The Glider.”

The Pequod glides upon the pacific Pacific. Ahab finds peace and torment in the pacified peace:

Oh, grassy glades! oh, ever vernal endless landscapes in the soul; in ye,—though long parched by the dead drought of the earthy life,—in ye, men yet may roll, like young horses in new morning clover; and for some few fleeting moments, feel the cool dew of the life immortal on them. Would to God these blessed calms would last. But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause:—through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling’s father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.

I mean like holy fuck, Ahab’s inner monologue here is like—I mean like I have no simile to work from here for that like. I guess you could attack it as purpleprosed Shakespeare aping, or a college sophomore who’s fastened himself to a volume of Nietzsche—but it’s not.

(I’ll move on for my own sanity.)

VIII. Ch. 115, “The Pequod meets the Bachelor.”

The Pequod meets The Bachelor in this chapter, the 115th chapter of Moby-Dick.

The Bachelor is a horny, celebratory ship, filled to its proverbial gills with sperm. “‘Come aboard, come aboard!’ cried the gay Bachelor’s commander, lifting a glass and a bottle in the air,” notes Ishmael, as the crew of The Pequod fails to come to the gay Bachelor’s commander.

Ahab’s rejoinder to joy:

“Thou art too damned jolly. Sail on.”

Let us sail on.

IX. Ch. 116, “The Dying Whale.”

The “next day after encountering the gay Bachelor, whales were seen and four were slain; and one of them by Ahab.”

Ahab is metaphysically-moved by the moment of the slaying:

Then hail, for ever hail, O sea, in whose eternal tossings the wild fowl finds his only rest. Born of earth, yet suckled by the sea; though hill and valley mothered me, ye billows are my foster-brothers!”

Hail, hail, whale, wail.

X. Ch. 117, “The Whale Watch.”

Another short chapter. Fedallah, Ahab’s erstwhile lieutenant and prognosticator prognosticates that “ere thou couldst die on this voyage, two hearses must verily be seen by thee on the sea; the first not made by mortal hands; and the visible wood of the last one must be grown in America.”

And, more foreshadowing–

Take another pledge, old man,” said the Parsee, as his eyes lighted up like fire-flies in the gloom—“Hemp only can kill thee.”

“The gallows, ye mean.—I am immortal then, on land and on sea,” cried Ahab, with a laugh of derision;—“Immortal on land and on sea!”

Again—Ahab is a bad reader. He cannot read through any lens but his monomaniacal monocle of revenge. He misreads Fedallah and trips over his own ego, even as the umbilical threads of his own fate wrap around him, shrouding him in the garments of his watery tomb.

 

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