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:
Give us a glass of rum. Um, um, um!
V. Ch. 123, “The Musket.”
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.
VI. 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.
VII. “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!
VIII. 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.
IX. 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.
X. 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.
XI. The episode with Starbuck retreating, telling Stubb to wake Ahab.
I. I “finished” rereading Moby-Dick a few minutes before I started composing this riff.
I feel sad and a little deflated. Deflated here is maybe the wrong word. This is a novel of expansion and contraction, the physical and the metaphysical, the abstract exploding into the concrete. But the novel’s conclusion seems like an undoing to all of its elation—all of Ishmael’s evocation of brotherly-love, of the milk of human kindness, of finding transcendence through a reading of nature. (Maybe Ahab is a bad reader—maybe this is the point of Moby-Dick—that vengeance and pride lead to madness and death.)
II. It’s also possible that I feel deflated and sad because the last riff I wrote about Moby-Dick was on Ch. 112—a short minor chapter that I could’ve squared away in a sentence or two. Something like, Melville here parodies temperance-movement literature while at the same time anchoring the blacksmith’s backstory in an earnest core of fellow feeling and human sympathy—something like that. Only I didn’t; I wrote more fucking words on Ch. 112 than Melville wrote in Ch. 112.
III. Which is all a long way of saying that there’s something addictive about Melville’s rhetoric in Moby-Dick. It’s bombastic and purple and chews scenery; it twists metaphors and pokes at unresolved allegories; its a great big challenge of voices that repeatedly threatens to overwhelm the consciousness that seeks to apprehend it. Maybe comprehend it instead then. Maybe just go with its flow instead.
IV. (Blogging about Moby-Dick as I’ve reread it is an attempt to apprehend it, thus my feelings of deflated depression at the end.)
V. But let us move on; excuse my preamble.
VI. Ch. 113, “The Forge.”
We’ve met the blacksmith Perth and attended to his tale with sympathy. Anon. Let us to Ahab, who commands the poor fellow to smith him a new harpoon, “Fashioned at last into an arrowy shape.” Perth tells Ahab to bring a water cask by to temper the harpoon, but the mad captain insists instead on a satanic blood baptism:
“No, no—no water for that; I want it of the true death-temper. Ahoy, there! Tashtego, Queequeg, Daggoo! What say ye, pagans! Will ye give me as much blood as will cover this barb?” holding it high up. A cluster of dark nods replied, Yes. Three punctures were made in the heathen flesh, and the White Whale’s barbs were then tempered.
“Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!” deliriously howled Ahab, as the malignant iron scorchingly devoured the baptismal blood.
VII. Ch. 114, “The Glider.”
The Pequod glides upon the pacific Pacific. Ahab finds peace and torment in the pacified peace:
Oh, grassy glades! oh, ever vernal endless landscapes in the soul; in ye,—though long parched by the dead drought of the earthy life,—in ye, men yet may roll, like young horses in new morning clover; and for some few fleeting moments, feel the cool dew of the life immortal on them. Would to God these blessed calms would last. But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause:—through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling’s father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.
I mean like holy fuck, Ahab’s inner monologue here is like—I mean like I have no simile to work from here for that like. I guess you could attack it as purpleprosed Shakespeare aping, or a college sophomore who’s fastened himself to a volume of Nietzsche—but it’s not.
(I’ll move on for my own sanity.)
VIII. Ch. 115, “The Pequod meets the Bachelor.”
The Pequod meets The Bachelor in this chapter, the 115th chapter of Moby-Dick.
The Bachelor is a horny, celebratory ship, filled to its proverbial gills with sperm. “‘Come aboard, come aboard!’ cried the gay Bachelor’s commander, lifting a glass and a bottle in the air,” notes Ishmael, as the crew of The Pequod fails to come to the gay Bachelor’s commander.
Ahab’s rejoinder to joy:
“Thou art too damned jolly. Sail on.”
Let us sail on.
IX. Ch. 116, “The Dying Whale.”
The “next day after encountering the gay Bachelor, whales were seen and four were slain; and one of them by Ahab.”
Ahab is metaphysically-moved by the moment of the slaying:
Then hail, for ever hail, O sea, in whose eternal tossings the wild fowl finds his only rest. Born of earth, yet suckled by the sea; though hill and valley mothered me, ye billows are my foster-brothers!”
Hail, hail, whale, wail.
X. Ch. 117, “The Whale Watch.”
Another short chapter. Fedallah, Ahab’s erstwhile lieutenant and prognosticator prognosticates that “ere thou couldst die on this voyage, two hearses must verily be seen by thee on the sea; the first not made by mortal hands; and the visible wood of the last one must be grown in America.”
And, more foreshadowing–
Take another pledge, old man,” said the Parsee, as his eyes lighted up like fire-flies in the gloom—“Hemp only can kill thee.”
“The gallows, ye mean.—I am immortal then, on land and on sea,” cried Ahab, with a laugh of derision;—“Immortal on land and on sea!”
Again—Ahab is a bad reader. He cannot read through any lens but his monomaniacal monocle of revenge. He misreads Fedallah and trips over his own ego, even as the umbilical threads of his own fate wrap around him, shrouding him in the garments of his watery tomb.
I. In this riff, Ch. 112 of Moby-Dick, “The Blacksmith.”
II. “The Blacksmith” chapter is neither especially long nor short, and a reader could skip over it without missing any of the “plot” of Moby-Dick (while also misunderstanding the “plot” of Moby-Dick).
And yet reading the chapter again, I was struck by its terrible pathos (and ultimate irony). Ishmael’s tale is not just about whaling, but wailing. Poor Perth’s silent wailing is included here. Ishmael bears witness to the man’s disaster.
III. Ch. 112 focuses its camera on “Perth, the begrimed, blistered old blacksmith” of The Pequod, who, after working on Ahab’s leg, has “not removed his portable forge” from the ship’s deck. Thus, he is “now almost incessantly invoked by the headsmen, and harpooneers, and bowsmen to do some little job for them.”
Surrounded by a demanding “eager circle, all waiting to be served,” Perth is nevertheless “a patient hammer wielded by a patient arm.” Ishmael notes that, “No murmur, no impatience, no petulance did come from him,” and although he praises the old man’s fortitude, he nevertheless notes that Perth is “Most miserable!”
IV. Ishmael notes “A peculiar walk in this old man, a certain slight but painful appearing yawing in his gait.” Perth’s limp links him to Ahab, but the blacksmith is more forthcoming with his backstory. The crew of The Pequod persists in questioning him, “and so it came to pass that every one now knew the shameful story of his wretched fate.”
V. We learn that “one bitter winter’s midnight, on the road running between two country towns, the blacksmith half-stupidly felt the deadly numbness stealing over him, and sought refuge in a leaning, dilapidated barn.” In this halfway nonplace, his feet frozen, the blacksmith “at last came out the four acts of the gladness” and ushers in “the one long, and as yet uncatastrophied fifth act of the grief of his life’s drama.”
He falls into what “sorrow’s technicals called ruin,” despit his decades as “an artisan of famed excellence” with “a youthful, daughter-like, loving wife, and three blithe, ruddy children.”
Well so what happens, already, Ishmael?
Well so and anyway, “one night, under cover of darkness, and further concealed in a most cunning disguisement, a desperate burglar slid into his happy home, and robbed them all of everything.”
A burglar?! Tell more, Ish?
“And darker yet to tell, the blacksmith himself did ignorantly conduct this burglar into his family’s heart.”
“It was the Bottle Conjuror! Upon the opening of that fatal cork, forth flew the fiend, and shrivelled up his home.”
VI. “The Blacksmith” begins to tiptoe along a strange line of earnestness and irony.
VII. On one hand, Melville’s bombastic language and the blacksmith’s preposterous story seems to skewer nineteenth-century temperance tracts. Are we to believe Perth when he tells us that he became an alcoholic one night because his feet were cold? Further, his (hyperbolic, in Ishmael’s relation) story is riddled with other gaps as it approaches its maudlin conclusion:
Why tell the whole? The blows of the basement hammer every day grew more and more between; and each blow every day grew fainter than the last; the wife sat frozen at the window, with tearless eyes, glitteringly gazing into the weeping faces of her children; the bellows fell; the forge choked up with cinders; the house was sold; the mother dived down into the long church-yard grass; her children twice followed her thither; and the houseless, familyless old man staggered off a vagabond in crape; his every woe unreverenced; his grey head a scorn to flaxen curls!
Just how is it that Perth’s young (“daughter-like”!) wife and young children die? Nevermind, Ish. After all, Why tell the whole? (This in a novel that tells more than the whole, and then tells it again a different way.)
The blacksmith’s tale, in Melville’s telling, seems to me an ironic puncturing of sentimentality and overt moralism, a subtle satire on the temperance movement’s blinded scope.
But the blacksmith’s tale in Ishmael’s telling—
VIII. In Ishmael’s telling, there is something of earnest sympathy in the blacksmith’s tale. Consider Ishmael’s subtle identification with Perth in the chapter’s penultimate paragraph:
Death seems the only desirable sequel for a career like this; but Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried; it is but the first salutation to the possibilities of the immense Remote, the Wild, the Watery, the Unshored; therefore, to the death-longing eyes of such men, who still have left in them some interior compunctions against suicide, does the all-contributed and all-receptive ocean alluringly spread forth his whole plain of unimaginable, taking terrors, and wonderful, new-life adventures; and from the hearts of infinite Pacifics, the thousand mermaids sing to them—“Come hither, broken-hearted; here is another life without the guilt of intermediate death; here are wonders supernatural, without dying for them. Come hither! bury thyself in a life which, to your now equally abhorred and abhorring, landed world, is more oblivious than death. Come hither! put up thy gravestone, too, within the churchyard, and come hither, till we marry thee!”
Ishmael, like Perth, has taken to the sea to avoid death, to avoid suicide—remember, whaling is Ish’s “substitute for pistol and ball.” He romanticizes the call to adventure by figuring it in the voices of a “thousand mermaids” singing, yet nevertheless understands the death-urge that underwrites this drive to the sea.
The chapter concludes with Ishmael telling us that,
Hearkening to these voices, East and West, by early sunrise, and by fall of eve, the blacksmith’s soul responded, Aye, I come! And so Perth went a-whaling.
Again, Moby-Dick is a novel about whaling–and wailing.
II. Rereading these chapters—particularly Ch. 110, “Queequeg in His Coffin”—put me in a melancholy mood, a strange dark mood that I remember from previous rereads. I’m not sure why, but there’s something about Moby-Dick’s turn into its final third that’s a specific kind of sad that’s both bitter and sweet, but ultimately depressive. Maybe it’s because I know the apocalypse that’s coming. Or maybe it’s because a certain fatigue sets in. It’s a long book. Or maybe it’s because Ishmael’s expansiveness begins to fragment here, splitting off into splinters that burn down or drown. There are moments of joy and levity, but Ahab’s blasted consciousness looms over the novel. His bleak but bombastic psyche contrasts strongly with hopeful Ishmael, ushering us back to “Loomings,” to his blasted hypos.
III. Ch. 109, “Ahab and Starbuck in the Cabin.”
In this chapter, Starbuck suggests to Ahab that The Pequod stop to fix some leaky oil barrels; Ahab wants to keep pursuing Moby Dick. Starbuck reminds him of his duty to the stockholders and owners of the ship, but Ahab is already quite mad, and pulls a gun on his second in command:
Ahab seized a loaded musket from the rack (forming part of most South-Sea-men’s cabin furniture), and pointing it towards Starbuck, exclaimed: “There is one God that is Lord over the earth, and one Captain that is lord over the Pequod.—On deck!”
Starbuck retreats, but still offers himself as First Mate. He is not one for mutiny, but seeks to help his maddened captain:
Thou hast outraged, not insulted me, sir; but for that I ask thee not to beware of Starbuck; thou wouldst but laugh; but let Ahab beware of Ahab; beware of thyself, old man.”
Despite his rage, Ahab finds “something” to Starbuck’s warning:
“He waxes brave, but nevertheless obeys; most careful bravery that!” murmured Ahab, as Starbuck disappeared. “What’s that he said—Ahab beware of Ahab—there’s something there!”
Here we might find Starbuck at his most powerful. He imprints his language into Ahab’s consciousness. But he smuggles his warning in through a rhetorical gesture that recapitulates Ahab as the great terror in this affair: Ahab beware. Of Ahab.
Ahab though capitulates to Starbuck here, and orders to the mending of the barrels—although our narrator (how is it that Ishmael inhabits the officer’s cabin?) warns that, “It were perhaps vain to surmise exactly why it was, that as respecting Starbuck, Ahab thus acted.”
IV. Ch. 110, “Queequeg in His Coffin.”
This chapter deserves more than I can give to it right now.
Basically, Queeg is pretty sure that he’ll die:
Poor Queequeg! …you should have stooped over the hatchway, and peered down upon him there; where, stripped to his woollen drawers, the tattooed savage was crawling about amid that dampness and slime, like a green spotted lizard at the bottom of a well
Ishmael finds the oversoul in Queequeg’s gaze:
And like circles on the water, which, as they grow fainter, expand; so his eyes seemed rounding and rounding, like the rings of Eternity. An awe that cannot be named would steal over you as you sat by the side of this waning savage, and saw as strange things in his face, as any beheld who were bystanders when Zoroaster died. For whatever is truly wondrous and fearful in man, never yet was put into words or books.
Ishamael tries to put that ineffable down in books.
V. Queequeg, feeling his death approach, calls the carpenter to build him to “canoe like those of Nantucket”—the kind in which Nantucketeers are buried at sea.
Both Pip and Starbuck attend Queeg’s dying (not-dying) hour; Pip sees the event as an echo of his own “death” earlier on the voyage, when he is abandoned at sea.
But then “Queequeg suddenly rallied,” and the crewmen about him
asked him, then, whether to live or die was a matter of his own sovereign will and pleasure. He answered, certainly. In a word, it was Queequeg’s conceit, that if a man made up his mind to live, mere sickness could not kill him: nothing but a whale, or a gale, or some violent, ungovernable, unintelligent destroyer of that sort.
There is some violent ungovernable unintelligent destroyer of that sort on the horizon.
VI. The chapter ends with Queequeg writing on his coffin:
Many spare hours he spent, in carving the lid with all manner of grotesque figures and drawings; and it seemed that hereby he was striving, in his rude way, to copy parts of the twisted tattooing on his body. And this tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last.
The notation above is long, but I think it points to Melville’s central themes of reading and writing in Moby-Dick—this is a novel about the hieroglyphics of the body and the soul, the unreadable readable phenomenal world that set to ciphering daily.
VII. Ch. 111, “The Pacific.”
Another of Melville’s transitional chapters. We return to Ishamel’s bosomy-voice-bosom—but our narrator is, in Melvillian terms, not a touch untroubled: “were it not for other things, I could have greeted my dear Pacific with uncounted thanks.” Those other things? Well, we’ve filled the last few riffs with them.
For Ish, the Pacific is a pacifying terrifying entity: “There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath; like those fabled undulations of the Ephesian sod over the buried Evangelist St. John.”
He compares it to a “Potters’ Fields of all four continents” populated by
millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming, dreaming, still; tossing like slumberers in their beds; the ever-rolling waves but made so by their restlessness.
Moby-Dick is not a novel about whales and whaling; Moby-Dick is a novel about ghosts and wailing.
VIII. Ish is intoxicated by the Pacific’s rhythms: “Lifted by those eternal swells, you needs must own the seductive god, bowing your head to Pan.”
Our Ishmael again calls all souls to his big bosom, his eternal ghostly swells. He’s a pantheistic mutherfucker.
IX. But, but,
But few thoughts of Pan stirred Ahab’s brain, as standing like an iron statue at his accustomed place beside the mizen rigging, with one nostril he unthinkingly snuffed the sugary musk from the Bashee isles (in whose sweet woods mild lovers must be walking), and with the other consciously inhaled the salt breath of the new found sea; that sea in which the hated White Whale must even then be swimming. Launched at length upon these almost final waters, and gliding towards the Japanese cruising-ground, the old man’s purpose intensified itself. His firm lips met like the lips of a vice; the Delta of his forehead’s veins swelled like overladen brooks; in his very sleep, his ringing cry ran through the vaulted hull, “Stern all! the White Whale spouts thick blood!”
And bloodlust and vengeance carries out over the pacified Pacific.
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 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.
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!
I. In this riff, Chapters 91, 92, and 93 of Moby-Dick.
II. Ch. 91, “The Pequod Meets The Rose-bud.”
Stubb stars in this humorous chapter in which The Pequod encounters a French vessel which is towing a pair of “what the fishermen call a blasted whale, that is, a whale that has died unmolested on the sea, and so floated an unappropriated corpse.” The smell from these two dead whales is awful. (Ish claims the odor is “worse than an Assyrian city in the plague, when the living are incompetent to bury the departed.”)
We soon learn the French ship bears an ironic name: “Bouton de Rose,”—Rose-button, or Rose-bud; and…this was the romantic name of this aromatic ship.”
Stubb hails the ship to ask Ahab’s famous question to all the ships The Pequod encounter, but the The Rose-bud has not seen the White Whale. Ahab leaves off, letting Stubb take over the chapter with his cruel comedy:
He now perceived that the Guernsey-man, who had just got into the chains, and was using a cutting-spade, had slung his nose in a sort of bag.
“What’s the matter with your nose, there?” said Stubb. “Broke it?”
“I wish it was broken, or that I didn’t have any nose at all!” answered the Guernsey-man, who did not seem to relish the job he was at very much. “But what are you holding yours for?”
“Oh, nothing! It’s a wax nose; I have to hold it on. Fine day, ain’t it? Air rather gardenny, I should say; throw us a bunch of posies, will ye, Bouton-de-Rose?”
“What in the devil’s name do you want here?” roared the Guernsey-man, flying into a sudden passion.
The Guernsey-man is irritated because his captain knows nothing of whales and refuses to discard the rotten animals, which his crew understand to be worthless. Stubb, however, thinks that one of the whales might be full of ambergris, a valuable substance, and he hatches a cunning plan to get the whale for himself. Stubb enlists the Gurnsey-man’s help in his plan: Stubb will appear as an expert witness on whales to The Rose-bud’s captain (ironically, a former perfumier)–only the captain speaks no English—so the Gurnsey-man will translate. However, the Gurnsey-man will simply say whatever he wants (namely, that they should cut the whales loose).
The scene plays out in comedy that I think still holds up today:
“What shall I say to him first?” said he.
“Why,” said Stubb, eyeing the velvet vest and the watch and seals, “you may as well begin by telling him that he looks a sort of babyish to me, though I don’t pretend to be a judge.”
“He says, Monsieur,” said the Guernsey-man, in French, turning to his captain, “that only yesterday his ship spoke a vessel, whose captain and chief-mate, with six sailors, had all died of a fever caught from a blasted whale they had brought alongside.”
Upon this the captain started, and eagerly desired to know more.
“What now?” said the Guernsey-man to Stubb.
“Why, since he takes it so easy, tell him that now I have eyed him carefully, I’m quite certain that he’s no more fit to command a whale-ship than a St. Jago monkey. In fact, tell him from me he’s a baboon.”
The scene continues in this line, with Stubb repeatedly insulting the captain who remains unaware of his abuse. When the captain offers Stubb a glass of wine to thank him for his advice, he replies thus:
“Thank him heartily; but tell him it’s against my principles to drink with the man I’ve diddled. In fact, tell him I must go.”
“He says, Monsieur, that his principles won’t admit of his drinking; but that if Monsieur wants to live another day to drink, then Monsieur had best drop all four boats, and pull the ship away from these whales, for it’s so calm they won’t drift.”
Stubb makes off with the whale and digs into it with his spade. He hits gold:
“I have it, I have it,” cried Stubb, with delight, striking something in the subterranean regions, “a purse! a purse!”
Dropping his spade, he thrust both hands in, and drew out handfuls of something that looked like ripe Windsor soap, or rich mottled old cheese; very unctuous and savory withal. You might easily dent it with your thumb; it is of a hue between yellow and ash colour. And this, good friends, is ambergris, worth a gold guinea an ounce to any druggist.
III. Stubb is the star of “The Pequod Meets The Rose-bud.” The chapter showcases his wit, and affords him all the best lines—lines a far cry from Ahab’s Shakespearean mode.
But this particular chapter also underlines my suspicion that Stubb is the villain of Moby-Dick. He’s cruel and greedy, duplicitous and hardhearted. He’s the opposite of largehearted Ishmael. Stubb has shown his double-edged comic cruelty earlier in the novel—most notably in the way he bullies his boat’s crew with sweethearted insults, but also in Ch. 64, “Stubb’s Supper,” when he plays cruel fun on Fleece, the Black cook of The Pequod. Stubb’s cruel avarice comes to a head in Ch. 93, “The Castaway.” But let’s first attend to Ch. 92, “Ambergris.”
IV. Ch. 92, “Ambergris.”
“Who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale!” Ishmael ponders near the beginning of this short chapter, which again riffs on a major theme of Moby-Dick; namely, how every thing earthly (and unearthly) finds its definition in its opposition.
V. Ch. 93, “The Castaway.”
So. Anyway. Per point III—I think I was arguing that Stubb is something of an asshole. He’s a bully, a bad boss, and despite the genial empathy in Ishmael’s voice (Melville’s voice?) that extends to all the horribles of The Pequod, he does not acquit himself well in “The Castaway.”
Ish sets the tragic scene from the outset:
It was but some few days after encountering the Frenchman, that a most significant event befell the most insignificant of the Pequod’s crew; an event most lamentable; and which ended in providing the sometimes madly merry and predestinated craft with a living and ever accompanying prophecy of whatever shattered sequel might prove her own.
In other words: The fate of poor Pip, the Black cabin boy, prefigures the fate of all the crew of the damned Pequod—-
VI. (And, parenthetically—
I’ve been falling asleep to an audiobook of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, which many many many folks have pointed out follows Moby-Dick, both rhetorically and thematically
(I mean hey, consider those opening lines:
“Call me Ishmael”
“See the child.
And anyway, I sort of dip into Blood Meridian in random places, finding concurrent moments, motifs, intersections—
And in the Tarot scene of Blood Meridian, the Judge tells the Black Jackson that “In your fortune lie our fortunes all” — an echo here of the fate of poor Pip.
VII. And anyway,
—So, “in the ambergris affair Stubb’s after-oarsman chanced so to sprain his hand, as for a time to become quite maimed; and, temporarily, Pip was put into his place.”
Pip was put into his place.
Pip freaks out and jumps from the boat his first time, a jump that results in the loss of a whale. Sadistic Stubb is stern (and more than racist) in his rebuke:
“Stick to the boat, Pip, or by the Lord, I won’t pick you up if you jump; mind that. We can’t afford to lose whales by the likes of you; a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip, in Alabama. Bear that in mind, and don’t jump any more.” Hereby perhaps Stubb indirectly hinted, that though man loved his fellow, yet man is a money-making animal, which propensity too often interferes with his benevolence.
(Old Ishmael (and Old Melville) — what’s with the verb hinted there?)
And so and well—
But we are all in the hands of the Gods; and Pip jumped again. It was under very similar circumstances to the first performance; but this time he did not breast out the line; and hence, when the whale started to run, Pip was left behind on the sea, like a hurried traveller’s trunk. Alas! Stubb was but too true to his word. It was a beautiful, bounteous, blue day; the spangled sea calm and cool, and flatly stretching away, all round, to the horizon, like gold-beater’s skin hammered out to the extremest. Bobbing up and down in that sea, Pip’s ebon head showed like a head of cloves. No boat-knife was lifted when he fell so rapidly astern. Stubb’s inexorable back was turned upon him; and the whale was winged. In three minutes, a whole mile of shoreless ocean was between Pip and Stubb. Out from the centre of the sea, poor Pip turned his crisp, curling, black head to the sun, another lonely castaway, though the loftiest and the brightest.
Ishmael understands the incredible existential loss of being castaway in the wide waste of the sea:
…the awful lonesomeness is intolerable. The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it?
Poor Pip goes mad. His fate will be the fate of the company proper.
And if Ishmael’s sympathy sympathizes the victim, so too does it sympathize the villain—-
For the rest, blame not Stubb too hardly. The thing is common in that fishery; and in the sequel of the narrative, it will then be seen what like abandonment befell myself.
—and yet that sympathy is an empathetic prefiguring gust of our narrator Ish’s ultimate fate.
In this chapter, Ishmael distinguishes between the two types of “schools” of whales—the harem schools, which are comprised of all adult females and one male (Ish calls the harem-lord the “Grand Turk”), and the all-male schools. Ish points out that these Grand Turks aren’t great dads:
…like certain other omnivorous roving lovers that might be named, my Lord Whale has no taste for the nursery, however much for the bower; and so, being a great traveller, he leaves his anonymous babies all over the world; every baby an exotic.
Ish points out that the all-male schools are far more aggressive than the harem schools. Too, the young males are quick to abandon their wounded fellows:
Another point of difference between the male and female schools is still more characteristic of the sexes. Say you strike a Forty-barrel-bull—poor devil! all his comrades quit him. But strike a member of the harem school, and her companions swim around her with every token of concern, sometimes lingering so near her and so long, as themselves to fall a prey.
III. Ch. 89, “Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish.”
In this marvelous chapter, Ishmael begins in a legal mode and ends in a philosophical one. He gives us the (unofficial but self-legislated) code of all whalers:
I. A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it.
II. A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.
This doctrine we all may know from our playground days, when it took this form: “Finders keepers, Losers weepers.”
Ever the expansive expander, Ish suggests that “these two laws touching Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish, I say, will, on reflection, be found the fundamentals of all human jurisprudence . . . Is it not a saying in every one’s mouth, Possession is half of the law: that is, regardless of how the thing came into possession?”
He then pivots, sympathetically pointing out that for all of “fundamentals of human jurisprudence,” property and the power over property comes down to coercive force:
But often possession is the whole of the law. What are the sinews and souls of Russian serfs and Republican slaves but Fast-Fish, whereof possession is the whole of the law? What to the rapacious landlord is the widow’s last mite but a Fast-Fish? What is yonder undetected villain’s marble mansion with a door-plate for a waif; what is that but a Fast-Fish? What is the ruinous discount which Mordecai, the broker, gets from poor Woebegone, the bankrupt, on a loan to keep Woebegone’s family from starvation; what is that ruinous discount but a Fast-Fish? What is the Archbishop of Savesoul’s income of £100,000 seized from the scant bread and cheese of hundreds of thousands of broken-backed laborers (all sure of heaven without any of Savesoul’s help) what is that globular £100,000 but a Fast-Fish? What are the Duke of Dunder’s hereditary towns and hamlets but Fast-Fish? What to that redoubted harpooneer, John Bull, is poor Ireland, but a Fast-Fish? What to that apostolic lancer, Brother Jonathan, is Texas but a Fast-Fish? And concerning all these, is not Possession the whole of the law?
Laws and mores are but window dressing, pasteboard masks veiling the brutally true untrue truth that Might makes right.
But Ish isn’t done. He points out that, “if the doctrine of Fast-Fish be pretty generally applicable, the kindred doctrine of Loose-Fish is still more widely so,” and then underlines his application with examples of conquest and imperialism:
What was America in 1492 but a Loose-Fish, in which Columbus struck the Spanish standard by way of waifing it for his royal master and mistress? What was Poland to the Czar? What Greece to the Turk? What India to England? What at last will Mexico be to the United States? All Loose-Fish.
Swept away in his oversoul passions, Ishmael moves from historical and political examples to metaphysical territory, eventually suggesting (in another of the novel’s many metatextual moves) that the relationship between reader and author is but another application of the loose-fish/fast-fish doctrine:
What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What all men’s minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the principle of religious belief in them but a Loose-Fish? What to the ostentatious smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?
IV. Ch. 90, “Heads or Tails.”
Ish begins with what he claims is a order “from the books of the Laws of England: “De balena vero sufficit, si rex habeat caput, et regina caudam.” Bracton, l. 3, c. 3.” He proceeds to tell us that this law stipulates that
…of all whales captured by anybody on the coast of that land, the King, as Honorary Grand Harpooneer, must have the head, and the Queen be respectfully presented with the tail. A division which, in the whale, is much like halving an apple; there is no intermediate remainder.”
I love that last bit in which we are reminded that power will grab all parts of a substance leaving no intermediate remainder for the powerless.
In this chapter, The Pequod passes by “the long islands of Sumatra, Java, Bally, and Timor; which, with many others, form a vast mole, or rampart, lengthwise connecting Asia with Australia,” but never rows boats to a shore: “But how now? in this zoned quest, does Ahab touch no land? does his crew drink air? Surely, he will stop for water. Nay.” The Pequod is fully stocked for this particular revenge mission.
III. Anticipating what will come in this chapter, Ishmael informs us that,
Sperm Whales, instead of almost invariably sailing in small detached companies, as in former times, are now frequently met with in extensive herds, sometimes embracing so great a multitude, that it would almost seem as if numerous nations of them had sworn solemn league and covenant for mutual assistance and protection.
They soon come upon a great host of whales, which, “beheld through a blending atmosphere of bluish haze, showed like the thousand cheerful chimneys of some dense metropolis.”
IV. “The Grand Armada” plays out in the mode of one of Melville’s earlier romantic adventure. The stakes are heightened when a pirate ship of Malays (“these rascally Asiatics,” Ishmael sounds with a racist note) pursues The Pequod as The Pequod pursues pods upon pods of whales.
V. Ishmael, ever-large-hearted (despite his many faults), compares the whales to sheep, and then to the over-hunted buffalo of the American West, and then, finally, to humankind:
Had these Leviathans been but a flock of simple sheep, pursued over the pasture by three fierce wolves, they could not possibly have evinced such excessive dismay. But this occasional timidity is characteristic of almost all herding creatures. Though banding together in tens of thousands, the lion-maned buffaloes of the West have fled before a solitary horseman. Witness, too, all human beings, how when herded together in the sheepfold of a theatre’s pit, they will, at the slightest alarm of fire, rush helter-skelter for the outlets, crowding, trampling, jamming, and remorselessly dashing each other to death. Best, therefore, withhold any amazement at the strangely gallied whales before us, for there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.
The lines shift away from the chapter’s romantic tone, instead underlying the philosophical mode of Moby-Dick.
VI. But that adventurous mode returns—Ishmael’s boat—which is to say, Queequeg’s boat, which is to say, Starbuck’s boat—look, the boat the narrator’s in—a particular boat manages to lance two whales with something called a “drugg”:
All whaleboats carry certain curious contrivances, originally invented by the Nantucket Indians, called druggs. Two thick squares of wood of equal size are stoutly clenched together, so that they cross each other’s grain at right angles; a line of considerable length is then attached to the middle of this block, and the other end of the line being looped, it can in a moment be fastened to a harpoon.
A third drugg is unlucky though, striking a note of danger and foreshadowing the disaster at the novel’s conclusion:
But upon flinging the third, in the act of tossing overboard the clumsy wooden block, it caught under one of the seats of the boat, and in an instant tore it out and carried it away, dropping the oarsman in the boat’s bottom as the seat slid from under him. On both sides the sea came in at the wounded planks, but we stuffed two or three drawers and shirts in, and so stopped the leaks for the time.
VII. The scene shifts again. Queequeg’s “jerking harpoon drew out” (everything in this phallic novel is always jerking and pricking and penetrating) “and the towing whale sideways vanished.” Ishmael’s boat then “glided between two whales into the innermost heart of the shoal, as if from some mountain torrent we had slid into a serene valley lake.”
The scene that unfolds is one of the most tender in all of Moby-Dick. “Here the storms in the roaring glens between the outermost whales, were heard but not felt,” declares Ishmael. Remember, our narrator sets out to sea to assuage his homicidal, suicidal impulses. He still remembers the wolfish world in this moment of respite, but he does not feel it. He feels something else:
…we were now in that enchanted calm which they say lurks at the heart of every commotion. And still in the distracted distance we beheld the tumults of the outer concentric circles, and saw successive pods of whales, eight or ten in each, swiftly going round and round, like multiplied spans of horses in a ring; and so closely shoulder to shoulder, that a Titanic circus-rider might easily have over-arched the middle ones, and so have gone round on their backs.
VIII. The boat is walled in by the whales, but Ishmael is not fearful. The whales about them are gentle — “small tame cows and calves; the women and children of this routed host.”
…these smaller whales—now and then visiting our becalmed boat from the margin of the lake—evinced a wondrous fearlessness and confidence, or else a still becharmed panic which it was impossible not to marvel at. Like household dogs they came snuffling round us, right up to our gunwales, and touching them; till it almost seemed that some spell had suddenly domesticated them. Queequeg patted their foreheads; Starbuck scratched their backs with his lance; but fearful of the consequences, for the time refrained from darting it.
Violence is suspended here. And again, Starbuck, Queequeg, and Ishmael are coded as riders of conscience wrapped up in Ahab’s bloody quest.
IX. The scene intensifies. Actually, intensifies is entirely the wrong verb here, although, to be clear, the episode develops with a particular intensity—but intense seems to suggest anxiety, which here is suspended (even for the briefest of moments), as Ishmael’s boat encounters a “still stranger world” of calm:
But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;—even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulfweed in their new-born sight.
X. Queequeg then explodes, believing a whale darted and fastened with a line to a boat: ““Line! line!…him fast! him fast!—Who line him! Who struck?—Two whale; one big, one little!””
The image is of a different tethering though: Queequeg has mistaken a mother and child for two apparent victims:
Starbuck saw long coils of the umbilical cord of Madame Leviathan, by which the young cub seemed still tethered to its dam. Not seldom in the rapid vicissitudes of the chase, this natural line, with the maternal end loose, becomes entangled with the hempen one, so that the cub is thereby trapped. Some of the subtlest secrets of the seas seemed divulged to us in this enchanted pond. We saw young Leviathan amours in the deep.
And yet even after his lovefest, our sailors, our whalemen, will not be above general slaughter.
XI. The episode, as I’ve stated above, is one of the few in Moby-Dick wherein Ishmael overcomes the intense negative feeling he bears for his own world, and instead merges into a kind of Emersonian over-soul. “The Grand Armada” anticipates the novel’s greatest melding moment, Ch. 94, “A Squeeze of the Hand.” I’ve been quoting too much in this riff, but I can’t help it. Here is Ishmael’s joy:
And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.
And let us end this chapter and this riff with a bath of “eternal mildness of joy,” skipping over any predation its final pages might yield.
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.
Stubb eats some of that whale he killed a few chapters back.
VI. Ch. 65, “The Whale as a Dish.”
Ishmael riffs on eating whales—sperm whales in particular—and concedes that they are generally too unctuous for the palates of landlubbers. He’s all for eating the brains:
In the case of a small Sperm Whale the brains are accounted a fine dish. The casket of the skull is broken into with an axe, and the two plump, whitish lobes being withdrawn (precisely resembling two large puddings), they are then mixed with flour, and cooked into a most delectable mess, in flavor somewhat resembling calves’ head, which is quite a dish among some epicures…
VII. Ch. 66, “The Shark Massacre.”
Sharks eat at Stubb’s whale too, which has been tied to the side of The Pequod overnight. Queequeg kills some of the sharks, and hoists one on deck to take its skin. It almost bites his hand off.
VIII. Ch. 67, “Cutting In.”
Another one of Ishmael’s technically-oriented chapters, with little in the way of philosophy. He describes the process by which the crew strips the blubber from the whale.
IX. Ch. 68, “The Blanket.”
Another one of Ishmael’s philosophically-oriented chapters. Here, he ponders, “what and where is the skin of the whale?” Ishmael notes that over the whale’s blubber there is an “infinitely thin, transparent substance, somewhat resembling the thinnest shreds of isinglass.” He says that this “isinglass,” when dried, makes a good bookmark for his “whale-books”
It is transparent, as I said before; and being laid upon the printed page, I have sometimes pleased myself with fancying it exerted a magnifying influence. At any rate, it is pleasant to read about whales through their own spectacles, as you may say.
Ultimately though, this isinglass is but the “skin of the skin” and the whale’s blubber is his “blanket.”
It is telling that Ishmael reads whale books through a whale lens. Indeed, his whole mission is to read the whale, and in “The Blanket” he turns the whale’s body into a text beyond his ciphering, noting that the body of the sperm whale is “all over obliquely crossed and re-crossed with numberless straight marks in thick array.” He continues::
But these marks do not seem to be impressed upon the isinglass substance above mentioned, but seem to be seen through it, as if they were engraved upon the body itself. Nor is this all. In some instances, to the quick, observant eye, those linear marks, as in a veritable engraving, but afford the ground for far other delineations. These are hieroglyphical; that is, if you call those mysterious cyphers on the walls of pyramids hieroglyphics, then that is the proper word to use in the present connexion. By my retentive memory of the hieroglyphics upon one Sperm Whale in particular, I was much struck with a plate representing the old Indian characters chiselled on the famous hieroglyphic palisades on the banks of the Upper Mississippi. Like those mystic rocks, too, the mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable.
X. Ch. 69, “The Funeral.”
The whale’s corpse is cut loose to endure the mocking “funeral” of every scavenger of the sea and sky.
Thus, while in life the great whale’s body may have been a real terror to his foes, in his death his ghost becomes a powerless panic to a world.
Are you a believer in ghosts, my friend? There are other ghosts than the Cock-Lane one, and far deeper men than Doctor Johnson who believe in them.
The last two lines of the chapter—quoted above—again point to the idea that perhaps our Ish is himself a ghost.
XI. Ch. 70, “The Sphynx.”
The crew decapitated Stubb’s whale and kept it on deck. In another one of those How is Ishmael witnessing this wait is he like a ghost or something? scenes, Ish manages to overhear Captain Ahab’s batshit soliloquy to the dead head:
It was a black and hooded head; and hanging there in the midst of so intense a calm, it seemed the Sphynx’s in the desert. “Speak, thou vast and venerable head,” muttered Ahab, “which, though ungarnished with a beard, yet here and there lookest hoary with mosses; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid this world’s foundations. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there, in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home. Thou hast been where bell or diver never went; hast slept by many a sailor’s side, where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them down. Thou saw’st the locked lovers when leaping from their flaming ship; heart to heart they sank beneath the exulting wave; true to each other, when heaven seemed false to them. Thou saw’st the murdered mate when tossed by pirates from the midnight deck; for hours he fell into the deeper midnight of the insatiate maw; and his murderers still sailed on unharmed—while swift lightnings shivered the neighboring ship that would have borne a righteous husband to outstretched, longing arms. O head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!”
XII. Ch. 71, “The Jeroboam’s Story.”
Ahab’s interrogation of the whale’s head is cut short when the call goes up that another ship—the aptly named Jeroboam—is in hailing distance. Our boy Ahab just has to get some news about his White Whale.
The crew of The Jeroboam elect to keep their distance from The Peqoud. Their Captain Mayhew suggests they have a plague of some kind on board, but it becomes evident that the plague might be a kind of madness. The crew of Mayhew’s ship are under the sway of a Shaker sailor who believes himself to be the Archangel Gabriel. Anyway, it turns out that The Jeroboamhas encountered Moby Dick; in fact, Mayhew’s chief mate Macey died hunting the great beast—all while Gabriel chanted prophecies of doom. Symbolically underlining the foreshadowing in this episode, The Pequod carries aboard a letter for Macey from his wife, who does not yet know she is a widow. And in even more symbolic foreshadowing, when Starbuck attempts to pass the letter to Mayhew,
…as if by magic, the letter suddenly ranged along with Gabriel’s eager hand. He clutched it in an instant, seized the boat-knife, and impaling the letter on it, sent it thus loaded back into the ship. It fell at Ahab’s feet. Then Gabriel shrieked out to his comrades to give way with their oars, and in that manner the mutinous boat rapidly shot away from the Pequod.
To steal a line from Melville’s later short masterpiece Bartleby: “Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?”
XIII. Ch. 72, “The Monkey-Rope.”
In this chapter—another chapter with a hyphenated title!—in this chapter, Ishmael goes back to some technical business of whaling, explaining that while hauling in Stubb’s whale, Queequeg had to insert the blubber hook into the whale—which means he had to be over the side of the boat, on the whale itself. In this process, Queequeg and Ishmael are connected by a “monkey-rope” — a rope tethering the two between belts.
“It was a humorously perilous business for both of us,” Ishmael notes, a line that again underscores Moby-Dick’s compounding — hyphenating — modes of comedy and terror. The chapter also again reminds us that Ish and Queeg are like a married couple: “for better or for worse, we two, for the time, were wedded.” As is often the case, Ishmael goes into a philosophical reverie:
So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death. …still further pondering, I say, I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only, in most cases, he, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals.
XIV. Ch. 73, “Stubb and Flask Kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk over Him.”
In this chapter, Stubb and Flask kill a right whale and then have a talk over him.
II. Ch. 49, “The Hyena,” begins with this wonderful paragraph, which I will share in full:
There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life whIIen a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke. There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy; and with it I now regarded this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object.
“The Hyena” is a fitting name for this chapter. Ishmael is recovered from near-drowning, his boat–Starbuck’s, Queequeg’s boat too—was left for dead by The Pequod.
Ishamael’s hyena-wail here points toward modernist literature’s realization that comedy and terror amount to absurdity.
III. At the end of the chapter, Ishmael again underlines Moby-Dick’s themes of death and resurrection:
Besides, all the days I should now live would be as good as the days that Lazarus lived after his resurrection; a supplementary clean gain of so many months or weeks as the case might be. I survived myself; my death and burial were locked up in my chest. I looked round me tranquilly and contentedly, like a quiet ghost with a clean conscience sitting inside the bars of a snug family vault.
A quiet ghost, our narrator.
IV. Ch. 50, “Ahab’s Boat and Crew. Fedallah.”
Ishmael’s largeheartedness extends not to Fedallah and the rest of his Filipino crew. They are the outsiders among a crew of outsiders, sanctified stowaways charged with Ahab’s secret mission before the crew of The Pequod proper. Ishmael firsts sees them as “phantoms” and extends his unfortunate exoticism in this episode, which culminates in his racist suggestion that “the Oriental isles to the east of the continent” are descended from devils mating with humans: “according to Genesis, the angels indeed consorted with the daughters of men, the devils also, add the uncanonical Rabbins, indulged in mundane amours.”
V. Ch. 51, “The Spirit-Spout.”
I should’ve started a tally of hyphenated chapter titles in Moby-Dick.
Another chapter where our “quiet ghost” narrator Ishmael is able to inhabit the private thoughts of others—here, glimmers and glimpses of Ahab’s mind, but also full access to Starbuck’s consciousness: “Terrible old man! thought Starbuck with a shudder, sleeping in this gale, still thou steadfastly eyest thy purpose.”
VI. Ch. 52, “The Albatross.”
The Pequod meets The Goney, a ship named for the enormous white bird, the albatross. Ahab bellows out to ask if they’d encountered the white whale Moby Dick, but The Goney, speeds away from The Pequod “at the first mere mention of the White Whale’s name.”
Insulted Ahab bellows again, this time telling his crew to send The Pequod “off round the world!”
Ishmael worries in a final paragraph that again foreshadows the novel’s disastrous climax:
Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.
VII. Ch. 53, “The Gam.”
Here, Ishmael lays out how strange it is that The Goney refused to hail The Pequod: the whaling tradition of the gam. Ishmael claims that the word is not defined in dictionaries: “Dr. Johnson never attained to that erudition; Noah Webster’s ark does not hold it.” So, our chronicler does his best:
GAM. NOUN—A social meeting of two (or more) Whaleships, generally on a cruising-ground; when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boats’ crews: the two captains remaining, for the time, on board of one ship, and the two chief mates on the other.
The Oxford English Dictionary currently gives seven entries for gam as a noun or verb (and one for -gam the suffix).
They date from
n. In plural. Teeth, esp. large, misshapen, or irregular teeth (also gam teeth). Formerly also (occasionally): †jaws (obsolete).
n. slang. A person’s leg. Frequently in plural.
n. Amongst tribes in northern India: a headman, a chief.
n.colloquial. Originally: a social meeting among whalers at sea. Later more generally: a social gathering, a ‘get-together’; a chat, a gossip. Chiefly U.S. regional (New England) in the extended sense.
This definition cites Moby-Dick:
What does the whaler do when she meets another whaler in any sort of decent weather? She has a ‘Gam’.
And then Mark Twain’s 1866 “Letter from Hawaii”—but also refers to a 1831 citation from something called Sailor’s Mag.
-1849 gives us gam as a verb, both transitive and intransitive:
(What is the nautical colloquial fashion look, and where can I get it?)
v.transitive. To perform oral sex on (a person, originally esp. a man).
This definition cites Moby-Dick’s later brother, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow:
1973 T. Pynchon Gravity’s Rainbow i. 35 Knowing Bloat, perhaps that’s what it is, young lady gamming well-set-up young man.
I. In this riff: Just one goddamn chapter, Ch. 36, “The Quarter-Deck.”
II. There’s too much in “The Quarter-Deck” — too many savory lines, too much foreshadowing, too much language language language — and by too much I mean Too much for me to parse here.
III. (I never intended for these riffs to provide insight into Moby-Dick, but I also was hoping that they wouldn’t just be a collection of greatest hits. Most of “The Quarter-Deck” is greatest hits material.)
IV. “The Quarter-Deck” begins in Melville’s Shakespearean mode:
“(Enter Ahab: Then, all.)”
Ahab takes the quarter-deck, the stage, the novel—his voice overwhelms.
V. The plot of this chapter is fairly simple: Ahab reveals to his crew that the true mission of The Pequod is not to hunt whales and harvest their oil, but rather to exact revenge on the great white whale Moby Dick, who took Ahab’s leg.
VI. Starbuck, first mate and second conscience (to Ishmael’s Captain Conscience—or maybe I mean Captain Consciousness)—Starbuck, the first mate of The Pequod is horrified:
“Vengeance on a dumb brute!” cried Starbuck, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”
VII. Ahab replies with some of the book’s greatest lines:
Hark ye yet again—the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask!
Our half-mad captain wants pure contact with the ineffable, even if it means death.
He continues, delivering another classic zinger:
That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.
Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.
VIII. Ahab worries that Starbuck’s conscience might override the crew. He calls for “the measure” of spirits to be poured, and passes a pewter chalice of alcohol around several times, having the steward refill it. He then supplies his own rhetorical intoxication, a performance that drives the crew into a frenzy that finds its dizzying fruition in Ch. 40, “Midnight, Forecastle.”
Ahab calls his three mates to him and they quail “before his strong, sustained, and mystic aspect.” He calls then his three harpooneers (twinning triplets) whom he commands to “draw the poles” — their lances, their phallic harpoons. He fills the “goblet end” of the harpoons with “the fiery waters from the pewter,” and has toasts the end of his Great Enemy—
Now, three to three, ye stand. Commend the murderous chalices! Bestow them, ye who are now made parties to this indissoluble league. Ha! Starbuck! but the deed is done! Yon ratifying sun now waits to sit upon it. Drink, ye harpooneers! drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat’s bow—Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!
II. (Re: Above—I just finished Ch. 36 of Moby-Dick, “The Quarter-Deck,” which is like, too good. Too loaded. Ahab erupts. Up until now I’d just been riffing on what I’d read, trying to keep it simple, but “The Quarter-Deck” needs its own riff.)
III. Ch. 33, “The Specksnyder.”
Specksnyder is a strange word. Ishmael tells us that, “Literally this word means Fat-Cutter; usage, however, in time made it equivalent to Chief Harpooneer.” Its provenance is anglicized Dutch—another splicing in a novel of splices.
IV. Ch. 33 follows a pattern (initiates a pattern?) common to Moby-Dick: Ishmael begins his chapter with some facts and descriptions specific to whaling (in this case, the business of the Specksnyder), only to zoom out (or is it zoom in?) to larger philosophical matters.
V. In this case, those larger philosophical matters concern the psychological temperament of those who would assume the mantle of leadership. Ishmael notes that moody Ahab eschews the “shallowest assumption” of “elated grandeur.” Our captain is no faker, fraud, humbug, or poseur — “the only homage he ever exacted, was implicit, instantaneous obedience.”
VI. But Ishmael, ever the hedger of bets, ever the ghost who trades in double negatives, warns us that despite his leadership qualities, “even Captain Ahab was by no means unobservant of the paramount forms and usages of the sea…that behind those forms and usages, as it were, he sometimes masked himself; incidentally making use of them for other and more private ends than they were legitimately intended to subserve.” Foreshadowing!
VII. Ch. 34, “The Cabin-Table.”
Another chapter that begins with ship’s business but expands toward grander abstractions. Those abstractions help to shade and characterize Ahab, who has yet to give his first grand speech (that’s in Ch. 36, “The Quarter-Deck”). The ship’s business also points again to obeisance and command. We learn who descends to eat first, a kind of alpha dog Darwinism reconfigured as sea law. Ahab and his three mates go to table in silence. Starbuck is next to go to dinner after his captain. Flask is last: “hilarious little Flask enters King Ahab’s presence, in the character of Abjectus, or the Slave.” Then the three harpooneers eat, noisy, ravenous.
The two most interesting things about this chapter for me on this reread:
a. It is composed in the present tense, beginning: “It is noon.” While Ishmael has shifted into the present tense many times before, unless I am mistaken, this particular whole-chapter shift is a first. And—
b. We have another moment in the narrative where Ishmael witnesses behaviors, viewpoints, events that he should not be able to see.In other words, Ishmael, a lowly seaman has no business at the cabin table.
“The Cabin-Table” is another early moment in M-D that calls into question Ishmael’s witnessing—is he a ghost survivor, a kind of time traveler of consciousnesses? A spy or voyeur, peeking through holes? Or is it just a book, and this is how books work?
IX. Again we have a chapter that starts with some description and history of whaling and ship business. Ishmael waxes at length about assuming watch at the top of the mast-head, making sure to bring up ancient Egypt (always!), the Tower of Babel, Louis Bonaparte, Childe Harold, George Washington (et al.).
X. But again, Ish moves from particulars to abstraction. “The Mast-Head” reads as both an endorsement of and a warning against romantic transcendentalism. (This is a tale of ambiguities, hedging, and double double double negatives.)
XI. Ish relates the reveries to be had atop the mast-head. A watcher on the watery world will quickly lose a sense of self. His ego will fold into something grander, yet grander without clear object. In short, transcendentally-overwhelmed by horizonless horizons, he will forget to sight the whales he hunts.
In such cases, a watcher might be remonstrated:
‘Why, thou monkey,’ said a harpooneer to one of these lads, ‘we’ve been cruising now hard upon three years, and thou hast not raised a whale yet. Whales are scarce as hen’s teeth whenever thou art up here.’
But we sense that Ishmael was the dreaming lad
Perhaps they were; or perhaps there might have been shoals of them in the far horizon; but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Wickliff’s sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.
What a sentence! I thought about getting in there for a minute, but hell…what a sentence.
XII. (The word “vacant” above points towards Moby-Dick’s devastating “Epilogue,” where survivor (?) Ishmael assumes the “vacant post” of bowsman.)
XIII. But back to the marvelous conclusion of Ch. 35. Ishmael describes a moment of transcendence, of ego-loss, even ego-death. And then what happens:
There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!