LET US SET SAIL ONCE AGAIN.
(Edit, 2022: These notes are essentially just me recapping Moby-Dick as I read it very slowly and deliberately over the course of what has turned out to be several years. I’m writing it primarily for my own benefit and posting it for the interest of about five people who might care. Lightly edited out of sheer embarrassment.)
Chapter 33: The Specksynder
Having just finished with a massive digression on the taxonomy of whales, Ishmael now moves on to… another digression. This one is about the role of the specksynder (or more properly, as Dr. Parker informs me, the “speksnijder”): the chief harpooneer of certain whaling cultures that stood in equal esteem to the captain of the ship. Ishmael examines the ways that people acquire power and how they wield it: specifically, how Ahab wields it. He proceeds without any unnecessary majesty or pomp but he occasionally lapses into tyranny. (Just ask poor Stubb, who just before all of these digressions was recovering from being kicked.)
But the really interesting thing, at least for somebody with my particular obsessions, lives in this chapter’s short final paragraph:
“But Ahab, my Captain, still moves before me in all his Nantucket grimness and shagginess; and in this episode touching Emperors and Kings, I must not conceal that I have only to do with a poor old whale-hunter like him; and, therefore, all outward majestical trappings and housings are denied me. Oh, Ahab! what shall be grand in thee, it must needs be plucked at from the skies, and dived for in the deep, and featured in the unbodied air!”
I’ve gone on at possibly tiresome length in these notes about Ishmael being an unreliable narrator. I’ll largely put that topic aside after this instalment, but it does become pretty central in these next few chapters. The paragraph above is the closest thing we’ve had so far to Ishmael addressing this head on. He feels compelled to tell a grand story in the vein of Shakespeare’s Henriad. But both Ishmael and Melville are compelled to draw from their own life experience, which doesn’t touch on emperors and kings. So, to tell the kind of story that he’s compelled towards, Ishmael must pluck Ahab’s grandness from the skies — from his own fathomless imagination.
Whether you regard it as a central element of the novel or not, Melville is definitely concerned with whether or not his fictional narrator is telling a true story. Obviously, it’s not a true story. But the fact that it might not even be fully true for Ishmael is certainly part of what makes this such a rich book for me. I imagine it’s also what made Jorge Luis Borges so enamoured of it.
A quick aside: the poem I linked just now is a big part of why I decided to read Moby-Dick in the first place. Any book revered by Borges is good enough for me. That said, there’s a line in there that I disagree with: the bit about “the pleasure… of spying Ithaca.” Ithaca is Odysseus’s much sought-for home in The Odyssey, which is a story about travelling by sea to find your way home. It’s a bizarre story to evoke in this context, given that Moby-Dick is almost its complete opposite in this way. As we’ve discussed previously, in Moby-Dick home is death for the soul. Maybe Borges knew this and just couldn’t resist a classical reference. Still, he ties his poem up with another Odyssey reference, when he describes Moby-Dick as “azul Proteo” — “blue Proteus,” referring to the ever-transforming water god. Fair enough; perhaps if Proteus were a book, he’d be this one.
Chapter 34: The Cabin-Table
The reason I’ve leapt right back into the question of Ishmael’s authenticity is that the perspective from which this book is told is about to shatter completely. That process begins in this chapter, where Ishmael tells us in great detail about things that happened in a room where he wasn’t present. Either he’s a John Le Carré-level superspy, or he’s making all of this up.
I’ve heard it said that Ishmael has a tendency to “disappear,” as if he narrates only some of the book and that chapters like this are clearly written in a different narratorial voice altogether. I don’t buy that, mainly because this chapter still reads like Ishmael. Who else would refer to Belshazzar and the German emperor’s seven imperial electors during a description of a simple dinner scene? Who else would remark, after Flask lacks the courage to help himself to butter at the silent, tense table: “Flask, alas! was a butterless man!” Chalk these details up alongside Ishmael’s name as things we can’t be certain of.
Also, as an avid home cook, I love this: “Who has but once dined his friends, has tasted what it is to be Caesar.”
Chapter 35: The Mast-Head
And now, A BRIEF HISTORY OF PEOPLE STANDING ON TALL THINGS. I’m not joking. At the start of this chapter, Ishmael is summoned for his first lookout shift on the masthead. And before telling us anything about what that experience was like for him, he decides to let us in on his research about WHO WERE THE FIRST PEOPLE TO STAND ON VERY TALL THINGS. It’s not the builders of the Tower of Babel, clearly, since that got blown over by God before it was finished. So it must be the Egyptian astrologers with their pyramids (again with the pyramids). Ishmael enumerates the various historical personages looking out over great modern cities from atop towers: Napoleon, Washington, Nelson.
Either Ishmael, or Melville, or both have a tendency to weaponize the reader’s exasperation for comic effect. And while I’m fully immune to feeling exasperated by this book, I feel like that’s what’s going on in this line of argument: according to Ishmael, the masthead aboard a ship is an evolution of mastheads that were once posted onshore at Nantucket and New Zealand, where a lookout would call to the manned boats in the harbour when a whale came near the shore. Surely, these onshore mastheads are just evolutions of the same principle that led the Egyptians to build the pyramids. It all comes back to the pyramids.
Later, as he explains what it’s actually like on the masthead (uncomfortable), Ishmael makes a metaphor where a coat is your house, but then makes sure that we all know it’s just a metaphor and that a coat isn’t literally a house. “You cannot put a shelf or chest of drawers in your body, and no more can you make a convenient closet of your watch-coat.” So: you can, in a sense, bring your house with you to the masthead in the form of a coat — except that a coat is not a house, so you cannot actually bring your house with you to the masthead. Great, good to know.
Unsurprisingly, Ishmael is a terrible lookout. He’s got too much to think about to worry himself with something so mundane as doing his job.
This is one of the best chapters in the book.
Chapter 36: The Quarter-Deck
In a lesser, saner novel, this would be chapter one. Our crew is assembled. And at last, the captain calls them to the quarter-deck to tell them why they are aboard this ship — to tell us why we are reading this novel. It took Ishmael sixteen chapters to invoke the name of Ahab. Here we are in chapter thirty-six, and only now does Ishmael allow a character to speak the dreaded name: Moby Dick.
Turns out, the crew of the Pequod are not primarily seeking sperm whale oil, but a more abstract commodity: vengeance. As we already know, Ahab lost his leg to a whale on a previous voyage. We now learn that the whale responsible for his disfigurement was itself a disfigured brute: a gigantic albino sperm whale “with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw.”
Aside from finally telling us what every contemporary reader already knows, this remarkably straightforward and non-insane chapter also provides us with the first substantial bit of verbiage from Captain Ahab. His language reminds me of two vastly different literary figures. The obvious and intentional one of these is Shakespeare. Like the great characters of Shakespearean tragedy — Hamlet, the Macbeths, Othello, Iago, Lear, etc. — Ahab is capable of expressing complex, abstract thought through inventive language. Ishmael’s even good enough to signal this particular reference point to us by including one of his increasingly frequent stage directions at the start of the chapter, and by allowing Ahab to speak directly to the reader in a passage marked “(aside).“
The other literary figure I’m reminded of is H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft wrote his sea monster classic “The Call of Cthulhu” in 1926. Ahab’s got him beat by 73 years. But the similarity between Ahab’s description of Moby Dick and the entire milieu that’s come to be known as “Lovecraftian horror” is undeniable. In the previous chapter, Ishmael self-identified as a Platonist — a person primarily occupied with the world of ideas, rather than the physical realm. Here, Ahab joins the ranks of those who see past the world of the senses, but he is something more akin to a Gnostic.
For Ahab, the physical world around us is nothing more than a “pasteboard mask,” obscuring the true nature of the forces that lurk just beyond our perception. “Hark ye yet again the little lower layer,” he tells Starbuck. The white whale is no mere animal upon which Ahab desires revenge. It is his portal out of the Matrix. It’s his red pill. (Please can we pretend that very useful phrase hasn’t been appropriated by shitheads?) It is the serpent of Eden, which some of the ancient Gnostics worshipped.
The white whale is a vast and incomprehensible manifestation of the unknowable evil power that governs the universe. It is Cthulhu, three quarters of a century ahead of schedule.
Starbuck is the only person onboard with the strength of character to resist Ahab’s rhetoric. It’s Starbuck’s religion that leads him to condemn Ahab’s thirst for vengeance, but it’s his sense of reason talking when he comes to his final conclusion: the white whale is a dumb brute upon whom vengeance would be wasted. And yet, at the one moment when Starbuck stood a chance at preventing Ahab’s mania from fully spreading among the crew, he demurs. This is the fall of valor that was foretold to us.
We’re in Ahab’s story now. The captain has taken up residence in Ishmael’s mind. And even if our narrator is making nearly all of this up, Ahab is as real to Ishmael as Ishmael is to himself, because Ahab is a part of him.
Starbuck never stood a chance.
Chapter 37: Sunset
If Ahab has indeed taken up residence in Ishmael’s mind, perhaps Moby-Dick is Ishmael’s attempt to exorcise him. The events of this story have been rattling around in his brain for who knows how many years (“never mind how long precisely”), gradually becoming more sensational as they recede into memory. Perhaps the white lies he inserts into his narrative are a way of defending himself against lingering trauma.
But the central question of Moby-Dick is not simply whether anything that happens is real. Moby-Dick is not Life of Pi. The story and characters are beguiling in themselves, regardless of their factuality within the fiction. So I’m going to put the question of what’s real and what’s fake aside for a while now, and just start looking at what’s actually happening in the words on the page.
This monologue by Ahab is well worth reading aloud. I’ve read most of Moby-Dick aloud at this point and I highly recommend it, especially as more characters begin to enter the narrative. Reading aloud helps to drive home the impressive variety in how these characters express themselves. It also makes it clear that Moby-Dick is one of the most theatrical novels ever written.
Robert McKee has written that the strength of theatre is in showing the ways that people communicate with each other, whereas the strength of novels is in painting intimate pictures of the lives people lead within their own minds. In a sense, Moby-Dick demonstrates exactly what McKee means, since it is a detailed illustration of somebody else’s innermost preoccupation. But in another sense it isn’t novelistic at all, because Ishmael isn’t talking to himself: he’s always talking to you. Moby-Dick is like a transcript of a massive one-man show, or the world’s longest TED talk.
These next few chapters are ostentatiously theatrical in the sense that they’re actual soliloquies. But the fact that Melville’s riffing on the tradition of Shakespeare specifically, the champion of hyperverbal interiority, gives us the best of both worlds: novelistic and theatrical. We learn who these people are and how they think, but we learn it by way of language that’s crafted for an audience.
Chapter 38: Dusk
Oh, Starbuck. Your death is going to hurt the most.
Every character in this book is fun to spend time with, but there’s only one severe old Quaker aboard the Pequod who I’d describe as “admirable.” In his first appearance since his “fall of valor” at the quarter-deck, it’s tragic to see that he’s already berating himself. How could he allow Ahab to overwhelm him like this, and put the crew’s lives and livelihoods in danger?
Also, it’s odd that this book keeps accidentally referencing major horror franchises that don’t exist yet, but Starbuck does refer to the white whale as a “demogorgon.”
Chapter 39: First Night-Watch
We’ve had soliloquies from Ahab and Starbuck now, so let’s continue down the line to Stubb.
Stubb is really smart in a very dumb way, like the drunk porter in Macbeth, except we get to hang out with him for more than one scene. “Wise Stubb,” he calls himself here, and while he isn’t exactly right about that, he’s correct that this entire enterprise will lead the whole crew to madness. It’s good to have a Shakespearean fool around, they have great impulses.
Interestingly, Dr. Parker’s notes inform me that the rhyme Stubb recites in this chapter was written by a friend of Melville’s, Charles Fenno Hoffman, who was interned in a madhouse when Melville was writing this. Hoo boy.
Chapter 40: Midnight, Forecastle
Evidently Flask’s soliloquy was cut for time, because we’ve moved straight on to the harpooners and sailors, in dialogue this time. Maybe the most remarkable thing about this chapter, which is basically just drunken cavorting, is how plainly Melville is trying to convey the multiculturalism of the crew. The sailors who speak in this chapter come from scores of places both general and specific. We’ve got two black characters in Daggoo and Pip, a young boy who sweeps up. We’ve got Tashtego of the Wampanoag. We’ve got the expected handful of Nantucketers. But we’ve also got sailors from Denmark, France, Iceland, Malta, Sicily, Long Island, the Azores, China, the Isle of Man, India, Tahiti, Portugal, England, Spain, São Tiago and Belfast. If Moby-Dick is “the great American novel,” then this is why. There’s even a drunk racist dude to put an even finer point on it.
Chapter 41: Moby Dick
One thing that will continue to drive me nuts throughout this book is the maddeningly inconsistent hyphenation of the white whale’s name. In the title, it’s hyphenated. Throughout the book it isn’t, EXCEPT for one time in chapter 133. (Try Command-F to confirm.) It’s making me crazy. Anyway.
If anybody still has doubts about how bugnuts this book is, in this chapter Ishmael suggests that sperm whales can teleport. He’s not entirely convinced by this, but he won’t dismiss the possibility out of hand. And since Moby Dick himself is such a storied, possibly supernatural beast, Ishmael is more willing to accept that maybe he can be in two places at once.
(Also, we learn that among Moby Dick’s deformities is a “pyramidical hump.” Pyramids everywhere.)
Ishmael’s got two main orders of business in this chapter. One is a retread of the chapel scene, where he called attention to how many people die at sea. This chapter is about the dangers of the sperm whale, and of Moby Dick in particular. Many thought it suicide to give chase to even an ordinary sperm whale, let alone a fantastical giant brute.
His other order of business is to give us a more detail on exactly how Ahab lost his leg. After the white whale had “reaped away Ahab’s leg as a mower a blade of grass in the field,” Ahab was confined to his bed for weeks, laced into a strait-jacket to prevent him from lashing out with all the remarkable strength that was left in him. His madness came on thick and fast, and then apparently subsided. But, as Ishmael says in one of the book’s best lines so far: “Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form.”
Thusly maddened, Ahab sets to sea with the three mates most likely to see him to his purpose: the mediocre Flask, the reckless Stubb, and poor Starbuck, who almost but didn’t quite manage to conjure up the willpower to protest.
More than ever, it feels as though the story’s about to get underway. Naturally, it isn’t.
To be continued.