I. In this riff, Ch. 112 of Moby-Dick, “The Blacksmith.”
II. “The Blacksmith” chapter is neither especially long nor short, and a reader could skip over it without missing any of the “plot” of Moby-Dick (while also misunderstanding the “plot” of Moby-Dick).
And yet reading the chapter again, I was struck by its terrible pathos (and ultimate irony). Ishmael’s tale is not just about whaling, but wailing. Poor Perth’s silent wailing is included here. Ishmael bears witness to the man’s disaster.
III. Ch. 112 focuses its camera on “Perth, the begrimed, blistered old blacksmith” of The Pequod, who, after working on Ahab’s leg, has “not removed his portable forge” from the ship’s deck. Thus, he is “now almost incessantly invoked by the headsmen, and harpooneers, and bowsmen to do some little job for them.”
Surrounded by a demanding “eager circle, all waiting to be served,” Perth is nevertheless “a patient hammer wielded by a patient arm.” Ishmael notes that, “No murmur, no impatience, no petulance did come from him,” and although he praises the old man’s fortitude, he nevertheless notes that Perth is “Most miserable!”
IV. Ishmael notes “A peculiar walk in this old man, a certain slight but painful appearing yawing in his gait.” Perth’s limp links him to Ahab, but the blacksmith is more forthcoming with his backstory. The crew of The Pequod persists in questioning him, “and so it came to pass that every one now knew the shameful story of his wretched fate.”
V. We learn that “one bitter winter’s midnight, on the road running between two country towns, the blacksmith half-stupidly felt the deadly numbness stealing over him, and sought refuge in a leaning, dilapidated barn.” In this halfway nonplace, his feet frozen, the blacksmith “at last came out the four acts of the gladness” and ushers in “the one long, and as yet uncatastrophied fifth act of the grief of his life’s drama.”
He falls into what “sorrow’s technicals called ruin,” despit his decades as “an artisan of famed excellence” with “a youthful, daughter-like, loving wife, and three blithe, ruddy children.”
Well so what happens, already, Ishmael?
Well so and anyway, “one night, under cover of darkness, and further concealed in a most cunning disguisement, a desperate burglar slid into his happy home, and robbed them all of everything.”
A burglar?! Tell more, Ish?
“And darker yet to tell, the blacksmith himself did ignorantly conduct this burglar into his family’s heart.”
“It was the Bottle Conjuror! Upon the opening of that fatal cork, forth flew the fiend, and shrivelled up his home.”
VI. “The Blacksmith” begins to tiptoe along a strange line of earnestness and irony.
VII. On one hand, Melville’s bombastic language and the blacksmith’s preposterous story seems to skewer nineteenth-century temperance tracts. Are we to believe Perth when he tells us that he became an alcoholic one night because his feet were cold? Further, his (hyperbolic, in Ishmael’s relation) story is riddled with other gaps as it approaches its maudlin conclusion:
Why tell the whole? The blows of the basement hammer every day grew more and more between; and each blow every day grew fainter than the last; the wife sat frozen at the window, with tearless eyes, glitteringly gazing into the weeping faces of her children; the bellows fell; the forge choked up with cinders; the house was sold; the mother dived down into the long church-yard grass; her children twice followed her thither; and the houseless, familyless old man staggered off a vagabond in crape; his every woe unreverenced; his grey head a scorn to flaxen curls!
Just how is it that Perth’s young (“daughter-like”!) wife and young children die? Nevermind, Ish. After all, Why tell the whole? (This in a novel that tells more than the whole, and then tells it again a different way.)
The blacksmith’s tale, in Melville’s telling, seems to me an ironic puncturing of sentimentality and overt moralism, a subtle satire on the temperance movement’s blinded scope.
But the blacksmith’s tale in Ishmael’s telling—
VIII. In Ishmael’s telling, there is something of earnest sympathy in the blacksmith’s tale. Consider Ishmael’s subtle identification with Perth in the chapter’s penultimate paragraph:
Death seems the only desirable sequel for a career like this; but Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried; it is but the first salutation to the possibilities of the immense Remote, the Wild, the Watery, the Unshored; therefore, to the death-longing eyes of such men, who still have left in them some interior compunctions against suicide, does the all-contributed and all-receptive ocean alluringly spread forth his whole plain of unimaginable, taking terrors, and wonderful, new-life adventures; and from the hearts of infinite Pacifics, the thousand mermaids sing to them—“Come hither, broken-hearted; here is another life without the guilt of intermediate death; here are wonders supernatural, without dying for them. Come hither! bury thyself in a life which, to your now equally abhorred and abhorring, landed world, is more oblivious than death. Come hither! put up thy gravestone, too, within the churchyard, and come hither, till we marry thee!”
Ishmael, like Perth, has taken to the sea to avoid death, to avoid suicide—remember, whaling is Ish’s “substitute for pistol and ball.” He romanticizes the call to adventure by figuring it in the voices of a “thousand mermaids” singing, yet nevertheless understands the death-urge that underwrites this drive to the sea.
The chapter concludes with Ishmael telling us that,
Hearkening to these voices, East and West, by early sunrise, and by fall of eve, the blacksmith’s soul responded, Aye, I come! And so Perth went a-whaling.
Again, Moby-Dick is a novel about whaling–and wailing.
There’s a book I’ve returned to again and again, ever since its clementine-orange cover first caught my eye at a museum bookstore: A Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky, translated from the German by Christine Lo.
The subtitle is Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will, but don’t worry: this book isn’t precious. At least, not too precious—despite the somewhat whimsical conceit, the author approaches her idiosyncratic task with seriousness. The book looks serious, until you read that quirky subtitle: it looks like a pocket atlas. But then you open it. And each remote island’s entry—St. Kilda in the Atlantic, the Carolines of Micronesia, the American Pagan—is a prose poem of sorts. Facts sit side-by-side with a kind of highly personal fiction; we are given latitudes and detailed maps, but also lore and speculation. Of the antipodes the author writes, “cattle that are brought here die quickly and quietly in the dun-colored steppes of grass. And the thunderous echo of waves breaking against the hollows of the jagged coastline never ceases.”
Schalansky’s Atlas is not-exactly history, not-exactly prose-poetry—it seems to evoke its own genre out of preexisting modes.
This guy on Amazon was dissatisfied though:
The line maps are beautiful, but I’m no sailor.
(When the little book showed up, my darling wife insisted we give it to our charmed friend who’s spent the past few years sailing around the globe on his goddamn charmed catamaran, winding up in New Zealand around the time of the Covid thing. I told her this book was mine. But in the big-spirited spiritedness of Mr. BLCKDGRD, I’ll send him his own copy.)
II. Rereading these chapters—particularly Ch. 110, “Queequeg in His Coffin”—put me in a melancholy mood, a strange dark mood that I remember from previous rereads. I’m not sure why, but there’s something about Moby-Dick’s turn into its final third that’s a specific kind of sad that’s both bitter and sweet, but ultimately depressive. Maybe it’s because I know the apocalypse that’s coming. Or maybe it’s because a certain fatigue sets in. It’s a long book. Or maybe it’s because Ishmael’s expansiveness begins to fragment here, splitting off into splinters that burn down or drown. There are moments of joy and levity, but Ahab’s blasted consciousness looms over the novel. His bleak but bombastic psyche contrasts strongly with hopeful Ishmael, ushering us back to “Loomings,” to his blasted hypos.
III. Ch. 109, “Ahab and Starbuck in the Cabin.”
In this chapter, Starbuck suggests to Ahab that The Pequod stop to fix some leaky oil barrels; Ahab wants to keep pursuing Moby Dick. Starbuck reminds him of his duty to the stockholders and owners of the ship, but Ahab is already quite mad, and pulls a gun on his second in command:
Ahab seized a loaded musket from the rack (forming part of most South-Sea-men’s cabin furniture), and pointing it towards Starbuck, exclaimed: “There is one God that is Lord over the earth, and one Captain that is lord over the Pequod.—On deck!”
Starbuck retreats, but still offers himself as First Mate. He is not one for mutiny, but seeks to help his maddened captain:
Thou hast outraged, not insulted me, sir; but for that I ask thee not to beware of Starbuck; thou wouldst but laugh; but let Ahab beware of Ahab; beware of thyself, old man.”
Despite his rage, Ahab finds “something” to Starbuck’s warning:
“He waxes brave, but nevertheless obeys; most careful bravery that!” murmured Ahab, as Starbuck disappeared. “What’s that he said—Ahab beware of Ahab—there’s something there!”
Here we might find Starbuck at his most powerful. He imprints his language into Ahab’s consciousness. But he smuggles his warning in through a rhetorical gesture that recapitulates Ahab as the great terror in this affair: Ahab beware. Of Ahab.
Ahab though capitulates to Starbuck here, and orders to the mending of the barrels—although our narrator (how is it that Ishmael inhabits the officer’s cabin?) warns that, “It were perhaps vain to surmise exactly why it was, that as respecting Starbuck, Ahab thus acted.”
IV. Ch. 110, “Queequeg in His Coffin.”
This chapter deserves more than I can give to it right now.
Basically, Queeg is pretty sure that he’ll die:
Poor Queequeg! …you should have stooped over the hatchway, and peered down upon him there; where, stripped to his woollen drawers, the tattooed savage was crawling about amid that dampness and slime, like a green spotted lizard at the bottom of a well
Ishmael finds the oversoul in Queequeg’s gaze:
And like circles on the water, which, as they grow fainter, expand; so his eyes seemed rounding and rounding, like the rings of Eternity. An awe that cannot be named would steal over you as you sat by the side of this waning savage, and saw as strange things in his face, as any beheld who were bystanders when Zoroaster died. For whatever is truly wondrous and fearful in man, never yet was put into words or books.
Ishamael tries to put that ineffable down in books.
V. Queequeg, feeling his death approach, calls the carpenter to build him to “canoe like those of Nantucket”—the kind in which Nantucketeers are buried at sea.
Both Pip and Starbuck attend Queeg’s dying (not-dying) hour; Pip sees the event as an echo of his own “death” earlier on the voyage, when he is abandoned at sea.
But then “Queequeg suddenly rallied,” and the crewmen about him
asked him, then, whether to live or die was a matter of his own sovereign will and pleasure. He answered, certainly. In a word, it was Queequeg’s conceit, that if a man made up his mind to live, mere sickness could not kill him: nothing but a whale, or a gale, or some violent, ungovernable, unintelligent destroyer of that sort.
There is some violent ungovernable unintelligent destroyer of that sort on the horizon.
VI. The chapter ends with Queequeg writing on his coffin:
Many spare hours he spent, in carving the lid with all manner of grotesque figures and drawings; and it seemed that hereby he was striving, in his rude way, to copy parts of the twisted tattooing on his body. And this tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last.
The notation above is long, but I think it points to Melville’s central themes of reading and writing in Moby-Dick—this is a novel about the hieroglyphics of the body and the soul, the unreadable readable phenomenal world that set to ciphering daily.
VII. Ch. 111, “The Pacific.”
Another of Melville’s transitional chapters. We return to Ishamel’s bosomy-voice-bosom—but our narrator is, in Melvillian terms, not a touch untroubled: “were it not for other things, I could have greeted my dear Pacific with uncounted thanks.” Those other things? Well, we’ve filled the last few riffs with them.
For Ish, the Pacific is a pacifying terrifying entity: “There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath; like those fabled undulations of the Ephesian sod over the buried Evangelist St. John.”
He compares it to a “Potters’ Fields of all four continents” populated by
millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming, dreaming, still; tossing like slumberers in their beds; the ever-rolling waves but made so by their restlessness.
Moby-Dick is not a novel about whales and whaling; Moby-Dick is a novel about ghosts and wailing.
VIII. Ish is intoxicated by the Pacific’s rhythms: “Lifted by those eternal swells, you needs must own the seductive god, bowing your head to Pan.”
Our Ishmael again calls all souls to his big bosom, his eternal ghostly swells. He’s a pantheistic mutherfucker.
IX. But, but,
But few thoughts of Pan stirred Ahab’s brain, as standing like an iron statue at his accustomed place beside the mizen rigging, with one nostril he unthinkingly snuffed the sugary musk from the Bashee isles (in whose sweet woods mild lovers must be walking), and with the other consciously inhaled the salt breath of the new found sea; that sea in which the hated White Whale must even then be swimming. Launched at length upon these almost final waters, and gliding towards the Japanese cruising-ground, the old man’s purpose intensified itself. His firm lips met like the lips of a vice; the Delta of his forehead’s veins swelled like overladen brooks; in his very sleep, his ringing cry ran through the vaulted hull, “Stern all! the White Whale spouts thick blood!”
And bloodlust and vengeance carries out over the pacified Pacific.
I did a Big Clean a weekend or two past, including a thorough dusting of shelves. I always try to purge titles that I know I’ll never read, reread, or that I have no real attachment to. I filled a box with about 25 books, mostly novels, mostly paperbacks, and took it to my favorite used bookstore.
There, I found to my joy Joy Williams’s first novel State of Grace in my beloved preferred ugly Vintage Contemporaries edition. (I loved Williams’s collection Taking Care, which I read as a VC edition.) I’ve got a big stack of newly-published novels that I need to get to once I finish rereading Whale-Book, but who knows. Maybe I’ll get to it sometime before summer.
The fated heroine of this bleak but beautifully‐crafted first novel may well be the final, perfected archetype of all the “sad ladies”: that formidably fashionable sorority which has impinged on the past decade or so of American fiction. But I’ll remember Kate Jackson; I’ll reread her stubbornly depressing story, picking out those cleverly‐hidden but ever‐present clues of grace. Kate is no simple “slice‐of‐despair” character; her sad story becomes, through the author’s skill and intention, transsubstantiated into significant myth. This book is neither a self‐indulgent journal of despair, nor journalism of despair. It is premeditated, articulate, artistic—a novel.
As always, I browsed. Here are some covers that caught my eye, but I did not leave with them–just these photos:
This trio of chapters introduces the carpenter, who proves a strange foil to Ahab.
II. Ch. 106, “Ahab’s Leg.”
Moby-Dick is a phallic novel, full of thrusts, jabs, ejaculations, and sperm sperm sperm. “Ahab’s Leg” reinforces this theme through negation. Melville (or is it Ishmael?) underscores here the notion that Ahab has been symbolically castrated by Moby Dick; this symbolic castration leads to Ahab’s revenge quest—the monomaniacal captain seeks to reassert his power through domination. (It’s all a dick swingin’ contest.)
III. The symbolic castration repeats when Ahab quits The Samuel Enderby, and endures “some small violence to his own person.” We learn that in the jostling of the boat, “his ivory leg had received a half-splintering shock.” This second figurative castration actually follows a near-literal one though:
For it had not been very long prior to the Pequod’s sailing from Nantucket, that he had been found one night lying prone upon the ground, and insensible; by some unknown, and seemingly inexplicable, unimaginable casualty, his ivory limb having been so violently displaced, that it had stake-wise smitten, and all but pierced his groin; nor was it without extreme difficulty that the agonizing wound was entirely cured.
And yet it’s clear that the wound is still not entirely cured. Ahab seeks to repair his phallic wound by way of a phallic spearing of the White Whale.
IV. The chapter continues down a stranger path. Ishmael, with his all-access pass to consciousness, relates that Ahab, reflecting on his woes, decries that, “all miserable events do naturally beget their like.” The text continues, dwelling on sodomy, hell, and the perpetuation of grief:
Yea, more than equally, thought Ahab; since both the ancestry and posterity of Grief go further than the ancestry and posterity of Joy. For, not to hint of this: that it is an inference from certain canonic teachings, that while some natural enjoyments here shall have no children born to them for the other world, but, on the contrary, shall be followed by the joy-childlessness of all hell’s despair; whereas, some guilty mortal miseries shall still fertilely beget to themselves an eternally progressive progeny of griefs beyond the grave; not at all to hint of this, there still seems an inequality in the deeper analysis of the thing. For, thought Ahab, while even the highest earthly felicities ever have a certain unsignifying pettiness lurking in them, but, at bottom, all heartwoes, a mystic significance, and, in some men, an archangelic grandeur; so do their diligent tracings-out not belie the obvious deduction. To trail the genealogies of these high mortal miseries, carries us at last among the sourceless primogenitures of the gods; so that, in the face of all the glad, hay-making suns, and soft cymballing, round harvest-moons, we must needs give in to this: that the gods themselves are not for ever glad. The ineffaceable, sad birth-mark in the brow of man, is but the stamp of sorrow in the signers.
The depressive, fatalistic tone here is pure Ahab–if Ishmael’s expansive over-soul touches the paragraph, it does so in opposition. (What an amazing passage.)
V. Ch. 107, “The Carpenter.”
A nice little chapter describing the ship’s carpenter, who is a sort of Swiss army knife of a man:
He was like one of those unreasoning but still highly useful, multum in parvo, Sheffield contrivances, assuming the exterior—though a little swelled—of a common pocket knife; but containing, not only blades of various sizes, but also screw-drivers, cork-screws, tweezers, awls, pens, rulers, nail-filers, countersinkers. So, if his superiors wanted to use the carpenter for a screw-driver, all they had to do was to open that part of him, and the screw was fast: or if for tweezers, take him up by the legs, and there they were.
He sets about crafting Ahab a new leg.
VI. Ch. 108, “Ahab and the Carpenter.”
Melville (Ishmael?) again turns his novel into a Shakespearian play, complete with stage directions. The carpenter files away at the ivory leg-to-be, while the blacksmith bangs about in the background. He sneezes as he files away at the crutch he creates.
Ahab enters, invoking the carpenter as a Promethean figure:
The carpenter then sets about to measure for Ahab’s leg. Ahab sticks his stump into a vice (an implicitly sexual image). The carpenter warns him about the vice’s grip, but Ahab is malevolently jocular. He then directly invokes Prometheus;
No fear; I like a good grip; I like to feel something in this slippery world that can hold, man. What’s Prometheus about there?—the blacksmith, I mean—what’s he about?
V. Ahab essentially ignores the carpenter’s plain answers, and instead begins soliloquizing. Again, he’s monovocal in stereophonic world:
I do deem it now a most meaning thing, that that old Greek, Prometheus, who made men, they say, should have been a blacksmith, and animated them with fire; for what’s made in fire must properly belong to fire; and so hell’s probable.
VI. Ahab’s monomania crests: He sets about to become the Prometheus in the scene—but a commander Prometheus, an artistic director. His idealized “complete man” reveals more of Ahab’s singular vision—a vision that precludes all other perspectives. He conjures a heartless giant–an intellectual giant:
Hold; while Prometheus is about it, I’ll order a complete man after a desirable pattern. Imprimis, fifty feet high in his socks; then, chest modelled after the Thames Tunnel; then, legs with roots to ’em, to stay in one place; then, arms three feet through the wrist; no heart at all, brass forehead, and about a quarter of an acre of fine brains; and let me see—shall I order eyes to see outwards? No, but put a sky-light on top of his head to illuminate inwards. There, take the order, and away.
Ahab’s ideal man has no outward-seeing eyes–there is no perspective at all here except that which will “illuminate inwards.” He mentions no mouth.
VII. Ahab finally quits the carpenter’s shop, and the poor old man begins his own monologue. He repeats the key word queer ten times over in his evocation of Ahab:
Well, well, well! Stubb knows him best of all, and Stubb always says he’s queer; says nothing but that one sufficient little word queer; he’s queer, says Stubb; he’s queer—queer, queer; and keeps dinning it into Mr. Starbuck all the time—queer—sir—queer, queer, very queer.
And who is queer Ahab’s bedfellow?
Yes, now that I think of it, here’s his bedfellow! has a stick of whale’s jaw-bone for a wife!
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.
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.
The invention of the pattern often requires—among other tender elements, subject to the grotesqueries of decollation—a moonlight scene, the foreground inhabited by an animal, a black knot hanging from its throat. But when a bird, disinclined to die, is tied to a child’s collar, outside a schoolhouse, where we might otherwise find—hidden in a fire—a fragment of a jackal: well, this is just another cheerful little game, played in splendid weather. A boy’s face, they used to say, is just a grave atop a collar, the garment perhaps a shade darker than mouse gray, or so I gather from an adjacent phrase, in which the brother draws cloth across a wire.
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.