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Vignettes

I have a lot of things I want to write about this week but not a lot of time to do it in, so I’m resorting to little vignettes or teasers.

Prophecy.

There’s a lot of prophecy in Moby-Dick, isn’t there? We start, of course, with Jonah, a reluctant prophet whose fate in the belly of the whale is certainly relevant to the text. Then Peleg mentions (in “The Ship”) an old squaw named Tistig who said that Ahab’s name would be prophetic. The Biblical Ahab was counted a vile king, and Elijah prophesied that the dogs would lick his blood upon his death. This leads nicely into the chapter entitled “The Prophet,” in which a prophet named Elijah has vague, foreboding things to say to Ishmael and Queequeg about the Ahab of Moby-Dick. In chapter 37 (“Sunset”), Ahab soliloquizes about the prophecy that he would lose a limb, and then he himself prophesies that he’ll dismember his dismemberer, planning to become (in a typical Ahabian bit of hubris) “the prophet and the fulfiller one.” In another soliloquy two chapters later, Stubb mentions prophecy and predestination (not so much religious predestination as fate, I think) with respect to Ahab. In “The Mat-Maker,” as Ishmael ruminates on a great big Homeric conceit about fate while weaving a mat with Queequeg, he describes Tashtego (aloft in the rigging with an eye for whales) as seeming a “prophet or seer beholding the shadows of Fate.” We meet another prophet on the Jeroboam who suggests that his (the prophet’s) crew not lower for Moby Dick; when they do, the mate is killed by the beast. This is one of many ominous signs that fairly scream to Ahab and crew to turn away from the vengeful business at hand. In “The Virgin,” Melville quotes from a bit in the book of Job about the leviathan and then mentions the prophets. More about this in the next vignette. Ishmael says that Pip’s misadventure in the deep “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.”  We learn during the chapter about Queequeg’s coffin that his tattoos relate a theory of heaven and earth as given by a prophet of Queequeg’s tribe. There are other references to prophets here and there but none so interesting as the ones I’ve listed. There’s an important one coming up in chapter 117.

If I had more time, I’d ponder the relationship between fate and prophecy and how that relationship bears on the matter of finding meaning in suffering (which I wrote about before and which I think is another thing central to the book).

Lines

There are miles and miles of line in Moby-Dick, most notably the rigging and ropes for fixing your boat to a whale. There’s the monkey rope. There are the strands of material woven into a mat that serves as a nice model for how Ishmael conceives of fate and will. These opposing ideas are key ideas in the book, and Melville handles them from a number of angles, from philosophical meditations and epic similes on the topic to examples of mutiny (or near-mutiny) that seem to me to represent a loss of (or reclaiming of) free will. The monkey rope chapter illustrates how inextricably linked we are to others (an argument against any fully intact will, I think). This idea meshes very well, I think, with the circumstance of being fixed to a sounding fish. I mention above the reference to Job. Melville gives us this as the boats are chasing and have fixed to a whale that the Virgin has missed. A lengthy quote is unavoidable:

As the three boats lay there on that gently rolling sea, gazing down into its eternal blue noon; and as not a single groan or cry of any sort, nay, not so much as a ripple or a bubble came up from its depths; what landsman would have thought, that beneath all that silence and placidity, the utmost monster of the seas was writhing and wrenching in agony! Not eight inches of perpendicular rope were visible at the bows. Seems it credible that by three such thin threads the great Leviathan was suspended like the big weight to an eight day clock. Suspended? and to what? To three bits of board. Is this the creature of whom it was once so triumphantly said–”Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish-spears? The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold, the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon: he esteemeth iron as straw; the arrow cannot make him flee; darts are counted as stubble; he laugheth at the shaking of a spear!” This the creature? this he? Oh! that unfulfilments should follow the prophets. For with the strength of a thousand thighs in his tail, Leviathan had run his head under the mountains of the sea, to hide him from the Pequod’s fish-spears!

What an image! These guys are just sitting there on the still sea with no real idea what’s going on at the end of this rope they’re attached to. The whale could come up and stave their boats or roll over top of them, and though they’ve gotten themselves into the situation by fixing themselves to the whale, their fate after the fact is utterly out of their hands. The same can be said of how the men on the ship fixed themselves to Ahab. (Can probably be said, to some degree or another, of any choice we ever make.)

Blackness of Darkness

This phrase appears two times in Moby-Dick. It’s a striking, redundant-seeming phrase that stands in stark contrast to the whiteness of the whale, which Melville goes at length to position as a thing of terror itself. The relevant passages:

It seemed the great Black Parliament sitting in Tophet. A hundred black faces turned round in their rows to peer; and beyond, a black Angel of Doom was beating a book in a pulpit. It was a negro church; and the preacher’s text was about the blackness of darkness, and the weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there. Ha, Ishmael, muttered I, backing out, Wretched entertainment at the sign of ‘The Trap!’

And:

then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.

There’s an interesting note here on the origin of the phrase (either Carlyle or Jonathan Edwards). Though that article says there’s no scriptural source for the quote, I find that the King James version of the Bible uses the phrase in Jude 1. I don’t have much in the way of analysis of this. It’s merely a striking phrase, repeated.

Mountains

And finally, an intratextual similarity of image that I’m surely not the first among this group to have noticed but that I wanted to bring up anyway. The first occurrence we find in “The Try-Works.” Ishmael has fallen asleep at his post and has managed to turn himself around. He’s confused and terrified for a moment before he gets his bearings. From a Biblical consideration of this event, he derives the pretty heavy statement that “there is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness,” and then he goes on to describe an eagle flying in the mountains. Even when at his lowest, that eagle, by virtue of being in the mountains, still flies higher than the highest among those not in the mountains. Such, I suppose, is the wisdom — or perhaps rather the woe — of Ahab.

In “The Doubloon,” we have this interesting presentation of people watching people watching people talk to themselves about the doubloon Ahab has nailed to the mast. Ahab sees in the mountains pictured on the coin his own firmness, courage, and victorious spirit. He sees himself in the gold coin. Starbuck, by contrast, marks the valleys and sees the peaks not as the expression of human achievement or virtue but as the Trinity. The coin is not a mirror in which one sees himself, to Starbuck, but is rather a beacon radiating the sweet solace of God (and its absence from those seeking solace in the wrong place). Both men regard the image sadly.

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