The nice people at Contra Mundum continue to put out new Charles Baudelaire translations. Paris Spleen is out in a new translation from Rainer J. Hanshe. A little taste:
I wish I could get drunk on virtue. I’ll settle for wine.
Here’s Contra Mundum’s blurb:
In the 1850s, ancien and Haussmannian Paris clash, giving birth to a violent disjunction. At that moment in time, an other present is born, a new history, like Baudelaire’s poet freely abandoning his halo on the macadam. The laurel crown has been discarded; the pastoral poet is dead; classical lyric poetry is dead. The steam-driven, gaslit, electrically-charged poet is born. “Retreat Academic Muse!,” Baudelaire commands, “I don’t care about that old stutterer.”
With Paris Spleen, we move toward a new rhythm, a rhythm born of the pace, speed, and reality of a metropolis hitherto never seen or experienced. It is the rhythm of the street, of the swift-moving eye, of overloaded senses and hyper-perception, of newspapers and optical devices. Baudelaire’s life spans the essential birth of whole new forms of technology, including steam locomotives, gas light, and electricity, not to speak of the typewriter and the Daguerreotype. The dandy sees and moves with the coming speed of light. His life is one lived in the midst of illumination, mechanics, and simulacra.
Baudelaire’s Paris is a place of experience, a metropolis that spawns unique and particular realities, a kaleidoscope of visions and mirror of alternative societies. The grist of his poems is not ancient Greece or the Renaissance. As he stated in the so-called preface to Paris Spleen, it is especially from frequenting great cities, from the crossroads of their innumerable relations, that the haunting ideal of the prose poem was born. Our flâneur wanders swiftly through crowds, in contact, but anonymous, extracting from the city material to forge his new ars poetica, like a bricolage artist.
The future is called forth. The street is the new Olympus; the phantasmagoric city is a big harlot whose infernal charm continually rejuvenates the poet. The ironic, infernal beacon is the totem of the new age: the age of dissonance, the age of artificial paradises. “I love you, O infamous capital!” the poet exults.
Here is Paris Spleen, an invitation to voyage, to have the entirety of Baudelaire’s Paris enter into our flesh and for us to undergo contagion, if our spleens can handle it.
They were entering Fairing’s Parish, named after a priest who’d lived topside years ago. During the Depression of the ’30s, in an hour of apocalyptic well-being, he had decided that the rats were going to take over after New York died. Lasting eighteen hours a day, his beat had covered the breadlines and missions, where he gave comfort, stitched up raggedy souls. He foresaw nothing but a city of starved corpses, covering the sidewalks and the grass of the parks, lying belly-up in the fountains, hanging wrynecked from the streetlamps. The city—maybe America, his horizons didn’t extend that far—would belong to the rats before the year was out. This being the case, Father Fairing thought it best for the rats to be given a head start—which meant conversion to the Roman Church. One night early in Roosevelt’s first term, he climbed downstairs through the nearest manhole, bringing a Baltimore Catechism, his breviary and, for reasons nobody found out, a copy of Knight’s Modern Seamanship. The first thing he did, according to his journals (discovered months after he died) was to put an eternal blessing and a few exorcisms on all the water flowing through the sewers between Lexington and the East River and between Eighty-sixth and Seventy-ninth Streets. This was the area which became Fairing’s Parish. These benisons made sure of an adequate supply of holy water; also eliminated the trouble of individual baptisms when he had finally converted all the rats in the parish. Too, he expected other rats to hear what was going on under the upper East Side, and come likewise to be converted. Before long he would be spiritual leader of the inheritors of the earth. He considered it small enough sacrifice on their part to provide three of their own per day for physical sustenance, in return for the spiritual nourishment he was giving them.
Accordingly, he built himself a small shelter on one bank of the sewer. His cassock for a bed, his breviary for a pillow. Each morning he’d make a small fire from driftwood collected and set out to dry the night before. Nearby was a depression in the concrete which sat beneath a downspout for rainwater. Here he drank and washed. After a breakfast of roast rat (“The livers,” he wrote, “are particularly succulent”) he set about his first task: learning to communicate with the rats. Presumably he succeeded. An entry for 23 November 1934 says:
Ignatius is proving a very difficult student indeed. He quarreled with me today over the nature of indulgences. Bartholomew and Teresa supported him. I read them from with me today over the nature of indulgences. Bartholomew and Teresa supported him. I read them from the catechism: “The Church by means of indulgences remits the temporal punishment due to sin by applying to us from her spiritual treasury part of the infinite satisfaction of Jesus Christ and of the superabundant satisfaction of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the saints.”
“And what,” inquired Ignatius, “is this superabundant satisfaction?”
Again I read: “That which they gained during their lifetime but did not need, and which the Church applies to their fellow members of the communion of saints.”
“Aha,” crowed Ignatius, “then I cannot see how this differs from Marxist communism, which you told us is Godless. To each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities.” I tried to explain that there were different sorts of communism: that the early Church, indeed, was based on a common charity and sharing of goods. Bartholomew chimed in at this point with the observation that perhaps this doctrine of a spiritual treasury arose from the economic and social conditions of the Church in her infancy. Teresa promptly accused Bartholomew of holding Marxist views himself, and a terrible fight broke out, in which poor Teresa had an eye scratched from the socket. To spare her further pain, I put her to sleep and made a delicious meal from her remains, shortly after sext. I have discovered the tails, if boiled long enough, are quite agreeable.
Evidently he converted at least one batch. There is no further mention in the journals of the skeptic Ignatius: perhaps he died in another fight, perhaps he left the community for the pagan reaches of Downtown. After the first conversion the entries begin to taper off: but all are optimistic, at times euphoric. They give a picture of the Parish as a little enclave of light in a howling Dark Age of ignorance and barbarity.
Rat meat didn’t agree with the Father, in the long run. Perhaps there was infection. Perhaps, too, the Marxist tendencies of his flock reminded him too much of what he had seen and heard above ground, on the breadlines, by sick and maternity beds, even in the confessional; and thus the cheerful heart reflected by his late entries was really only a necessary delusion to protect himself from the bleak truth that his pale and sinuous parishioners might turn out no better than the animals whose estate they were succeeding to. His last entry gives a hint of some such feeling:
When Augustine is mayor of the city (for he is a splendid fellow, and the others are devoted to him) will he, or his council, remember an old priest? Not with any sinecure or fat pension, but with true charity in their hearts? For though devotion to God is rewarded in Heaven and just as surely is not rewarded on this earth, some spiritual satisfaction, I trust, will be found in the New City whose foundations we lay here, in this Iona beneath the old foundations. If it cannot be, I shall nevertheless go to peace, at one with God. Of course that is the best reward. I have been the classical Old Priest—never particularly robust, never affluent—most of my life. Perhaps
The journal ends here. It is still preserved in an inaccessible region of the Vatican library, and in the minds of the few old-timers in the New York Sewer Department who got to see it when it was discovered. It lay on top of a brick, stone and stick cairn large enough to cover a human corpse, assembled in a stretch of 36-inch pipe near a frontier of the Parish. Next to it lay the breviary. There was no trace of the catechism or Knight’s Modern Seamanship.
“Maybe,” said Zeitsuss’s predecessor Manfred Katz after reading the journal, “maybe they are studying the best way to leave a sinking ship.”
The stories, by the time Profane heard them, were pretty much apocryphal and more fantasy than the record itself warranted. At no point in the twenty or so years the legend had been handed on did it occur to anyone to question the old priest’s sanity. It is this way with sewer stories. They just are. Truth or falsity don’t apply.
“He wants to help Angel kill the alligators,” Kook told her. Profane was asleep, lying diagonal on the seat.
In this dream, he was all alone, as usual. Walking on a street at night where there was nothing but his own field of vision alive. It had to be night on that street. The lights gleamed unflickering on hydrants; manhole covers which lay around in the street. There were neon signs scattered here and there, spelling out words he wouldn’t remember when he woke.
Somehow it was all tied up with a story he’d heard once, about a boy born with a golden screw where his navel should have been. For twenty years he consults doctors and specialists all over the world, trying to get rid of this screw, and having no success. Finally, in Haiti, he runs into a voodoo doctor who gives him a foul-smelling potion.
He drinks it, goes to sleep and has a dream. In this dream he finds himself on a street, lit by green lamps. Following the witch-man’s instructions, he takes two rights and a left from his point of origin, finds a tree growing by the seventh street light, hung all over with colored balloons. On the fourth limb from the top there is a red balloon; he breaks it and inside is a screwdriver with a yellow plastic handle. With the screwdriver he removes the screw from his stomach, and as soon as this happens he wakes from the dream. It is morning. He looks down toward his navel, the screw is gone. That twenty years’ curse is lifted at last. Delirious with joy, he leaps up out of bed, and his ass falls off.
Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne was born to a wealthy aristocratic family who took the royalist side in the English Civil War. She spent her teen years attending the exiled Queen Henrietta Maria as a handmaiden. She soon married William Cavendish, the Marquess of Newcastle (and a steadfast royalist), and lived with him in exile in Antwerp. During this time, she began writing and publishing strange volumes on various topics—science, fashion, language, wit, and the act of writing itself. Her eccentric writing mirrored her eccentric habits. Simultaneously shy and fame-hungry, often depressed or elated and manic, Cavendish earned and maintained a notorious reputation over her lifetime.
Danielle Dutton somehow condenses Cavendish’s starbright life into a slim 160 pages in her novel Margaret the First. This imaginative near-biography borrows from Cavendish’s own writings as well as an essay on Cavendish by Virginia Woolf. Woolf thought Cavendish a cautionary tale. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf describes her as a brilliant but uneducated woman who “frittered her time away scribbling nonsense and plunging ever deeper into obscurity and folly.” Dutton captures that reputation early in the novel: “Mad Madge,” goes the cry among a crowd of onlookers at the novel’s outset (the crowd includes the diarist Samuel Pepys). However, Dutton is far more sympathetic toward Margaret, conjuring for us a natural composer. Consider these lines from Margaret the First’s opening paragraph:
She made the world her book, took a piece of coal and marked a blank white wall. Later, she made sixteen smaller books: untitled, sewn with yarn. Her girlhood heroes were Shakespeare, Ovid, Caesar. She wrote them in beside thinking-rocks and humming-shoes and her favorite sister, Catherine, who starred in all but five. Snow fell fast as she sat by the nursery fire; ink to paper, then she sewed. The last book told a tale of hasty gloom, teeming with many shades of green: emerald, viridian, a mossy black. In it we meet a miniature princess who lives in a seashell castle and sleeps in sheets woven from the eyelids of doves.
Dutton roped me in with “tale of hasty gloom,” but the images in that last sentence—sheets woven from the eyelids of doves!—propelled my reading on.
We see here Cavendish as a creator of both books and her own world. Dutton’s narrator notes Cavendish—or shall I use Margaret here?—Dutton’s narrator notes that our protagonist not only writes her books, but sews them. The image of creation as fashion—as literally fashioning objects and ideas—repeats throughout Margaret the First. Margaret tells her patient older husband William that “dressing is the poetry of women.” She finds near-epiphanic inspiration in a masquerade costume worn by Christina, Queen of Sweden, who dresses as an Amazon warrior, baring her breasts to the entire court. Later she wonders, “why must grammar be like a prison for the mind? Might not language be as a closet full of gowns? Of a generally similar cut, with a hole for the head and neck to pass, but filled with difference and a variety of trimmings so that we don’t grow bored?”
Critics of Cavendish attacked her spelling and grammar; Woolf declared her “crack-brained and bird-witted.” Dutton’s portrait though gives us something closer to Emily Dickinson or William Blake. Margaret’s an eccentric who turns her eccentricity into a strange new art that resisted grammar that would be “a prison for the mind.”
And yet Dutton is never too-beholden to her subject. We are never told that Margaret is a genius; rather, Dutton attunes us to Margaret’s own singular perceptions—we feel flashes of genius, but also feel Margaret’s frustrated inability to harness that genius into a form that seventeenth-century England can recognize. She is always at the margin of the circle, too eccentric to orbit neatly with the intellectual luminaries whom she encounters.
We also feel the tinges of Margaret’s melancholic mental instability. Alone in a carriage, she retreats into her mind’s eye:
I found myself in an unknown universe, whirling far into space. African servants, dogs in hats, platonic ideals, sparkling conversation, and ivy-coated quadrangles with womanizing captains, dueling earls, actors. I met Father Cyprien de Gamache, her majesty’s wily confessor; William, a poet, who claimed to be Shakespeare’s son; and a giggling dwarf called Jeffry, who’d been presented to the queen in a pie. I met the ladies-in-waiting, too, who hardly looked my way, busy as they were, bickering over who went where and when, who wore what and when, who fetched what and why, who said what and to whom, and who gave her the right to say that.
Tellingly, the cluttered images in Margaret’s fantasy dissolve into the too-banal reality of the grammar of manners: who can wear what, who can say what, and so on. To cop a phrase from Blake, those “mind-forg’d manacles” are hard to break. Indeed, mind-forg’d manacles tend to break those who resist them. “Much Madness is divinest Sense,” Emily Dickinson noted, but also pointed out that those who resist the grammar of manners are “straightway dangerous -/ And handled with a Chain.”
Margaret avoids the chain, and if the world is a bit too much for her to bear at time, she fashions it into Something Else. This is the joy of Margaret the First. Dutton could have crafted the tale as a tragedy, but instead she gives us something else—something rich, generative, imagistic, occasionally unsettling, and ultimately deeply endearing. Highly recommended.
I. In this riff, Chapter 135, “The Chase—Third Day” and the Epilogue of Moby-Dick.
The beginning of the end begins, “The morning of the third day dawned fair and fresh” — we are in the tranquil pacified Pacific, beautiful blue, the calm site of a coming calamity.
II. After calling for news of the White Whale, Ahab riffs to himself on the wind. The wind is an apparently concrete force that operates with abstract agency. The wind is a kind of fate, an invisible entity that both propels and repels objects of the phenomenal world:
Would now the wind but had a body; but all the things that most exasperate and outrage mortal man, all these things are bodiless, but only bodiless as objects, not as agents. There’s a most special, a most cunning, oh, a most malicious difference! And yet, I say again, and swear it now, that there’s something all glorious and gracious in the wind.
III. Ahab glimpses his folly: “I’ve oversailed him,” he mutters about Moby Dick, continuing, “How, got the start? Aye, he’s chasing me now; not I, him—that’s bad; I might have known it, too. Fool!”
The fool there is of course a bit of self-talk Ahab directs to his self-same self.
IV. This final chapter is full of self-talk. Starbuck’s inner monologue turmoils, “I misdoubt me that I disobey my God in obeying him!” Ahab swears to meet Moby Dick, “Forehead to forehead…this third time”; we enter the final private thoughts of Stubb and Flask (but never the pagan harpooneers).
As always, my question remains—
How does Ishmael bear witness to these voices?
V. In a potent soliloquy, Ahab’s sentimentality takes over. He addresses the vast ocean, “the same to Noah as to me.” He seems to portend his own demise, and is distracted momentarily by the “lovely leewardings” that “must lead somewhere—to something else than common land, more palmy than the palms.” But he won’t escape: “Leeward! the white whale goes that way; look to windward, then; the better if the bitterer quarter. But good bye, good bye, old mast-head!”
By the end of the soliloquy Ahab is again convinced — or maybe not wholly convinced, but nevertheless affirming — of his impending victory. He addresses the masthead anew: “We’ll talk to-morrow, nay, to-night, when the white whale lies down there, tied by head and tail.”
VI. Ahab rejects two final calls to remain and retreat. The first is Starbuck’s:
“Some men die at ebb tide; some at low water; some at the full of the flood;—and I feel now like a billow that’s all one crested comb, Starbuck. I am old;—shake hands with me, man.”
Their hands met; their eyes fastened; Starbuck’s tears the glue.
Starbuck’s tears the glue! What a line!
The second entreaty I take to be Ahab’s other first mate, the mad cabinboy Pip:
“Oh, my captain, my captain!—noble heart—go not—go not!—see, it’s a brave man that weeps; how great the agony of the persuasion then!”
“Lower away!”—cried Ahab, tossing the mate’s arm from him. “Stand by the crew!”
“The sharks! the sharks!” cried a voice from the low cabin-window there; “O master, my master, come back!” But Ahab heard nothing; for his own voice was high-lifted then; and the boat leaped on.
Ahab rejects all fellow-feeling here. His monomaniacal voice overtakes all bandwidth, drowning out any sensation of otherness.
VII. The sharks follow Ahab’s boat like “vultures hover over the banners of marching regiments in the east”; as usual, Melville is not shy about slathering on the foreshadowing. He enlists Starbuck’s help; the Christian mate remarks that this, “the third evening,” be “the end of that thing—be that end what it may.”
VIII. Meanwhile, Ahab repeats pagan Fedallah’s pagan prophecy: “Drive, drive in your nails, oh ye waves! to their uttermost heads drive them in! ye but strike a thing without a lid; and no coffin and no hearse can be mine:—and hemp only can kill me! Ha! ha!”
Those dashes, those exclamations—that madness!
IX. Moby Dick then resurfaces, all veils, rainbows, milk:
A low rumbling sound was heard; a subterraneous hum; and then all held their breaths; as bedraggled with trailing ropes, and harpoons, and lances, a vast form shot lengthwise, but obliquely from the sea. Shrouded in a thin drooping veil of mist, it hovered for a moment in the rainbowed air; and then fell swamping back into the deep. Crushed thirty feet upwards, the waters flashed for an instant like heaps of fountains, then brokenly sank in a shower of flakes, leaving the circling surface creamed like new milk round the marble trunk of the whale.
Our boy Moby Dick sets to violence, dashing the boats of Daggoo and Queequeg.
X. The violent spectacle culminates in the most gruesome imagery within Moby-Dick. We learn the fated fate of fated Fedallah:
Lashed round and round to the fish’s back; pinioned in the turns upon turns in which, during the past night, the whale had reeled the involutions of the lines around him, the half torn body of the Parsee was seen; his sable raiment frayed to shreds; his distended eyes turned full upon old Ahab.
XI. Ahab commands his sailors to remain rowing after the White Whale, despite the downed lieutenants and zombified harpooneer. He threatens them:
Down, men! the first thing that but offers to jump from this boat I stand in, that thing I harpoon. Ye are not other men, but my arms and my legs; and so obey me.—
Ahab, who has repeated the idea that his mates are but mechanicalthings throughout the novel, here spells out his distance from human sympathy, his complete fascistic capitulation. “Ye are not other men” is the exact opposite of the Gospels’ injunction to do unto others. Ahab fails Starbuck’s moral test—and Ishmael’s.
XII. Ahab sees his pagan harpooneers and wrecked mates return to The Pequod to repair boats and rearm:
…he saw Tashtego, Queequeg, and Daggoo, eagerly mounting to the three mast-heads; while the oarsmen were rocking in the two staved boats which had but just been hoisted to the side, and were busily at work in repairing them. One after the other, through the port-holes, as he sped, he also caught flying glimpses of Stubb and Flask, busying themselves on deck among bundles of new irons and lances. As he saw all this; as he heard the hammers in the broken boats; far other hammers seemed driving a nail into his heart. But he rallied. And now marking that the vane or flag was gone from the main-mast-head, he shouted to Tashtego, who had just gained that perch, to descend again for another flag, and a hammer and nails, and so nail it to the mast.
I’ve quoted at length because I think our eyes should be trained on Tashtego, the Native American twice now denied his proper place. He was the first to raise a whale on The Pequod’s voyage (denied by Stubb), and the first to raise Moby Dick (denied by Ahab). Tash will be the last to go down with the ship, nailing a new banner to its highest mast.
XIII. Meanwhile, the sharks chew and chomp at the oarsmen’s oars in Ahab’s whaleboat, to the point “that the blades became jagged and crunched, and left small splinters in the sea, at almost every dip.”
They row on.
XIV. Ahab’s boat comes about and he darts “his fierce iron, and his far fiercer curse into the hated whale.” Three of his oarsmen are knocked from the boat, and only two return, although the one who bobs asea is reported “still afloat and swimming.”
This third castaway is Ishmael.
XV. Moby Dick then attacks The Pequod, “bethinking it—it may be—a larger and nobler foe.”
(“‘The whale! The ship!’ cried the cringing oarsmen.”)
XVI. The White Whale destroys The Pequod, and Melville takes us into the last lungfuls of language from the three mates, Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask. These are mini-monologues that Moby Dick’s ensuing vortex will swamp to oblivion.
“My God, stand by me now!” beseeches Starbuck; “Stand not by me, but stand under me, whoever you are that will now help Stubb,” Stubb non-prays, before praying against this “most mouldy and over salted death”— he’d prefer “cherries! cherries! cherries!” And Flask? “Cherries? I only wish that we were where they grow.” Poor Flask then think of his dear mama, before the ship fails.
XVII. Moby Dick wrecks The Pequod. The crew (in Ishmael’s telling) bears witness:
…all their enchanted eyes intent upon the whale, which from side to side strangely vibrating his predestinating head, sent a broad band of overspreading semicircular foam before him as he rushed. Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect, and spite of all that mortal man could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship’s starboard bow, till men and timbers reeled. Some fell flat upon their faces. Like dislodged trucks, the heads of the harpooneers aloft shook on their bull-like necks. Through the breach, they heard the waters pour, as mountain torrents down a flume.
XVIII. As Ahab watches the disaster, he comes to understand Fedallah’s prophecy: “The ship! The hearse!—the second hearse!” cried Ahab from the boat; “its wood could only be American!”
XIX. And then—
Ahab’s final speech:
Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!
Ahab is knocked from the boat, and hanged in hemp and hate.
XX. The Pequod sinks, but
the pagan harpooneers still maintained their sinking lookouts on the sea. And now, concentric circles seized the lone boat itself, and all its crew, and each floating oar, and every lance-pole, and spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight.
The final image is devastating: Tashtego nails a seahawk to the mast. Again, forgive me for quoting at length:
…as the last whelmings intermixingly poured themselves over the sunken head of the Indian at the mainmast…a red arm and a hammer hovered backwardly uplifted in the open air, in the act of nailing the flag faster and yet faster to the subsiding spar. A sky-hawk that tauntingly had followed the main-truck downwards from its natural home among the stars…now chanced to intercept its broad fluttering wing between the hammer and the wood; and simultaneously feeling that ethereal thrill, the submerged savage beneath, in his death-gasp, kept his hammer frozen there; and so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.
What an image!
(I have nothing to add here.)
XXI (Excepting, I would add: I think Melville loads so much in this near-final image of his big book. There are only two paragraphs after this one: a scant sentence that’s basically an exhalation from the image of a submerged Tashtego nailing a hawk to the mast of the sinking Pequod—and then the Epilogue. The Pequod takes its name from an extinct Native American tribe. Tashtego is doubly-denied his due as the First to raise whale. Melville seems to point back to America’s founding as a genocidal project here. I probably need to reread the book again, I now realize. Or maybe read some commenters on this matter that I’ve yet to read. I hate to stick this thought in parentheses, as it’s the thing that interests me the most at the end of this reread—Tashtego the Indian, I mean.)
XXII. And so well the end of the end, the Epilogue.
Here it is in the Arion Press edition I read this time through:
XXIII. Ishmael survives, “floating on the margin of the ensuing scene, and in full sight of it.”
What a position! To be both marginal and omnipresent, both at edge and center to the drama, comedy, tragedy of it all!
The notation from the Book of Job is everything here—the disaster is only a disaster if there is one to bear witness to it. Otherwise, disaster is simply a phenomenological event in nature—random, stochastic, energy, mass, and matter moving without meaning.
Ahab pretends at a great searcher for meaning, but he fixes his search on vengeance. “Madness!” Starbuck chides (if Starbuck could chide) — “To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.” Ahab has read too deep, read too twisted—he’s a bad reader, a mutant reader, an overreader—but he’s failed repeatedly to read the souls and faces of his fellows.
XXIV. The final curse and blessing is upon Ishmael though. He names himself at the novel’s famous outset — “Call me Ishmael” — a call that likens him to Hagar’s outcast son. At its end, he likens himself to another outcast, “another Ixion,” all the while circling into a vortex of nature, meaning, language—all the forces that would swallow him. (He’s Melville’s maddened howl here.)
Ishmael floats on “a soft and dirgelike main,” bobbing alive on Queequeg’s coffin, the strange lifebuoy of his strange bedfellow, until he’s saved by The Rachel—the ship Ahab had earlier denied—which still cruises for a lost son. He is not the lost son, but he has been lost, and is here saved by The Rachel’s “retracing search after her missing children” — a retracing, a rereading, a rewriting — one that surfaces the wailing of only another orphan.
Ahab has posed one question throughout the book: “Hast seen the White Whale?”
That is the only viewpoint that matters to him—a viewpoint that can point him toward vengeance.
He gets to answer his own question:
“There she blows!—there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!”
And then the chase begins.
III. Ahab demands of his lookouts whether or not they sighted Moby Dick first. Tashtego claims that he, “saw him almost that same instant, sir, that Captain Ahab did,” but Ahab denies this (much as Stubb takes credit for the first whale The Pequod sights much earlier in the novel).
Ahab is ever-dominant: “Not the same instant; not the same—no, the doubloon is mine, Fate reserved the doubloon for me. I only; none of ye could have raised the White Whale first.”
Ahab’s “I only” condenses his monomania to three syllables.
Ahab’s monomania turns his rhetoric into a series of repetitions through which he tunes himself to the rhythm of the whale:
“There she blows!—there she blows!—there she blows! There again!—there again!” he cried, in long-drawn, lingering, methodic tones, attuned to the gradual prolongings of the whale’s visible jets.
IV. Ahab and his mates set to their boats to chase the White Whale—only Starbuck remains, as previously commanded by Ahab. Omnipresent Ishmael, shows us Ahab seeing Moby Dick: “He saw the vast, involved wrinkles of the slightly projecting head beyond.” And then, in a remarkable passage, we get what I think is Ishmael seeing Moby Dick, or Ishmael seeing Moby Dick as he wished Ahab could see Moby Dick:
A gentle joyousness—a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale. Not the white bull Jupiter swimming away with ravished Europa clinging to his graceful horns; his lovely, leering eyes sideways intent upon the maid; with smooth bewitching fleetness, rippling straight for the nuptial bower in Crete; not Jove, not that great majesty Supreme! did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam.
The whale here is godlike. But remember that Ahab would strike the sun, would cast down the Titans.
V. Ahab and his men continue to hunt the godlike whale “through the serene tranquillities of the tropical sea”; Moby Dick ducks and dives, refusing them the sight of “the full terrors of his submerged trunk.”
Soon though, eagle-eyed Tashtego spies the sign of the whale’s re-emergence:
“The birds!—the birds!” cried Tashtego.
In long Indian file, as when herons take wing, the white birds were now all flying towards Ahab’s boat; and when within a few yards began fluttering over he water there, wheeling round and round, with joyous, expectant cries. Their vision was keener than man’s; Ahab could discover no sign in the sea.
Melville seems to underline a few points here—Tashtego raises a whale for the third time—here, by spying the herons, which our author notes travel in “Indian file” and by noting that this “Indian file” sounds the alarm for the whale. They can see more deeply than Ahab.
VI. But Ahab soon does see something, but only because it rises up to meet him from the ocean’s depths: “It was Moby Dick’s open mouth and scrolled jaw.”
But it’s just the first day of the chase in this novel of tripled trios. Ahab’s not done yet, even though “The glittering mouth yawned beneath the boat like an open-doored marble tomb.” There’s some foreshadowing for you!
VII. Ahab escapes on this first day, although his boat does not—Moby Dick chomps it to pieces. All sailors are saved too, although Ahab shows more concern for the harpoon he forged earlier aboard The Pequod (it’s saved too).
Moral Starbuck declares the business of the wrecked boat an ill omen, but Ahab won’t read the signs that way:
Omen? omen?—the dictionary! If the gods think to speak outright to man, they will honorably speak outright; not shake their heads, and give an old wives’ darkling hint.—Begone! Ye two are the opposite poles of one thing; Starbuck is Stubb reversed, and Stubb is Starbuck; and ye two are all mankind; and Ahab stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth, nor gods nor men his neighbors!
VIII. Ch. 134, “The Chase—Second Day.”
And so the second day.
It starts out with an enthusiastically-received mistake. The lookout calls out that he’s sighted Moby Dick, rousing the crew into a kind of mad fury; Ahab’s monomania inspirits them all:
The hand of Fate had snatched all their souls; and by the stirring perils of the previous day; the rack of the past night’s suspense; the fixed, unfearing, blind, reckless way in which their wild craft went plunging towards its flying mark; by all these things, their hearts were bowled along. The wind that made great bellies of their sails, and rushed the vessel on by arms invisible as irresistible; this seemed the symbol of that unseen agency which so enslaved them to the race.
“They were one man, not thirty,” notes Ishmael, in another satanic inversion of the earlier oversoul blending the men have experienced. We are now in the mode of blood, a reversal of “the very milk and sperm of kindness.”
IX. But Ahab chastises the men: “ye have been deceived; not Moby Dick casts one odd jet that way, and then disappears.” Ahab ascends the rigging himself, and quickly sights the White Whale again. “Aye, breach your last to the sun, Moby Dick!” he brags, setting out again in a restored boat (and again leaving Starbuck on The Pequod).
X. A complex battle ensues. All three harpooneers manage to lance Moby Dick, but “in his untraceable evolutions, the White Whale so crossed and recrossed, and in a thousand ways entangled the slack of the three lines now fast to him, that they foreshortened, and, of themselves, warped the devoted boats towards the planted irons in him.” The image evokes to me a kind of elegant wild writing. Moby Dick crossing and recrossing the lines, warping and weaving the material of which he is the unknowable center.
Moby Dick rewrites the violence Ahab seeks to wreak upon him. The men’s lances become “corkscrewed in the mazes of the line,” and Ahab’s only recourse is to edit. He takes a knife to the lines attached to his boat. But Ahab causes an unintended effect—although he’s freed from the whale, the other boats are not, and “the more involved boats of Stubb and Flask” are dashed…together like two rolling husks on a surf-beaten beach.”
XI. Moby Dick then destroys Ahab’s second boat. The particular paragraph is an astounding piece of rhetoric, a single sentence of 141 words, fourteen commas, seven em dashes, and four semicolons. And it begins with While—Melville tries to make his rhetoric do what film does, to situate his sentences as movement, sound, simultaneity. His goal is to set a scene impossible for an eye to take in and comprehend in a simple glance—the wreck of the boats, the struggle of Stubb, Flask, and their men—condensed perhaps most neatly in the phrase which occurs right in the middle of the paragraph—
—in that wild simultaneousness of a thousand concreted perils,—
(Those dashes do so much work, forcefully connecting and separating the elements of Melville’s tangled, disastrous paragraph of a sentence.)
XII. And well so what happened in that wild simultaneousness of a thousand concreted peril?
—Ahab’s yet unstricken boat seemed drawn up towards Heaven by invisible wires,—as, arrow-like, shooting perpendicularly from the sea, the White Whale dashed his broad forehead against its bottom, and sent it, turning over and over, into the air; till it fell again—gunwale downwards—and Ahab and his men struggled out from under it, like seals from a sea-side cave.
XIII. The men, including Ahab, are returned to The Pequod. But Ahab’s “ivory leg had been snapped off, leaving but one short sharp splinter.”
Ahab then musters the men and finds Fedallah missing; Stubb attests that the Parsee was dragged down in the tangles of Ahab’s lines. Ahab is the author of Fedallah’s death. He goes full King Lear:
My line! my line? Gone?—gone? What means that little word?—What death-knell rings in it, that old Ahab shakes as if he were the belfry. The harpoon, too!—toss over the litter there,—d’ye see it?—the forged iron, men, the white whale’s—no, no, no,—
Ahab’s “line” here points in multiple directions—the concrete harpoon line, the genealogical futurity of his familial line; his “line” as an author.
XIV. Ahab’s mad monologue pushes Starbuck over the edge. “Great God! but for one single instant show thyself,” Starbuck implores, perhaps echoing Melville’s own metaphysical misgivings. “In Jesus’ name no more of this,” he implores, ending his own rejoining monologue by declaiming it, “Impiety and blasphemy to hunt him more!”
XV. Ahab’s ego overwhelms in the end though. He concedes that “of late” he’s felt “strangely moved” to Starbuck’s thinking, but then trips into his own fury:
Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ’Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine.—Stand round me, men. Ye see an old man cut down to the stump; leaning on a shivered lance; propped up on a lonely foot. ’Tis Ahab—his body’s part; but Ahab’s soul’s a centipede, that moves upon a hundred legs. I feel strained, half stranded, as ropes that tow dismasted frigates in a gale; and I may look so. But ere I break, ye’ll hear me crack; and till ye hear that, know that Ahab’s hawser tows his purpose yet. Believe ye, men, in the things called omens? Then laugh aloud, and cry encore! For ere they drown, drowning things will twice rise to the surface; then rise again, to sink for evermore. So with Moby Dick—two days he’s floated—tomorrow will be the third. Aye, men, he’ll rise once more,—but only to spout his last! D’ye feel brave men, brave?
In which Ahab’s hat is stolen by “one of those red-billed savage sea-hawks which so often fly incommodiously close round the manned mast-heads of whalemen in these latitudes,” and the crew reads it, almost to a man, as an ill omen.
At the chapter’s outset, our Ishmael is in a meta-textual mood, pushing the quest’s doom into the foreground. He tells us that “all other whaling waters [are] swept” — we are in the penultimate triplet chapters:
In this foreshadowing interval too, all humor, forced or natural, vanished. Stubb no more strove to raise a smile; Starbuck no more strove to check one. Alike, joy and sorrow, hope and fear, seemed ground to finest dust, and powdered, for the time, in the clamped mortar of Ahab’s iron soul.
III. Ahab and Fedallah (who has foretold the doom of the ship he crews on) both keep to the deck at all times. Ahab declares that he will take the nailed doubloon, omphalos of both ship and novel — “‘I will have the first sight of the whale myself,’—he said. ‘Aye! Ahab must have the doubloon.'” Fedallah is a silent impenetrable gaze: “his wan but wondrous eyes did plainly say—We two watchmen never rest.”
IV. Ahab, as I’ve contended so many times, is monocular reader. Our one-legged monomaniacal despot of a captain can only watch and read for his dread mission. Unlike diverse, large-hearted Ishmael, there is no diversity in Ahab’s gaze/reading. He reads for one purpose, and all signs are symbols portending the fulfillment of that purpose.
As the sea-hawk approaches, Ahab’s gaze is upon the sea, not heavenward. We learn that the sea-hawk,
darted a thousand feet straight up into the air; then spiralized downwards, and went eddying again round his head.
But with his gaze fixed upon the dim and distant horizon, Ahab seemed not to mark this wild bird; nor, indeed, would any one else have marked it much, it being no uncommon circumstance; only now almost the least heedful eye seemed to see some sort of cunning meaning in almost every sight.
The crew of The Pequod reads the event as the foreshadow of disaster, whether the spectacle is simply a dark omen—the leader’s crown revoked from upon high—or simply the physical reality of their captain losing his hat because his attention was focused in only one direction.
V. Ch. 131, “The Pequod Meets the Delight.”
In which The Pequod encounters its last meeting with another ship—and another Nantucket ship—a “most miserably misnamed” The Delight:
Upon the stranger’s shears were beheld the shattered, white ribs, and some few splintered planks, of what had once been a whale-boat; but you now saw through this wreck, as plainly as you see through the peeled, half-unhinged, and bleaching skeleton of a horse.
I mean, c’mon. White ribs, bleaching skeleton of a horse, etc. It’s really the seeing through in the previous paragraph I’m interested in. Our Ishmael attends the world with the perspective of a ghost who sees through the world’s wreck.
VI. Ahab repeats his famous question (for the last time):
“Hast seen the White Whale?”
“Look!” replied the hollow-cheeked captain from his taffrail; and with his trumpet he pointed to the wreck.
“Hast killed him?”
“The harpoon is not yet forged that ever will do that,” answered the other, sadly glancing upon a rounded hammock on the deck, whose gathered sides some noiseless sailors were busy in sewing together.
Ahab shows off the harpoon he forged with Perth but captain and crew of The Delight remain morosely unimpressed. They bury at sea the last of five sailors they lost in battle with Moby Dick—the other four bodies were lost in the fight.
Ahab turns away from the scene.
As Ahab now glided from the dejected Delight, the strange life-buoy hanging at the Pequod’s stern came into conspicuous relief.
“Ha! yonder! look yonder, men!” cried a foreboding voice in her wake. “In vain, oh, ye strangers, ye fly our sad burial; ye but turn us your taffrail to show us your coffin!”
Again—it’s an overdetermined affair, this Moby-Dick.
Show us your coffin!
VII. Ch. 132, “The Symphony.”
The whole thing is about to collapse.
In which Starbuck almost convinces Ahab to change course and save the souls of The Pequod.
“The Symphony” is another sad, sad chapter. “It was a clear steel-blue day,” the chapter begins, and then unfolds in short descriptions of pacific beauty. We are reminded of the peaceful air about The Pequod—that the violent rage at the heart of the novel is carried there by men, by their chieftan Ahab. But the dumb world will not attend our own woes:
Oh, immortal infancy, and innocency of the azure! Invisible winged creatures that frolic all round us! Sweet childhood of air and sky! how oblivious were ye of old Ahab’s close-coiled woe!
Again, Ishmael portrays Ahab in a sympathetic cast.
VIII. Ahab monologues at Starbuck, a sympathetic ear. He laments the forty years he’s spent asea:
Oh, Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky. On such a day—very much such a sweetness as this—I struck my first whale—a boy-harpooneer of eighteen! Forty—forty—forty years ago!—ago! Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep! Aye and yes, Starbuck, out of those forty years I have not spent three ashore.
Are these Ahab’s last rites? A sad confession before the crack of doom (with those mythic numbers foregrounded, forty and three)? I think so.
(And, as always—
How does Ishmael witness this dialogue?)
IX. But Ahab’s confession does not lead to redemption. Language carries him away, and as always the ineffable nearly overwhelms him—he contests the unnameable:
What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I.
Ahab the philosopher is a thing of despair:
By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea!
Starbuck, “blanched to a corpse’s hue with despair,” steals away. But Fedallah remains at his unvacant post, eyes focused on the water.
I. In this riff, Chapters 118 and 119 of Moby-Dick.
II. Ahab has already gone mad before The Pequod sets sail on this particular voyage, but Ch. 118, “The Quadrant,” feels like a tipping point where his madness spills a bit too outside of himself. Starbuck has already expressed his mortification for their revenge mission, but it’s not until the end of “The Quadrant” that he seems to fully comprehend the depth of Ahab’s madness:
“I have sat before the dense coal fire and watched it all aglow, full of its tormented flaming life; and I have seen it wane at last, down, down, to dumbest dust. Old man of oceans! of all this fiery life of thine, what will at length remain but one little heap of ashes!”
What prompts this strange, deathly, foreboding analogy? A monomaniacal monologue from Ahab, of course.
III. Starbuck—and physical foil to Starbuck’s metaphysical moralizing, Stubb—witness Ahab castigate his quadrant in a fury, trampling upon it “with his live and dead feet” alike.
Ahab’s anger comes down again to the limitations of reading, of knowing through the signs and symbols of the world. Gazing at “its numerous cabalistical contrivances,” he censures the device as a “Foolish toy! babies’ plaything of haughty Admirals, and Commodores, and Captains.”
For Ahab, this navigation tool does not measure up: “what after all canst thou do, but tell the poor, pitiful point, where thou thyself happenest to be on this wide planet, and the hand that holds thee: no! not one jot more!” He curses the “vain toy,” which can attest where he is, but cannot find him the object of his murderous desire, Moby Dick.
IV. Ch. 119, “The Candles.”
The titular candles here are the three masts of The Pequod, which, struck by lightning during a typhoon, catch on fire. Hence, Ahab’s ship doubles Ahab’s body, which has been afflicted with its own lightning scar.
The scene is bombastic, and Ahab attends it in a kind of prayer-like reverie. He delivers another monologue that indirectly echoes Starbuck’s undelivered admonition that Ahab might end “a heap of ashes”:
“Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance. … In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here…Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee.”
Here, Melville—or is it Ishmael?—delivers stage directions:
[Sudden, repeated flashes of lightning; the nine flames leap lengthwise to thrice their previous height; Ahab, with the rest, closes his eyes, his right hand pressed hard upon them.]
V. Ahab at this point is full-on crazy. He directly addresses the lightning and fire, in which he finds a kind of power unconstrained by maps and charts, a force that no quadrant might locate. He vows to read the lightning, to find meaning by groping in blindness, a thing of ashes:
“I own thy speechless, placeless power; said I not so? Nor was it wrung from me; nor do I now drop these links. Thou canst blind; but I can then grope. Thou canst consume; but I can then be ashes. Take the homage of these poor eyes, and shutter-hands. I would not take it. The lightning flashes through my skull; mine eye-balls ache and ache; my whole beaten brain seems as beheaded, and rolling on some stunning ground.
Ahab continues to read the lightning with his eyes closed. He claims that he is darkness, the dark that affords the light its position through opposition, and goes so far as to claim the lightning as his father:
Oh, oh! Yet blindfold, yet will I talk to thee. Light though thou be, thou leapest out of darkness; but I am darkness leaping out of light, leaping out of thee! The javelins cease; open eyes; see, or not? There burn the flames! Oh, thou magnanimous! now I do glory in my genealogy. But thou art but my fiery father; my sweet mother, I know not.
But mother? Sweet mother, I know not: “Oh, cruel! what hast thou done with her?”
Again—Moby-Dick is a novel of orphans wailing.
And fathers? Well, they’re out there, in the natural phenomena, I guess—symbols are all Ahab needs to father him.
VI. Ahab’s series of satanic inversions continues. He envies the lightning’s “unbegotten…unbegun” singularity. He also evokes in his anti-prayer the “unsuffusing thing beyond thee, thou clear spirit, to whom all thy eternity is but time.” Ahab tries to read god through this “clear spirit”: “Through thee, thy flaming self, my scorched eyes do dimly see it” — but dimly here does so much work. Ahab is a failed transcendentalist.
VII. He reads in the fire another orphan, another outcast figuration of himself (and Ishmael, and the others who crew The Pequod):
Oh, thou foundling fire, thou hermit immemorial, thou too hast thy incommunicable riddle, thy unparticipated grief. Here again with haughty agony, I read my sire. Leap! leap up, and lick the sky! I leap with thee; I burn with thee; would fain be welded with thee; defyingly I worship thee!”
Ahab now dominates not just The Pequod, but the voice of the novel itself. He reads the lightning, worships the fire, and finds not solace but the confirmation of his vengeance in its clarifying spirit.
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!
In these chapters, Ishmael (again) describes the business of rendering oil and etcetera from a whale’s corpse. The chapters show again Ishmael’s push-pull narration style, vacillating between the physical/commercial and the metaphysical/philosophical.
Look—I’m gonna quote the hell out of this chapter. Ish and his fellows set to a big ole tub of sperm, by which he means, of course, spermaceti, the vital stuff found in an organ in the sperm whale’s head; the vital stuff that energizes and lights Ishmael’s world. On that self-same sperm:
It had cooled and crystallized to such a degree, that when, with several others, I sat down before a large Constantine’s bath of it, I found it strangely concreted into lumps, here and there rolling about in the liquid part. It was our business to squeeze these lumps back into fluid. A sweet and unctuous duty! No wonder that in old times this sperm was such a favourite cosmetic. Such a clearer! such a sweetener! such a softener! such a delicious molifier! After having my hands in it for only a few minutes, my fingers felt like eels, and began, as it were, to serpentine and spiralise.
The next sentence—a full paragraph—is something else:
As I sat there at my ease, cross-legged on the deck; after the bitter exertion at the windlass; under a blue tranquil sky; the ship under indolent sail, and gliding so serenely along; as I bathed my hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, woven almost within the hour; as they richly broke to my fingers, and discharged all their opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine; as I snuffed up that uncontaminated aroma,—literally and truly, like the smell of spring violets; I declare to you, that for the time I lived as in a musky meadow; I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it; I almost began to credit the old Paracelsan superstition that sperm is of rare virtue in allaying the heat of anger; while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.
The sentence above: 161 words, eleven semicolons, fourteen commas, one dash, and of course, one final period. In these words and characters—halts and stops, connections and jumps—Ishmael converts his pain, his “horrible oath,” his drastic hypos, his desire to go about knocking the hats off men, his general misanthropy—he converts all of this into a moment of transcendence.
The moment of transcendence extends into a kind of spermy mindmeld:
Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.
Here, I think is the the grand thesis of Moby-Dick.
III. But no. That’s not the thesis. That’s the grand ecstatic epiphany of joy, which Ishmael deflates in the next paragraph:
Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fireside, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally. In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.
Locate the epiphany elsewhere than the intellect or the fancy then: wife, bed, saddle, etc.
—Say it, no ideas but in things—, wrote William Carlos Williams not quite a century later.
IV. Ishmael turns from ideas to things. He lists some of the other magic potions in the sperm whale’s body: white-horse, plum pudding, slobgollion, gurry, and nippers.
The chapter ends with Ish describing the process by which a spademan and gaffman cut the whale into pieces. It’s a mechanical, thingy business, one that points back to the reason for Ahab’s revenge quest:
This spade is sharp as hone can make it; the spademan’s feet are shoeless; the thing he stands on will sometimes irresistibly slide away from him, like a sledge. If he cuts off one of his own toes, or one of his assistants’, would you be very much astonished? Toes are scarce among veteran blubber-room men.
Toes are scarce, but perhaps not as vital as legs.
V. Ch. 95, “The Cassock.”
Another short chapter on a long subject. Ishmael describes-but-not-defines “a very strange, enigmatical object . . . lying along lengthwise in the lee scuppers.” His description is an accumulation of negations:
Not the wondrous cistern in the whale’s huge head; not the prodigy of his unhinged lower jaw; not the miracle of his symmetrical tail; none of these would so surprise you, as half a glimpse of that unaccountable cone,—longer than a Kentuckian is tall, nigh a foot in diameter at the base, and jet-black as Yojo, the ebony idol of Queequeg.
And what is that enormous jet black cone? A “grandissimus, as the mariners call it.”
It’s the whale’s dick, natch.
Ishmael compares it to the idol “found in the secret groves of Queen Maachah in Judea” — the Asherah pole — and points out that “King Asa, her son, did depose her, and destroyed the idol, and burnt it for an abomination.”
This is a phallic book full of castrations, cuttings off both figurative and literal.
VI. Ch. 96, “The Try-Works”
Another chapter initially focused on the practical business of whaling. In this case, we learn about the try-works, where blubber is cooked down to oil. I’ll let Moser’s illustration stand in here:
The chapter ends though in a great metaphysical rush, as Ish goes from things back to ideas:
The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. “All is vanity.” ALL. This wilful world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon’s wisdom yet. But he who dodges hospitals and jails, and walks fast crossing graveyards, and would rather talk of operas than hell; calls Cowper, Young, Pascal, Rousseau, poor devils all of sick men; and throughout a care-free lifetime swears by Rabelais as passing wise, and therefore jolly;—not that man is fitted to sit down on tomb-stones, and break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon.
The chapter concludes with a puzzling set of metaphors:
There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.
VII. Ch. 97, “The Lamp.”
In this very short (three-paragraph) chapter, Ishmael notes that whalemen light their lamps from the oil of the animals they hunt.
VIII. Ch. 98, “Stowing Down and Clearing Up.”
A chapter about cleaning up. Ish declares that, “were it not for the tell-tale boats and try-works, you would all but swear you trod some silent merchant vessel, with a most scrupulously neat commander. The unmanufactured sperm oil possesses a singularly cleansing virtue.” In other words, despite all the butchery, blood, and bits involved, there’s something in the whale itself that purifies the decks after a good scrub down.
The chapter ends with Ishmael recognizing the mechanical repetition of his business though—no wonder the Modernists revived Moby-Dick!
Yet this is life. For hardly have we mortals by long toilings extracted from this world’s vast bulk its small but valuable sperm; and then, with weary patience, cleansed ourselves from its defilements, and learned to live here in clean tabernacles of the soul; hardly is this done, when—There she blows!—the ghost is spouted up, and away we sail to fight some other world, and go through young life’s old routine again.
Oh! the metempsychosis! Oh! Pythagoras, that in bright Greece, two thousand years ago, did die, so good, so wise, so mild; I sailed with thee along the Peruvian coast last voyage—and, foolish as I am, taught thee, a green simple boy, how to splice a rope!
Another chapter that starts out horny and ends in death.
Our Man Ish lets us know that many whalers love to “grease the bottom” of their boats to make them run faster against the water, for “oil is a sliding thing.” Queequeg greases up his boat’s keel, “rubbing in the unctuousness…in obedience to some particular presentiment.” The presentiment presents in yet another whale sighting. Tashtego spears one, but it nevertheless starts to evade the whale boats. The solution? Pitchpoling:
Of all the wondrous devices and dexterities, the sleights of hand and countless subtleties, to which the veteran whaleman is so often forced, none exceed that fine manœuvre with the lance called pitchpoling. Small sword, or broad sword, in all its exercises boasts nothing like it. It is only indispensable with an inveterate running whale; its grand fact and feature is the wonderful distance to which the long lance is accurately darted from a violently rocking, jerking boat, under extreme headway. Steel and wood included, the entire spear is some ten or twelve feet in length; the staff is much slighter than that of the harpoon, and also of a lighter material—pine. It is furnished with a small rope called a warp, of considerable length, by which it can be hauled back to the hand after darting.
Stubb executes the pitchpole lancing with success, and celebrates his kill in a fit of patriotic bloodlust:
“That drove the spigot out of him!” cried Stubb. “’Tis July’s immortal Fourth; all fountains must run wine today! Would now, it were old Orleans whiskey, or old Ohio, or unspeakable old Monongahela! Then, Tashtego, lad, I’d have ye hold a canakin to the jet, and we’d drink round it! Yea, verily, hearts alive, we’d brew choice punch in the spread of his spout-hole there, and from that live punch-bowl quaff the living stuff.”
Stubb has proven himself a callous soul to this point. He is a jocular anti-Starbuck—and an anti-Ishmael, perhaps—and his suggestion that his crew “quaff the living stuff” from the whale he’s just lanced seems particularly cruel against the sympathetic portrait of whales that Ishmael has sketched over the last few chapters. He’s a figurative bloodsucker here, drawn first as a zany comic, but in a deeper reading, he is the Ugly American.
III. Ch. 85, “The Fountain.”
Here, Ishmael puts on his scientist’s cap again to puzzle out whether the whale spouts water or air.
He begins in an exacting mode, giving us the current date and time in the voyage:
…down to this blessed minute (fifteen and a quarter minutes past one o’clock P.M. of this sixteenth day of December, A.D. 1850), it should still remain a problem, whether these spoutings are, after all, really water, or nothing but vapor—this is surely a noteworthy thing.
(My darling wife’s birthday is December 16, although this has no bearing on this chapter, even if it bears a bit on my riff. In any case, Ishmael gives us a chance to get our temporal bearings here. Unless I’m wrong, the date suggests that The Pequod is almost a year out from its initial departure from Nantucket on Christmas Day of the preceding year.)
IV. “The Fountain” is one of those chapters (of which there are many) that might turn readers off from Moby-Dick—and yet it’s the sort of chapter that underlines the novel’s excellence. Ishmael is on a quest to know an unknowable thing, to describe it, analyze it, evaluate it, synthesize it into his own consciousness, and, perhaps ultimately thereby define it. Ch. 85 sees him at that task: “Still, we can hypothesize, even if we cannot prove and establish. My hypothesis is this: that the spout is nothing but mist.”
As always though, Ishmael’s own prejudices in favor of “the great inherent dignity and sublimity of the Sperm Whale” color any hypotheses he might draw. Indeed, for Ishmael, the sperm whale is a figure of genius:
He is both ponderous and profound. And I am convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings, such as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the act of thinking deep thoughts.
Ishmael finds—or, maybe more accurately projects—a fellow thinker of deep thoughts in the great whale. He tells us that
While composing a little treatise on Eternity, I had the curiosity to place a mirror before me; and ere long saw reflected there, a curious involved worming and undulation in the atmosphere over my head. The invariable moisture of my hair, while plunged in deep thought, after six cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August noon; this seems an additional argument for the above supposition.
The lines are both ironic, metatextual, but also sincere and sweet. Of course our man Ish might spy a bit of mist in his tiny humid attic—but could it not also be the physical manifestation of his own genius of the metaphysical—his “little treatise on Eternity” (by which paradoxical title I take to mean Moby-Dick).
In the end of the chapter, Ishmael tries to reconcile his physics with is metaphysics:
Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.
Other poets have warbled the praises of the soft eye of the antelope, and the lovely plumage of the bird that never alights; less celestial, I celebrate a tail.
This chapter sees Ishmael again playing scientist, but also aesthete. His first problem is to figure out just where, exactly, the tail of the whale begins. (In Ch. 90, “Heads or Tails,” he will concede that, in the whale, like the apple, “there is no intermediate remainder” between head or tail—the part that is not head is tail and the part that is not tail is head.)
VI. (Ishmael is more concerned, ultimately, with the power of the tail—and I don’t think Melville is above some punning symbolism here. We are a’whaling and wailing, and tailing and telling tales.)
VII. Every-horny Ishmael is horny (natch) for the whale tail:
Real strength never impairs beauty or harmony, but it often bestows it; and in everything imposingly beautiful, strength has much to do with the magic. Take away the tied tendons that all over seem bursting from the marble in the carved Hercules, and its charm would be gone. As devout Eckerman lifted the linen sheet from the naked corpse of Goethe, he was overwhelmed with the massive chest of the man, that seemed as a Roman triumphal arch. When Angelo paints even God the Father in human form, mark what robustness is there. And whatever they may reveal of the divine love in the Son, the soft, curled, hermaphroditical Italian pictures, in which his idea has been most successfully embodied; these pictures, so destitute as they are of all brawniness, hint nothing of any power, but the mere negative, feminine one of submission and endurance, which on all hands it is conceded, form the peculiar practical virtues of his teachings.
Our boy Ish might be a bit hot and bothered for Michelangelo’s Sistine God!
In this long chapter, the crew of a German whaler called the Jungfrau (virgin), hail The Pequod. The Jungfrau’s captain Derick De Deer begs some whale oil from the Nantucket ship, and Ishmael notes the irony, although he also notes that “what in the Fishery is technically called a clean [ship] (that is, an empty one), [is] well deserving the name of Jungfrau or the Virgin.”
Just as The Pequod shares some oil for Captain De Deer’s lamp, a pod of whales is sighted, and both ships lower boats, entering into competition to lance the largest and slowest of the whales, who swims “many fathoms in the rear…a huge, humped old bull [who] seemed afflicted with the jaundice, or some other infirmity.”
Ishmael notes that it’s possible that this old whale is an outsider to the pod: “Whether this whale belonged to the pod in advance, seemed questionable; for it is not customary for such venerable leviathans to be at all social. Nevertheless, he stuck to their wake…” Stubb points out that the old whale has “lost his tiller,” and the crew soon spot the missing limb.
…the cause of his devious wake in the unnatural stump of his starboard fin. Whether he had lost that fin in battle, or had been born without it, it were hard to say.
We have here another double for mad Ahab.
III. The race between the two crews carries out in a mix of comedy and pathos. The mates of The Pequod, Stubb and Flask, provide comic bravado as they encourage their boats to row harder (“Don’t ye love sperm? There goes three thousand dollars, men!—a bank!—a whole bank!” yaps Flask).
IV. First mate Starbuck and Ishmael offer more empathy and respect for the aged whale. Consider this portrait Ishmael paints:
As the boats now more closely surrounded him, the whole upper part of his form, with much of it that is ordinarily submerged, was plainly revealed. His eyes, or rather the places where his eyes had been, were beheld. As strange misgrown masses gather in the knot-holes of the noblest oaks when prostrate, so from the points which the whale’s eyes had once occupied, now protruded blind bulbs, horribly pitiable to see. But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.
Ishmael’s final sentence here doubly damns aesthetics and religion, suggesting that the “merry-makings of men” are underwritten in blood and murder—no matter if we “preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.”
V. When they dart the beast, its agitated body rolls around, revealing an infected wound:
Still rolling in his blood, at last he partially disclosed a strangely discoloured bunch or protuberance, the size of a bushel, low down on the flank.
“A nice spot,” cried Flask; “just let me prick him there once.”
“Avast!” cried Starbuck, “there’s no need of that!”
But humane Starbuck was too late. At the instant of the dart an ulcerous jet shot from this cruel wound, and goaded by it into more than sufferable anguish, the whale now spouting thick blood, with swift fury blindly darted at the craft, bespattering them and their glorying crews all over with showers of gore, capsizing Flask’s boat and marring the bows. It was his death stroke.
The bloody shower is more foreshadowing. Or maybe it’s just the everyday business of whaling.
VI. When the crew of The Pequod cut into the whale, they find “the entire length of a corroded harpoon…imbedded in his flesh, on the lower part of the bunch before described.” Ishmael notes that finding spears in whales is not wholly unusual, but then gives us a more dramatic detail:
But still more curious was the fact of a lance-head of stone being found in him, not far from the buried iron, the flesh perfectly firm about it. Who had darted that stone lance? And when? It might have been darted by some Nor’ West Indian long before America was discovered.
Ishmael here posits the whale’s primeval primacy.
VII. Ch. 81 converts its bloody business back into comedy at the end. The Jungfrau mistakes a fin-back whale for a sperm whale—but fin-backs are a “species of uncapturable whales, because of its incredible power of swimming.” Ishmael notes that “Derick and all his host were now in valiant chase of this unnearable brute.” He knows what Derick does not know: that the Jungfrau’s ” bold, hopeful chase” is actually a doomed, hopeless case. Ishmael ends with a wry punchline: “Oh! many are the Fin-Backs, and many are the Dericks, my friend.”
VIII. Ch. 82, “The Honor and the Glory of Whaling.”
In this chapter our boy Ish, as always, is horny for whaling.
IX. In another metatextual opening, Ish begins by calling attention to his discursive narrative style: “There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.” He then proceeds to chronicle the “many great demi-gods and heroes, prophets of all sort” who are part of the whaling fraternity (noting that he is “transported with the reflection” that he belongs, “though but subordinately,” to this grand company).
X. It strikes me now that Ch. 82 is another of Moby-Dick’s stand-alone chapters, and that it would actually make a fine introduction to anyone wanting to dip their toe into its mass. Read it here.
Ever-largehearted-and-often-bombastic Ishmael lards his chapter with every stripe of whalemen, including:
“The gallant Perseus, a son of Jupiter…the first whaleman…”
St. George of “that famous story of St. George and the Dragon; which dragon I maintain to have been a whale…”
Hercules, “that antique Crockett and Kit Carson—that brawny doer of rejoicing good deeds, [who] was swallowed down and thrown up by a whale…”
“Vishnoo [who] became incarnate in a whale, and sounding down in him to the uttermost depths, rescued the sacred volumes.”
“Perseus, St. George, Hercules, Jonah, and Vishnoo! there’s a member-roll for you! What club but the whaleman’s can head off like that?” our jocular boy concludes jocularly.
XII. Ch. 83, “Jonah Historically Regarded.”
Way back in Ch. 9, “The Sermon,” Melville—via Ishmael, via Father Mapple—retold the biblical story of Jonah. Here, that story is squared against the knowledge of whalemen—and one dubious sailor in particular, a certain Sag-Harbor—who remain dubious of “this historical story of Jonah and the whale.” Ishmael points out though that “there were some sceptical Greeks and Romans, who, standing out from the orthodox pagans of their times, equally doubted the story of Hercules and the whale, and Arion and the dolphin; and yet their doubting those traditions did not make those traditions one whit the less facts, for all that.”
Ishmael tries to refute Sag-Harbor and the other Nantuckeers’ arguments against the veracity of Jonah’s voyage in the whale. Ish points out that “a German exegetist supposes that Jonah must have taken refuge in the floating body of a dead whale—even as the French soldiers in the Russian campaign turned their dead horses into tents, and crawled into them.” He also suggests that it’s possible “that when Jonah was thrown overboard from the Joppa ship, he straightway effected his escape to another vessel near by, some vessel with a whale for a figure-head…possibly called The Whale…”
Ultimately though, Ishmael is unable to scientifically explain how Jonah traveled from the coast of Joppa to Ninevah in just three days. He concludes then that, “this very idea of Jonah’s going to Nineveh via the Cape of Good Hope [is] a signal magnification of the general miracle.”
Yet another hyphenated chapter title; yet another horny chapter title.
In this chapter, the titular battering ram is the sperm whale’s head—or, more accurately, the middle space of its huge head, that “dead, blind wall, without a single organ or tender prominence of any sort whatsoever.” Ishmael implores us to consider “this whole enormous boneless mass…as one wad.”
Ish continues, pointing out that the whale’s brain—and consciousness? soul?—are protected by this battering ram:
Now, mark. Unerringly impelling this dead, impregnable, uninjurable wall, and this most buoyant thing within; there swims behind it all a mass of tremendous life…So that when I shall hereafter detail to you all the specialities and concentrations of potency everywhere lurking in this expansive monster; when I shall show you some of his more inconsiderable braining feats; I trust you will have renounced all ignorant incredulity, and be ready to abide by this; that though the Sperm Whale stove a passage through the Isthmus of Darien, and mixed the Atlantic with the Pacific, you would not elevate one hair of your eye-brow. For unless you own the whale, you are but a provincial and sentimentalist in Truth.
That’s a long paragraph! Forgive! Ish ends it thus:
But clear Truth is a thing for salamander giants only to encounter; how small the chances for the provincials then? What befell the weakling youth lifting the dread goddess’s veil at Lais?
Woe,—woe to him who treads through guilt to Truth!
III. Ch. 77, “The Great Heidelburgh Tun.”
“Now comes the Baling of the Case,” declares Ishmael, and then proceeds to explain how the “most precious of all his oily vintages…the highly-prized spermaceti, in its absolutely pure, limpid, and odoriferous state” shall be extracted from the sperm whale’s head. He tells us that,
A large whale’s case generally yields about five hundred gallons of sperm, though from unavoidable circumstances, considerable of it is spilled, leaks, and dribbles away, or is otherwise irrevocably lost in the ticklish business of securing what you can.
Moby-Dick is a Freudian field day.
IV. Ch. 78, “Cistern and Buckets.”
The Pequod’s crew, led by Tashtego, begin extracting the spermaceti from the whale’s head. The whole thing is a very phallic business:
Towards the end, Tashtego has to ram his long pole harder and harder, and deeper and deeper into the Tun, until some twenty feet of the pole have gone down.
Get a bucket and a mop.
In this slippery business, our man Tash falls into the hole in the whale’s head. Daggoo jumps into action, but the whale’s head falls from all but one hook, echoing “The Monkey-Rope,” the perilous, tenuous link of life between fellows. Luckily—repeating his actions way back in Ch. 13, “Wheelbarrow,” superhero Queequeg saves the day. Proud wife Ishmael proclaims, “my brave Queequeg had dived to the rescue.”
Tash’s rescue is announced as another resurrection in this novel of resurrections: “we saw an arm thrust upright from the blue waves; a sight strange to see, as an arm thrust forth from the grass over a grave.” Zombie vibes! It’s a tough resurrection though: “Tashtego was long in coming to, and Queequeg did not look very brisk.”
The rescue is coded as a birth scene:
And thus, through the courage and great skill in obstetrics of Queequeg, the deliverance, or rather, delivery of Tashtego, was successfully accomplished, in the teeth, too, of the most untoward and apparently hopeless impediments; which is a lesson by no means to be forgotten. Midwifery should be taught in the same course with fencing and boxing, riding and rowing.
The chapter ends with Ishmael praising the notion of drowning in a whale’s tun of spermaceti:
…had Tashtego perished in that head, it had been a very precious perishing; smothered in the very whitest and daintiest of fragrant spermaceti; coffined, hearsed, and tombed in the secret inner chamber and sanctum sanctorum of the whale.
V. Ch. 79, “The Prairie.”
Ishmael turns to pseudoscience: “To scan the lines of his face, or feel the bumps on the head of this Leviathan; this is a thing which no Physiognomist or Phrenologist has as yet undertaken.” By the end of the chapter though, Ish insists that “Physiognomy, like every other human science, is but a passing fable.” Still, his project remains the same—we are to read the whale—and the mystery of the whale—as Moby-Dick’s main text. He gives us the head: “I but put that brow before you. Read it if you can.”
VI. Ch. 80, “The Nut.”
Pseudoscience continues with phrenology, which Ish uses as a description, but not an answer to his driving question, What is the whale. “The Nut” concludes with the hump:
This august hump, if I mistake not, rises over one of the larger vertebræ, and is, therefore, in some sort, the outer convex mould of it. From its relative situation then, I should call this high hump the organ of firmness or indomitableness in the Sperm Whale. And that the great monster is indomitable, you will yet have reason to know.
I have also been reading things that are not Moby-Dick.
I have been reading emails.
I have been reading and very much enjoying Anakana Schofield’s novel Bina. I should have finished it by now—there’s just one remaining section—but I’ve been reading it exclusively in the bathtub. And I only take baths on Sunday. But I did not, unlike the narrator of Squeeze’s wonderful ditty “Up the Junction”, take a bath on Sunday. (After I get the weight of Moby-Dick off my conscience I will write a review.)
I have been reading student writing.
I have been reading more emails.
I have been rereading lots of (so-called) early American literature. I am teaching a course in early American literature for the first time in a long time, and I have read again, for the first time in a long time, stuff like A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies by Bartolomé de Las Casas, and The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himselfand A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. America is founded in blood and bounding, violence and strange hope.
I have been reading Twitter.
I have been reading Reddit.
(I cannot remember the last book review I read.)
I have been reading bits of The Posthumous Works of Thomas Pilaster by Éric Chevillard (translated from the French by Chris Clarke) and I like it so far.
I have been reading more student writing.
I have been reading news articles, particularly English-language news articles from non-U.S. news organizations; particularly articles focused on U.S. politics.
I have been reading poetry on the internet, somewhat at random.
I have not been reading Ann Quin’s novel Passages—it just showed up the other day—but it will be the next novel I read (after Moby-Dick; after Bina), and I am very excited about it.
I have been reading Wikipedia articles, very much at random. (Is there a greater 21st-century novel?)
I have not been reading the audiobook recording of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian narrated by Richard Poe. I have been falling asleep to it every night for the past forty or so nights. I set an hour timer and either fall asleep in five, ten, twenty minutes or not at all. One night I listened to the novel’s final third. Some nights I wonder into it disoriented—Where are we? Other nights I’m thrilled at the particular episode we start with—too thrilled. I’m supposed to be asleep. Last night I listened to most of Ch. 8—the bit in the bar where Toadvine, Bathcat, and the kid go drink in a bar and are accosted by an old man who declares that he two is “Texas.” A guy gets stabbed in the shadows, but remains moaning. Where would he go? The chapter ends with the Apache attacking, but I don’t recall getting there. What the fuck is wrong with me that I find Blood Meridian a comforting soporific to send me to my slumbers?
Stubb eats some of that whale he killed a few chapters back.
VI. Ch. 65, “The Whale as a Dish.”
Ishmael riffs on eating whales—sperm whales in particular—and concedes that they are generally too unctuous for the palates of landlubbers. He’s all for eating the brains:
In the case of a small Sperm Whale the brains are accounted a fine dish. The casket of the skull is broken into with an axe, and the two plump, whitish lobes being withdrawn (precisely resembling two large puddings), they are then mixed with flour, and cooked into a most delectable mess, in flavor somewhat resembling calves’ head, which is quite a dish among some epicures…
VII. Ch. 66, “The Shark Massacre.”
Sharks eat at Stubb’s whale too, which has been tied to the side of The Pequod overnight. Queequeg kills some of the sharks, and hoists one on deck to take its skin. It almost bites his hand off.
VIII. Ch. 67, “Cutting In.”
Another one of Ishmael’s technically-oriented chapters, with little in the way of philosophy. He describes the process by which the crew strips the blubber from the whale.
IX. Ch. 68, “The Blanket.”
Another one of Ishmael’s philosophically-oriented chapters. Here, he ponders, “what and where is the skin of the whale?” Ishmael notes that over the whale’s blubber there is an “infinitely thin, transparent substance, somewhat resembling the thinnest shreds of isinglass.” He says that this “isinglass,” when dried, makes a good bookmark for his “whale-books”
It is transparent, as I said before; and being laid upon the printed page, I have sometimes pleased myself with fancying it exerted a magnifying influence. At any rate, it is pleasant to read about whales through their own spectacles, as you may say.
Ultimately though, this isinglass is but the “skin of the skin” and the whale’s blubber is his “blanket.”
It is telling that Ishmael reads whale books through a whale lens. Indeed, his whole mission is to read the whale, and in “The Blanket” he turns the whale’s body into a text beyond his ciphering, noting that the body of the sperm whale is “all over obliquely crossed and re-crossed with numberless straight marks in thick array.” He continues::
But these marks do not seem to be impressed upon the isinglass substance above mentioned, but seem to be seen through it, as if they were engraved upon the body itself. Nor is this all. In some instances, to the quick, observant eye, those linear marks, as in a veritable engraving, but afford the ground for far other delineations. These are hieroglyphical; that is, if you call those mysterious cyphers on the walls of pyramids hieroglyphics, then that is the proper word to use in the present connexion. By my retentive memory of the hieroglyphics upon one Sperm Whale in particular, I was much struck with a plate representing the old Indian characters chiselled on the famous hieroglyphic palisades on the banks of the Upper Mississippi. Like those mystic rocks, too, the mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable.
X. Ch. 69, “The Funeral.”
The whale’s corpse is cut loose to endure the mocking “funeral” of every scavenger of the sea and sky.
Thus, while in life the great whale’s body may have been a real terror to his foes, in his death his ghost becomes a powerless panic to a world.
Are you a believer in ghosts, my friend? There are other ghosts than the Cock-Lane one, and far deeper men than Doctor Johnson who believe in them.
The last two lines of the chapter—quoted above—again point to the idea that perhaps our Ish is himself a ghost.
XI. Ch. 70, “The Sphynx.”
The crew decapitated Stubb’s whale and kept it on deck. In another one of those How is Ishmael witnessing this wait is he like a ghost or something? scenes, Ish manages to overhear Captain Ahab’s batshit soliloquy to the dead head:
It was a black and hooded head; and hanging there in the midst of so intense a calm, it seemed the Sphynx’s in the desert. “Speak, thou vast and venerable head,” muttered Ahab, “which, though ungarnished with a beard, yet here and there lookest hoary with mosses; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid this world’s foundations. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there, in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home. Thou hast been where bell or diver never went; hast slept by many a sailor’s side, where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them down. Thou saw’st the locked lovers when leaping from their flaming ship; heart to heart they sank beneath the exulting wave; true to each other, when heaven seemed false to them. Thou saw’st the murdered mate when tossed by pirates from the midnight deck; for hours he fell into the deeper midnight of the insatiate maw; and his murderers still sailed on unharmed—while swift lightnings shivered the neighboring ship that would have borne a righteous husband to outstretched, longing arms. O head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!”
XII. Ch. 71, “The Jeroboam’s Story.”
Ahab’s interrogation of the whale’s head is cut short when the call goes up that another ship—the aptly named Jeroboam—is in hailing distance. Our boy Ahab just has to get some news about his White Whale.
The crew of The Jeroboam elect to keep their distance from The Peqoud. Their Captain Mayhew suggests they have a plague of some kind on board, but it becomes evident that the plague might be a kind of madness. The crew of Mayhew’s ship are under the sway of a Shaker sailor who believes himself to be the Archangel Gabriel. Anyway, it turns out that The Jeroboamhas encountered Moby Dick; in fact, Mayhew’s chief mate Macey died hunting the great beast—all while Gabriel chanted prophecies of doom. Symbolically underlining the foreshadowing in this episode, The Pequod carries aboard a letter for Macey from his wife, who does not yet know she is a widow. And in even more symbolic foreshadowing, when Starbuck attempts to pass the letter to Mayhew,
…as if by magic, the letter suddenly ranged along with Gabriel’s eager hand. He clutched it in an instant, seized the boat-knife, and impaling the letter on it, sent it thus loaded back into the ship. It fell at Ahab’s feet. Then Gabriel shrieked out to his comrades to give way with their oars, and in that manner the mutinous boat rapidly shot away from the Pequod.
To steal a line from Melville’s later short masterpiece Bartleby: “Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?”
XIII. Ch. 72, “The Monkey-Rope.”
In this chapter—another chapter with a hyphenated title!—in this chapter, Ishmael goes back to some technical business of whaling, explaining that while hauling in Stubb’s whale, Queequeg had to insert the blubber hook into the whale—which means he had to be over the side of the boat, on the whale itself. In this process, Queequeg and Ishmael are connected by a “monkey-rope” — a rope tethering the two between belts.
“It was a humorously perilous business for both of us,” Ishmael notes, a line that again underscores Moby-Dick’s compounding — hyphenating — modes of comedy and terror. The chapter also again reminds us that Ish and Queeg are like a married couple: “for better or for worse, we two, for the time, were wedded.” As is often the case, Ishmael goes into a philosophical reverie:
So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death. …still further pondering, I say, I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only, in most cases, he, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals.
XIV. Ch. 73, “Stubb and Flask Kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk over Him.”
In this chapter, Stubb and Flask kill a right whale and then have a talk over him.
Each of these chapters concerns graphic—artistic and scientific—depictions of whales. Ishmael dwells mostly upon the failure of artists to truthfully represent the whale, but also concedes that the task is near impossible. Nevertheless, Ish attests that he “shall ere long paint to you as well as one can without canvas, something like the true form of the whale as he actually appears to the eye of the whaleman…”
II. Ch. 55, “Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales.”
Ishmael avers that erroneous depictions of whales are likely based in antiquity: “It may be that the primal source of all those pictorial delusions will be found among the oldest Hindoo, Egyptian, and Grecian sculptures.” He goes on,
Now, by all odds, the most ancient extant portrait anyways purporting to be the whale’s, is to be found in the famous cavern-pagoda of Elephanta, in India. …The Hindoo whale referred to, occurs in a separate department of the wall, depicting the incarnation of Vishnu in the form of leviathan, learnedly known as the Matse Avatar. But though this sculpture is half man and half whale, so as only to give the tail of the latter, yet that small section of him is all wrong. It looks more like the tapering tail of an anaconda, than the broad palms of the true whale’s majestic flukes.
III. (Barry Moser, who illustrated the edition of Moby-Dick I’m rereading, wisely stayed away from most of these “picture” episodes.)
IV. Let us continue:
It is Guido’s picture of Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the sea-monster or whale. Where did Guido get the model of such a strange creature as that?
Nor does Hogarth, in painting the same scene in his own “Perseus Descending,” make out one whit better.
Then, there are the Prodromus whales of old Scotch Sibbald
Jonah’s whale, as depicted in the prints of old Bibles and the cuts of old primers.
Jonah, 1585 by Antonius Wierix
In old Harris’s collection of voyages there are some plates of whales extracted from a Dutch book of voyages, A.D. 1671, entitled “A Whaling Voyage to Spitzbergen in the ship Jonas in the Whale, Peter Peterson of Friesland, master.” In one of those plates the whales, like great rafts of logs, are represented lying among ice-isles, with white bears running over their living backs. In another plate, the prodigious blunder is made of representing the whale with perpendicular flukes.
Then again, there is an imposing quarto, written by one Captain Colnett, a Post Captain in the English navy, entitled “A Voyage round Cape Horn into the South Seas, for the purpose of extending the Spermaceti Whale Fisheries.” In this book is an outline purporting to be a “Picture of a Physeter or Spermaceti whale, drawn by scale from one killed on the coast of Mexico, August, 1793, and hoisted on deck.”
Look at that popular work “Goldsmith’s Animated Nature.” In the abridged London edition of 1807, there are plates of an alleged “whale” and a “narwhale.” I do not wish to seem inelegant, but this unsightly whale looks much like an amputated sow; and, as for the narwhale, one glimpse at it is enough to amaze one, that in this nineteenth century such a hippogriff could be palmed for genuine upon any intelligent public of schoolboys.
Then, again, in 1825, Bernard Germain, Count de Lacépède, a great naturalist, published a scientific systemized whale book, wherein are several pictures of the different species of the Leviathan.
But the placing of the cap-sheaf to all this blundering business was reserved for the scientific Frederick Cuvier, brother to the famous Baron. In 1836, he published a Natural History of Whales, in which he gives what he calls a picture of the Sperm Whale. Before showing that picture to any Nantucketer, you had best provide for your summary retreat from Nantucket. In a word, Frederick Cuvier’s Sperm Whale is not a Sperm Whale, but a squash.
V. Ishmael then forgives these artists’ failures:
But these manifold mistakes in depicting the whale are not so very surprising after all. Consider! Most of the scientific drawings have been taken from the stranded fish; and these are about as correct as a drawing of a wrecked ship, with broken back, would correctly represent the noble animal itself in all its undashed pride of hull and spars. …The living whale, in his full majesty and significance, is only to be seen at sea in unfathomable waters; and afloat the vast bulk of him is out of sight…
VI. Ishmael then reminds us that the whale is a sort of metaphysical thing: “For it is one of the more curious things about this Leviathan, that his skeleton gives very little idea of his general shape,” unlike, say, Jeremy Bentham.
VII. Ishmael’s first pictorial chapter ends his chapter with a warning of sorts:
For all these reasons, then, any way you may look at it, you must needs conclude that the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last. True, one portrait may hit the mark much nearer than another, but none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness. So there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan.
Ishmael’s warning points—again—to The Pequod’s impending doom.
VIII. Ch. 56, “Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes.”
I know of only four published outlines of the great Sperm Whale; Colnett’s, Huggins’s, Frederick Cuvier’s, and Beale’s. In the previous chapter Colnett and Cuvier have been referred to. Huggins’s is far better than theirs; but, by great odds, Beale’s is the best.
Here is a detail from W.J. Huggin’s South Sea Whale Fishery (1825):
Ishmael then mentions William Scoresby, whose disastrous depictions also likely helped inform the imagery at the climax of Moby-Dick:
Ishmael is also very fond of two engravings from Ambroise Lous Garneray, the second of which he describes thus—
In the second engraving, the boat is in the act of drawing alongside the barnacled flank of a large running Right Whale, that rolls his black weedy bulk in the sea like some mossy rock-slide from the Patagonian cliffs. His jets are erect, full, and black like soot; so that from so abounding a smoke in the chimney, you would think there must be a brave supper cooking in the great bowels below. Sea fowls are pecking at the small crabs, shell-fish, and other sea candies and maccaroni, which the Right Whale sometimes carries on his pestilent back. And all the while the thick-lipped leviathan is rushing through the deep, leaving tons of tumultuous white curds in his wake, and causing the slight boat to rock in the swells like a skiff caught nigh the paddle-wheels of an ocean steamer. Thus, the foreground is all raging commotion; but behind, in admirable artistic contrast, is the glassy level of a sea becalmed, the drooping unstarched sails of the powerless ship, and the inert mass of a dead whale, a conquered fortress, with the flag of capture lazily hanging from the whale-pole inserted into his spout-hole.
I think it must be this–
IX. Ch. 57, “Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood; in Sheet-Iron; in Stone; in Mountains; in Stars.”
I wrote above that Barry Moser pretty much stays out of these pictorial chapters, but he does include this lovely little illustration in Ch. 57:
Throughout the Pacific, and also in Nantucket, and New Bedford, and Sag Harbor, you will come across lively sketches of whales and whaling-scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on Sperm Whale-teeth, or ladies’ busks wrought out of the Right Whale-bone, and other like skrimshander articles, as the whalemen call the numerous little ingenious contrivances they elaborately carve out of the rough material, in their hours of ocean leisure.
(So I just spent the last half hour looking for this tiny little scrimshaw pocket knife I bought when I was ten years old in Honolulu — it was the winter of 1989 and we were going home-not-really-home to Florida for Christmas from Dunedin, New Zealand. We got to spend a few days in Honolulu and I bought a “scrimshaw” knife in the market. “Like Moby-Dick,” my father said, or something like that. I know the knife is here somewhere, in some box or crate, squirreled away, more beautiful in my mind’s eye than an iPhone pic could capture.)
X. These three chapters end with Ishmael’s reaffirmation to go a’whaliln’ — to see for himself, and not through, to quote Walt Whitman, “take things at second or third hand, not look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books.”
Our boy Ish ends the chapter horny for life:
With a frigate’s anchors for my bridle-bitts and fasces of harpoons for spurs, would I could mount that whale and leap the topmost skies, to see whether the fabled heavens with all their countless tents really lie encamped beyond my mortal sight!