Once upon a time there lived a King who was immensely rich. He had broad lands, and sacks overflowing with gold and silver; but he did not care a bit for all his riches, because the Queen, his wife, was dead. He shut himself up in a little room and knocked his head against the walls for grief, until his courtiers were really afraid that he would hurt himself. So they hung feather-beds between the tapestry and the walls, and then he could go on knocking his head as long as it was any consolation to him without coming to much harm. All his subjects came to see him, and said whatever they thought would comfort him: some were grave, even gloomy with him; and some agreeable, even gay; but not one could make the least impression upon him. Indeed, he hardly seemed to hear what they said. At last came a lady who was wrapped in a black mantle, and seemed to be in the deepest grief. She wept and sobbed until even the King’s attention was attracted; and when she said that, far from coming to try and diminish his grief, she, who had just lost a good husband, was come to add her tears to his, since she knew what he must be feeling, the King redoubled his lamentations. Then he told the sorrowful lady long stories about the good qualities of his departed Queen, and she in her turn recounted all the virtues of her departed husband; and this passed the time so agreeably that the King quite forgot to thump his head against the feather-beds, and the lady did not need to wipe the tears from her great blue eyes as often as before. By degrees they came to talking about other things in which the King took an interest, and in a wonderfully short time the whole kingdom was astonished by the news that the King was married again to the sorrowful lady. Continue reading “The Blue Bird I — Natalie Frank”→
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:
In these chapters, Ishmael (again) describes the business of rendering oil and etcetera from a whale’s corpse. The chapters show again Ishmael’s push-pull narration style, vacillating between the physical/commercial and the metaphysical/philosophical.
Look—I’m gonna quote the hell out of this chapter. Ish and his fellows set to a big ole tub of sperm, by which he means, of course, spermaceti, the vital stuff found in an organ in the sperm whale’s head; the vital stuff that energizes and lights Ishmael’s world. On that self-same sperm:
It had cooled and crystallized to such a degree, that when, with several others, I sat down before a large Constantine’s bath of it, I found it strangely concreted into lumps, here and there rolling about in the liquid part. It was our business to squeeze these lumps back into fluid. A sweet and unctuous duty! No wonder that in old times this sperm was such a favourite cosmetic. Such a clearer! such a sweetener! such a softener! such a delicious molifier! After having my hands in it for only a few minutes, my fingers felt like eels, and began, as it were, to serpentine and spiralise.
The next sentence—a full paragraph—is something else:
As I sat there at my ease, cross-legged on the deck; after the bitter exertion at the windlass; under a blue tranquil sky; the ship under indolent sail, and gliding so serenely along; as I bathed my hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, woven almost within the hour; as they richly broke to my fingers, and discharged all their opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine; as I snuffed up that uncontaminated aroma,—literally and truly, like the smell of spring violets; I declare to you, that for the time I lived as in a musky meadow; I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it; I almost began to credit the old Paracelsan superstition that sperm is of rare virtue in allaying the heat of anger; while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.
The sentence above: 161 words, eleven semicolons, fourteen commas, one dash, and of course, one final period. In these words and characters—halts and stops, connections and jumps—Ishmael converts his pain, his “horrible oath,” his drastic hypos, his desire to go about knocking the hats off men, his general misanthropy—he converts all of this into a moment of transcendence.
The moment of transcendence extends into a kind of spermy mindmeld:
Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.
Here, I think is the the grand thesis of Moby-Dick.
III. But no. That’s not the thesis. That’s the grand ecstatic epiphany of joy, which Ishmael deflates in the next paragraph:
Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fireside, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally. In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.
Locate the epiphany elsewhere than the intellect or the fancy then: wife, bed, saddle, etc.
—Say it, no ideas but in things—, wrote William Carlos Williams not quite a century later.
IV. Ishmael turns from ideas to things. He lists some of the other magic potions in the sperm whale’s body: white-horse, plum pudding, slobgollion, gurry, and nippers.
The chapter ends with Ish describing the process by which a spademan and gaffman cut the whale into pieces. It’s a mechanical, thingy business, one that points back to the reason for Ahab’s revenge quest:
This spade is sharp as hone can make it; the spademan’s feet are shoeless; the thing he stands on will sometimes irresistibly slide away from him, like a sledge. If he cuts off one of his own toes, or one of his assistants’, would you be very much astonished? Toes are scarce among veteran blubber-room men.
Toes are scarce, but perhaps not as vital as legs.
V. Ch. 95, “The Cassock.”
Another short chapter on a long subject. Ishmael describes-but-not-defines “a very strange, enigmatical object . . . lying along lengthwise in the lee scuppers.” His description is an accumulation of negations:
Not the wondrous cistern in the whale’s huge head; not the prodigy of his unhinged lower jaw; not the miracle of his symmetrical tail; none of these would so surprise you, as half a glimpse of that unaccountable cone,—longer than a Kentuckian is tall, nigh a foot in diameter at the base, and jet-black as Yojo, the ebony idol of Queequeg.
And what is that enormous jet black cone? A “grandissimus, as the mariners call it.”
It’s the whale’s dick, natch.
Ishmael compares it to the idol “found in the secret groves of Queen Maachah in Judea” — the Asherah pole — and points out that “King Asa, her son, did depose her, and destroyed the idol, and burnt it for an abomination.”
This is a phallic book full of castrations, cuttings off both figurative and literal.
VI. Ch. 96, “The Try-Works”
Another chapter initially focused on the practical business of whaling. In this case, we learn about the try-works, where blubber is cooked down to oil. I’ll let Moser’s illustration stand in here:
The chapter ends though in a great metaphysical rush, as Ish goes from things back to ideas:
The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. “All is vanity.” ALL. This wilful world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon’s wisdom yet. But he who dodges hospitals and jails, and walks fast crossing graveyards, and would rather talk of operas than hell; calls Cowper, Young, Pascal, Rousseau, poor devils all of sick men; and throughout a care-free lifetime swears by Rabelais as passing wise, and therefore jolly;—not that man is fitted to sit down on tomb-stones, and break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon.
The chapter concludes with a puzzling set of metaphors:
There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.
VII. Ch. 97, “The Lamp.”
In this very short (three-paragraph) chapter, Ishmael notes that whalemen light their lamps from the oil of the animals they hunt.
VIII. Ch. 98, “Stowing Down and Clearing Up.”
A chapter about cleaning up. Ish declares that, “were it not for the tell-tale boats and try-works, you would all but swear you trod some silent merchant vessel, with a most scrupulously neat commander. The unmanufactured sperm oil possesses a singularly cleansing virtue.” In other words, despite all the butchery, blood, and bits involved, there’s something in the whale itself that purifies the decks after a good scrub down.
The chapter ends with Ishmael recognizing the mechanical repetition of his business though—no wonder the Modernists revived Moby-Dick!
Yet this is life. For hardly have we mortals by long toilings extracted from this world’s vast bulk its small but valuable sperm; and then, with weary patience, cleansed ourselves from its defilements, and learned to live here in clean tabernacles of the soul; hardly is this done, when—There she blows!—the ghost is spouted up, and away we sail to fight some other world, and go through young life’s old routine again.
Oh! the metempsychosis! Oh! Pythagoras, that in bright Greece, two thousand years ago, did die, so good, so wise, so mild; I sailed with thee along the Peruvian coast last voyage—and, foolish as I am, taught thee, a green simple boy, how to splice a rope!
Another chapter that starts out horny and ends in death.
Our Man Ish lets us know that many whalers love to “grease the bottom” of their boats to make them run faster against the water, for “oil is a sliding thing.” Queequeg greases up his boat’s keel, “rubbing in the unctuousness…in obedience to some particular presentiment.” The presentiment presents in yet another whale sighting. Tashtego spears one, but it nevertheless starts to evade the whale boats. The solution? Pitchpoling:
Of all the wondrous devices and dexterities, the sleights of hand and countless subtleties, to which the veteran whaleman is so often forced, none exceed that fine manœuvre with the lance called pitchpoling. Small sword, or broad sword, in all its exercises boasts nothing like it. It is only indispensable with an inveterate running whale; its grand fact and feature is the wonderful distance to which the long lance is accurately darted from a violently rocking, jerking boat, under extreme headway. Steel and wood included, the entire spear is some ten or twelve feet in length; the staff is much slighter than that of the harpoon, and also of a lighter material—pine. It is furnished with a small rope called a warp, of considerable length, by which it can be hauled back to the hand after darting.
Stubb executes the pitchpole lancing with success, and celebrates his kill in a fit of patriotic bloodlust:
“That drove the spigot out of him!” cried Stubb. “’Tis July’s immortal Fourth; all fountains must run wine today! Would now, it were old Orleans whiskey, or old Ohio, or unspeakable old Monongahela! Then, Tashtego, lad, I’d have ye hold a canakin to the jet, and we’d drink round it! Yea, verily, hearts alive, we’d brew choice punch in the spread of his spout-hole there, and from that live punch-bowl quaff the living stuff.”
Stubb has proven himself a callous soul to this point. He is a jocular anti-Starbuck—and an anti-Ishmael, perhaps—and his suggestion that his crew “quaff the living stuff” from the whale he’s just lanced seems particularly cruel against the sympathetic portrait of whales that Ishmael has sketched over the last few chapters. He’s a figurative bloodsucker here, drawn first as a zany comic, but in a deeper reading, he is the Ugly American.
III. Ch. 85, “The Fountain.”
Here, Ishmael puts on his scientist’s cap again to puzzle out whether the whale spouts water or air.
He begins in an exacting mode, giving us the current date and time in the voyage:
…down to this blessed minute (fifteen and a quarter minutes past one o’clock P.M. of this sixteenth day of December, A.D. 1850), it should still remain a problem, whether these spoutings are, after all, really water, or nothing but vapor—this is surely a noteworthy thing.
(My darling wife’s birthday is December 16, although this has no bearing on this chapter, even if it bears a bit on my riff. In any case, Ishmael gives us a chance to get our temporal bearings here. Unless I’m wrong, the date suggests that The Pequod is almost a year out from its initial departure from Nantucket on Christmas Day of the preceding year.)
IV. “The Fountain” is one of those chapters (of which there are many) that might turn readers off from Moby-Dick—and yet it’s the sort of chapter that underlines the novel’s excellence. Ishmael is on a quest to know an unknowable thing, to describe it, analyze it, evaluate it, synthesize it into his own consciousness, and, perhaps ultimately thereby define it. Ch. 85 sees him at that task: “Still, we can hypothesize, even if we cannot prove and establish. My hypothesis is this: that the spout is nothing but mist.”
As always though, Ishmael’s own prejudices in favor of “the great inherent dignity and sublimity of the Sperm Whale” color any hypotheses he might draw. Indeed, for Ishmael, the sperm whale is a figure of genius:
He is both ponderous and profound. And I am convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings, such as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the act of thinking deep thoughts.
Ishmael finds—or, maybe more accurately projects—a fellow thinker of deep thoughts in the great whale. He tells us that
While composing a little treatise on Eternity, I had the curiosity to place a mirror before me; and ere long saw reflected there, a curious involved worming and undulation in the atmosphere over my head. The invariable moisture of my hair, while plunged in deep thought, after six cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August noon; this seems an additional argument for the above supposition.
The lines are both ironic, metatextual, but also sincere and sweet. Of course our man Ish might spy a bit of mist in his tiny humid attic—but could it not also be the physical manifestation of his own genius of the metaphysical—his “little treatise on Eternity” (by which paradoxical title I take to mean Moby-Dick).
In the end of the chapter, Ishmael tries to reconcile his physics with is metaphysics:
Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.
Other poets have warbled the praises of the soft eye of the antelope, and the lovely plumage of the bird that never alights; less celestial, I celebrate a tail.
This chapter sees Ishmael again playing scientist, but also aesthete. His first problem is to figure out just where, exactly, the tail of the whale begins. (In Ch. 90, “Heads or Tails,” he will concede that, in the whale, like the apple, “there is no intermediate remainder” between head or tail—the part that is not head is tail and the part that is not tail is head.)
VI. (Ishmael is more concerned, ultimately, with the power of the tail—and I don’t think Melville is above some punning symbolism here. We are a’whaling and wailing, and tailing and telling tales.)
VII. Every-horny Ishmael is horny (natch) for the whale tail:
Real strength never impairs beauty or harmony, but it often bestows it; and in everything imposingly beautiful, strength has much to do with the magic. Take away the tied tendons that all over seem bursting from the marble in the carved Hercules, and its charm would be gone. As devout Eckerman lifted the linen sheet from the naked corpse of Goethe, he was overwhelmed with the massive chest of the man, that seemed as a Roman triumphal arch. When Angelo paints even God the Father in human form, mark what robustness is there. And whatever they may reveal of the divine love in the Son, the soft, curled, hermaphroditical Italian pictures, in which his idea has been most successfully embodied; these pictures, so destitute as they are of all brawniness, hint nothing of any power, but the mere negative, feminine one of submission and endurance, which on all hands it is conceded, form the peculiar practical virtues of his teachings.
Our boy Ish might be a bit hot and bothered for Michelangelo’s Sistine God!
Yet another hyphenated chapter title; yet another horny chapter title.
In this chapter, the titular battering ram is the sperm whale’s head—or, more accurately, the middle space of its huge head, that “dead, blind wall, without a single organ or tender prominence of any sort whatsoever.” Ishmael implores us to consider “this whole enormous boneless mass…as one wad.”
Ish continues, pointing out that the whale’s brain—and consciousness? soul?—are protected by this battering ram:
Now, mark. Unerringly impelling this dead, impregnable, uninjurable wall, and this most buoyant thing within; there swims behind it all a mass of tremendous life…So that when I shall hereafter detail to you all the specialities and concentrations of potency everywhere lurking in this expansive monster; when I shall show you some of his more inconsiderable braining feats; I trust you will have renounced all ignorant incredulity, and be ready to abide by this; that though the Sperm Whale stove a passage through the Isthmus of Darien, and mixed the Atlantic with the Pacific, you would not elevate one hair of your eye-brow. For unless you own the whale, you are but a provincial and sentimentalist in Truth.
That’s a long paragraph! Forgive! Ish ends it thus:
But clear Truth is a thing for salamander giants only to encounter; how small the chances for the provincials then? What befell the weakling youth lifting the dread goddess’s veil at Lais?
Woe,—woe to him who treads through guilt to Truth!
III. Ch. 77, “The Great Heidelburgh Tun.”
“Now comes the Baling of the Case,” declares Ishmael, and then proceeds to explain how the “most precious of all his oily vintages…the highly-prized spermaceti, in its absolutely pure, limpid, and odoriferous state” shall be extracted from the sperm whale’s head. He tells us that,
A large whale’s case generally yields about five hundred gallons of sperm, though from unavoidable circumstances, considerable of it is spilled, leaks, and dribbles away, or is otherwise irrevocably lost in the ticklish business of securing what you can.
Moby-Dick is a Freudian field day.
IV. Ch. 78, “Cistern and Buckets.”
The Pequod’s crew, led by Tashtego, begin extracting the spermaceti from the whale’s head. The whole thing is a very phallic business:
Towards the end, Tashtego has to ram his long pole harder and harder, and deeper and deeper into the Tun, until some twenty feet of the pole have gone down.
Get a bucket and a mop.
In this slippery business, our man Tash falls into the hole in the whale’s head. Daggoo jumps into action, but the whale’s head falls from all but one hook, echoing “The Monkey-Rope,” the perilous, tenuous link of life between fellows. Luckily—repeating his actions way back in Ch. 13, “Wheelbarrow,” superhero Queequeg saves the day. Proud wife Ishmael proclaims, “my brave Queequeg had dived to the rescue.”
Tash’s rescue is announced as another resurrection in this novel of resurrections: “we saw an arm thrust upright from the blue waves; a sight strange to see, as an arm thrust forth from the grass over a grave.” Zombie vibes! It’s a tough resurrection though: “Tashtego was long in coming to, and Queequeg did not look very brisk.”
The rescue is coded as a birth scene:
And thus, through the courage and great skill in obstetrics of Queequeg, the deliverance, or rather, delivery of Tashtego, was successfully accomplished, in the teeth, too, of the most untoward and apparently hopeless impediments; which is a lesson by no means to be forgotten. Midwifery should be taught in the same course with fencing and boxing, riding and rowing.
The chapter ends with Ishmael praising the notion of drowning in a whale’s tun of spermaceti:
…had Tashtego perished in that head, it had been a very precious perishing; smothered in the very whitest and daintiest of fragrant spermaceti; coffined, hearsed, and tombed in the secret inner chamber and sanctum sanctorum of the whale.
V. Ch. 79, “The Prairie.”
Ishmael turns to pseudoscience: “To scan the lines of his face, or feel the bumps on the head of this Leviathan; this is a thing which no Physiognomist or Phrenologist has as yet undertaken.” By the end of the chapter though, Ish insists that “Physiognomy, like every other human science, is but a passing fable.” Still, his project remains the same—we are to read the whale—and the mystery of the whale—as Moby-Dick’s main text. He gives us the head: “I but put that brow before you. Read it if you can.”
VI. Ch. 80, “The Nut.”
Pseudoscience continues with phrenology, which Ish uses as a description, but not an answer to his driving question, What is the whale. “The Nut” concludes with the hump:
This august hump, if I mistake not, rises over one of the larger vertebræ, and is, therefore, in some sort, the outer convex mould of it. From its relative situation then, I should call this high hump the organ of firmness or indomitableness in the Sperm Whale. And that the great monster is indomitable, you will yet have reason to know.
I found two first-edition hardback Ursula K. Le Guin novels—my favorite Le Guins at that!—for next to nothing last week at my favorite local used bookstore.
The simple, elegant cover for Le Guin’s 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness was designed by Lena Fong Lueg. It employs an illustration by Jack Gaughan.
The jacket for 1974’s The Dispossessed was designed by Fred Winkowski.
In 2015, I undertook the project of reading (or in some cases rereading) Le Guin’s so-called Hainish novels. I wrote about those novels in a long post in January of 2016. Of the (maybe) eight novels in the Hainish cycle, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are easily the strongest (although I really loved the one-two punch of Planet of Exile (1966) and City of Illusions (1967)).
Here is what I wrote about The Left Hand of Darkness:
The Left Hand of Darkness is amazing. Perfect in its strange imperfections and crammed with fables and myths and misunderstandings, it is the apotheosis of Le Guin’s synthesis of adventure with philosophy. Darkness is about shadows and weight. About pulling weight—literally, figuratively. It’s also the story of an ice planet. (A stranger comes to the ice planet!). It’s a political thriller. It’s a sexual thriller. But the impression that lingers strongest: The Left Hand of Darkness is one of the better literary evocations of friendship (its precarious awful strange wonderful tenuous strength) that I’ve ever read.
And here is what I wrote about The Dispossessed:
The Dispossessed feels closer to Le Guin’s non-Hainish 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven in some ways than it does to its so-called Hainish kin. Both novels formally (and spiritually) evoke yin and yang, opposition, conflict, stress, and, ultimately, synthesis. The Dispossessed is a riff on anarchy and stability, allegiance to one’s community and family weighed against personal vision and ecumenical dreams.
I also claimed that The Dispossessed is the best starting place for those new to Le Guin, but I think The Left Hand of Darkness is equally good, as are her Earthsea novels.