I’ve been a fan of Drew Lerman’s strip Snake Creek for a few years now. Reviewing Lerman’s first collection (simply titled Snake Creek) in The Comics Journal, Brian Nicholson wrote that,
Looking at these strips, you’re looking at something that recalls George Herriman, Harvey Kurtzman, Robert Crumb, Daniel Clowes, Matt Groening, but also thinking: What if Stanley Elkin drew a comic strip?
What if Elkin drew a comic strip indeed?
Like Elkin, Lerman plays with a variety of voices and rhythms in his work. There’s a zaniness to the Snake Creek world, but also an almost-melancholy seriousness to it as well. His main characters are Dav and Roy. Roy is something of a would-be tortured artist; Roy his familiar/foil, a spritely interlocutor to bounce ideas off of. Like the swamp-dwellers of Walt Kelly’s seminal strip Pogo, there’s a real affection between the two characters that anchors the surreal plasticity of Lerman’s work in genuine emotion.
I got three Snake Creek comix last week and tried not to read them too quickly on Sunday afternoon. I needed to get the bad taste of a Serious Contemporary Novel out of my brain, and Detective! Double Digest did the trick. There are two stories here: Lerman’s “Cryonic Pain: A Snake Creek Mystery” and on the literal flipside, Pete Faecke’s “The Big Love Triangle” (which has a scuzzy punk noir vibe).
Lerman’s detective story is an existentialist affair—a goofing riff on the myth of Sisyphus and the burden of a consciousness constrained by mortality and time. It’s also full of verbal slapstick and surreal shenanigans.
Schtick is a mini-comic in full color compromised of five vignettes, each one a riff or routine rooted in vaudevillian humor and composed in an original vernacular. The longest of the pieces, “Herbit and Sheiler,” is an extended play on linguistic misunderstandings—good stuff.
“Head Trip” sees Dav and Roy trying to take Snake Creek’s most anguished character, Head on a Stone, on an adventure he can remember. Unable to move or communicate, but nevertheless burdened by consciousness, Head on a Stone is a tragic figure, a “pulsing node of dread,” as Dav puts it. Dav and Roy decide, in their wisely wisdom, to take the large rock seafaring. What follows is an ironic series of tragic-comic-tragic-etc. reversals of fortune (as well as some of Lerman’s most lyrical work to date with his strip). “Head Trip” is as linguistically loose and visually goofy as we might expect from anything set in the Snake Creek universe, and also achieves a level of poignancy we might not expect. Great stuff.
McClintic Sphere, an innovative jazz saxophonist, and Paolo Majistral, the Maltese “girl [who] lived proper nouns” are two minor characters in Thomas Pynchon’s first novel, V. I will get back to them in a second.
A novel crammed with minor characters (hundreds of them, I’d guess) V. pulsates with intersections, drive-bys, concordances and discordance. Characters crisscross and quick-change in ways that both parody and honor the authorial sleight-of-hand in play in V.
Pynchon repeatedly challenges his readers’ credulity–while its intersections are never as neat and tidy as its titular vee angle might suggest, V. is still a confusion of happenstance that both confounds and sanctifies coincidence, even as it ironizes those winds of fate.
The mode is necessarily postmodern. Pynchon repeatedly evokes Modernist poets by name—Pound and Eliot, especially—but it’s the immediate postwar (post, war, world, two) that he’s most concerned with in V. The novel critiques Modernist critiques (through a double lens of a critique of colonialism).
The great concern here is for the divergent angle of the second half of the twentieth century. As such, much of V. is a loving parody of the Beat scene (much more loving than Gaddis’s sustained attack on art poseurs in The Recognitions). In V., Pynchon creates a non-chorus in The Whole Sick Crew, an outcast cast of losers and would-bes and pseudointellectuals.
The Whole Sick Crew lards V.’s enormous, hard-to-follow cast. Two members of the nebulous Crew are
McClintic Sphere, an innovative jazz saxophonist, and Paolo Majistral, the Maltese “girl [who] lived proper nouns.”
There’s a marvelous moment about two-thirds of the way through V. where McClintic and Paolo, erstwhile lovers (Paolo in the guise of “Ruby” — everyone here is a quick change artist)—where McClintic and Paolo transcend the quick-changing and irony and and sensory-cloggingness of the modern condition. They drive upstate, talk straight—the plot details don’t matter here, just read:
Maybe the only peace undisturbed that night was McClintic’s and Paola’s. The little Triumph forged along up the Hudson, their own wind was cool, taking away whatever of Nueva York had clogged ears, nostrils, mouths.
She talked to him straight and McClintic kept cool.
And then our man McClintic comes to something close to an epiphany, although epiphanies are always hedged, suspicious, constrained in Pynchon—but I think there’s something real here. Earlier in the novel, McClintic feels concern for the postwar “cool,” for the feeling that the world might flip or flop again, go from zero to binary in a weird heartbeat (that binary code theme pulsates through the rest of Pynchon’s work to date). Makes sense for machines, maybe, but people aren’t, or shouldn’t be, machines.
McClintic’s epiphany is a pragmatic resolution, and I take it to be Pynchon’s cautionary thesis:
…there came to McClintic something it was time he got around to seeing: that the only way clear of the cool/crazy flipflop was obviously slow, frustrating and hard work. Love with your mouth shut, help without breaking your ass or publicizing it: keep cool, but care. He might have known, if he’d used any common sense. It didn’t come as a revelation, only something he’d as soon not’ve admitted.
The epiphany is bitter, and Pynchon’s narrator refuses its epiphanic value (“It didn’t come as a revelation”), even as the narrative acknowledges its intrinsic power. A few lines later, McClintic addresses the Real Work to Be Done in the World:
Nobody is going to step down from Heaven and square away Roony and his woman, or Alabama, or South Africa or us and Russia. There’s no magic words. Not even I love you is magic enough. Can you see Eisenhower telling Malenkov or Khrushchev that? Ho-ho.”
“Keep cool but care,” he said. Somebody had run over a skunk a ways back. The smell had followed them for miles. “If my mother was alive I would have her make a sampler with that on it.”
The highway stinks, sticks skunky to fleeing motion, gummed up in the nostalgic emblems we’d imaginatively credit to our loving forebears. The grist, grit, and horror of the big postwar world will cling to the present. Nobody’s stepping down from heaven, or Heaven and there are no magic words—but there is a kind of love, a loving with your mouth shut, a kind of radical, earnest, transcendent love that Pynchon evokes, soils, and sanctifies here.
I’ll admit I’d never heard of Norah Lange until the nice people at indie superpublisher And Other Stories alerted me to her memoir, Notes from Childhood.
Lange was an Argentinian writer, publishing poems and prose from the 1920s through the 1950s. She was part of the Florida Group, along with Jorge Luis Borges and his sister, the painter Norah Borges, as well as Victoria Ocampo and others, and first published her poems in ultraist magazines.
In her note at the end of Notes from Childhood, Lange’s translator Charlotte Whittle suggests that Lange’s memoir marked a break from the ultraist school, embracing a new style of prose—her own style. Whittle points out that Lange’s “approach to memory” trains its “gaze on domestic, family scenes.”
Far from being a linear autobiography or tale of coming of age, this narrative takes the form of a constellation of pieces of childhood, and these pieces provide Lange with ground for experimentation.
I read the first forty pages of Notes from Childhood this afternoon; the book showed up last week and I didn’t have a spare half hour to carve from a day to sink into it.
I didn’t have a spare half hour this afternoon, but I opened it, after moving a pile of books to another pile of books, and then I just kept reading.
Lange’s Notes feels subtly cinematic—in vivid flashes, brief vignettes, scenes of a page or two, she conjure the irreal reality of childhood. The memoir opens in a hotel, where, in the dining room, Lange and her sisters spy the “owner of the circus, and next to him the strongest woman in the world,” who, every night “lifts three men with her teeth.” They later light lamps in their new old house to “watch the spiders and kissing bugs all over the walls.”
A few pages later, Lange describes her mother riding sidesaddle horseback in nine succinct but powerful paragraphs. She frames the poetic photograph for her reader:
I see her framed with a gentleness no one could touch without taking something away, without adding more grace than that which was essential and true.
And our narrator riffs on her eldest sister, Irene, framed through a “third window” in one chapter: “I was always a little afraid and a little in awe of her. She was six years older than me. Sometimes, she was allowed to sit at the table in the large dining room during visits from family friends.” Irene at the big table! We get a trickle of information about whispers of Irene, who is growing up while our narrator remains a child:
Susana and I, the youngest two, weren’t shrewd enough to guess the reason for these long whispering sessions. One afternoon, I heard them speak of breasts. When I think back, I understand the fear she must have felt—the first sister, all alone—when she saw her body begin to curve, her rib cage lose its rigidity, her breasts start to ache and stir imperceptibly.
A few chapters later (there aren’t really chapters in Notes), sister Marta, convalescent, repeats, “God is evil. God is evil.” A few pages later, schoolbound, Little Lange is enchanted by typeface:
Words in capital letters, like TWILIGHT, DISCOVERY, DAGUERREOTYPE, LABYRINTH, and THERAPEUTIC, brought me a zeal and contentment all by themselves that now I would have to describe as aesthetic.
And then this wonderful weird episode. Scene: Lange and the sisters:
We had made big hats out of paper and the five of us stood before the mirror, each absorbed by the reflection of her own face, contemplating the effect of shadow over our eyes, the changing glimmer taken on by the light from the window as it fell on our hair against the newspaper.
The door opened suddenly, and a gust of air caused the hats to teeter on our heads.
One of my sisters said,
“The first one who loses her hat will die before the others…”
Transfixed before the mirror, arm in arm so no one could cheat, we gambled as to who would be the first to die.
I did not set out to write forty riffs on Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick but that’s where I ended up. I don’t think what I’ve done here is a resource of any worth, but I do hope to encourage people to read this funny, humane, poetic, and devastating novel.
Here are links by chapter to the riffs I riffed on Moby-Dick in 2021.
Illustrations in this post are by the American artist Barry Moser.
Ch. 1 (The great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open)
Ch. 2-4 (Nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom)
Ch. 5-8 (All these things are not without their meanings)
Ch. 9-13 (No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world)
And because I landed (or drowned?) at forty, here’s Ahab, near the end of the novel, wailing on forty:
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. When I think of this life I have led; the desolation of solitude it has been; the masoned, walled-town of a Captain’s exclusiveness, which admits but small entrance to any sympathy from the green country without—oh, weariness! heaviness! Guinea-coast slavery of solitary command!—when I think of all this; only half-suspected, not so keenly known to me before—and how for forty years I have fed upon dry salted fare—fit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soil!—when the poorest landsman has had fresh fruit to his daily hand, and broken the world’s fresh bread to my mouldy crusts—away, whole oceans away, from that young girl-wife I wedded past fifty, and sailed for Cape Horn the next day, leaving but one dent in my marriage pillow—wife? wife?—rather a widow with her husband alive! Aye, I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck; and then, the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow, with which, for a thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey—more a demon than a man!—aye, aye! what a forty years’ fool—fool—old fool, has old Ahab been! Why this strife of the chase? why weary, and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance? how the richer or better is Ahab now?
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.
Another chapter composed as playwright’s drama—mostly dialogue, and a few spare stage directions.
The dialogue is between Ahab and the carpenter. The poor old man has been charged with the task of converting Queequeg’s coffin into a life-buoy (you will recall The Pequod lost both the life-buoy and the sailor it was thrown to save in the previous chapter).
Ahab’s back-and-forth with the carpenter highlight’s the captain’s careen into deeper madness. He’s alarmed by the carpenter’s ironic task:
Then tell me; art thou not an arrant, all-grasping, intermeddling, monopolising, heathenish old scamp, to be one day making legs, and the next day coffins to clap them in, and yet again life-buoys out of those same coffins? Thou art as unprincipled as the gods, and as much of a jack-of-all-trades.”
It’s another metatextual moment in Moby-Dick, where Ahab plays a critic, pointing out perhaps that Melville’s ironic foreshadowing here is overdetermined stuff. But the dialogue leads Ahab inward to monologue, and he tries to play out the greater meaning of the symbol, beyond plot-bound gimmickry. The phenomenal experience of hearing the carpenter’s work sends him into a philosophical reverie:
Rat-tat! So man’s seconds tick! Oh! how immaterial are all materials! What things real are there, but imponderable thoughts? Here now’s the very dreaded symbol of grim death, by a mere hap, made the expressive sign of the help and hope of most endangered life. A life-buoy of a coffin! Does it go further? Can it be that in some spiritual sense the coffin is, after all, but an immortality-preserver! I’ll think of that.
In the end though the coffin is a life-preserver—it saves Ishmael, and, in a sense, is an immortality-preserver, as it becomes the mechanism that sustains Ishmael’s infinite witnessing.
III. Ch. 128, “The Pequod Meets The Rachel.”
This is possibly the saddest chapter in Moby-Dick.
The Pequod meets The Rachel, also of Nantucket. It’s the penultimate ship they will meet in their soon-to-be-over voyage (the ironically named Delight is their last exchange).
The captain of The Rachel is able to affirm Ahab’s monomaniacal hailing, and then pose his own rejoinder:
“Hast seen the White Whale?”
“Aye, yesterday. Have ye seen a whale-boat adrift?”
The Rachel’s captain boards The Pequod. It turns out that one of the whaling boats of The Rachel set out after Moby Dick, yet never returned. We then learn his motivation for the curt gam:
The story told, the stranger Captain immediately went on to reveal his object in boarding the Pequod. He desired that ship to unite with his own in the search; by sailing over the sea some four or five miles apart, on parallel lines, and so sweeping a double horizon, as it were.
Callous Stubb suggests that the captain is anxious to get the boat’s crew back because “some one in that missing boat wore off that Captain’s best coat; mayhap, his watch.” Stubb shows a tenderer heart though when the truth is revealed: “My boy, my own boy is among them,” pleads the captain,” begging Ahab to charter The Pequod for two days.
Stubb—who I’ve thought in this reread the villain of the novel for his bullying humor—redeems himself here: “His son!” cried Stubb, “oh, it’s his son he’s lost! I take back the coat and watch—what says Ahab? We must save that boy.”
What says Ahab?
But first—what says the captain—referred to repeatedly as “the stranger” in this chapter:
“I will not go,” said the stranger, “till you say aye to me. Do to me as you would have me do to you in the like case.
The Gospel’s injunction is straightforward. We must treat others—particularly strangers, those othered-others, “the least of these,” in the NIV translation—as we wish to be treated.
And so well,
What says Ahab?
“Avast,” cried Ahab—“touch not a rope-yarn”; then in a voice that prolongingly moulded every word—“Captain Gardiner, I will not do it. Even now I lose time. Good-bye, good-bye. God bless ye, man, and may I forgive myself, but I must go.
Ahab hopes he can forgive himself. But the end of Matthew Ch. 25 is pretty clear (KJV this time).: “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment.”
IV. Ch. 129, “The Cabin.”
Another chapter composed as playwright’s drama—mostly dialogue, and a few spare stage directions—and, like Ch. 127, a chapter that ends in a crazed monologue.
The chapter starts with Ahab telling Pip way too late, “Lad, lad, I tell thee thou must not follow Ahab now. The hour is coming when Ahab would not scare thee from him, yet would not have thee by him.” Ahab tells Pip that Pip is the cure for his malady, but that his “malady becomes [his] most desired health.” It’s a strange moment between two cursed persons—Ahab recognizes here the injunction in the Gospel of Matthew that he’s failed to meet in the previous chapter (and hey, I even forgot to point out that the captain of The Rachel is not even a stranger to Ahab—our monomaniac calls the man by name!)—but where was I? I think it’s a weird tender moment. Ahab recognizes Pip as a kind of son, and tells him to stay safe in his cabin. But he also seems to know that the entire ship is headed toward some kind of Big Death.
Ahab departs; Pip fills the cabin — and the end of the “The Cabin” — with his crazed voice. He’s already the vacant post that Ishmael will evoke in the novel’s epilogue. So let him speak:
Here he this instant stood; I stand in his air,—but I’m alone. Now were even poor Pip here I could endure it, but he’s missing. Pip! Pip! Ding, dong, ding! Who’s seen Pip? He must be up here; let’s try the door. What? neither lock, nor bolt, nor bar; and yet there’s no opening it. It must be the spell; he told me to stay here: Aye, and told me this screwed chair was mine. Here, then, I’ll seat me, against the transom, in the ship’s full middle, all her keel and her three masts before me. Here, our old sailors say, in their black seventy-fours great admirals sometimes sit at table, and lord it over rows of captains and lieutenants. Ha! what’s this? epaulets! epaulets! the epaulets all come crowding! Pass round the decanters; glad to see ye; fill up, monsieurs! What an odd feeling, now, when a black boy’s host to white men with gold lace upon their coats!—Monsieurs, have ye seen one Pip?—a little negro lad, five feet high, hang-dog look, and cowardly! Jumped from a whale-boat once;—seen him? No! Well then, fill up again, captains, and let’s drink shame upon all cowards! I name no names. Shame upon them! Put one foot upon the table. Shame upon all cowards.—Hist! above there, I hear ivory—Oh, master! master! I am indeed down-hearted when you walk over me. But here I’ll stay, though this stern strikes rocks; and they bulge through; and oysters come to join me.
“The Needle” is another one of Melville’s satanic reversals in Moby-Dick. Lightning from the tempest that The Pequod endured over the past few chapters has caused all compasses aboard the ship to be perfectly reversed. Needles fly in the exact opposite directions. What might have been up, in a certain sense, points downward.
Again, Ahab is a bad reader—or a reader whose monomania overrides his ability to comprehend other perspectives, other views, other directions.
III. And yet Ahab is a bold reader, one who shapes nature to his own direction (or will in anywise perish doing so):
“Men,” said he, steadily turning upon the crew, as the mate handed him the things he had demanded, “my men, the thunder turned old Ahab’s needles; but out of this bit of steel Ahab can make one of his own, that will point as true as any.”
Ahab sets about to magnetize a needle with the “steel head of the lance,” and the crew watches on in wonder and mild horror. Ishmael (Melville) notes that, “with fascinated eyes they awaited whatever magic might follow” — and then tellingly: “But Starbuck looked away.”
Starbuck’s attempt to see no evil reverberates through the crew who gaze at the new compass needle in turns at the end of the scene:
One after another they peered in, for nothing but their own eyes could persuade such ignorance as theirs, and one after another they slunk away.
In his fiery eyes of scorn and triumph, you then saw Ahab in all his fatal pride.
Slink away; perish still.
IV. Ch. 125, “The Log and Line.”
A somewhat extended episode, the mechanics of which I’m in no mood to summarize here. Suffice to say that “the log and line” — basically, a way of calculating the ship’s speed — “had but very seldom been in use” lately on The Pequod’s voyage. Ahab has found other ways to measure and to read the phenomenal world. But, thinking he’s closing in on the White Whale, he commands the “golden-hued Tahitian and the grizzly Manxman” to the task of log and line.
V. The Manxman declares the line “rotten,” a prescient analysis that reads The Pequod’s impending doom.
A mark of that rottenness evinces in Pip’s emergence. The crazed cabin boy alights on the deck, a rotten line in a book of glowing rotten lines. He contests his own identity. He’s a vacant post, a drowned sailor:
“Pip? whom call ye Pip? Pip jumped from the whale-boat. Pip’s missing. Let’s see now if ye haven’t fished him up here, fisherman. It drags hard; I guess he’s holding on. Jerk him, Tahiti! Jerk him off; we haul in no cowards here. Ho! there’s his arm just breaking water. A hatchet! a hatchet! cut it off—we haul in no cowards here. Captain Ahab! sir, sir! here’s Pip, trying to get on board again.”
VI. (I will leave the line Jerk him off in this oh-so-phallic novel alone, apart from noting it here in these parentheses.)
VII. “Peace, thou crazy loon,” cries the Manxman, trying to shoo him from the quarter-deck, but Ahab admonishes the older sailor and enters into conversation with the insane cabin boy:
“The greater idiot ever scolds the lesser,” muttered Ahab, advancing. “Hands off from that holiness! Where sayest thou Pip was, boy?
“Astern there, sir, astern! Lo! lo!”
“And who art thou, boy? I see not my reflection in the vacant pupils of thy eyes. Oh God! that man should be a thing for immortal souls to sieve through! Who art thou, boy?”
“Bell-boy, sir; ship’s-crier; ding, dong, ding! Pip! Pip! Pip! One hundred pounds of clay reward for Pip; five feet high—looks cowardly—quickest known by that! Ding, dong, ding! Who’s seen Pip the coward?”
“There can be no hearts above the snow-line. Oh, ye frozen heavens! look down here. Ye did beget this luckless child, and have abandoned him, ye creative libertines. Here, boy; Ahab’s cabin shall be Pip’s home henceforth, while Ahab lives. Thou touchest my inmost centre, boy; thou art tied to me by cords woven of my heart-strings. Come, let’s down.”
Pip then, and not Fedallah, is Ahab’s true squire. Poor child.
VIII. Ch. 126, “The Life-Buoy.”
“[D]etermined by Ahab’s level log and line; the Pequod held on her path towards the Equator.” On their way there,
sailing by a cluster of rocky islets…the watch…was startled by a cry so plaintively wild and unearthly—like half-articulated wailings of the ghosts of all Herod’s murdered Innocents—that one and all, they started from their reveries…
The wailing there again calls to me. I’ve probably stated ad nauseum in these riffs that Moby-Dick is a whaling book about wailing.
IX. Ishmael continues his ironic critique of the viewpoints of “pagans” and “civilized” folk:
The Christian or civilized part of the crew said it was mermaids, and shuddered; but the pagan harpooneers remained unappalled.
The pagan harpooneers remain unappalled because they are not in the thrall of superstitious ignorance.
X. The wailing is not lost souls or mermaids, we learn, but rather the crying of
some young seals that had lost their dams, or some dams that had lost their cubs, [who] must have risen nigh the ship and kept company with her, crying and sobbing with their human sort of wail.
Their human sort ofwail—a wailing, a hailing, an interpellation that the sailors can read.
XI. After this wailing episode, we learn that a lookout posted at the top of The Pequod drowns. The crew spies him, “a falling phantom in the air,” and throw out the titular life-buoy to recover him.
XII. The life-buoy must be resurrected in a new form, though. However, “no cask of sufficient lightness could be found.” Fortunately (ultimately, for Ishmael), “by certain strange signs and inuendoes Queequeg hinted a hint concerning his coffin”
“A life-buoy of a coffin!” cried Starbuck, starting.
“Rather queer, that, I should say,” said Stubb.
“It will make a good enough one,” said Flask, “the carpenter here can arrange it easily.”
And so the carpenter does, despite the queerness of this job—making a life preserver of a coffin.
Hence Moby-Dick formalizes its theme of LIFE | DEATH in an overdetermined symbol, an abstract concrete thing our living ghosting narrator will cling to after the drama’s done, after the sweep of disaster vortexes all.
Here, we—and by which we, I guess I mean Ishmael’s consciousness–or maybe I just mean we—enter Starbuck’s consciousness.
Our good Christian co-commander stands outside crazy Captain Ahab’s quarters, wondering whether to tell his commander that The Pequod has escaped a typhoon–or to kill the tyrant.
II. Ch. 123 delivers the longest (I mean, I’m pretty sure it’s the longest) monologue we get from Starbuck in the novel, as he ponders the morality of assassinating his captain, Ahab. It begins:
“He would have shot me once,” he murmured, “yes, there’s the very musket that he pointed at me;—that one with the studded stock; let me touch it—lift it. Strange, that I, who have handled so many deadly lances, strange, that I should shake so now. Loaded? I must see. Aye, aye; and powder in the pan;—that’s not good. Best spill it?—wait. I’ll cure myself of this. I’ll hold the musket boldly while I think.
Starbuck’s monologue is riddled with the kind of dashes and question marks we might more readily identify with Poe’s bipolars or Dickinson’s Riddles. Madness infects, and Starbuck is touched.
III. “Has he not dashed his heavenly quadrant?” Starbuck dashingly muses, prefiguring, perhaps, Emily Dickinson’s lines, “Done with the Compass – / Done with the Chart!”
Wild nights indeed!
IV. Starbuck’s wild night again shifts into Poe territory. He’s got a touch of craze to his soul, but he’s still the Christian moral (a)center of Melville’s satanic novel. Here, he weighs the metaphysical against the physical:
But shall this crazed old man be tamely suffered to drag a whole ship’s company down to doom with him?—Yes, it would make him the wilful murderer of thirty men and more, if this ship come to any deadly harm; and come to deadly harm, my soul swears this ship will, if Ahab have his way. If, then, he were this instant—put aside, that crime would not be his. Ha! is he muttering in his sleep? Yes, just there,—in there, he’s sleeping. Sleeping? aye, but still alive, and soon awake again.
V. Starbuck understands that Ahab will wholly infect the crew of The Pequod, dooming them in his disease:
Not reasoning; not remonstrance; not entreaty wilt thou hearken to; all this thou scornest. Flat obedience to thy own flat commands, this is all thou breathest. Aye, and say’st the men have vow’d thy vow; say’st all of us are Ahabs.
VI. In the end though—well, in the end, Starbuck chickens out, as we knew he would. “Great God, where art Thou? Shall I? shall I?” he implores, but God does not answer in any language Starbuck is prepared to read. Instead, Ahab answers (and God through him?) — “Stern all! Oh Moby Dick, I clutch thy heart at last!” — another prefiguration of the demise of the crew Starbuck would save if he were made of sterner stuff.
VII. The episode ends with Starbuck retreating, telling Stubb to wake Ahab.
II. Ch. 120, “The Deck Towards the End of the First Night Watch.”
A very short chapter with a mediumish-length title
After the title, we have a stage direction: Ahab standing by the helm. Starbuck approaching him.
The rest is a brief exchange between Captain and First Mate, in which Starbuck is overwhelmed (again) by Ahab’s tyrannical force.
III. Ch. 121, “Midnight.—The Forecastle Bulwarks.”
We go from Ahab and Starbuck to “Stubb and Flask mounted on them [the forecastle bulwarks], and passing additional lashings over the anchors there hanging.”
After this stage direction, again—dialogue. I might summarize their brief conversation, which we audit unimpeded by authorial intrusions—but I’d rather point out the complete retreat of Ishmael. He is again a ghostly voyeur, here there and everywhere in the text, an open ear, unobtrusive, the ship’s silent spirit.
IV. Ch. 122, “Midnight Aloft.—Thunder and Lightning.”
Great little poem, this chapter. Look, here it is. Read it aloud, make it rhyme:
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.
This trio of chapters introduces the carpenter, who proves a strange foil to Ahab.
II. Ch. 106, “Ahab’s Leg.”
Moby-Dick is a phallic novel, full of thrusts, jabs, ejaculations, and sperm sperm sperm. “Ahab’s Leg” reinforces this theme through negation. Melville (or is it Ishmael?) underscores here the notion that Ahab has been symbolically castrated by Moby Dick; this symbolic castration leads to Ahab’s revenge quest—the monomaniacal captain seeks to reassert his power through domination. (It’s all a dick swingin’ contest.)
III. The symbolic castration repeats when Ahab quits The Samuel Enderby, and endures “some small violence to his own person.” We learn that in the jostling of the boat, “his ivory leg had received a half-splintering shock.” This second figurative castration actually follows a near-literal one though:
For it had not been very long prior to the Pequod’s sailing from Nantucket, that he had been found one night lying prone upon the ground, and insensible; by some unknown, and seemingly inexplicable, unimaginable casualty, his ivory limb having been so violently displaced, that it had stake-wise smitten, and all but pierced his groin; nor was it without extreme difficulty that the agonizing wound was entirely cured.
And yet it’s clear that the wound is still not entirely cured. Ahab seeks to repair his phallic wound by way of a phallic spearing of the White Whale.
IV. The chapter continues down a stranger path. Ishmael, with his all-access pass to consciousness, relates that Ahab, reflecting on his woes, decries that, “all miserable events do naturally beget their like.” The text continues, dwelling on sodomy, hell, and the perpetuation of grief:
Yea, more than equally, thought Ahab; since both the ancestry and posterity of Grief go further than the ancestry and posterity of Joy. For, not to hint of this: that it is an inference from certain canonic teachings, that while some natural enjoyments here shall have no children born to them for the other world, but, on the contrary, shall be followed by the joy-childlessness of all hell’s despair; whereas, some guilty mortal miseries shall still fertilely beget to themselves an eternally progressive progeny of griefs beyond the grave; not at all to hint of this, there still seems an inequality in the deeper analysis of the thing. For, thought Ahab, while even the highest earthly felicities ever have a certain unsignifying pettiness lurking in them, but, at bottom, all heartwoes, a mystic significance, and, in some men, an archangelic grandeur; so do their diligent tracings-out not belie the obvious deduction. To trail the genealogies of these high mortal miseries, carries us at last among the sourceless primogenitures of the gods; so that, in the face of all the glad, hay-making suns, and soft cymballing, round harvest-moons, we must needs give in to this: that the gods themselves are not for ever glad. The ineffaceable, sad birth-mark in the brow of man, is but the stamp of sorrow in the signers.
The depressive, fatalistic tone here is pure Ahab–if Ishmael’s expansive over-soul touches the paragraph, it does so in opposition. (What an amazing passage.)
V. Ch. 107, “The Carpenter.”
A nice little chapter describing the ship’s carpenter, who is a sort of Swiss army knife of a man:
He was like one of those unreasoning but still highly useful, multum in parvo, Sheffield contrivances, assuming the exterior—though a little swelled—of a common pocket knife; but containing, not only blades of various sizes, but also screw-drivers, cork-screws, tweezers, awls, pens, rulers, nail-filers, countersinkers. So, if his superiors wanted to use the carpenter for a screw-driver, all they had to do was to open that part of him, and the screw was fast: or if for tweezers, take him up by the legs, and there they were.
He sets about crafting Ahab a new leg.
VI. Ch. 108, “Ahab and the Carpenter.”
Melville (Ishmael?) again turns his novel into a Shakespearian play, complete with stage directions. The carpenter files away at the ivory leg-to-be, while the blacksmith bangs about in the background. He sneezes as he files away at the crutch he creates.
Ahab enters, invoking the carpenter as a Promethean figure:
The carpenter then sets about to measure for Ahab’s leg. Ahab sticks his stump into a vice (an implicitly sexual image). The carpenter warns him about the vice’s grip, but Ahab is malevolently jocular. He then directly invokes Prometheus;
No fear; I like a good grip; I like to feel something in this slippery world that can hold, man. What’s Prometheus about there?—the blacksmith, I mean—what’s he about?
V. Ahab essentially ignores the carpenter’s plain answers, and instead begins soliloquizing. Again, he’s monovocal in stereophonic world:
I do deem it now a most meaning thing, that that old Greek, Prometheus, who made men, they say, should have been a blacksmith, and animated them with fire; for what’s made in fire must properly belong to fire; and so hell’s probable.
VI. Ahab’s monomania crests: He sets about to become the Prometheus in the scene—but a commander Prometheus, an artistic director. His idealized “complete man” reveals more of Ahab’s singular vision—a vision that precludes all other perspectives. He conjures a heartless giant–an intellectual giant:
Hold; while Prometheus is about it, I’ll order a complete man after a desirable pattern. Imprimis, fifty feet high in his socks; then, chest modelled after the Thames Tunnel; then, legs with roots to ’em, to stay in one place; then, arms three feet through the wrist; no heart at all, brass forehead, and about a quarter of an acre of fine brains; and let me see—shall I order eyes to see outwards? No, but put a sky-light on top of his head to illuminate inwards. There, take the order, and away.
Ahab’s ideal man has no outward-seeing eyes–there is no perspective at all here except that which will “illuminate inwards.” He mentions no mouth.
VII. Ahab finally quits the carpenter’s shop, and the poor old man begins his own monologue. He repeats the key word queer ten times over in his evocation of Ahab:
Well, well, well! Stubb knows him best of all, and Stubb always says he’s queer; says nothing but that one sufficient little word queer; he’s queer, says Stubb; he’s queer—queer, queer; and keeps dinning it into Mr. Starbuck all the time—queer—sir—queer, queer, very queer.
And who is queer Ahab’s bedfellow?
Yes, now that I think of it, here’s his bedfellow! has a stick of whale’s jaw-bone for a wife!
Ishmael praises the “famous whaling house of Enderby & Sons; a house which in my poor whaleman’s opinion, comes not far behind the united royal houses of the Tudors and Bourbons, in point of real historical interest.” He claims that, years after sailing on The Pequod, he enjoyed a “fine gam” with the crew of The Samuel Enderby. The claim interests me, as it seems like pretty clear evidence that Ishmael is not a ghost, which is an idea (namely, Ishmael is a ghost) that I’ve been playing with in these riffs. However, I mean—he could be the ghost at that feast though, right? Maybe?
“The Decanter” is another one of those “transition” chapters in Moby-Dick, where Ishmael subtly shifts from the events of the narrative proper into some other story, only to go back to his quest to measure the whale. Which brings us to—
III. Ch. 102, “A Bower in the Arsacides.”
Ishmael tells us that “it behooves me now to unbutton [the whale] still further.” He will dissect the beast to get to its “unconditional skeleton.”
The word dissect in the previous sentence is not merely metaphorical:
I confess, that since Jonah, few whalemen have penetrated very far beneath the skin of the adult whale; nevertheless, I have been blessed with an opportunity to dissect him in miniature. In a ship I belonged to, a small cub Sperm Whale was once bodily hoisted to the deck for his poke or bag, to make sheaths for the barbs of the harpoons, and for the heads of the lances. Think you I let that chance go, without using my boat-hatchet and jack-knife, and breaking the seal and reading all the contents of that young cub?
Reading all the contents of that young cub—again, Moby-Dick is not about whales; it is a book about reading the phenomenal world (with the aid of the whale as a major, slippery, impregnable metaphor).
IV. How does Ishmael know the measurements of adult whales?
And as for my exact knowledge of the bones of the leviathan in their gigantic, full grown development, for that rare knowledge I am indebted to my late royal friend Tranquo, king of Tranque, one of the Arsacides.
In his “Arsacidean holidays with the lord of Tranquo,” Ishmael is able to take the measure of a sperm whale skeleton which washed up dead on the beach after a storm. The skeleton is a kind of religious relic, surrounded by “a grand temple of lordly palms [which] now sheltered it.”
Ishmael extends the image for us:
The ribs were hung with trophies; the vertebræ were carved with Arsacidean annals, in strange hieroglyphics; in the skull, the priests kept up an unextinguished aromatic flame, so that the mystic head again sent forth its vapory spout; while, suspended from a bough, the terrific lower jaw vibrated over all the devotees, like the hair-hung sword that so affrighted Damocles.
It was a wondrous sight. The wood was green as mosses of the Icy Glen; the trees stood high and haughty, feeling their living sap; the industrious earth beneath was as a weaver’s loom, with a gorgeous carpet on it, whereof the ground-vine tendrils formed the warp and woof, and the living flowers the figures. All the trees, with all their laden branches; all the shrubs, and ferns, and grasses; the message-carrying air; all these unceasingly were active. Through the lacings of the leaves, the great sun seemed a flying shuttle weaving the unwearied verdure.
Ishmael then makes the leap from the physical to the metaphysical world. He addresses god the weaver:
Speak, weaver!—stay thy hand!—but one single word with thee! Nay—the shuttle flies—the figures float from forth the loom; the freshet-rushing carpet for ever slides away. The weaver-god, he weaves; and by that weaving is he deafened, that he hears no mortal voice; and by that humming, we, too, who look on the loom are deafened; and only when we escape it shall we hear the thousand voices that speak through it.
Ishmael ends the paragraph by invoking “great world’s loom,” recalling the title of Moby-Dick’s famous opening chapter “Loomings,” and points back And he ends the novel by escaping—alone—from the wreck of The Pequod, and returns to us to bear witness to and channel the “voices that speak” through the world’s looming.
V. Ch. 102 concludes as a kind of prequel to the next chapter:
The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics.
Ishmael attests that he didn’t record the inches though—he was saving room for a poem on his skin: “I did not trouble myself with the odd inches; nor, indeed, should inches at all enter into a congenial admeasurement of the whale.”
The note is interesting—up until now we did not know that Ish was tattooed, like his brethren Queequeg. His tattoos are again a form of writing about the whale’s body, and this writing is inscribed on his own body. It’s doubly body writing.
VI. Ch. 103, “Measurement of the Whale’s Skeleton.”
I’ve tried to point out in these riffs (and even in this riff) that Moby-Dick constantly moves between the physical and the metaphysical in its attempt to read the whale, by which I mean read the world of observable phenomena. Ch. 103, as its title suggests, is a very physical, numerical chapter, and I will not remark on it at any length, except to suggest that there is something of a parable in its last paragraph:
There are forty and odd vertebræ in all, which in the skeleton are not locked together. They mostly lie like the great knobbed blocks on a Gothic spire, forming solid courses of heavy masonry. The largest, a middle one, is in width something less than three feet, and in depth more than four. The smallest, where the spine tapers away into the tail, is only two inches in width, and looks something like a white billiard-ball. I was told that there were still smaller ones, but they had been lost by some little cannibal urchins, the priest’s children, who had stolen them to play marbles with. Thus we see how that the spine of even the hugest of living things tapers off at last into simple child’s play.
VII. Ch. 104, “The Fossil Whale.”
“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme,” Ishmael declares in this gigantifying chapter about old whale bones. Ish moves from the physical/empirical to the historical (and historical adjacent); the chapter’s gigantism extends to a kind of kitchen-sinkism. Ishmael declares himself a geologist (he tells us he’s been “a great digger of ditches, canals and wells, wine-vaults, cellars, and cisterns of all sorts.”)
Ultimately, the whale remains a god to Ishmael, a metaphysical physical god that prefigures and postdates humankind:
Who can show a pedigree like Leviathan? Ahab’s harpoon had shed older blood than the Pharaoh’s. Methuselah seems a school-boy. I look round to shake hands with Shem. I am horror-struck at this antemosaic, unsourced existence of the unspeakable terrors of the whale, which, having been before all time, must needs exist after all humane ages are over.
He leaves us to worship in the “Afric Temple of the Whale.”
VIII. Ch. 105, “Does the Whale’s Magnitude Diminish?—Will He Perish?”
What a title on this one—and what a chapter ironized by the next century’s endangering of the species Ishmael attests “must needs exist after all humane ages are over.”
Perhaps the chapter’s final paragraph points to the landlubber’s peril of rising oceans and rising temperatures though:
…we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality. He swam the seas before the continents broke water; he once swam over the site of the Tuileries, and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin. In Noah’s flood he despised Noah’s Ark; and if ever the world is to be again flooded, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies.
I hope we might all, we living things, physical things, spout some defiance, frothed or otherwise.
I. In this riff, Chapter 100 of Moby-Dick — “Leg and Arm • The Pequod, of Nantucket, meets the Samuel Enderby, of London.”
II. I probably should’ve rolled this chapter into my last riff.Chapter 100 serves again to underscore Ahab’s monomaniacal monologuing, his inability to read the world through any lens but his singular quest to destroy the White Whale—and it does so by employing one of the novel’s thematic devices, negation. Here, Ahab (the absent, negative leg) meets Captain Boomer (the absent, negative arm). Both captains have lost their limbs to Moby Dick. However, their dispositions could not be more different. After losing his arm while attempting to harpoon Moby Dick, Captain Boomer of the Samuel Enderby runs into the whale two more times, but does not attempt to capture it, to Ahab’s disbelief. Why? Boomer answers jocularly, “ain’t one limb enough?
III. Indeed, the very spirit of “Leg and Arm” is the opposing attitudes of Ahab and Boomer. Ahab is all monomaniacal vengeance, but Boomer is more practical. Ahab is sundered from connection to his fellow man—even his mates limit their discourse with him—while Boomer is a genial and hearty joker. Much of “Leg and Arm” contrasts Ahab’s one-track mind with Boomer’s expansive loquaciousness. Ahab initiates the discourse with the Enderby with his regular hailing: “Hast seen the white whale?” — and the rest of his interrogation focuses solely on this end. He is not interested in conversing with Boomer, nor with Boomer’s first mate and surgeon, who attend their meeting.
The officers of the Enderby are a lively fraternity though, telling their tale with a chummy joy. Consider this exchange between Boomer and his surgeon Bunger:
“It was a shocking bad wound,” began the whale-surgeon; “and, taking my advice, Captain Boomer here, stood our old Sammy—”
“Samuel Enderby is the name of my ship,” interrupted the one-armed captain, addressing Ahab; “go on, boy.”
“Stood our old Sammy off to the northward, to get out of the blazing hot weather there on the Line. But it was no use—I did all I could; sat up with him nights; was very severe with him in the matter of diet—”
“Oh, very severe!” chimed in the patient himself; then suddenly altering his voice, “Drinking hot rum toddies with me every night, till he couldn’t see to put on the bandages; and sending me to bed, half seas over, about three o’clock in the morning. Oh, ye stars! he sat up with me indeed, and was very severe in my diet. Oh! a great watcher, and very dietetically severe, is Dr. Bunger. (Bunger, you dog, laugh out! why don’t ye? You know you’re a precious jolly rascal.) But, heave ahead, boy, I’d rather be killed by you than kept alive by any other man.”
“My captain, you must have ere this perceived, respected sir”—said the imperturbable godly-looking Bunger, slightly bowing to Ahab—“is apt to be facetious at times; he spins us many clever things of that sort. But I may as well say—en passant, as the French remark—that I myself—that is to say, Jack Bunger, late of the reverend clergy—am a strict total abstinence man; I never drink—”
“Water!” cried the captain; “he never drinks it; it’s a sort of fits to him; fresh water throws him into the hydrophobia; but go on—go on with the arm story.”
The scene’s quick-witted bonhomie stands in stark contrast to Ahab’s dour and fear-riddled relation with his own crew and mates.
IV. The episode concludes with Ahab finally snapping—he’s had enough of the Englishmen yapping away—enough of their conviviality. He demands to know which direction they last saw Moby Dick heading. Dr. Bunger tries to intervene, offering Ahab a medical examination, which is swiftly rejected. Ahab gets his answer and departs without a shred of civility:
“Bless my soul, and curse the foul fiend’s,” cried Bunger, stoopingly walking round Ahab, and like a dog, strangely snuffing; “this man’s blood—bring the thermometer!—it’s at the boiling point!—his pulse makes these planks beat!—sir!”—taking a lancet from his pocket, and drawing near to Ahab’s arm.
“Avast!” roared Ahab, dashing him against the bulwarks—“Man the boat! Which way heading?”
“Good God!” cried the English Captain, to whom the question was put. “What’s the matter? He was heading east, I think.—Is your Captain crazy?” whispering Fedallah.
But Fedallah, putting a finger on his lip, slid over the bulwarks to take the boat’s steering oar, and Ahab, swinging the cutting-tackle towards him, commanded the ship’s sailors to stand by to lower.
In a moment he was standing in the boat’s stern, and the Manilla men were springing to their oars. In vain the English Captain hailed him. With back to the stranger ship, and face set like a flint to his own, Ahab stood upright till alongside of the Pequod.
V. The final notation that “Ahab stood upright” is a significant detail. The Enderby is the only ship he meets with in person, and to board it, he must lower himself—quite literally. Ishmael devotes several paragraphs detailing how difficult it is for Ahab to board a ship from his boat. Indeed, the crew of The Enderby have to pull him up in a net. The whole process might be neatly summed up in the notation that, “Ahab now found himself abjectly reduced to a clumsy landsman again.” His abjection feeds his anger, but also shows that he’s willing to abase himself in his quest for the whale—but only for that quest. He will not lower himself to his fellow man’s warmth and empathy.
I. In this riff, Chapter 99 of Moby-Dick — “The Doubloon.”
II. Moby-Dick is a big big book stuffed with big big themes. One of those themes is perspective and interpretation, and Ch. 99, “The Doubloon,” showcases that theme, as various characters stop to inspect and reflect on the coin that Ahab hammered to the masthead back in Ch. 36, “The Quarter-Deck.” This gold piece is the prize for the first man to sight Moby Dick, and thus already symbolically overdetermined in the narrative. It becomes a thing that the sailors translate into ideas, for, as Ishmael points out (again prefiguring William Carlos Williams), “some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher, except to sell by the cartload.”
III. Here is Ishmael’s description (not interpretation) of the coin:
On its round border it bore the letters, REPUBLICA DEL ECUADOR: QUITO. So this bright coin came from a country planted in the middle of the world, and beneath the great equator, and named after it; and it had been cast midway up the Andes, in the unwaning clime that knows no autumn. Zoned by those letters you saw the likeness of three Andes’ summits; from one a flame; a tower on another; on the third a crowing cock; while arching over all was a segment of the partitioned zodiac, the signs all marked with their usual cabalistics, and the keystone sun entering the equinoctial point at Libra.
IV. Enter Ahab, pacing the quarter-deck, as he often does. On this particular morning, “turning to pass the doubloon, [Ahab] seemed to be newly attracted by the strange figures and inscriptions stamped on it, as though now for the first time beginning to interpret for himself in some monomaniac way whatever significance might lurk in them.”
V. Ishmael repeatedly describes Ahab as a “monomaniac.” The crippled captain focuses only on the hated whale. Ahab’s perspective is limited and constrained. Ahab sees and interprets in mono, unlike the whale, who, as Ishmael reminds us in Ch. 74, “The Sperm Whale’s Head—Contrasted View,” sees in stereo. The whale’s eyes are on either side of its head. Ish wonders if the whale “can at the same moment of time attentively examine two distinct prospects, one on one side of him, and the other in an exactly opposite direction.” The passage again recalls Keats’s notion of Negative Capability—to hold two possibly contrasting views in one’s consciousness “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
VI. But Ahab holds only one vision, one mania. He interprets the doubloon (“not unobserved by others,” Ishmael double-negatively observedly informs us):
“There’s something ever egotistical in mountain-tops and towers, and all other grand and lofty things; look here,—three peaks as proud as Lucifer. The firm tower, that is Ahab; the volcano, that is Ahab; the courageous, the undaunted, and victorious fowl, that, too, is Ahab; all are Ahab; and this round gold is but the image of the rounder globe, which, like a magician’s glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own mysterious self.
In his monomania, Ahab sees himself in the coin. It’s a mirror for a man on a Luciferian quest.
VII. Perspective shifts then to Starbuck, who states, “He goes below; let me read,” as Ahab descends. Starbuck, the good Christian counterbalance to Ahab’s satanic awe—
VIII. —but look, wait. I think I have to stop here a moment and point out again, amid this riff on a chapter of perspective and seeing and being seen and interpreting and outright voyeurism—I feel the need to point out again that Our Dear Ishmael is an Omnipresent Voyeur, a first-person consciousness who attends and interprets the private thoughts of his fellows. How? How? But anyway—
IX. So perspective shifts then to Starbuck, who first interprets Ahab’s interpretation: “The old man seems to read Belshazzar’s awful writing.” Christian Starbuck here refers to Chapter Five of The Book of Daniel, the main message of which has come to us colloquially as The writing on the wall. But it’s really Starbuck who reads the impending doom—he reads Ahab reading the coin.
X. And Starbuck reading the coin:
A dark valley between three mighty, heaven-abiding peaks, that almost seem the Trinity, in some faint earthly symbol. So in this vale of Death, God girds us round; and over all our gloom, the sun of Righteousness still shines a beacon and a hope. If we bend down our eyes, the dark vale shows her mouldy soil; but if we lift them, the bright sun meets our glance half way, to cheer. Yet, oh, the great sun is no fixture; and if, at midnight, we would fain snatch some sweet solace from him, we gaze for him in vain! This coin speaks wisely, mildly, truly, but still sadly to me. I will quit it, lest Truth shake me falsely.
Again, he reads and interprets the sign through his own lens of wisdom, mildness, truth, and, ultimately, sadness. But he elects to “quit it” before he stares too long into its abyss.
XI. Cruel conniving sardonic Stubb then enters the scene, spying his captain and first mate. “I’d not look at it very long ere spending it,” he says of the doubloon, adding, “Humph! in my poor, insignificant opinion, I regard this as queer.” Stubb riffs a bit on the many gold coins he’s seen, complaining that it’s odd—queer—that anyone would take the time to inspect this one: “What then should there be in this doubloon of the Equator that is so killing wonderful?”
XII. Stubb decides to “read it once,” and immediately discerns, “signs and wonders truly.” He gives the following Zodiac reading, which I can’t help but share in full. In the reading, Stubb converts the ideas, the avatars, the signs, into things—people, places, events—life:
Look you, Doubloon, your zodiac here is the life of man in one round chapter; and now I’ll read it off, straight out of the book. Come, Almanack! To begin: there’s Aries, or the Ram—lecherous dog, he begets us; then, Taurus, or the Bull—he bumps us the first thing; then Gemini, or the Twins—that is, Virtue and Vice; we try to reach Virtue, when lo! comes Cancer the Crab, and drags us back; and here, going from Virtue, Leo, a roaring Lion, lies in the path—he gives a few fierce bites and surly dabs with his paw; we escape, and hail Virgo, the Virgin! that’s our first love; we marry and think to be happy for aye, when pop comes Libra, or the Scales—happiness weighed and found wanting; and while we are very sad about that, Lord! how we suddenly jump, as Scorpio, or the Scorpion, stings us in the rear; we are curing the wound, when whang come the arrows all round; Sagittarius, or the Archer, is amusing himself. As we pluck out the shafts, stand aside! here’s the battering-ram, Capricornus, or the Goat; full tilt, he comes rushing, and headlong we are tossed; when Aquarius, or the Water-bearer, pours out his whole deluge and drowns us; and to wind up with Pisces, or the Fishes, we sleep.
XIII. Stubb then plays stage manager, ushering in the next interpreter, Flask, and declares that he will hide behind the boilers to audit the scene unseen: “here comes little King-Post; dodge round the try-works, now, and let’s hear what he’ll have to say. There; he’s before it; he’ll out with something presently. So, so; he’s beginning.”
Flask’s interpretation of the thing is purely economic and transactional—or really, what I want to say, thing based: “I see nothing here, but a round thing made of gold, and whoever raises a certain whale, this round thing belongs to him.” He interprets its thingness in terms of other things: “It is worth sixteen dollars, that’s true; and at two cents the cigar, that’s nine hundred and sixty cigars.”
XIV. Melville-Ishmael-narrator-voyeur-Flask in this moment announces the next player: “But, avast; here comes our old Manxman.” The old Manxman (a “hearse-driver, he must have been, that is, before he took to the sea,” ominously foreshadows Flask) reads the doubloon: “If the White Whale be raised, it must be in a month and a day, when the sun stands in some one of these signs. I’ve studied signs, and know their marks.”
The Manxman underscores the chapter’s theme of textual interpretation: “There’s another rendering now; but still one text. All sorts of men in one kind of world, you see.”
XV. Stubb then announces the next interpreter: “Dodge again! here comes Queequeg—all tattooing—looks like the signs of the Zodiac himself. What says the Cannibal?”
Here, the narrative voyeurism remains at a distance—we do not get into Queeg’s consciousness. Instead, whiteman Stubb reports the scenario: “As I live he’s comparing notes; looking at his thigh bone; thinks the sun is in the thigh, or in the calf, or in the bowels, I suppose, as the old women talk Surgeon’s Astronomy in the back country. And by Jove, he’s found something there in the vicinity of his thigh—I guess it’s Sagittarius, or the Archer.”
The I guess there is key—Melville gives us Ishmael giving us Stubb eading the inscrutable zodiac-tattooed other, Queequeg, reading the doubloon, the central sign of the chapter, nailed to the phallic mast.
XVI. Stubb also delivers his interpretation of the otherly-othered Fedallah’s inspection of the coin: “But, aside again! here comes that ghost-devil, Fedallah; tail coiled out of sight as usual, oakum in the toes of his pumps as usual. What does he say, with that look of his? Ah, only makes a sign to the sign and bows himself; there is a sun on the coin—fire worshipper, depend upon it.”
He cannot read Fedallah, who “only makes a sign to the sign” — but that in itself is a reading.
XVII. And then:
Ho! more and more. This way comes Pip—poor boy! would he had died, or I; he’s half horrible to me. He too has been watching all of these interpreters—myself included—and look now, he comes to read, with that unearthly idiot face. Stand away again and hear him. Hark!
Recall now that Stubb is the author, or at least co-author, of Pip’s “idiot face.” He’s “half horrible” to Stubb because Stubb abandoned him.
And mad sane wonderful abject Pip delivers a grammar of interpretation:
“I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look.”
Pip traces the mantra three times—this is interpretation, this is reading:
“I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look.”
This is what Melville nails to the mast in this chapter (the nail is a ghost nail)—perspective, perspective, perspective.