A Careful Disorderliness | Forty Riffs on Moby-Dick

I did not set out to write forty riffs on Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick but that’s where I ended up. I don’t think what I’ve done here is a resource of any worth, but I do hope to encourage people to read this funny, humane, poetic, and devastating novel.

Here are links by chapter to the riffs I riffed on Moby-Dick in 2021.

Illustrations in this post are by the American artist Barry Moser.

Ch. 1 (The great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open)

Ch. 2-4  (Nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom)

Ch. 5-8  (All these things are not without their meanings)

Ch. 9-13  (No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world)

Ch. 14-16 (Oblique hints)

Ch. 17-19  (Humbug or bugbear)

Ch. 20-22 (First kick)

Ch. 23-27 (Whaling may well be regarded as that Egyptian mother who bore offspring themselves pregnant from her womb)

Ch. 28-32 (God keep me from ever completing anything)

Ch. 33-35 (Your identity comes back in horror)

Ch. 36 (Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me)

Ch. 37-48 (And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?)

Ch. 49-54 (Certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life)

Ch. 55-57  (The great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last)

Ch. 58-60 (A certain wondrous, inverted visitation of one of those so called judgments of God which at times are said to overtake some men)

Ch. 61-73 (The mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable)

Ch. 74-75 (Why then do you try to “enlarge” your mind? Subtilize it.)

Ch. 76-80 (A very precious perishing)

Ch. 81-83 (There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method)

Ch. 84-86  (Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly)

Ch. 87 (There is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men)

Ch. 88-90 (Loose-fish/fast-fish)

Ch. 91-93 (The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it?)

Ch. 94-98 (Let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness)

Ch. 99 (“I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look”)

Ch. 100 (Face set like a flint)

Ch. 101-05 (Horror-struck at this antemosaic, unsourced existence of the unspeakable terrors of the whale)

Ch. 106-08 (The ineffaceable, sad birth-mark in the brow of man, is but the stamp of sorrow in the signers)

Ch. 109-11 (Millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries)

Ch. 112 (Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried)

Ch. 113-17 (Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them)

Ch. 118-19 (Thy incommunicable riddle, thy unparticipated grief)

Ch. 120-22 (All of us are Ahabs)

Ch. 123 (Wild nights)

Ch. 124-26 (Human sort of wail)

Ch. 127-29 (A life-buoy of a coffin! Does it go further?)

Ch. 130-32 (The least heedful eye seemed to see some sort of cunning meaning in almost every sight)

Ch. 133-34 (That wild simultaneousness of a thousand concreted perils)

Ch. 135-Epilogue (The drama’s done)

And because I landed (or drowned?) at forty, here’s Ahab, near the end of the novel, wailing on forty:

Oh, Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky. On such a day—very much such a sweetness as this—I struck my first whale—a boy-harpooneer of eighteen! Forty—forty—forty years ago!—ago! Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep! Aye and yes, Starbuck, out of those forty years I have not spent three ashore. When I think of this life I have led; the desolation of solitude it has been; the masoned, walled-town of a Captain’s exclusiveness, which admits but small entrance to any sympathy from the green country without—oh, weariness! heaviness! Guinea-coast slavery of solitary command!—when I think of all this; only half-suspected, not so keenly known to me before—and how for forty years I have fed upon dry salted fare—fit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soil!—when the poorest landsman has had fresh fruit to his daily hand, and broken the world’s fresh bread to my mouldy crusts—away, whole oceans away, from that young girl-wife I wedded past fifty, and sailed for Cape Horn the next day, leaving but one dent in my marriage pillow—wife? wife?—rather a widow with her husband alive! Aye, I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck; and then, the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow, with which, for a thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey—more a demon than a man!—aye, aye! what a forty years’ fool—fool—old fool, has old Ahab been! Why this strife of the chase? why weary, and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance? how the richer or better is Ahab now?

(I feel richer now after the re-read.)

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)


“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.

“Whaler” — W.S. Merwin

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?


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


Then, there are the Prodromus whales of old Scotch Sibbald


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

Jonah, 1585 by Antonius Wierix


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


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


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


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


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

V. Ishmael then forgives these artists’ failures:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

–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!



Perseus, whaleman (Melville/Sienkiewicz)


From Bill Sienkiewicz’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The Classics Illustrated edition (February 1990) is one of my favorite Moby-Dicks.

Moby — Mu Pan


Moby, 2018 by Mu Pan (b. 1976)

Screenshot 2018-08-05 at 5.33.05 PMScreenshot 2018-08-05 at 5.33.47 PMScreenshot 2018-08-05 at 5.34.45 PMScreenshot 2018-08-05 at 5.34.19 PMScreenshot 2018-08-05 at 5.34.03 PMScreenshot 2018-08-05 at 5.33.26 PMScreenshot 2018-08-05 at 5.36.04 PM

Big Whale — Mu Pan


Big Whale, 2018 by Mu Pan (b. 1976)

Screenshot 2018-05-21 at 3.29.56 PM

Perseus, whaleman (Melville/Sienkiewicz)


From Bill Sienkiewicz’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The Classics Illustrated edition (February 1990) is one of my favorite Moby-Dicks.

…it was here that Melville saw the work of JMW Turner

Whalers, JMW Turner

It is clear from Melville’s journal, one of only two such surviving documents, that his mind was already playing with these ideas. Late at night, he “turned flukes” down Oxford Street as if he were being followed by a great whale, and thought he saw “blubber rooms” in the butcheries of the Fleet Market. And when he saw Queen Victoria riding past in a carriage, he joked that the young man sitting beside her was the Prince of Whales. London – which itself had only lately been a whaling port – was stirring up the ghosts of his past.

Perhaps most importantly, it was here that Melville saw the work of J M W Turner, a clear visual influence on his book-to-be. Turner had painted a series of whaling scenes for Elhanan Bicknell, whose British whaling company was based in the Elephant and Castle; parts of Moby-Dick would read like commentaries to those tempestuous, brutally poetic canvases, not least the painting that greets Ishmael at the Spouter-Inn, “a boggy, soggy, squitchy picture” of “a black mass . . . floating in a nameless yeast . . . an exasperated whale”. It is all the more intriguing to note how Melville’s Anglophilia was the yeast out of which this great American novel emerged – especially given that the book failed spectacularly in his homeland and it was left to British writers to recognise first its wilful, prophetic genius.

Read the rest of Philip Hoare’s essay “White Whale in the Big Smoke: How the Geography of London Inspired Moby-Dick” at the New Statesmen.

Leviathan — Bo Bartlett


Musashi on the Back of a Whale — Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Leviathan–Jens Harder

Jens Harder’s Leviathan is a graphic novel in the truest sense. Harder uses scratchy but fluid images to tell the story of a mystical whale who battles a giant squid, saves Noah’s ark, attacks the Pequod, wreaks havoc on a cruise ship, and eventually battles an armada of anachronisms. The only text Harder employs in Leviathan are excerpts and quotes from a variety of sources including the Bible and a host of philosophers; the bulk of quotes come from Melville’s Moby-Dick. Just as that novel begins with an “Etymology” followed by a section called “Extracts,” Harder begins with a section called “Leviathanology,” a collection of quotes about leviathans from the likes of Hobbes, Milton, and the book of Job. These quotes inform the story of Leviathan, connecting the whale to a sublime and unknowable mystery that Harder will explore. Harder’s surreal images often invert notions of “proper” space and time, giving the whale an awesome significance, but also positing the beast as something that denies signification. By eschewing the traditional forms of graphic storytelling, which rely on speech bubbles and clear-cut panel transitions, Harder is able to capture something that is essentially too large to capture. This book works. Highly recommended.