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.

Master among these queer magicians | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for August 9th, 1857

Chorlton Road, August 9th.–We have changed our lodgings since my last date, those at Old Trafford being inconvenient, and the landlady a sharp, peremptory housewife, better fitted to deal with her own family than to be complaisant to guests. We are now a little farther from the Exhibition, and not much better off as regards accommodation, but the housekeeper is a pleasant, civil sort of a woman, auspiciously named Mrs. Honey. The house is a specimen of the poorer middle-class dwellings as built nowadays,–narrow staircase, thin walls, and, being constructed for sale, very ill put together indeed,–the floors with wide cracks between the boards, and wide crevices admitting both air and light over the doors, so that the house is full of draughts. The outer walls, it seems to me, are but of one brick in thickness, and the partition walls certainly no thicker; and the movements, and sometimes the voices, of people in the contiguous house are audible to us. The Exhibition has temporarily so raised the value of lodgings here that we have to pay a high price for even such a house as this.

Mr. Wilding having gone on a tour to Scotland, I had to be at the Consulate every day last week till yesterday; when I absented myself from duty, and went to the Exhibition. U– and I spent an hour together, looking principally at the old Dutch masters, who seem to me the most wonderful set of men that ever handled a brush. Such lifelike representations of cabbages, onions, brass kettles, and kitchen crockery; such blankets, with the woollen fuzz upon them; such everything I never thought that the skill of man could produce! Even the photograph cannot equal their miracles. The closer you look, the more minutely true the picture is found to be, and I doubt if even the microscope could see beyond the painter’s touch. Gerard Dow seems to be the master among these queer magicians. A straw mat, in one of his pictures, is the most miraculous thing that human art has yet accomplished; and there is a metal vase, with a dent in it, that is absolutely more real than reality. These painters accomplish all they aim at,–a praise, methinks, which can be given to no other men since the world began. They must have laid down their brushes with perfect satisfaction, knowing that each one of their million touches had been necessary to the effect, and that there was not one too few nor too many. And it is strange how spiritual and suggestive the commonest household article–an earthen pitcher, for example–becomes, when represented with entire accuracy. These Dutchmen got at the soul of common things, and so made them types and interpreters of the spiritual world.

Afterwards I looked at many of the pictures of the old masters, and found myself gradually getting a taste for them; at least they give me more and more pleasure the oftener I come to see them. Doubtless, I shall be able to pass for a man of taste by the time I return to America. It is an acquired taste, like that for wines; and I question whether a man is really any truer, wiser, or better for possessing it. From the old masters, I went among the English painters, and found myself more favorably inclined towards some of them than at my previous visits; seeing something wonderful even in Turner’s lights and mists and yeasty waves, although I should like him still better if his pictures looked in the least like what they typify. The most disagreeable of English painters is Etty, who had a diseased appetite for woman’s flesh, and spent his whole life, apparently, in painting them with enormously developed busts. I do not mind nudity in a modest and natural way; but Etty’s women really thrust their nudity upon you with malice aforethought. . . . and the worst of it is they are not beautiful.

Among the last pictures that I looked at was Hogarth’s March to Finchley; and surely nothing can be covered more thick and deep with English nature than that piece of canvas. The face of the tall grenadier in the centre, between two women, both of whom have claims on him, wonderfully expresses trouble and perplexity; and every touch in the picture meant something and expresses what it meant.

The price of admission, after two o’clock, being six-pence, the Exhibition was thronged with a class of people who do not usually come in such large numbers. It was both pleasant and touching to see how earnestly some of them sought to get instruction from what they beheld. The English are a good and simple people, and take life in earnest.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for August 9th, 1857. From Passages from the English Note-Books.

Artist in His Studio, 1632 by Gerrit Dou (Gerard Dow; 1613-1675)
The Three Graces by William Etty (1787–1849)
The March of the Guards to Finchley1750 by William Hogarth (1697-1764)

The Madhouse — William Hogarth

Satire on False Perspective — William Hogarth

Time Smoking a Painting — William Hogarth

Election Propaganda — William Hogarth