Notes on Moby-Dick (which one day I will finish): Part 3

LET’S REVIEW. Ishmael has set sail at last aboard the whaling vessel Pequod, captained by the mysterious Ahab, about whom much has been implied and little has been actually established.

Chapter 24: The Advocate

Having just delivered his most generous volley of actual story thus far, Ishmael now stops in his tracks to mount a defence of the whaling industry to anybody who may not approve. This is a difficult chapter to parse. On one hand, we have not known Ishmael to be an especially ironic person in the story so far. He’s a bit of a liar, certainly, but a sincere one. So, perhaps we ought to simply take him at his word that he sees whaling as an honourable profession.

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Not Ishmael.

On the other hand, one of the most compelling readings of Moby-Dick in this day and age — a reading that allows it to speak to our times rather eloquently — is the environmental reading. It’s easy to look at this novel as a story of humanity’s attempt to dominate its environment, with catastrophic consequences. There are those who believe Melville actually intended the story to be read this way. If that’s true, then we’re faced with the first serious case of Melville, our author, disagreeing with Ishmael, our narrator. Ishmael steps an inch closer to Lemuel Gulliver, a narrator that Jonathan Swift transparently thought was an idiot.

I’ve been tripping over myself to square these two scenarios, because I desperately want to read Moby-Dick as an environmental story, but I also adore Ishmael and I want him to be as smart and modern as the author who created him. Maybe it isn’t impossible to have it both ways.

Here’s something: the most outlandish claim that Ishmael makes in this chapter is that whaling helped to end colonialism in South America. He actually credits whaling with the emergence of “eternal democracy” in Peru, Chile and Bolivia. This is patently absurd, and Dr. Parker’s footnotes tell me that Melville was well aware of its absurdity. If we’re taking Ishmael at his word, this idiocy is the most Gulliver-esque that he ever gets.

But I can’t accept this. We’ve established that Ishmael is deeply traumatized and that the entire process of telling this story is, for him, a deep dive into the experiences that left him that way. And Ishmael himself also told us explicitly in the first chapter that he is “quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it.” Surely, having been through the traumatic episode of his voyage on the Pequod, Ishmael would be quick enough to perceive the horror in whaling. I think that in this chapter Ishmael is simply extending his customary social niceties to the grandest monster in his past: the entire edifice of the whaling industry. Certainly, this will enable us to more easily sympathize with the slew of experienced and enthusiastic whalers he’s about to introduce.

I like to think that Ishmael’s spirited defence of the whaling industry is more a debate club exercize than a sincere attempt to convey his opinion. If whaling was indeed Ishmael’s Harvard, as he claims, it taught him well. This is probably a fairly weak reading of this chapter on my part. I don’t expect anybody to be especially convinced by this. But I’m not in university anymore, and these days it’s more important to me to find a way to read books that makes me enjoy them the most. And this is the reading that achieves that. Take it or leave it.

Chapter 25: Postscript

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A person who does NOT smell like fish.

Here we have a tiny chapter that is such fake news it wasn’t even included in the original British printing. Ishmael continues his argument from the previous chapter by pointing out that every British monarch is consecrated with oil at their coronation — and alleges that the oil in question is sperm oil, doubtless lending the newly-crowned royals a none-too-pleasant aroma. I have determined this not to be true, though I would have appreciated some guidance from Dr. Parker on this point. WHERE ARE YOU WHEN I NEED YOU DR PARKER

Anyway, the oil used in coronations starting in the 17th century is a perfume that includes orange blossom, cinnamon and jasmine among other things. The one used to anoint Elizabeth II wasn’t far off from that same formula. And here’s Ishmael being all “the royals smell like sperm whales!!!” Pah.

Chapter 26: Knights and Squires

After 25 chapters of exposition and postulating, it is now time to meet our main characters! The next three chapters consist of tell-don’t-show character sketches of the six men we haven’t met yet who are crucial to the story to come. Either Ishmael or Melville is clearly aware of what a blunt instrument the character development in this novel is turning out to be — how else do you account for the description of Starbuck as “A staid, steadfast man, whose life for the most part was a telling pantomime of action, and not a tame chapter of sounds.” Faced with a man of few words and many actions, Ishmael is rendered completely baffled. Because, what do we have here but “a tame chapter of sounds” that entirely fails to elaborate on what “action” the “pantomime” of Starbuck’s “life” may have entailed?

I’m not implying that this chapter is bad, lest anybody misunderstand. It’s just unusually direct in the way that it straight up describes a character’s personality rather than allowing them to demonstrate it. The personality he paints for Starbuck is one that rings true to me. There were never any whalers in my family, to my knowledge, but there were plenty of fishermen. The most successful of them shared Starbuck’s unceasing conscientiousness and wariness of the sea. They had no patience for anybody with a cavalier attitude towards a dangerous job. They, too, knew “that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.”

I like this Starbuck. He’s severe and humourless, but he is the sort of person you ought to have on your team. Ishmael implies that this story will at some point bring about a “fall of valour” in Starbuck. Brace yourself.

Chapter 27: Knights and Squires

Here we have a chapter with the same title as the previous one. Sometimes I feel like Ishmael only breaks the chapters up because he gets a bit too excited and needs an excuse to get back down to business. At the end of chapter 26 he’s basically praying — a thing he’s apparently more willing to do as a storyteller than as a character in the story. What’s the easiest way to get from “bear me out in it, O God!” back to the mundanity of “Stubb was the second mate?” Chapter break.

Stubb, incidentally, is the second mate. He’s a man so unconcerned by the dangers in the world around him that he hums as he hunts sea monsters. Ishmael ascribes his cheerfulness to his constant habit of pipe smoking — a pipe containing only tobacco, we’re told. We’re treated to another of Ishmael’s dubious cosmic notions, which is that all the world’s air is polluted by the misery of every person who’s died here. Stubb’s pipe, we’re told, filters all that out. I think Ishmael’s just too polite to say that Stubb’s none too swift.

The third mate is Flask, and you’d think he’s the last person Starbuck would want to be working with. “I will have no man on my boat who is not afraid of a whale,” Starbuck said in the last chapter. Yet here’s just such a man. It’s Flask, more than Stubb, who strikes me as a liability aboard the Pequod. Stubb’s dumb, but he isn’t likely to pull anything too impetuous. I’m not sure I can say the same for this Flask fellow. We’ll see.

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How to set up a chessboard.

Finally, we meet the harpooneers. First up, there’s our beloved Queequeg. Next, there’s Tashtego: an indigenous harpooneer from Martha’s Vineyard. A bit of digging reveals that, whether Melville knew or cared, the indigenous people from the region Tashtego hails from are called the Wampanoag. One gets the sense from Ishmael’s description of him as the descendent of brilliant archers that he is in fact a good deal swifter than Stubb, who he serves as harpooneer. Finally, the diminutive Flask commands a harpooneer named Daggoo: an enormous black man that Ishmael describes in the same mutedly condescending tone as he does all people of colour. But as ever, his intentions are clearly better than most of his contemporaries’ would be. He makes a point of mentioning that in whaling, while officers are almost always American (he means white), the industry’s workforce is massively multicultural. This is the workforce he takes pains to glorify at every turn. Remember: this is the narrator who told us in his first chapter how “the commonalty lead their leaders,” and the one who told us only one chapter ago how brightly God’s dignity shines “in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike.”

Moby-Dick is, however inadequately, a multiculturalist novel. This is what Ishmael, and doubtless Melville, wants us to realize as he sets up his chessboard.

Chapter 28: Ahab

Ask anybody who knows the broad strokes of Moby-Dick to tell you the name of a character in it, and they’ll most likely come up with Ahab. This, in spite of the fact that this novel has one of the most famous first sentences in all of literature, and that sentence is “Call me Ishmael.” Adaptations of the novel have a tendency to shunt Ishmael to the side in favour of the one-legged captain of the Pequod. It’s not hard to see why that is — Ishmael’s a novelistic conceit: a massively multidimensional character who nonetheless has very little to do with the actual story. The story belongs to Ahab. And even Ishmael knows that this character is his ace in the hole.

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This is the cover of my beloved Norton Critical. But with all due respect to the artist Oleg Dobrovolskiy, this is how exactly NOBODY pictures Ahab.

Witness the difference between how he introduces Ahab and how he introduced his slew of inferiors in the last two chapters. He was willing enough to sum up Stubb, Flask, and even Starbuck in a few declarative sentences, the way an undergraduate might in an exam. But with Ahab, after teasing the reader with suggestions and premonitions and dropping his name with little context, like “Bad Wolf” in Doctor Who, Ishmael permits us to get to know the mysterious captain the way that any preternaturally observant sailor would: first by taking careful note of his absence, then with shock at his sudden presence, and gradually taking stock of the man from his appearance and ways of moving about the ship.

I’m not saying Ishmael’s offering us anything like an objective view of Ahab, even at this early stage. He is categorically unable to avoid imparting his own sense of things onto them when he describes them: “moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe.” When he writes like that about his tragic anti-hero, Ishmael all but ensures that he himself will be at best the second most memorable character in his own story. Poor guy.

Chapter 29: Enter Ahab; to him, Stubb

He speaks! If we are to believe Ishmael, which of course we should not, Ahab could be overheard mumbling to himself as he descended into his cabin, “It feels like going down into one’s tomb.” Unless I’m very mistaken, those are his first words in Moby-Dick. Even when he has urgent character development to attend to, Ishmael refuses to stop beating us about the head with portents of death.

Also worth noting: the title of this chapter is a stage direction. Ishmael will play with this a heck of a lot more in later chapters, but for now it’s just one more indication of how much he’s puppetmastering his story into a dramatic shape, rather than laying it out genuinely according to his memory. And indeed, this chapter finds Ishmael penning a soliloquy for the second mate, Stubb, who’s starting to feel something like a Shakespearean fool: a hapless, much abused dogsbody who stumbles upon nuggets of wisdom in his rambling speeches to nobody.

(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

King Lear and the Fool in the Storm by William Dyce. A cool thing about making blog posts is Googling random shit and finding dodgy old paintings.

After the episode that the chapter title alludes to, in which Stubb and Ahab interact for the first time and Ahab abuses Stubb with Shakespearean overzealousness (“I will not tamely be called a dog, sir,” says Stubb; “Then be called ten times a donkey, and a mule, and an ass, and begone, or I’ll clear the world of thee!” replies Ahab, measuredly) and possibly kicks him so hard he instantly forgets it happened, Ishmael quotes Stubb directly in a speech that goes on for a whole page, during which there is nobody else around. Note that one of the people who isn’t around is Ishmael himself, unless we conjecture that he is very good at inconspicuously listening to people talk to themselves and remembering it word for word. I think not.

My favourite bit of Stubb’s soliloquy is the bit where he entirely abandons all thought of Ahab and thinks instead about sleep:

“Here goes for a snooze. Damn me, it’s worth a fellow’s while to be born into the world, if only to fall right asleep. And now that I think of it, that’s about the first thing babies do, and that’s a sort of queer, too. Damn me, but all things are queer, come to think of ‘em. But that’s against my principles. Think not, is my eleventh commandment; and sleep when you can, is my twelfth — So here goes again.”

Love it.

Chapter 30: The Pipe

If Ahab and Stubb ever had anything in common, it would have been their mutual love of pipe tobacco. And as if to drive home the fact that the regal, revenge-maddened Ahab has nothing at all in common with the foolish and carefree Stubb, Ishmael devotes an entire sublime little chapter to the act of Ahab throwing his pipe overboard: “What business have I with this pipe? This thing that is meant for sereneness, to send up mild white vapors among mild white hairs, not among torn iron-grey locks like mine. I’ll smoke no more.”

Chapter 31: Queen Mab

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“Gotta find the queen of all my dreams…”

Mab, of course, being the queen of dreams, most famous for being in the best bit of Romeo and Juliet. And here we have more prime Stubbiana, though this time Ishmael actually gives him an audience for his ramblings: the thoroughly disinterested third mate Flask. Stubb, preoccupied by the kick that may or may not have happened the previous night, has had a weird dream that he’d be best advised to keep to himself, but naturally he can’t.

In Stubb’s dream, Ahab is kicking him and Stubb attempts to kick back, only for Ahab to suddenly turn into a pyramid. Pyramids are, of course, the subject of many a whack-a-doo conspiracy theory. They are ancient, mysterious and inscrutable. Possibly extraterrestrial. Much like whales, if you subscribe to that sort of thing. And like Ahab lost his leg at battle with the white whale, in his dream, Stubb’s leg pops off as he attempts to kick the pyramid. Here we have Stubb manifesting not so much as a Shakespearean fool, but a holy fool — the kind of hapless idiot that superstitious villages would defer to because they had visions of the truth in their madness. Unbeknownst to him, Stubb has dreamed a reenactment of how Ahab lost his leg — except in this version, Ahab himself has become the monster. *OOOOOOOOOOOO*

Stubb finishes recounting his dream just as Ahab calls out for the crew to keep an eye out for white whales. And Stubb once again demonstrates that though his wits may be dim, his intuition is second to none: “A white whale — did ya mark that, man? Look ye — there’s something special in the wind. Stand by for it, Flask. Ahab has that that’s bloody on his mind. But, mum; he comes this way.”

Aaaaaaannnnd CLIFFHANGER.

Chapter 32: Cetology

At last we’ve made it to the most infamous chapter in Moby-Dick. Just as we’ve started getting to know our ostensible protagonist and his retinue of old salts, Ishmael once again draws the story to a screeching halt to enumerate and categorize the different kinds of whales.

It’s these bits of Melville’s novel that might compel a contemporary reader to label it “bloated” or “indisciplined.” Which is probably right. But like I said at the beginning of these notes, I wasn’t at all interested in reading Moby-Dick when I was under the impression that it was primarily a seafaring adventure story — the sort of story it’s made into in the adaptations that prioritize Ahab over Ishmael. It wasn’t until I cracked it open to “Loomings” and met our maddeningly discursive narrator that the book called out to me. Adam Gopnik put it better than I possibly could in a New Yorker piece about an abridged version of the novel in 2007:

“When you come to the end of the compact Moby-Dick you don’t think, What a betrayal; you think, nice job — what were the missing bits again? And when you go back to find them you remember why the book isn’t just a thrilling adventure with unforgettable characters but a great book. The subtraction does not turn good work into hackwork; it turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound, sane book. It still has its phallic reach and point, but lacks its flaccid, anxious self-consciousness: it is all Dick and no Moby.”

Hear, hear.

In light of all this, you’ll be unsurprised to know that “Cetology” is my third-favourite chapter of Moby-Dick thus far (I’m still only like halfway through this thing, god help me), next to “Loomings” and “The Lee Shore.” And how could it not be? This is the chapter in which the most bookish man to ever sail the seven seas categorizes the whales using terminology taken from bookbinding.

This choice on Ishmael’s part is not arbitrary. He is intentionally thumbing his nose to science. As far as Ishmael is concerned, a whale is not a mammal; it is a giant fish. Because of course it is. Just look at it. Read the story of Jonah, or any of the sources that Moby-Dick’s eighty epigraphs came from, and you’re sure to find it referred to as such. Reason may have it that a whale is not a fish, but the popular imagination says otherwise, and Ishmael finds that far more important.

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Duodecimo is even littler.

And so, we have whales categorized in “books.” The big ones are “folio whales,” named for the largest size of book, the middle-sized ones are “octavo whales,” named for one of the middle sizes, and porpoises are classed as “duodecimo whales,” after one of the smaller sizes of books. Ishmael guides us through several examples of each, pausing to offer folksy sailor’s wisdom on many of them. He also, amusingly, offers a list of probably fictional whales that includes the blue whale, which was thought to be either extinct or altogether legendary when Moby-Dick was written.

But the real reason to love this chapter comes at the end of it, when all the taxonomy is done and dusted. Ishmael takes pains to inform us that his system of categorizing the whales is incomplete and inadequate, and hopes for some enterprising soul to make amendments to it someday. It isn’t so much that Ishmael couldn’t be bothered to finish his Whaleipedia himself: it’s that he’s built his entire aesthetic around incompleteness. That’s what he was getting at back in “The Lee Shore,” when he wrote that “in landlessness alone resides the highest truth,” landlessness being the state you’re in on an unfinished voyage. It also ties in with Ishmael’s perpetual unwillingness to just get on with the story the way that Gopnik’s abridgers would have him do. That would be anathema to him, because the end of the story is death. All of these sorts of things — endings, destinations, homecomings, logical conclusions and states of certainty — are anathema to Ishmael. Home is death for the soul. Better to die at sea than live on land, as Milton might phrase it.

Ishmael savours the journey and rues the destination. Very soon we’ll learn that Ahab is the other way around. The white whale must die. Everything that happens between now and that teleological endpoint is a mere inconvenience.

“God keep me from ever completing anything,” Ishmael proclaims in an aphorism that defines him and this novel better than maybe any other single sentence. Maybe it defines me, too. How many things have I left unfinished? How many times have I pulled the brakes on a train of thought before arriving at a troubling certainty? And how long will it take me to finish this book? Perhaps I, too, prefer to remain adrift in the uncertain seas of exploration, frightened at the prospect of arriving anywhere?

We’ll soon find out.

To be continued.

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2 thoughts on “Notes on Moby-Dick (which one day I will finish): Part 3

  1. Jim

    Hi Matthew. I heard part of your story on NXNW today about JS Bach based on Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With a Thousand Faces”, which was cool! I’d like to share it with a friend, but I don’t see any reference to it on your blog or website. Is it available to share somewhere?

    Reply
    1. Matthew Post author

      Hi Jim. Glad you enjoyed it! I’m planning to put the whole series up on the NXNW podcast feed as one episode once the whole serial’s finished. There are two episodes to go, so that should be two more weeks.

      Reply

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