I. In this riff, Chapters 124-126 of Moby-Dick.
II. Ch. 124, “The Needle.”
“The Needle” is another one of Melville’s satanic reversals in Moby-Dick. Lightning from the tempest that The Pequod endured over the past few chapters has caused all compasses aboard the ship to be perfectly reversed. Needles fly in the exact opposite directions. What might have been up, in a certain sense, points downward.
Again, Ahab is a bad reader—or a reader whose monomania overrides his ability to comprehend other perspectives, other views, other directions.
III. And yet Ahab is a bold reader, one who shapes nature to his own direction (or will in anywise perish doing so):
“Men,” said he, steadily turning upon the crew, as the mate handed him the things he had demanded, “my men, the thunder turned old Ahab’s needles; but out of this bit of steel Ahab can make one of his own, that will point as true as any.”
Ahab sets about to magnetize a needle with the “steel head of the lance,” and the crew watches on in wonder and mild horror. Ishmael (Melville) notes that, “with fascinated eyes they awaited whatever magic might follow” — and then tellingly: “But Starbuck looked away.”
Starbuck’s attempt to see no evil reverberates through the crew who gaze at the new compass needle in turns at the end of the scene:
One after another they peered in, for nothing but their own eyes could persuade such ignorance as theirs, and one after another they slunk away.
In his fiery eyes of scorn and triumph, you then saw Ahab in all his fatal pride.
Slink away; perish still.
IV. Ch. 125, “The Log and Line.”
A somewhat extended episode, the mechanics of which I’m in no mood to summarize here. Suffice to say that “the log and line” — basically, a way of calculating the ship’s speed — “had but very seldom been in use” lately on The Pequod’s voyage. Ahab has found other ways to measure and to read the phenomenal world. But, thinking he’s closing in on the White Whale, he commands the “golden-hued Tahitian and the grizzly Manxman” to the task of log and line.
V. The Manxman declares the line “rotten,” a prescient analysis that reads The Pequod’s impending doom.
A mark of that rottenness evinces in Pip’s emergence. The crazed cabin boy alights on the deck, a rotten line in a book of glowing rotten lines. He contests his own identity. He’s a vacant post, a drowned sailor:
“Pip? whom call ye Pip? Pip jumped from the whale-boat. Pip’s missing. Let’s see now if ye haven’t fished him up here, fisherman. It drags hard; I guess he’s holding on. Jerk him, Tahiti! Jerk him off; we haul in no cowards here. Ho! there’s his arm just breaking water. A hatchet! a hatchet! cut it off—we haul in no cowards here. Captain Ahab! sir, sir! here’s Pip, trying to get on board again.”
VI. (I will leave the line Jerk him off in this oh-so-phallic novel alone, apart from noting it here in these parentheses.)
VII. “Peace, thou crazy loon,” cries the Manxman, trying to shoo him from the quarter-deck, but Ahab admonishes the older sailor and enters into conversation with the insane cabin boy:
“The greater idiot ever scolds the lesser,” muttered Ahab, advancing. “Hands off from that holiness! Where sayest thou Pip was, boy?
“Astern there, sir, astern! Lo! lo!”
“And who art thou, boy? I see not my reflection in the vacant pupils of thy eyes. Oh God! that man should be a thing for immortal souls to sieve through! Who art thou, boy?”
“Bell-boy, sir; ship’s-crier; ding, dong, ding! Pip! Pip! Pip! One hundred pounds of clay reward for Pip; five feet high—looks cowardly—quickest known by that! Ding, dong, ding! Who’s seen Pip the coward?”
“There can be no hearts above the snow-line. Oh, ye frozen heavens! look down here. Ye did beget this luckless child, and have abandoned him, ye creative libertines. Here, boy; Ahab’s cabin shall be Pip’s home henceforth, while Ahab lives. Thou touchest my inmost centre, boy; thou art tied to me by cords woven of my heart-strings. Come, let’s down.”
Pip then, and not Fedallah, is Ahab’s true squire. Poor child.
VIII. Ch. 126, “The Life-Buoy.”
“[D]etermined by Ahab’s level log and line; the Pequod held on her path towards the Equator.” On their way there,
sailing by a cluster of rocky islets…the watch…was startled by a cry so plaintively wild and unearthly—like half-articulated wailings of the ghosts of all Herod’s murdered Innocents—that one and all, they started from their reveries…
The wailing there again calls to me. I’ve probably stated ad nauseum in these riffs that Moby-Dick is a whaling book about wailing.
IX. Ishmael continues his ironic critique of the viewpoints of “pagans” and “civilized” folk:
The Christian or civilized part of the crew said it was mermaids, and shuddered; but the pagan harpooneers remained unappalled.
The pagan harpooneers remain unappalled because they are not in the thrall of superstitious ignorance.
X. The wailing is not lost souls or mermaids, we learn, but rather the crying of
some young seals that had lost their dams, or some dams that had lost their cubs, [who] must have risen nigh the ship and kept company with her, crying and sobbing with their human sort of wail.
Their human sort of wail—a wailing, a hailing, an interpellation that the sailors can read.
XI. After this wailing episode, we learn that a lookout posted at the top of The Pequod drowns. The crew spies him, “a falling phantom in the air,” and throw out the titular life-buoy to recover him.
XII. The life-buoy must be resurrected in a new form, though. However, “no cask of sufficient lightness could be found.” Fortunately (ultimately, for Ishmael), “by certain strange signs and inuendoes Queequeg hinted a hint concerning his coffin”
“A life-buoy of a coffin!” cried Starbuck, starting.
“Rather queer, that, I should say,” said Stubb.
“It will make a good enough one,” said Flask, “the carpenter here can arrange it easily.”
And so the carpenter does, despite the queerness of this job—making a life preserver of a coffin.
Hence Moby-Dick formalizes its theme of LIFE | DEATH in an overdetermined symbol, an abstract concrete thing our living ghosting narrator will cling to after the drama’s done, after the sweep of disaster vortexes all.