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Week #5 Langauge

I’m reading the Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick.  The edition includes the occasional footnote (and I’m pleased to say very occasional, I didn’t want to get too bogged down in the footers here) which has explained some of the more esoteric words that Melville used.  (These are not the footnotes that Melville has included, although those are here too).

What struck me particularly this week was the euphemisms that Melville/Ishmael uses.  It’s especially funny given how gruesomely explicit he is about so much of the whale.  But I guess even back in 1851 some bodily functions were more acceptable than others.

Someone told me that they hadn’t read Moby-Dick, but they knew it was all subtext about sex anyhow.  On my post from last week, Daryl and I were having a discussion about the not-so-subtle sexual speak in Chapter 78 (Cistern and Buckets) when: “Towards the end, Tashtego has to ram his long pole harder and harder, and deeper and deeper into the Tun” (340).  But, unless Melville decided that he could write a sex story because of a double entendre about sperm (which I don’t think for a second), I don’t see a lot of sex in the book.   Perhaps they were exaggerating.

But back to language.

Melville himself addresses one issue of word usage in Chapter 87 (The Grand Armada) in his footnote.  Ishmael says that when whales reach a certain sense of inertia, they are gallied.

To gally, or gallow, is to frighten excessively – to confound with fright. It is an old Saxon word. It occurs once in Shakespeare: – “The wrathful skies Gallow the very wanderers of the dark And make them keep their caves.” To common language, the word is now completely obsolete. When the polite landsman first hears it from the gaunt Nantucketer, he is apt to set it down as one of the whaleman’s self-derived savageries. Much the same is it with many other sinewy Saxonisms of this sort, which emigrated to New-England rocks with the noble brawn of the old English emigrants in the time of the Commonwealth. Thus, some of the best and furthest-descended English words – the etymological Howards and Percys – are now democratised, nay, plebeianised – so to speak – in the New World (389).

While this isn’t set out as a Melville manifesto to use obscure words or anything, it is interesting that Melville does use words that are in common discourse (we already saw Melville define Gam (in the body of the text) in Chapter 53 (The Gam):

GAM. Noun – A social meeting of two (or more) Whale-ships, 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 (239).

But these are the two major definitions that Melville supplies.  The other words that I enjoyed were thrown into the text with little fanfare.  Some words were probably in common usage in 1851, and are out of favor now.  Mr. Norton Critical saw fit to footnote a few in this week’s reading though, and they prove to be scandalous!

The first one comes in Chapter 88 (Schools and Schoolmasters).  Ishmael says that the male whale in “charge” of a harem is called a “schoolmaster”

His title, schoolmaster, would very naturally seem derived from the name bestowed upon the harem itself, but some have surmised that the man who first thus entitled this sort of Ottoman whale, must have read the memoirs of Vidocq, and informed himself what sort of a country-schoolmaster* that famous Frenchman was in his younger days, and what was the nature of those occult lessons he inculcated into some of his pupils (392).

* My edition lists this country-schoolmaster note as: “The sort who would seduce the young girls in his charge” (330, Norton).  [Naughty!]  This of course, references the other of Melville’s own notes from Chapter 87:

The Sperm Whale, as with all other species of the Leviathan, but unlike most other fish, breeds indifferently at all seasons (389).

But it’s not all sex in this week’s readings, there’s also fouler stuff.  This particular sentence was so euphemistic, that without the note, I would have never guessed its true intent:

Stubb was struck by a shower of outcries and anathemas proceeding from the Captain’s round-house abaft; and looking in that direction saw a fiery face thrust from behind the door, which was held ajar from within. This was the tormented surgeon, who, after in vain remonstrating against the proceedings of the day, had betaken himself to the Captain’s round-house (cabinet he called it) to avoid the pest; but still, could not help yelling out his entreaties and indignations at times (403).

It’s not even just the strange terms (round-house & cabinet) that are confounding, it’s the whole context.  We know that they are talking about the horrible smell of the dead whale.  But the exclamations and indignations do nothing to reveal this rather simple note:

*The Captain’s privy.  As Bernard Mosher explains, the surgeon prefers the odor of the “cabinet” to that of the blasted whale  (339, Norton). [Ew!]

Moving on to more of this substance, Chapter 92 (Ambergris) has two footnotes.  The first one is totally obvious from context, but I have to wonder if the item in question was so very common at the time.

How to cure such a dyspepsia it were hard to say, unless by administering three or four boat loads of Brandreth’s pills*, and then running out of harm’s way, as laborers do in blasting rocks (407).

Norton notes: *a laxative (343, Norton).  But it’s pretty funny even if you don’t recognize the brand name.

A Google search turns up this charming poster for a Brandreth item.  Heh, there’s also an article from April 1, 1860 in The New York Times, entitled, “Brandreth’s Pills are Excellent Purgative.

Speaking of this, we get this amusing line about the origins of perfume:

And likewise call to mind that saying of Paracelsus about what it is* that maketh the best musk (407).

Norton: * “What it is” is excrement (343, Norton).

Paracelsus does have quite a bit to say about musk, by the way.  In The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus by Arthur Edward Waite, musk comes up 11 times!  The most relevant would be: “Hence it happens that occasionally some of the excrement is mingled with the musk, because this penetrates more readily than any lily with all its operations” (61).

Moving beyond excrement, the most wonderful euphemism of the bunch calls back to Chapter 3, when Ishamel tries on Queequeg’s “poncho.” Ishamel says: I went up in it to a bit of glass stuck against the wall, and I never saw such a sight in my life. I tore myself out of it in such a hurry that I gave myself a kink in the neck (20).  In Chapter 95 (The Cassock), the whole chapter is about the whale’s penis, but it is never explicitly stated at all.  What you get is (and it’s hard to know where to stop this quote, so many ramifications are there:

Had you stepped on board the Pequod at a certain juncture of this post-mortemizing of the whale; and had you strolled forward nigh the windlass, pretty sure am I that you would have scanned with no small curiosity a very strange, enigmatical object, which you would have seen there, lying along lengthwise in the lee scuppers. 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 an idol, indeed, it is; or, rather, in old times, its likeness was (417).

Norton very simply footnotes the word object as: the whale’s penis (350, Norton).  But what I really enjoyed was the second footnote added to this section.  As Ishmael explains that the mincer then wears the skin of the penis as a kind of poncho so as to make the sheets for the Bible, he comments: “What a candidate for archbishoprick” (418).  Norton notes: “The unusual archaic spelling with final K emphasizes the phallic pun” (351, Norton).  And that is hilarious.  Who even knew it was ever spelled archbishopric?

I’m making a special note about the reference to Kentucky: “longer than a Kentuckian is tall.”  This is the first of two mentions of Kentuckians and their height.  This one seems to suggest that Kentuckians are tall (right?).  The second comes in Chapter 105 (Does the Whale’s Magnitude Diminish?–Will He Perish?), which implies that Kentuckians are small (right?):

“Because I cannot understand how it is, that while the Egyptian mummies that were buried thousands of years before even Pliny was born, do not measure so much in their coffins as a modern Kentuckian in his socks” (456).

I knew that Melville was from New York, but I can find nothing (with minimal research of course) that ties him to Kentucky.  Was there some kind of common knowledge (or joke) about the height of Kentuckians?  And what on earth would British readers have made of that?

The final joke that I wanted to mention is disgusting, but not bodily.  It comes in Chapter 101 (The Decanter).  It’s kind of a throwaway line (as all the best jokes are), especially as it comes in a lengthy discussion of the ship’s provisions.  He notes:

in short, the bread contained the only fresh fare they had (442).

Which Norton notes: “the fresh fare was maggots or weevils” (370, Norton).

As with most of the lines, it seems like such an obscure little joke that I have to wonder how many people were even meant to get it.  And yet, for those in the know, this is an amusing (if disgusting) moment in an otherwise dry Chapter.

I’m not going to go on record saying that Moby-Dick is a hilarious book or anything like that.  But I keep finding that careful reading (and a little assistance) really highlights some funny word play, comic vignettes and, in this case, gross-out humor.

I’m intrigued by all of the innuendo that these quotes contain.  The jokes are subtle at best, obscure most of the time, and almost totally hidden at worst.  I honestly don’t know what readers knew in 1851.  I don’t know if these were obscure jokes for readers back then.  Or indeed if these were really obvious jokes for everyone but we 21st century readers.  In a text that is pretty dry most of the time, these little jokes really lighten the mood.

This post is a sort of prelude to what I assume is the all-action finale!

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  1. June 22, 2010 at 11:20 am

    Great post, Paul. In the chapter about the cassock, which also talks about the mincer, I found myself wondering if there wasn’t a play on the idea of the mincing effeminate man. Certainly there are other parts of the book that some choose to read as clues that Melville was a latent (at least) homosexual (Delbanco writes interestingly about this), and of course there’s the old stereotype of sailors long at sea satisfying their needs together. It’s not hard to read a bit more than fellow-feeling in “A Squeeze of the Hand,” though perhaps that’s easier done when looking back through history than at the time that Melville wrote it. I didn’t have time to thoroughly read all the citations and definitions of mince in the OED, but a cursory glance doesn’t show any obvious connotations of effeminacy.

    By the way, Norton got wind of your post and tweeted it.

  2. June 22, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    Wow, tweeted by Mr. Norton! How exciting.

    I have been really trying to resist the urge to read homosexual stuff into the book from a 21st century perspective. I’m no where near versed enough in mid 19th attitudes to try to determine what is intentionally gay and what isn’t. So, the mincer thing did cross my mind, but, like you, I didn’t want to assume anything.

    I guess that’s what the critical analyses are good for, letting them do the heavy lifting. I’ll have to check out Delbanco to see if I’m imposing too much on him.

    • June 24, 2010 at 3:22 pm

      Congratulations on the tweet, Paul!

      I think “intentionally gay” is indeed going to be a tough call to make, but take it from someone with The ‘Dar–there’s more than just effusive straight friendship going on here (and throughout Melville). It’s not going to be outright gay, but it’s definitely farther along the spectrum than just homosocial. On its own, that’s not necessarily anything significant, but it’s pervasive, and frequently strongly homoerotic. As you say, current attitudes about sexuality are different, and forms of expression are too. But there’s certainly some there there.

  3. Judd Staley
    June 25, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    I’ve not read much Melville criticism, but I do know that in his great book _The Culture of Redemption_ Leo Bersani, one of the forefathers of contemporary “Queer Theory,” has an excellent chapter that addresses some of the homosocial/homoerotic issues. He discusses “A Squeeze of the Hand” and the whole Ishmael-Queequeg realtionship, but he then proceeds to problematize the whole issue, asking “Is there a *subject* of homosexual desire in Moby-Dick? Far from representing either unequivocal homosexuality or surfaces of hererosexual desire troubled by repressed homosexual impulses, Melville’s characters have no sexual subjectivity at all” (146). (Bersani, if you can’t tell, is working in a mode permeated by psychoanalytic theory, explicitly Freudian but with a strong Lacanian undercurrent.)

    He also points to some other explorations of homosexual themes in the novel: Leslie Fieldler, in _Love and Death in the American Novel_, who “finds Melville (and other American writers) unable to deal with adult heterosexual love,” and Robert K. Martin, in _Hero, Captain, and Stranger: Male Friendship, Social Critique, and LIterary Form in the Sea Novels of Herman Melville_, who “reinterprets this failure as an accomplishment of the highest order” (224-4, n.6).

    Anyway, I recommend the Bersani essay, called “Incomparable America,” and really his whole book, which also includes one of the most provocative essays on Ulysses I’ve ever read (for those of us reading that next month), as well as a brilliant reading of Gravity’s Rainbow. Moby-Dick, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow: I’d love to hear his take on a certain 1996 novel that seems to fit this trajectory…

  4. Judd Staley
    June 25, 2010 at 3:38 pm

    Heh, “hererosexual.” I must have had Gravity’s Rainbow on my mind, or something.

  5. June 28, 2010 at 11:40 pm

    Thanks Jeff,

    I hate to make myself seem more enlightened than the folks of 1851, but do you think the average reader would have read anything into A Squeeze of the Hand or any of the other scenes? I feel like there’s a constant joke about men in the 1950s not seeing any kind of homosexual undercurrents in all the movies back then (at least TV show versions of 1950s men)and I wonder if, if you’re weren’t in the club, you didn’t know the handshake?

  6. June 28, 2010 at 11:47 pm

    Judd, I studied a bit of Freud (and I somehow knew the word “Lacanian” would be coming in there somewhere). My experience is that a lot of Freudian/Lacanian folks write with a very specific either/or mindset so there’s always things like “no subjectivity at all” instead of “not very much…” It’s the one thing that bugged me about them.

    I shouldn’t judge though, as I am a failed doctoral candidate who never got to write his either/or thesis!

    And speaking of childishness. A question that has not been brought up, what’s up with the whale’s name? It’s never mentioned in the book. I mean, kids have been tittering about it for decades!

  7. June 29, 2010 at 8:25 am

    Paul, re the whale’s name, there was a real whale at the time named Mocha Dick (Mocha after the island off Chile, Dick I think being simply a casual or familiar name). Melville’s first book, Typee had a character named Toby. Some speculate that Moby Dick is a melding of those two names. I’m disinclined to read any sly joke in the name. The OED’s earliest citation for “dick” meaning “penis” is 1891. There is an 1873 citation of a slang meaning that reads “a riding whip; gold-headed dick, one so ornamented.” Snicker.

  8. Judd Staley
    June 29, 2010 at 11:24 am

    It (“dick”) is also German for “fat” or “stout” or “swollen,” which is somewhat appropriate.

  9. June 29, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    You guys with your research! Thank you.

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