Notes on Moby-Dick (still not finished): Part 4

LET US SET SAIL ONCE AGAIN UPON THESE LITERARY OCEANS. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t read any more of this book until I kept up with my note taking. I’ve caught up with myself now, so we should be able to speed onwards from here. Okay. *deep breath*

Chapter 33: The Specksynder

Having just finished his digression regarding 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. From here, Ishmael transitions into a musing on the ways that people acquire power, and how they wield it. Specifically, how Ahab wields it: without any unnecessary display of majesty or pomp, but with the occasional lapse into tyranny. (Just ask poor, abused 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!”

Here we have the closest thing we’ve had so far to Ishmael admitting he’s a bullshitter. In his many digressions, he touches on royalty. One might think he’d rather be writing a great royal drama in the vein of Shakespeare’s Henriad. But he (Ishmael, though possibly also Melville) is compelled to draw his story from his own experience, which doesn’t touch on emperors and kings. And so, to tell the story that he needs to tell, he must pluck Ahab’s grandness from the skies — from his own fathomless imagination.

How many of us have done the same? Surely, we all have a friend who comes alive in the stories we tell more vividly than they do in person? Just because a person doesn’t have the outward appearance of literary greatness doesn’t mean they can’t attain it when paired with an energetic storyteller.

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One of Melville’s biggest fans.

It never ceases to amaze me how concerned Melville is 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 a huge part of what makes this such a rich book. I’m quite certain it’s what made Jorge Luis Borges so enamoured of it.

As a quick aside, the poem I’ve just linked there is a big part of why I decided to read Moby-Dick in the first place. Any book revered by Borges is likely to appeal to me as well. Having cracked into it, I must say I wish Borges hadn’t included his line about “the pleasure… of spying Ithaca.” He’s referring to Odysseus’s home, of course, and thus to the concept of home in general, especially the home you return to after a sea voyage. But as we’ve discussed previously: in Moby-Dick, home is death for the soul. I think Borges knew this perfectly well and just couldn’t resist a classical reference. Still, he redeems himself and then some when he describes Moby-Dick as “azul Proteo” — “blue Proteus.” Another Odyssey reference, this time to the ever-transforming water god. Quite so. If Proteus were a book, he’d be this one.

Chapter 34: The Cabin-Table

There’s a reason I’ve leapt right back into the question of Ishmael’s authenticity. And that’s because the perspective from which this book is told is about to shatter completely. That process begins here, with a chapter where Ishmael tells us in great detail about things that happened in a room where he wasn’t present. (Unless he’s a truly excellent spy, but I feel like he would have told us.)

I think I’ve heard somebody say at some point that Ishmael has a tendency to “disappear” — as if he narrates only some of the book and the bits of it that he couldn’t possibly know are written in a different authorial voice altogether. I don’t buy that for a second. This chapter is manifestly still told in Ishmael’s voice. Who else would make reference 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!” If he’s telling us about things he couldn’t possibly know, well fine. I guess he’s making them up. This, after all, is the same guy who won’t straightforwardly tell us what his name is. But it’s him, and make no mistake.

Also, I can’t say whether or not this description of what mealtimes are like among the officers of a whaling vessel is accurate. But I can attest to the notion that there’s a delicious authority that comes from hosting others at your dinner table. “Who has but once dined his friends, has tasted what it is to be Caesar.” I do love cooking.

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.

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my primary asset as a critic is the breadth of my reference points

And just when you think that this indulgence is even more of Ishmael’s (or Melville’s) customary perversity — weaponizing the reader’s exasperation for comic effect — he brings it back around to the whaling vessel. 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. And these onshore mastheads surely are just evolutions of the same principle that led the Egyptians to build the pyramids. It all comes back to the pyramids.

This fucking book, sometimes, I swear to God.

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.

It comes as no surprise at all when Ishmael reveals that he was a terrible lookout. He’s got far too much to think about to worry himself with something so mundane as doing his job.

I think this is one of my favourite chapters of Moby-Dick.

Chapter 36: The Quarter-Deck

In a lesser, saner novel, this would be chapter one. Our knights and squires are all assembled and at sea. The one-legged captain paces the deck, his brow as heavy as his gait. And at long last, he calls the crew around him 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.

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From Christophe Chabouté’s comic adaptation, which I’ll read someday. In English.

As it turns out, the aim of the Pequod, the particular whaling vessel that Ishmael was fated to be aboard by Queequeg’s god Yojo, is not in fact to harvest as much sperm whale oil as it can, but to secure 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 person who will ever read Moby-Dick already knows, this amazingly non-diversionary 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 more obvious (in fact, intentional) 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 an (aside) direct to the reader in the middle of his speech to Starbuck, more on which momentarily.

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Worse things happen at sea…

The other literary figure I’m reminded of is H.P. Lovecraft. Stay with me here. Lovecraft wrote “The Call of Cthulhu,” his classic tale of pure evil manifesting as a sea monster, 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 Platonist he is not. 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 is his red pill. (Let’s for a moment pretend that very useful phrase hasn’t been appropriated by shitheads.) It is the serpent of Eden, which some of the ancient Gnostics worshipped.

And it is also 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.

This chapter also shows us the moment of Starbuck’s foretold “fall of valor.” He is the only person onboard who’s so level headed that his soul isn’t completely taken in by Ahab’s extraordinary rhetoric. And yet, when it comes to the moment he could express a counterpoint — perhaps establishing a quiet resistance among the crew — he demures. It’s Starbuck’s religion that leads him to condemn Ahab’s thirst for vengeance. But religion leads him all the same to the only rational conclusion voiced in this whole chapter: that the white whale is a dumb brute upon whom vengeance would be wasted.

But we’re in Ahab’s story now. He’s the only character aside from Ishmael who manifests as an intelligence in himself — clearly Ahab has taken up residence in Ishmael’s mind. And even if he’s making nearly all of this up, which he clearly is, this Ahab is as real to Ishmael as he is to himself, because this Ahab is a part of him. We are witnessing a story where the only tenable view of the white whale is that it is a manifestation of pure evil that must be wiped from the earth.

Starbuck never stood a chance.

Chapter 37: Sunset

The next three chapters are soliloquies by three characters who aren’t Ishmael. Some may suggest that this lends credence to the theory that Ishmael just vanishes from the novel sometimes, but we’ve already been through my thoughts on that bit of rubbish.

On the topic of Ahab having taken up residence in Ishmael’s mind, I think there’s a reading to be had of Moby-Dick that the whole thing is Ishmael’s attempt to exorcise the demon Ahab that haunts him. We’ve talked from the very start about the idea that Ishmael’s tendency to get distracted from the story for long periods of time exists because the story is traumatic. These are events that have been rattling about in his brain for who knows how many years (“never mind how long precisely”), perhaps having become sensational in the process. Certainly, he’s changed all the names, or we surely wouldn’t have had a prophet named Elijah. And Ishmael has acknowledged openly that Ahab is at least partially a construction.

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This is not Moby-Dick.

But I want to guard against a banal reading of Moby-Dick where the central question becomes simply whether anything that happens is real. Moby-Dick is not Life of Pi. For one thing, Ishmael’s Ahab is as grand and beguiling as he is terrible. And he’s clearly relishing the opportunity to put words in his mouth. (“I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it.”) And for another, some version of this story clearly happened to Ishmael. He wouldn’t be telling it to us in such astonishing detail if it hadn’t. 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. We’ll see how long that lasts.

Regarding this monologue by Ahab, I will only say that it’s well worth reading aloud. I’ve read most of Moby-Dick aloud at this point, and I can’t recommend it enough. As more characters begin to enter the narrative, reading aloud helps to note the extraordinary variety in their modes of expression. Where Ahab is concerned, it puts an even finer point on his debt to Shakespeare’s greatest characters. And it makes 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 that sense, Moby-Dick is almost a piece of theatre, because Ishmael is always talking to you — not himself. Moby-Dick is the world’s longest TED talk.

Ironically, it’s in these next few ostentatiously theatrical chapters that the book veers closest to that portrait of a mind’s interior that novels are supposedly so great at providing. But the theatrical tradition Ishmael/Melville’s riffing on is the Shakespearean soliloquy, which exists specifically to show what’s going on in a character’s head. So I suppose this isn’t anything particularly unexpected and I’ve basically just been spinning my wheels for two paragraphs. Moving on.

Chapter 38: Dusk

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This is Moby-Dick.

Oh, Starbuck. Your death is going to hurt the most.

Every character in this book is fun to spend time with, but Starbuck, severe old Quaker that he is, is possibly the only truly admirable person aboard the Pequod. And in his first appearance since his “fall of valor” at the quarter-deck, he is already berating himself for allowing Ahab to overwhelm him and put the crew’s lives and livelihoods in danger.

And, on the curiously recurring topic of “Moby-Dick making accidental forward reference to major horror franchises,” Starbuck also refers 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 and hear from Stubb. Always good to get inside Stubb’s head. He’s 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.

And like a great many Shakespearean fools, Stubb enjoys commenting on the fine line between comedy and tragedy. “Wise Stubb,” he calls himself, and while he isn’t exactly right about that, he’s not wrong about as much as you’d think. Certainly he has a sense that this entire enterprise will lead the whole crew to madness.

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. *shivers*

Chapter 40: Midnight, Forecastle

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Daggoo, as imagined by Rockwell Kent.

Now, because Flask isn’t worthy of a soliloquy, we get a chapter of dialogue from the harpooners and sailors. Maybe the most remarkable thing about this chapter, which is basically just drunken cavorting, is how plainly Melville is trying to portray 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. This, perhaps, is the best argument we’ve seen thus far for Moby-Dick as “the great American novel.” There’s even a drunk racist dude to put the finest possible 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 Moby Dick. In the title, it’s hyphenated. Throughout the book, it isn’t. EXCEPT for one time in chapter 133. (Thank you, Command-F.) It’s making me crazy. Anyway.

If anybody still has doubts about how utterly bonkers this book is, there is a moment in this chapter where 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 and borderline supernatural beast, Ishmael is more willing to ascribe him with special powers, like the ability to be in two places at once.

(Also, among Moby Dick’s deformities is a “pyramidical hump.” Pyramids everywhere.)

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Art from Mastodon’s Leviathan. Trust a metal band to nail the tone of this book.

Ishmael’s got two main orders of business in this chapter. One is similar to what he was up to way back in the chapter about the chapel, where he called attention to how many people die at sea. Similarly to that, 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 of one. Discursive as he is, Ishmael does know how to keep you reading.

His other order of business is to give us a more detailed rendering than we’ve seen before of the story of how Ahab lost his leg. This is at best second-hand storytelling, but it’s a rollicking good bit. 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 strength of character needed to protest.

More than ever, it feels as though the story’s about to get underway. Naturally, it isn’t.

To be continued.  

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