Posts Tagged ‘mobydick’

Week 6: Death & The End

June 28, 2010 4 comments

I had originally planned to call this “Death and All His Friends” which seemed so clever and eerily appropriate.  And then I realized it was the title of a Coldplay album and decided that all my street cred would be lost (even though I do like the disc).

I was also considering talking about omens in the book, but that has been well covered by Daryl (I do have some specific omens in this post).  And finally I considered revisiting religion since Ahab has the audacity to baptize his harpoon in Satan’s name (and there’s a Starbuck as Jesus motif going on).  But really what could be more right than death?

I had noticed throughout the book that there was very little death (except for the whales of course).  This is despite the opening scene in the church with all of the grave markers and Ishmael slowly reading them all.  In fact, despite Pip’s falling over and Queequeg’s “fatal illness” no one had died at all aboard the Pequod.

Then in this final week’s reading–which was really fantastic.  I can’t get over how gripped I was by the build up and the whole chase sequence–death starts to poke its head out of the waters.

The first death is very cryptic, and possibly not even real (?).  In Chapter 126 (The Life-Buoy) we learn of one of the crew (who, strangely, remains unnamed) who fell overboard:

At sun-rise this man went from his hammock to his mast-head at the fore…he had not been long at his perch, when a cry was heard – a cry and a rushing – and looking up, they saw a falling phantom in the air; and looking down, a little tossed heap of white bubbles in the blue of the sea.

The life-buoy – a long slender cask – was dropped from the stern, where it always hung obedient to a cunning spring; but no hand rose to seize it…and the studded iron- bound cask followed the sailor to the bottom.

And thus the first man of the Pequod that mounted the mast to look out for the White Whale, on the White Whale’s own peculiar ground; that man was swallowed up in the deep (516).

And from that anonymous death, things really escalate.

Of course, there is the obvious omen (I couldn’t resist) of using a coffin as a life-buoy, but the very next encounter is with The Rachel.  Unlike all of the other ships that the Pequod has encountered (all with varying degrees of success) none has suffered a fate as wrenching as this one: the captain’s own 12-year-old boy is lost at sea, and he had to choose his other son’s life over this one.  And the Rachel has been looking for him (and his boat) for a day already…it’s hopeless.  That whole boat’s crew is dead.

This visit is followed by a visit from The Delight.  The Delight has encountered the White Whale and has suffered terribly for it

“I bury but one of five stout men, who were alive only yesterday; but were dead ere night. Only that one I bury; the rest were buried before they died; you sail upon their tomb” (532).

As ships near the white whale, death cannot be far.  (In fact the most successful ship, the Bachelor–which was laden with sperm–didn’t even think the White Whale was real).  Then, just to rub it in a little, as the Pequod sails away from The Delight, she is

not quick enough to escape the sound of the splash that the corpse soon made as it struck the sea; not so quick, indeed, but that some of the flying bubbles might have sprinkled her hull with their ghostly baptism (532).

Given this portent, and the seeming snowball of deaths, the actual Pequod deaths do not come fast and furious.  On the first day of the chase, everyone is spared.  On the second day of the chase, only Fedallah is killed [must…not…mention…prophecies].  This wounds Ahab terribly, but he manages to press on.

Of course, on that third day everyone dies, so I guess the trickle became a gusher.  But it’s fascinating to see how delicately Melville handles this mass death.  Even in that last scene when the Pequod sinks, only a few crewmen are mentioned by name–and Tashtego is still engaged in an activity when the boat goes down: “Tashtego’s mast-head hammer remained suspended in his hand” (563).  No one is said to suffer (Pip suffered far more on the page during his ordeals), and it ends very quickly.

What I found most interesting is that as a reader, I was picking up on all of the omens, the prophecies, the greater and greater deaths, and yet, like Ahab I read nothing into them.  I was sure that the ending…well, what?  I didn’t think it could be a happy ending (whatever that might mean), I wasn’t even sure if I thought Ahab would be victorious (I wasn’t holding my breath for him).  And yet, I never imagined that the whole ship would sink.

And even though this ending happens remarkably quickly (the ending scene is the last three pages of a 469 page book (the Norton edition)), it doesn’t feel like what my friends and I have called The Star Trek ending–[Five minutes till the end of the show, Captain, shall we release the dilithium crystal and huzzah!–we’re all safe (I like Star Trek (especially TNG) but it’s funny how many of their shows end like this)].  Obviously, Moby Dick doesn’t have that ending because in everyone dies, but what I mean is, the ending feels like a natural, almost inevitable end.  I was shocked–completely shocked–when I read that everyone died.  And yet in retrospect it is the only reasonable outcome.

I am still really surprised that Queequeg dies.  I realize there’s no way to save him and have it be believable, but still.  It’s also weird how little is made of Queequeg going down too.  [Can you imagine is he somehow managed to get Ishmael and Queequeg rescued on the coffin together–it’s sequel city baby!].

I mentioned in my other post how beautiful I think the Epilogue is, and I will do so here as well.  It’s tidy and elegant and unlike many epilogues which sort of tidy up loose threads a little too neatly, this one pulls together various ideas (the coffin, The Rachel) and uses them to give Ishmael a fully believable rescue.

When you reach the end, you realize that this story is something of a eulogy;  a whale tale told to someone about the death of his shipmates.  This gives the entire book an angle that didn’t exist before.  Were I the kind of person who did this sort of thing (I’m not) I would re-read the book with this new information in mind to try to see if the book reads differently knowing the outcome.

I am really very pleased for having read this book.  And I’ve more than very pleased to have been able to write these posts here.  I hope they’ve been interesting.  Thanks for reading.

An Eight-Sided Circle

June 28, 2010 2 comments

“A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.”

William Blake.

Ah, “The Doubloon.” This is my kind of chapter (ch. 99). It’s all about interpretation, or the search for (and imposition of) meaning. It explicitly dramatizes the process we all go through every day, where we take notice of part of the world (something that is the case) and create a way of understanding it as it relates to our lives. This is a very normal part of the way human beings interact with our surroundings, and is in fact necessary to formulating the narratives we recognize as our selves and our lives.

Note that this is not the argument Ishmael makes in favor of interpretation. He says, “And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher.” In his view, what gives the world worth is the significance in it that can be divined by human beings; the world has meaning insofar as it means something to people, but no intrinsic value. This seems to me an extreme anthropocentric view, but not necessarily an uncommon one. Just an unreflective one.

So in the course of this dramatization of interpretation, we see eight different characters all try their hand at “reading” the doubloon that Ahab nailed to the mast at the beginning of their voyage as a guaranty to the sailor who first raises Moby Dick. (Other than the obvious meaning, of course, which is the one they all drank to during that weird ceremony.) Ahab’s interpretation, while dramatic and almost mythologically Norse in its pessimism, is also kind of funny: Looking at the various devices on the coin—mountains with fire, a tower, and a crowing rooster, and a segment of the zodiac—he sees Lucifer, Ahab, Ahab, Ahab, and the unrelieved misery of life, which begins in pains and ends in pangs. But also, it’s not for nothing that Ishmael keeps calling Ahab “monomaniacal.” This is very nearly solipsism in action.

Starbuck starts out as a foil to Ahab in his reading—he sees the mountains as a symbol of the Trinity, so that even when he passes through the dark valley between them, God still strengthens him and the “sun of Righteousness” still shines down on him—but then he remembers that the sun is only up about half the time, on average, which leaves human beings looking for hope and comfort much of the time (wait for it) in the dark. So even though he finds some devotional meaning in the doubloon, it is on the whole a somewhat depressing exegesis for Starbuck. Nonetheless, it’s a pretty clear application of the hermeneutic method involved in reading the Book of Nature, whereby everything created has a theological lesson within it, if you can just find the key.

Then Stubb gets up and sneaks in two interpretations. In the first one, he sees the doubloon as a piece of money, just as good for spending in commerce as any other piece of money. It’s a wonderful puncturing of the portentous mode Ahab and Starbuck both operate in, but it’s also a welcome nod to the fact that objects and experiences are embedded in the world and entangled with other people and places. Both Ahab and Starbuck find insular, self-centered meanings in the doubloon, but Stubb instead immediately recognizes how the doubloon is enmeshed with the rest of the world. Then he looks more carefully, convinced by Ahab and Starbuck’s long faces that there must be a deeper meaning, and descries a very long zodiacal version of the Sphinx’s riddle that supposedly charts a universal course for the life of man. (Women don’t count for much on a whaler, you might have noticed.)

When Flask looks at the doubloon, he literally sees nothing but the monetary value of it. (A special note from my Norton Critical Edition, on Flask’s line “It is worth sixteen dollars, that’s true; and at two cents the cigar, that’s nine hundred and sixty cigars”: “The arithmetic seems shaky.”) Unlike Stubb, he doesn’t seek a deeper meaning; he’s satisfied with his pragmatic observation of “a round thing made of gold.” I see this version as an important recognition of the thingness of the doubloon, regardless of what meanings a more reader-response-type approach yields.

The Manxman uses his special training in esoterica to identify the doubloon as half of a zodiacal prophecy of when the ship will encounter Moby Dick. I read this one as a small parody, actually. Daryl brought our attention to prophecy in the novel, and there’s always the possibility that’s at play here, but this one is so general that I suspect it’s much more like an ancestor of Maslow’s hammer. The Manxman knows something most people don’t, and everything he sees tends to be through that lens.

Queequeg comes in for comic relief, mistaking the doubloon for a fancy button. There may be a point to make here about constructed reality—if Queequeg’s pants lose a button and he sews a doubloon on in its place, that doubloon is now a button (as well as a doubloon and whatever else it may be)—but I wouldn’t want to strain that one too much, so I’ll just say it’s possible.

And then Pip. Pip is a character who makes me very sad, so I’m uncomfortable reading his mad babble anyway, but here it also feels to me like the kind of thing that might mean something if you try very hard to interpret it, but then probably won’t turn out to have been worth the trouble. So I don’t try. (My white flag, I wave it.) His reading of the doubloon can, however, illustrate the troubled extremity of personal meaning-making, since the significance he finds is available to him only. That is, even though he apparently finds some meaningful content in the doubloon, he can’t share it with anyone, because he spends most of his “on-screen” time in an interpretive community of one.

It’s very interesting to me that this chapter comes so late in the book. In a way, it’s kind of a programmatic chapter; it announces the book’s concern with meaning and interpretation by showing characters interpreting an object to create meaning. (I love that trick.) But I have a feeling that passages doing this work so explicitly usually come much earlier in books where they appear, to give the reader fair warning of what’s afoot—and to give us a chance to play along. Curious, then, that it’s only near the end that we’re asked to start looking for Rashomon Dick, the Allegedly White Whale.

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Week #5 Langauge

June 21, 2010 10 comments

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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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.


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).


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!’


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.


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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Shoots to Branches

June 18, 2010 5 comments

“And now the plant, resigned
To being self-defined
Before it can commerce
With the great universe,
Takes aim at all the sky
And starts to ramify.”

Richard Wilbur’s “Seed Leaves.”

Here in the heart of the book, it should be clear by now why some of us read it as a book about everything. There’s been plenty of plot, and we’ve had some exciting action (although I wonder whether ch. 61, “Stubb Kills a Whale,” was off-puttingly gruesome on purpose, or whether that’s just unavoidable), but there’s also been a remarkable exfoliation of the text from a story about a monomaniacal sea captain to…well, everything else that’s included. I take my metaphor for this post from Ishmael himself; he excuses his discursiveness at the beginning of ch. 63, “The Crotch” (…I know), with a lovely image to illustrate how the road between one narrative event and the next lengthens under his very feet:

Out of the trunk, the branches grow; out of them, the twigs. So, in productive subjects, grow the chapters.

Obviously this isn’t the first section of the book where we’ve seen digressions from the plot—I’d call Queequeg’s “Ramadan” the first major one, and that was pretty early—but it seems to me that this week we entered a more technical part of the book, where the digressions took on a different character. Before, they tended to be either apparently disposable set pieces or grand philosophical and historical disquisitions. But starting with ch. 53, “The Gam,” and ch. 60, “The Line,” and then throughout this week’s reading, we get chapters that are more like encyclopedia entries. Now that there’s proper whaling under way, there’s a lot that we reader-lubbers have to learn; and Ishmael has chosen intermittent and telescoping infodumps as the way to solve that problem. These infodumps come in two classes: those about the ship, and those about the whale. In those about the ship, I include explanations of whaling-ship terminology and habits of living, as well as depictions of equipment and techniques (like the chapter-titular explanation in ch. 84, “Pitchpoling”).

The ones about the ship are basically obligatory. The whole action of the book takes place on a ship, and if we didn’t know what things were and how they worked, we wouldn’t be able to understand much of anything. But the ones about the whale aren’t, strictly speaking, necessary. We don’t actually need to know that the sperm whale doesn’t have a real face. Instead of being primarily informative, then, I think the infodumps about the whale serve a different function. I think they’re more in the line of a blazon. On the literal level, it’s true that Ishmael (along with the rest of the crew) is dismembering a whale during this part of the book. He provides a very thorough description of exactly how the whale is butchered and flensed and rendered. But at the same time he takes the opportunity to lavish a lot of poetic language and reverence on the whale and its parts. This isn’t to say anything like “Ishmael is in love with whales”; but in the same way that Ahab sees Moby-Dick specifically as the agent of a mystical force athwart his destiny, Ishmael seems to look on the sperm whale generally as a Romantically sublime creature, imbued with wisdom and power and mystery that make it a fit subject for a blazon, even with the parodic inversion that characterizes (and partly disguises) this blazon.

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This Is Just to Say

June 14, 2010 3 comments

I have missed
a posting
that was regularly

and which
I flatter myself
you were looking
forward to

Forgive me
it would have included
a time line
and Billy Budd

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Week 4: Queequeg: Comic Hero

June 14, 2010 4 comments

I keep returning to Matt’s question of who is the main character of this book.  While I won’t suggest that it is Queequeg, he is rapidly shaping up to be the hero of the book.

But, like with the near-invisible Ahab, we haven’t seen much of Queequeg recently.

He doesn’t appear at all from Chapter 49 (The Hyena) until Chapter 61 (Stubb Kills a Whale) where he gets two lines.  The first is a bit of wisdom about the squid:  “‘When you see him ‘quid’, said the savage, honing his harpoon in the bow of his hoisted boat, ‘then you quick see him ‘parm whale.'” (281).  And a nonsensical cheer: “‘Ka-la! Koo-loo!'” howled Queequeg, as if smacking his lips over a mouthful of Grenadier’s steak” (284).

And in Chapter 66 (The Shark Massacre) he almost gets his hand bitten off, but in an offhanded sort of way.

So aside from those two brief, inconsequential mentions, Queequeg is out of the action from Chapter 49 to Chapter 72.  (Thanks Moby Diction! for making that easy to discover.)

It’s obvious that Queequeg is comic relief in the story.   In the early chapters, his foreignness is played up for comic relief: his reaction to Ahab Ishmael in his bed (including waking up with his arm around him); getting dressed under the bed (!); spearing food with his harpoon; even his little idol Yojo is seen as a comical thing.

Sure, Ishmael befriends him and even respects him: “Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed” (49), and he’s even impressed by his lineage: “There was excellent blood in his veins – royal stuff” (54).  But most of his scenes to this point have been pure comedy.

But just as we’ve gotten used to Queequeg being formidable and comical, he suddenly becomes heroic.  When the very man that mocks him on the boat is knocked overboard by the boom.  Queequeg wastes no time in tying a rope to the boom, jumping in tho the water and rescuing the very man who mimicked him.  But little is made of it, especially by Queequeg:

Was there ever such unconsciousness? He did not seem to think that he at all deserved a medal from the Humane and Magnanimous Societies. He only asked for water – fresh water – something to wipe the brine off (61).

And then it’s back to comic relief with the insanity of the Ramadan scene.  And soon after, we see him sitting on the unconscious Starbuck.  And of course, there are jokes about him being a cannibal and his ferocious appetite when the harpooners go down to feast: “Queequeg, he had a mortal, barbaric smack of the lip in eating – an ugly sound enough – so much so, that the trembling Dough-Boy almost looked to see whether any marks of teeth lurked in his own lean arms.” (149).

But then, when the action recommences, Queequeg is right there.  When they spot their first whale it is Queequeg who throws the first harpoon (missing, sadly).  But he is essential to the chase.

Then we get the zany scene from this week’s reading.  Queequeg balances on a whale like a log roller while tied to Ishmael with the monkey rope.

The whale be it observed, lies almost entirely submerged, excepting the immediate parts operated upon. So down there, some ten feet below the level of the deck, the poor harpooneer flounders about, half on the whale and half in the water, as the vast mass revolves like a tread-mill beneath him. On the occasion in question. Queequeg figured in the Highland costume – a shirt and socks – in which to my eyes, at least, he appeared to uncommon advantage (317).

This is all in aid of stripping the skin and blubber off the whale.  Despite this comic scene, Queequeg is risking his life (sharks are all around him) for the good of the boat.  And then, Ishmael underscores the scene with sentiment: “Queequeg was my own inseparable twin brother” (317).

But then Queequeg proves himself once again.  In Chapter 78 (Cistern and Buckets), Tashtego falls into the whale’s head (ew) and which then falls into the water.  And, mirroring the earlier scene: “The next, a loud splash announced that my brave Queequeg had dived to the rescue….and soon after, Queequeg was seen boldly striking out with one hand, and with the other clutching the long hair of the Indian” (341).

I don’t want to get too ponderous about this, but there is even the sense, in Queequeg’s recounting of the story that Queeuqeg not only saved Tashtego but gives him a new life:

And thus, through the courage and great skill in obstetrics of Queequeg, the deliverance, or rather, delivery of Tashtego, was successfully accomplished (342).

In all that I have heard about Moby Dick, I don’t know what happens to Queequeg.  But thus far in the book, while others may have proven themselves in different ways, Queequeg is unquestionably the most heroic and selfless.  And, since my first post was about religion, I’m willing to say that with these attributes, Queequeg is proving to be the most Christian.

Of course, I’m not sure where Melville is going with that exactly.

I’m now very curious to see how the Queequeg story gets wrapped up.

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