Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried | Moby-Dick reread, riff 31

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

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,

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.”

Gasp!

“It was the Bottle Conjuror! Upon the opening of that fatal cork, forth flew the fiend, and shrivelled up his home.”

Egad!

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.

Millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries | Moby-Dick reread, riff 30

I. In this riff, Chapters 109-111 of Moby-Dick.

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.”

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

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.

The ineffaceable, sad birth-mark in the brow of man, is but the stamp of sorrow in the signers | Moby-Dick reread, riff 29

I. In this riff, Chapters 106-108 of Moby-Dick.

This trio of chapters introduces the carpenter, who proves a strange foil to Ahab.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

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:

“Well, manmaker!”

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!

“I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look” | Moby-Dick reread, riff 26

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

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.

We look, we interpret, we read.

Let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness | Moby-Dick reread, riff 25

I. In this riff, Chapters 94-98 of Moby-Dick.

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.

II. Ch. 94, “A Squeeze of the Hand.”

A perfect chapter in a perfectly imperfect book. Go ahead and read (it’s fine to read it on its own).

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.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

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:

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

And 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!

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it?  | Moby-Dick reread, riff 24

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

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.”

Right.

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—-

and—

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.

And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too? | Moby-Dick reread, riff 23

Detail from a Barry Moser illustration to Moby-Dick

 

I. In this riff: Chapters 88-90 of Moby-Dick.

II. Ch. 88, “Schools and Schoolmasters.”

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.

There is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men | Moby-Dick reread, riff 22

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff: Chapter 87 of Moby-Dick.

II. Ch. 87, “The Grand Armada.”

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.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

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.”

Ish continues:

…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.

There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method | Moby-Dick reread, riff 20

I. In this riff: Chapters 81-83 of Moby-Dick.

II. Ch. 81, “The Pequod meets The Virgin.”

In this long chapter, the crew of a German whaler called the Jungfrau (virgin), hail The Pequod. The Jungfrau’s captain Derick De Deer begs some whale oil from the Nantucket ship, and Ishmael notes the irony, although he also notes that “what in the Fishery is technically called a clean [ship] (that is, an empty one), [is] well deserving the name of Jungfrau or the Virgin.”

Just as The Pequod shares some oil for Captain De Deer’s lamp, a pod of whales is sighted, and both ships lower boats, entering into competition to lance the largest and slowest of the whales, who swims “many fathoms in the rear…a huge, humped old bull [who] seemed afflicted with the jaundice, or some other infirmity.”

Ishmael notes that it’s possible that this old whale is an outsider to the pod: “Whether this whale belonged to the pod in advance, seemed questionable; for it is not customary for such venerable leviathans to be at all social. Nevertheless, he stuck to their wake…” Stubb points out that the old whale has “lost his tiller,” and the crew soon spot the missing limb.

…the cause of his devious wake in the unnatural stump of his starboard fin. Whether he had lost that fin in battle, or had been born without it, it were hard to say.

We have here another double for mad Ahab.

III. The race between the two crews carries out in a mix of comedy and pathos. The mates of The Pequod, Stubb and Flask, provide comic bravado as they encourage their boats to row harder (“Don’t ye love sperm? There goes three thousand dollars, men!—a bank!—a whole bank!” yaps Flask).

IV. First mate Starbuck and Ishmael offer more empathy and respect for the aged whale. Consider this portrait Ishmael paints:

As the boats now more closely surrounded him, the whole upper part of his form, with much of it that is ordinarily submerged, was plainly revealed. His eyes, or rather the places where his eyes had been, were beheld. As strange misgrown masses gather in the knot-holes of the noblest oaks when prostrate, so from the points which the whale’s eyes had once occupied, now protruded blind bulbs, horribly pitiable to see. But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.

Ishmael’s final sentence here doubly damns aesthetics and religion, suggesting that the “merry-makings of men” are underwritten in blood and murder—no matter if we “preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.”

V. When they dart the beast, its agitated body rolls around, revealing an infected wound:

Still rolling in his blood, at last he partially disclosed a strangely discoloured bunch or protuberance, the size of a bushel, low down on the flank.

“A nice spot,” cried Flask; “just let me prick him there once.”

“Avast!” cried Starbuck, “there’s no need of that!”

But humane Starbuck was too late. At the instant of the dart an ulcerous jet shot from this cruel wound, and goaded by it into more than sufferable anguish, the whale now spouting thick blood, with swift fury blindly darted at the craft, bespattering them and their glorying crews all over with showers of gore, capsizing Flask’s boat and marring the bows. It was his death stroke.

The bloody shower is more foreshadowing. Or maybe it’s just the everyday business of whaling.

VI. When the crew of The Pequod cut into the whale, they find “the entire length of a corroded harpoon…imbedded in his flesh, on the lower part of the bunch before described.” Ishmael notes that finding spears in whales is not wholly unusual, but then gives us a more dramatic detail:

But still more curious was the fact of a lance-head of stone being found in him, not far from the buried iron, the flesh perfectly firm about it. Who had darted that stone lance? And when? It might have been darted by some Nor’ West Indian long before America was discovered.

Ishmael here posits the whale’s primeval primacy.

VII. Ch. 81 converts its bloody business back into comedy at the end. The Jungfrau mistakes a fin-back whale for a sperm whale—but fin-backs are a “species of uncapturable whales, because of its incredible power of swimming.” Ishmael notes that “Derick and all his host were now in valiant chase of this unnearable brute.” He knows what Derick does not know: that the Jungfrau’s ” bold, hopeful chase” is actually a doomed, hopeless case. Ishmael ends with a wry punchline: “Oh! many are the Fin-Backs, and many are the Dericks, my friend.”

VIII. Ch. 82, “The Honor and the Glory of Whaling.”

In this chapter our boy Ish, as always, is horny for whaling.

IX. In another metatextual opening, Ish begins by calling attention to his discursive narrative style: “There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.” He then proceeds to chronicle the “many great demi-gods and heroes, prophets of all sort” who are part of the whaling fraternity (noting that he is “transported with the reflection” that he belongs, “though but subordinately,” to this grand company).

X. It strikes me now that Ch. 82 is another of Moby-Dick’s stand-alone chapters, and that it would actually make a fine introduction to anyone wanting to dip their toe into its mass. Read it here.

Perseus & Andromeda illustrations by William Hogarth

XI. Anyway—

Ever-largehearted-and-often-bombastic Ishmael lards his chapter with every stripe of whalemen, including:

“The gallant Perseus, a son of Jupiter…the first whaleman…”

St. George of “that famous story of St. George and the Dragon; which dragon I maintain to have been a whale…”

Hercules, “that antique Crockett and Kit Carson—that brawny doer of rejoicing good deeds, [who] was swallowed down and thrown up by a whale…”

Jonah (natch)

and

“Vishnoo [who] became incarnate in a whale, and sounding down in him to the uttermost depths, rescued the sacred volumes.”

“Perseus, St. George, Hercules, Jonah, and Vishnoo! there’s a member-roll for you! What club but the whaleman’s can head off like that?” our jocular boy concludes jocularly.

XII. Ch. 83, “Jonah Historically Regarded.”

Way back in Ch. 9, “The Sermon,” Melville—via Ishmael, via Father Mapple—retold the biblical story of Jonah. Here, that story is squared against the knowledge of whalemen—and one dubious sailor in particular, a certain Sag-Harbor—who remain dubious of “this historical story of Jonah and the whale.” Ishmael points out though that “there were some sceptical Greeks and Romans, who, standing out from the orthodox pagans of their times, equally doubted the story of Hercules and the whale, and Arion and the dolphin; and yet their doubting those traditions did not make those traditions one whit the less facts, for all that.”

Ishmael tries to refute Sag-Harbor and the other Nantuckeers’ arguments against the veracity of Jonah’s voyage in the whale. Ish points out that “a German exegetist supposes that Jonah must have taken refuge in the floating body of a dead whale—even as the French soldiers in the Russian campaign turned their dead horses into tents, and crawled into them.” He also suggests that it’s possible “that when Jonah was thrown overboard from the Joppa ship, he straightway effected his escape to another vessel near by, some vessel with a whale for a figure-head…possibly called The Whale…”

Ultimately though, Ishmael is unable to scientifically explain how Jonah traveled from the coast of Joppa to Ninevah in just three days. He concludes then that, “this very idea of Jonah’s going to Nineveh via the Cape of Good Hope [is] a signal magnification of the general miracle.” 

Our boy Ish is a believer.

Things I have been reading that are not Moby-Dick

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I have been rereading Moby-Dick.

I have also been reading things that are not Moby-Dick

I have been reading emails.

I have been reading and very much enjoying Anakana Schofield’s novel Bina. I should have finished it by now—there’s just one remaining section—but I’ve been reading it exclusively in the bathtub. And I only take baths on Sunday. But I did not, unlike the narrator of Squeeze’s wonderful ditty “Up the Junction”,  take a bath on Sunday. (After I get the weight of Moby-Dick off my conscience I will write a review.)

I have been reading student writing.

I have been reading more emails.

I have been rereading lots of (so-called) early American literature. I am teaching a course in early American literature for the first time in a long time, and I have read again, for the first time in a long time, stuff like A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies by Bartolomé de Las Casas, and The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself and A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. America is founded in blood and bounding, violence and strange hope.

I have been reading Twitter.

I have been reading Reddit.

(I cannot remember the last book review I read.)

I have been reading bits of The Posthumous Works of Thomas Pilaster by Éric Chevillard (translated from the French by Chris Clarke) and I like it so far.

I have been reading more student writing.

I have been reading news articles, particularly English-language news articles from non-U.S. news organizations; particularly articles focused on U.S. politics.

I have been reading poetry on the internet, somewhat at random. 

I have not been reading Ann Quin’s novel Passages—it just showed up the other day—but it will be the next novel I read (after Moby-Dick; after Bina), and I am very excited about it. 

I have been reading Wikipedia articles, very much at random. (Is there a greater 21st-century novel?)

I have not been reading the audiobook recording of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian narrated by Richard Poe. I have been falling asleep to it every night for the past forty or so nights. I set an hour timer and either fall asleep in five, ten, twenty minutes or not at all. One night I listened to the novel’s final third. Some nights I wonder into it disoriented—Where are we? Other nights I’m thrilled at the particular episode we start with—too thrilled. I’m supposed to be asleep. Last night I listened to most of Ch. 8—the bit in the bar where Toadvine, Bathcat, and the kid go drink in a bar and are accosted by an old man who declares that he two is “Texas.” A guy gets stabbed in the shadows, but remains moaning. Where would he go? The chapter ends with the Apache attacking, but I don’t recall getting there. What the fuck is wrong with me that I find Blood Meridian a comforting soporific to send me to my slumbers?

I have been reading Moby-Dick.

 

The mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable | Moby-Dick reread, riff 17

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff: Chapters 61-73 of Moby-Dick.

II. Ch. 61, “Stubb Kills a Whale.”

In this chapter, Stubb kills a whale.

III. Ch. 62, “The Dart.”

In this chapter, Ishmael argues that harpooneers should not have to row so that their throwing arms are not fatigued when the time comes to lance a whale.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

IV. Ch. 63, “The Crotch.”

Ishmael begins this chapter by noting his propensity toward a discursive narrative style: “Out of the trunk, the branches grow; out of them, the twigs. So, in productive subjects, grow the chapters.”

He then suggests that “The crotch alluded to on a previous page deserves independent mention.”

I’m reminded of the time I made a list of smutty-sounding chapter titles in Moby-Dick.

V. Ch. 64, “Stubb’s Supper.”

Stubb eats some of that whale he killed a few chapters back.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

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.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

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.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

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 Jeroboam has 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.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks | Moby-Dick reread, riff 16

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff: Chapters 58, 59, and 60 of Moby-Dick.

II. Ch. 58, “Brit.”

With all of Ishmael’s metaphysical flights into philosophy, as well as the intrigue of Ahab’s revenge quest, it can be easy to lose track of just where in the watery world the Pequod is. Ishmael gives us our bearings again in the opening of “Brit”:

Steering north-eastward from the Crozetts, we fell in with vast meadows of brit, the minute, yellow substance, upon which the Right Whale largely feeds. For leagues and leagues it undulated round us, so that we seemed to be sailing through boundless fields of ripe and golden wheat.

The image of “boundless fields of ripe and golden wheat” seems out of place in these antarctic climes. It ties the sea back to the land—ever a concern of Ishmael, who posits his reader as the “landsman” afloat with him in alien waters.

III. And yet Ishmael, despite his sympathies, occasionally condescends landlubbers. He suggest that “to landsmen in general, the native inhabitants of the seas have ever been regarded with emotions unspeakably unsocial and repelling,” which may be more or less true. Ish continues:

…we know the sea to be an everlasting terra incognita, so that Columbus sailed over numberless unknown worlds to discover his one superficial western one; though, by vast odds, the most terrific of all mortal disasters have immemorially and indiscriminately befallen tens and hundreds of thousands of those who have gone upon the waters; though but a moment’s consideration will teach, that however baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make; nevertheless, by the continual repetition of these very impressions, man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

III. Ishmael then evokes the infinite apocalypse of the seventh chapter of Genesis:

 Yea, foolish mortals, Noah’s flood is not yet subsided; two thirds of the fair world it yet covers.

IV. Ch. 59, “Squid.”

Ishmael again situates us geographically. The Pequod is now near Java. There, they behold “The great live squid, which, they say, few whale-ships ever beheld, and returned to their ports to tell of it.” At first though, the crew believes that the “great white mass” is Moby Dick. Starbuck mutters that he would have preferred to meet and battle the White Whale than glimpse the giant squid, which is an ill omen to him.

Ishmael retreats from superstition and heads instead into scientific speculation:

Whatever superstitions the sperm whalemen in general have connected with the sight of this object, certain it is, that a glimpse of it being so very unusual, that circumstance has gone far to invest it with portentousness. So rarely is it beheld, that though one and all of them declare it to be the largest animated thing in the ocean, yet very few of them have any but the most vague ideas concerning its true nature and form; notwithstanding, they believe it to furnish to the sperm whale his only food. For though other species of whales find their food above water, and may be seen by man in the act of feeding, the spermaceti whale obtains his whole food in unknown zones below the surface; and only by inference is it that any one can tell of what, precisely, that food consists. At times, when closely pursued, he will disgorge what are supposed to be the detached arms of the squid; some of them thus exhibited exceeding twenty and thirty feet in length. They fancy that the monster to which these arms belonged ordinarily clings by them to the bed of the ocean; and that the sperm whale, unlike other species, is supplied with teeth in order to attack and tear it.

V. Ch. 60, “The Line.”

“The Line might be a good example of what turns many readers off in Moby-Dick. Ishmael riffs for a few pages on rope. Like, the qualities, textures, durability of different types of rope.

At the end though, our Ishmael turns the rope into a metaphor:

All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

The great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last | Moby-Dick reread, riff 15

I. In this riff: Ch. 55, 56, and 57 of Moby-Dick.

Each of these chapters concerns graphic—artistic and scientific—depictions of whales. Ishmael dwells mostly upon the failure of artists to truthfully represent the whale, but also concedes that the task is near impossible. Nevertheless, Ish attests that he “shall ere long paint to you as well as one can without canvas, something like the true form of the whale as he actually appears to the eye of the whaleman…”

II. Ch. 55, “Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales.”

Ishmael avers that erroneous depictions of whales are likely based in antiquity: “It may be that the primal source of all those pictorial delusions will be found among the oldest Hindoo, Egyptian, and Grecian sculptures.” He goes on,

Now, by all odds, the most ancient extant portrait anyways purporting to be the whale’s, is to be found in the famous cavern-pagoda of Elephanta, in India. …The Hindoo whale referred to, occurs in a separate department of the wall, depicting the incarnation of Vishnu in the form of leviathan, learnedly known as the Matse Avatar. But though this sculpture is half man and half whale, so as only to give the tail of the latter, yet that small section of him is all wrong. It looks more like the tapering tail of an anaconda, than the broad palms of the true whale’s majestic flukes.

I couldn’t locate an image of Ish’s Elaphanta icon, but here’s an unsigned depiction of Vishnu in this form from an 1816 portfolio of “deities, mendicants and ritual scenes such as a wedding and cremation.”

III. (Barry Moser, who illustrated the edition of Moby-Dick I’m rereading, wisely stayed away from most of these “picture” episodes.)

IV. Let us continue:

It is Guido’s picture of Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the sea-monster or whale. Where did Guido get the model of such a strange creature as that?

–and–

Nor does Hogarth, in painting the same scene in his own “Perseus Descending,” make out one whit better.

–and–

Then, there are the Prodromus whales of old Scotch Sibbald

–and—

Jonah’s whale, as depicted in the prints of old Bibles and the cuts of old primers.

Jonah, 1585 by Antonius Wierix

–and–

 In old Harris’s collection of voyages there are some plates of whales extracted from a Dutch book of voyages, A.D. 1671, entitled “A Whaling Voyage to Spitzbergen in the ship Jonas in the Whale, Peter Peterson of Friesland, master.” In one of those plates the whales, like great rafts of logs, are represented lying among ice-isles, with white bears running over their living backs. In another plate, the prodigious blunder is made of representing the whale with perpendicular flukes.

–and–

Then again, there is an imposing quarto, written by one Captain Colnett, a Post Captain in the English navy, entitled “A Voyage round Cape Horn into the South Seas, for the purpose of extending the Spermaceti Whale Fisheries.” In this book is an outline purporting to be a “Picture of a Physeter or Spermaceti whale, drawn by scale from one killed on the coast of Mexico, August, 1793, and hoisted on deck.”

–and–

Look at that popular work “Goldsmith’s Animated Nature.” In the abridged London edition of 1807, there are plates of an alleged “whale” and a “narwhale.” I do not wish to seem inelegant, but this unsightly whale looks much like an amputated sow; and, as for the narwhale, one glimpse at it is enough to amaze one, that in this nineteenth century such a hippogriff could be palmed for genuine upon any intelligent public of schoolboys.

–and–

Then, again, in 1825, Bernard Germain, Count de Lacépède, a great naturalist, published a scientific systemized whale book, wherein are several pictures of the different species of the Leviathan.

–and–

But the placing of the cap-sheaf to all this blundering business was reserved for the scientific Frederick Cuvier, brother to the famous Baron. In 1836, he published a Natural History of Whales, in which he gives what he calls a picture of the Sperm Whale. Before showing that picture to any Nantucketer, you had best provide for your summary retreat from Nantucket. In a word, Frederick Cuvier’s Sperm Whale is not a Sperm Whale, but a squash.

V. Ishmael then forgives these artists’ failures:

But these manifold mistakes in depicting the whale are not so very surprising after all. Consider! Most of the scientific drawings have been taken from the stranded fish; and these are about as correct as a drawing of a wrecked ship, with broken back, would correctly represent the noble animal itself in all its undashed pride of hull and spars. …The living whale, in his full majesty and significance, is only to be seen at sea in unfathomable waters; and afloat the vast bulk of him is out of sight…

VI. Ishmael then reminds us that the whale is a sort of metaphysical thing: “For it is one of the more curious things about this Leviathan, that his skeleton gives very little idea of his general shape,” unlike, say, Jeremy Bentham.

VII. Ishmael’s first pictorial chapter ends his chapter with a warning of sorts:

For all these reasons, then, any way you may look at it, you must needs conclude that the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last. True, one portrait may hit the mark much nearer than another, but none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness. So there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan.

Ishmael’s warning points—again—to The Pequod’s impending doom.

VIII. Ch. 56, “Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes.”

Ishmael:

I know of only four published outlines of the great Sperm Whale; Colnett’s, Huggins’s, Frederick Cuvier’s, and Beale’s. In the previous chapter Colnett and Cuvier have been referred to. Huggins’s is far better than theirs; but, by great odds, Beale’s is the best.

Here is a detail from W.J. Huggin’s South Sea Whale Fishery (1825):

–and from Beale’s volume

Ishmael then mentions William Scoresby, whose disastrous depictions also likely helped inform the imagery at the climax of Moby-Dick:

Ishmael is also very fond of two engravings from Ambroise Lous Garneray, the second of which he describes thus—

In the second engraving, the boat is in the act of drawing alongside the barnacled flank of a large running Right Whale, that rolls his black weedy bulk in the sea like some mossy rock-slide from the Patagonian cliffs. His jets are erect, full, and black like soot; so that from so abounding a smoke in the chimney, you would think there must be a brave supper cooking in the great bowels below. Sea fowls are pecking at the small crabs, shell-fish, and other sea candies and maccaroni, which the Right Whale sometimes carries on his pestilent back. And all the while the thick-lipped leviathan is rushing through the deep, leaving tons of tumultuous white curds in his wake, and causing the slight boat to rock in the swells like a skiff caught nigh the paddle-wheels of an ocean steamer. Thus, the foreground is all raging commotion; but behind, in admirable artistic contrast, is the glassy level of a sea becalmed, the drooping unstarched sails of the powerless ship, and the inert mass of a dead whale, a conquered fortress, with the flag of capture lazily hanging from the whale-pole inserted into his spout-hole.

I think it must be this–

IX. Ch. 57, “Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood; in Sheet-Iron; in Stone; in Mountains; in Stars.”

I wrote above that Barry Moser pretty much stays out of these pictorial chapters, but he does include this lovely little illustration in Ch. 57:

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

On scrimshaw:

Throughout the Pacific, and also in Nantucket, and New Bedford, and Sag Harbor, you will come across lively sketches of whales and whaling-scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on Sperm Whale-teeth, or ladies’ busks wrought out of the Right Whale-bone, and other like skrimshander articles, as the whalemen call the numerous little ingenious contrivances they elaborately carve out of the rough material, in their hours of ocean leisure.

(So I just spent the last half hour looking for this tiny little scrimshaw pocket knife I bought when I was ten years old in Honolulu — it was the winter of 1989 and we were going home-not-really-home to Florida for Christmas from Dunedin, New Zealand. We got to spend a few days in Honolulu and I bought a “scrimshaw” knife in the market. “Like Moby-Dick,” my father said, or something like that. I know the knife is here somewhere, in some box or crate, squirreled away, more beautiful in my mind’s eye than an iPhone pic could capture.)

X. These three chapters end with Ishmael’s reaffirmation to go a’whaliln’ — to see for himself, and not through, to quote Walt Whitman, “take things at second or third hand, not look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books.”

Our boy Ish ends the chapter horny for life:

With a frigate’s anchors for my bridle-bitts and fasces of harpoons for spurs, would I could mount that whale and leap the topmost skies, to see whether the fabled heavens with all their countless tents really lie encamped beyond my mortal sight!

 

 

Certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life | Moby-Dick reread, riff 13

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff, Ch. 49-53 of Moby-Dick.

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.”

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

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 moreWhaleships, 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

-1508

 n. In plural. Teeth, esp. large, misshapen, or irregular teeth (also gam teeth). Formerly also (occasionally): †jaws (obsolete).

-1785

n. slang.  A person’s leg. Frequently in plural.

-1827

n.  Amongst tribes in northern India: a headman, a chief.

-1831

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:

Nautical colloquial

(What is the nautical colloquial fashion look, and where can I get it?)

-1910

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.

-1971

n. British slang. An act of fellatio.

VIII.

Teeth

Leg

Chief

Meet

Head.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt? | Moby-Dick reread, riff 12

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff: Ch. 37-48.

II. Oof. Twelve chapters. Not sure how up to covering them I am, but let’s go—

III. Ch. 37, “Sunset.”

Ahab has just revealed that The Pequod’s true mission is vengeance on Moby Dick. “Sunset” is a short chapter and continues the Shakespearian mode initiated in Ch. 36, “The Quarter-Deck.” (It begins with the stage direction, “By the Mainmast; Starbuck leaning against it.”) We enter poor Starbuck’s inner monologue: “My soul is more than matched; she’s overmanned; and by a madman! Insufferable sting, that sanity should ground arms on such a field!”

This rhetorical conceit—a play on a stage with players—playfully plays out over the next few chapters, culminating in Ch. 40, “Midnight, Forecastle,” which reads like a playwright’s script. Ishmael is subsumed into this dramatic grammar, a bit player. Or perhaps he is the orchestrator of events. Or maybe just the recording witness. In any case, he arrives back to himself in—

IV. Ch. 41, “Moby Dick”—

Which begins,

I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine.

Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine: Ishmael’s first-person returns, but he assumes a kind of vacant post—he’s been absorbed into the unity of the crew, a unity in turn subsumed into Ahab’s monomania. In “Moby Dick” Ishmael provides a working background summary of Moby Dick’s history, including his encounter with Ahab. At the same time, it seems Ishmael’s consciousness has somehow absorbed portions of Ahab’s:

But, as in his narrow-flowing monomania, not one jot of Ahab’s broad madness had been left behind; so in that broad madness, not one jot of his great natural intellect had perished. That before living agent, now became the living instrument. If such a furious trope may stand, his special lunacy stormed his general sanity, and carried it, and turned all its concentred cannon upon its own mad mark; so that far from having lost his strength, Ahab, to that one end, did now possess a thousand fold more potency than ever he had sanely brought to bear upon any one reasonable object.

But I skipped a few chapters. Where were we?

V. Ch. 39, “First Night-Watch.”

Another very short chapter, another interior monologue—this time, “(Stubb solus, and mending a brace.)” We mostly get a bit of character-building: “Well, Stubb, wise Stubb—that’s my title—well, Stubb, what of it, Stubb? Here’s a carcase. I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.”

Go to it laughingMoby-Dick is a tragedy, but it’s also a grand comedy.

VI. Ch. 40, “Midnight, Forecastle.”

The crew of The Pequod turns into a chorus. Chorus is not the right word: our boys are not on the same page (except that they literally are). A bit drunk from Ahab’s spirits, they indulge in songs. Melville marks most sailors not by name, but by origin: Dutch Sailor, China Sailor, Lascar Sailor, and so on. The final lines go to the cabin boy Pip though:

PIP (shrinking under the windlass). Jollies? Lord help such jollies! Crish, crash! there goes the jib-stay! Blang-whang! God! Duck lower, Pip, here comes the royal yard! It’s worse than being in the whirled woods, the last day of the year! Who’d go climbing after chestnuts now? But there they go, all cursing, and here I don’t. Fine prospects to ’em; they’re on the road to heaven. Hold on hard! Jimmini, what a squall! But those chaps there are worse yet—they are your white squalls, they. White squalls? white whale, shirr! shirr! Here have I heard all their chat just now, and the white whale—shirr! shirr!—but spoken of once! and only this evening—it makes me jingle all over like my tambourine—that anaconda of an old man swore ’em in to hunt him! Oh, thou big white God aloft there somewhere in yon darkness, have mercy on this small black boy down here; preserve him from all men that have no bowels to feel fear!

Poor Pip is already half mad on the road to ruin, his language jangled and his psyche scarred. It’ll get worse.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

VII. Ch. 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale.”

Like maybe just read this one.

(That’s lazy on my part, right?

Okay, so—

“The Whiteness of the Whale” is one of the better chapters of Moby-Dick.

“What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid,” starts Ishmael, and then precedes to say, say, say—-and yet he tiptoes around the calamity at the book’s climax. (This ghost will foreshadow but not spoil.)

The third paragraph of this chapter goes on for almost five hundred words. Here it is (skip it if you like):

Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal preeminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title “Lord of the White Elephants” above all their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Cæsarian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial colour the same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; and though, besides, all this, whiteness has been even made significant of gladness, for among the Romans a white stone marked a joyful day; and though in other mortal sympathies and symbolizings, this same hue is made the emblem of many touching, noble things—the innocence of brides, the benignity of age; though among the Red Men of America the giving of the white belt of wampum was the deepest pledge of honor; though in many climes, whiteness typifies the majesty of Justice in the ermine of the Judge, and contributes to the daily state of kings and queens drawn by milk-white steeds; though even in the higher mysteries of the most august religions it has been made the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power; by the Persian fire worshippers, the white forked flame being held the holiest on the altar; and in the Greek mythologies, Great Jove himself being made incarnate in a snow-white bull; and though to the noble Iroquois, the midwinter sacrifice of the sacred White Dog was by far the holiest festival of their theology, that spotless, faithful creature being held the purest envoy they could send to the Great Spirit with the annual tidings of their own fidelity; and though directly from the Latin word for white, all Christian priests derive the name of one part of their sacred vesture, the alb or tunic, worn beneath the cassock; and though among the holy pomps of the Romish faith, white is specially employed in the celebration of the Passion of our Lord; though in the Vision of St. John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.

(There are also a few really long footnotes in “The Whiteness of the Whale.”)

VIII. The last two sentences of “The Whiteness of the Whale” might serve as a tidy summary of Moby-Dick’s tropes and themes:

And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

And so they hunt the object of their ideal, as if that would give life meaning and order.

IX. Ch. 43, “Hark!”

A short chapter composed almost entirely in dialogue, but without the markers of a drama. Instead, Melville puts his character’s lines in quotation marks and lets them go back and forth. The chapter basically is more foreshadowing for the eventual revelation of Fedallah and his hidden crew.

X. Ch. 44, “The Chart.”

More on Ahab’s mad questing. We learn his plans to intercept the white whale. As always, Ishmael is permitted into psychic environs that seem as if they should be verboten. He is somehow present in Ahab’s slumbering and waking:

Ah, God! what trances of torments does that man endure who is consumed with one unachieved revengeful desire. He sleeps with clenched hands; and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms.

A self-crucifying-Christ?

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

XI. Ch. 45, “The Affidavit.”

Ishmael seeks to validate the veracity of his tale with us, his readers. He invokes several “factual” (non-fiction!) texts, including an account from a man he claims as an uncle.

A key idea:

So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.

Ishmael tells us this is no allegory, perhaps signalling this is definitely an allegory—but a failed allegory, an ambiguous attempt at allegory, an allegory where object, symbol, and lesson will refuse to align neatly.

XII. Ch. 46, “Surmises.”

Moby-Dick is a novel of masters and commanders, and body and soul, themes I haven’t touched too much upon:

To accomplish his object Ahab must use tools; and of all tools used in the shadow of the moon, men are most apt to get out of order. He knew, for example, that however magnetic his ascendency in some respects was over Starbuck, yet that ascendency did not cover the complete spiritual man any more than mere corporeal superiority involves intellectual mastership; for to the purely spiritual, the intellectual but stand in a sort of corporeal relation.

XIII. Ch. 47, “The Mat-Maker.”

Does Melville love hyphens or what? Like so many of the chapters of Moby-Dick are hyphenated—and the title is hyphenated, even if the whale isn’t. Anyway. “The Mat-Maker” is a bit of stage business to remind us that Ish and Queeg are, like, working on a whale ship and are part of noble Starbuck’s crew. And then Tashtego calls out a whale. And then they lower boats.

XIV. Ch. 48, “The First Lowering.”

For all it’s philosophizin’, Moby-Dick is still an adventure story, and “The First Lowering” glows with vibrant action.

We are introduced to the secret phantoms that were stowed away beneath decks—Fedallah and his crew, Ahab’s secret assassins. While Ishmael is generally magnanimous and unbounded by prejudice, the novel gives way here to ugly racism:

The figure that now stood by its bows was tall and swart, with one white tooth evilly protruding from its steel-like lips. A rumpled Chinese jacket of black cotton funereally invested him, with wide black trowsers of the same dark stuff. But strangely crowning this ebonness was a glistening white plaited turban, the living hair braided and coiled round and round upon his head. Less swart in aspect, the companions of this figure were of that vivid, tiger-yellow complexion peculiar to some of the aboriginal natives of the Manillas;—a race notorious for a certain diabolism of subtilty, and by some honest white mariners supposed to be the paid spies and secret confidential agents on the water of the devil, their lord, whose counting-room they suppose to be elsewhere.

At an aesthetic level, Melville’s Ishmael is perhaps trying to work through an allegory of whiteness, using yellowness here in unkind and unwise methods—but I don’t think so. It’s just ugly.

XV. “The First Lowering” prefigures the disaster at the end of Moby-Dick. It’s a rough dress rehearsal for the outcome of Ahab’s mad quest, and it ends with Ish, Queeg, and Starbuck imperiled, “Wet, drenched through, and shivering cold, despairing of ship or boat”:

Floating on the waves we saw the abandoned boat, as for one instant it tossed and gaped beneath the ship’s bows like a chip at the base of a cataract; and then the vast hull rolled over it, and it was seen no more till it came up weltering astern. Again we swam for it, were dashed against it by the seas, and were at last taken up and safely landed on board. Ere the squall came close to, the other boats had cut loose from their fish and returned to the ship in good time. The ship had given us up, but was still cruising, if haply it might light upon some token of our perishing,—an oar or a lance pole.

XVI. Will Ish and Queeg survive? Has the ship given them up? Tune in next time, for Ch. 49 — “The Hyena”!

Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me | Moby-Dick reread, riff 11

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

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.

And:

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!

IX. God hunt us all—it seems he will.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser