Category Archives: Notes on Moby-Dick

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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Notes on Moby-Dick (which I still have not finished): Part 2

When last we checked in on Ishmael, he was aboard a schooner with his new “friend” Queequeg, headed for the port town of Nantucket AND THENCE FOR THE SEA.

Chapter 14: Nantucket

The footnotes tell me that Melville had never actually been to Nantucket when he wrote Moby-Dick — unlike New Bedford. He didn’t have a sense of the place from his own experience. So, here we have a case of Ishmael knowing something that Melville does not. (Get used to it: Ishmael knows lots of impossible things. Just you wait ’til chapter 34.) The description of the island that makes up the whole of this chapter is therefore taken entirely from Melville’s copious readings. (Eighty epigraphs. Remember: he knows his shit.)

Maybe that’s why Ishmael doesn’t bother describing Nantucket in anything resembling realistic detail. Back in New Bedford, he obsessed over descriptions like he was trying to pass a test. (Three chapters in church, remember?) By comparison, he breezes through Nantucket. And he’s far less interested in what actually happens in the town than he is in its legend: the joke that they have to import weeds from elsewhere because they won’t grow in the sand; the indigenous story of the island’s first settlement; the reputation of its whalers for near superhuman seamanship. I love Ishmael’s Nantucketers. These fearless, sea-dwelling whale hunter’s he’s describing are not real people; this is not a real place. This is a HERMIT COLONY OF OCEAN WIZARDS, quietly making conquest over the bulk of the globe.

The point is: by steering clear of actual realistic detail in favour of all this crazy nonsense, Ishmael makes this place seem more than real. No wonder he wanted to set sail from here instead of New Bedford. This place is fucking MAGIC.

This fantastical stuff is all amazing, and it’s probably only here because Melville is consciously working around the fact that he’s writing about a place he’s never seen with his own eyes. Clever man.

Chapter 15: Chowder

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Made some chowder.

Ah, look! A woman! It is my understanding that this gigantic novel has approximately 1.7 women in it, so let’s take a moment to appreciate this. The unfortunately-named Mrs. Hussey is the co-proprietor of the Try Pots: an inn that serves the best damn chowder in New England — or so Ishmael tells us. But before he and Queequeg may sample it, they must once again encounter a death omen: a structure that unintentionally resembles a gallows, set up above the door to the inn. First “Peter Coffin,” now this? One of two things is happening here: either some divine intelligence is trying to tell Ishmael to turn back and he is ignoring it completely, or Ishmael is just throwing death imagery into his story for foreshadowing purposes. (Is it really so surprising that Ishmael strains credulity so often? Apart from anything else, Moby-Dick is also the greatest Big Fish story ever told.)

Inspired by Ishmael’s enthusiasm towards the chowder at the Try Pots, I endeavoured to cook up my own very first pot of the stuff. I went for cod rather than clam in deference to my allergies. I found this recipe a sturdy base, though I substituted carrot for celery and added a splash of bone-dry chardonnay to deglaze the pan after sweating the onion. Ishmael mentions ship’s biscuit being used in the Try Pots’ excellent chowder. So I had intended, as a nod to my Newfoundland heritage, to add a couple of Purity hard bread biscuits to my chowder, finely pounded according to the method used when making fish and brewis on shipboard. (Purity hard bread is harder to break than you could imagine. A venerable old volume in my posession called The Treasury of Newfoundland Dishes advises thusly: “Place [the hard bread] in a piece of ship’s canvas or heavy calico and beat with a hammer or head of a small axe.”) But I couldn’t find any of the stuff in this resolutely west coast town, so I had to content myself by savouring my cod chowder alongside some Jacob’s cream crackers. I’ll give an update if I make another pot after finding a proper hardtack of some sort. Watch this space.

Also, in a footnote of the Norton Critical, Dr. Hershel Parker feels the need to clarify the meaning of the expression “chowder-heads.” They are “those with mixed-up or downright stupid minds,” he writes, “but Ishmael intends no disrespect toward chowder.” THANK YOU DR. PARKER, THAT’LL BE ALL DR. PARKER.

Chapter 16: The Ship

Okay. We’re back to the story now. Fortified by chowder, Ishmael goes forth to try and find a whaling vessel for him and Queequeg to sign onto. But Queequeg has a catch: his god, Yojo, has already selected a vessel he wishes for Queequeg to embark on. Yojo will only consent to the voyage if Ishmael should select the proper vessel with no guidance from Queequeg. Ishmael communicates all of this this in a single sentence, which must be the most byzantine one in the novel so far. I quote it here simply for my own amusement:

“But to my surprise and no small concern, Queequeg now gave me to understand, that he had been diligently consulting Yojo—the name of his black little god—and Yojo had told him two or three times over, and strongly insisted upon it everyway, that instead of our going together among the whaling-fleet in harbor, and in concert selecting our craft; instead of this, I say, Yojo earnestly enjoined that the selection of the ship should rest wholly with me, inasmuch as Yojo purposed befriending us; and, in order to do so, had already pitched upon a vessel, which, if left to myself, I, Ishmael, should infallibly light upon, for all the world as though it had turned out by chance; and in that vessel I must immediately ship myself, for the present irrespective of Queequeg.”

This chapter contains the first invocation of the name we’ve all been waiting to hear: Ahab. Settle down. He’s not going to turn up for a while yet. In reality, Ishmael spends this whole chapter introducing us to another of the book’s key characters: a garish old battleaxe called the Pequod. (That’s the ship. The Pequod is the ship.) From the very start, the Pequod comes off like a haunted house, infested with the ghosts of the dead whales whose teeth and bones decorate her bulwarks. But she’s marvellous, too. Ishmael can’t decide whether he wants to portray her as a noble beast or a monster.

The Pequod belongs primarily to its major shareholders: an Abbott and Costello-eque pair of old Quakers called Peleg and Bildad, the former of whom spends the bulk of this chapter abusing Ishmael for no good reason, and the latter of whom cheats him on his pay. It’s a dodgy business, this whaling. It’s a dodgy business, this Pequod.

Also, we never get to hear if Yojo approves of the Pequod or not. I should hope not. But then, as Queequeg freely admits, Yojo is a flawed deity.

Chapter 17: The Ramadan

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A figure of the sea god Tangeroa, who Yojo is maaaaaaaaaybe based on? Photo courtesy of the British Museum.

This is another chapter in which the cultural differences between Queequeg and Ishmael are played as a farce. I don’t know whether to be charmed at Ishmael’s self-effacement — he’s always the idiot in these situations — or queasy about the cavalier way he writes off Queequeg’s religious beliefs as “comical.” At least he has the decency to extend the same characterization to his own culture’s Presbyterian religion. One suspects that in mid-19th-century America, proclaiming that Christians and pagans alike are “dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending” required a certain amount of courage — though it might strike us as uncomfortably Richard Dawkinsy today. 

Anyway, in this chapter Queequeg locks himself in his hotel room for an entire day and prays in total silence, with the idol of Yojo balanced on his head. Having also locked Ishmael out of the hotel room in the process, he inadvertently causes a panic throughout the hotel: a panic that finds Ishmael capering ridiculously through the hallways shouting both “Murder!” and “Apoplexy!” and finds the proprietress fearing that Queequeg was yet another damned sailor to commit suicide in her esteemed establishment. (*SIGH* “FETCH ME THE FLOOR SCRUBBER”)

The chapter concludes with Ishmael explaining to Queequeg that such religious devotion is pointless. Queequeg then regales Ishmael with a funny story about how he and his countrymen once ate fifty of their enemy combatants in one sitting and got terrible indigestion. That’ll shut him up.

Chapter 18: His Mark

Dr. Parker’s footnotes tell me that the Quakers of 19th-century New England had a propensity for giving their young Biblical names. But when Ishmael casually suggests the existence of a deacon named “Deuteronomy Coleman” one suspects he is pulling our leg. (*briefly considers “Deuteronomy Ishmael Parsons” as name for first-born son, ceases*)

Anyway, here we have Queequeg signing onto the crew of the Pequod. Naturally, it falls to Ishmael to assuage Bildad and Peleg’s doubts about Queequeg’s religious convictions and dietary habits, which he does by basically saying “aren’t we really all the same, when you think about it?” Bildad and Peleg, being comedy buffoons, find this to be the most profound shit they’ve ever heard in their goddamn lives, and the discussion is over.

All the same, this double act gives us a poignant moment at the end of the chapter. Bildad, as is his wont, begins preaching to Queequeg. Peleg, as is his, tells him to can it. Taking umbrage at this, Bildad asks Peleg if he himself did not fear death and the judgement when he sailed under the command of Captain Ahab on his ***fateful voyage***. He assumes Peleg must have taken solace in his faith on that occasion — that he must have reflected on his eternal salvation.

Peleg’s response shuts him right up: “When every moment we thought the ship would sink… Think of Death and the Judgement then? No! no time to think about Death then. Life was what Captain Ahab and I was thinking of; and how to save all hands—how to rig jury masts—how to get into the nearest port; that was what I was thinking of.”

Moby-Dick has thus far been very concerned with religion, and it will continue to be. But after that outburst from Peleg, there isn’t much more to be said.

Chapter 19: The Prophet

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Here’s a painting of Elijah by Frederic Leighton who, fun fact, died of angina the day after he was made a baron. To this day, he holds the record for having been a baron for the shortest amount of time.

OKAY I CALL BULLSHIT on these Bible names. DEUTERONOMY FUCKING COLEMAN was a stretch. But NOW you’re telling me you met an actual PROPHET named ELIJAH who proceeds to denounce a CAPTAIN called AHAB in PERFECT FUCKING SYMMETRY with 1 Kings 1:21 in the Old Testament? In which a DIFFERENT PROPHET named ELIJAH denounces a KING called AHAB!?!?! This is a bridge too far, Ishmael, I REFUSE TO BE FUCKED WITH.

Ahem.

So what happens in this chapter? Basically, if Moby-Dick were the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, this chapter would be the bit with the skull that says “Dead men tell no tales.” Ishmael and Queequeg meet a shabby-looking, pus-faced old sailor who tells them that they have shipped with a mad captain — that Ahab lost his leg in a fateful battle with a giant whale, and that this was in accordance with some prophecy. Then, like all decrepit prophets in adventure stories, he refuses to actually say anything useful, leaving Ishmael a bit creeped out and none the wiser about his captain-to-be.

Chapter 20: All Astir

Ah, look! Another woman! And she’s allowed to board the ship, no less! There’s an old sailor’s superstition that women are bad luck on ships, and shouldn’t even be allowed on board at port. But the crew of the Pequod are hell of progressive.

Aunt Charity, as she is known, is one of many folks involved in the hustle and bustle of loading the Pequod for her voyage. Ishmael notes with more amusement than dread that all whaling ships must pack spares of everything. After all, Accidents Happen!!!

Chapter 21: Going Aboard

Oh, shit, the prophet’s back. And he’s being even more annoying. He’s all, “You didn’t happen to see a bunch of CREEPY DUDES CREEPING AROUND THE SHIP IN THE DARKNESS, did you?” And Ishmael’s like “Yeah, actually I did!” And the prophet’s like “Hmm, that’s probably not good. Byyyyyyeeeeeeeeeeeeeee…”

Regardless, Ishmael and Queequeg board the Pequod and learn that a mere 21 chapters into the book, Captain Ahab has finally boarded his ship and is ready to set sail. For good measure, we even get our first mention of the first mate: Starbuck. (Incidentally, the world’s top coffee chain was nearly called “Pequod.”)

Also it’s established that on Queequeg’s island, humans are used as ottomans. *sigh*

Chapter 22: Merry Christmas

Ishmael mentions here that Aunt Charity, the vanishingly minor character from two chapters ago, is Bildad’s sister and also the brother-in-law of the second mate Stubb. I don’t know what that makes Bildad in relation to Stubb, nor do I know why it matters, since Bildad disappears from the story in this chapter, along with Peleg. But Melville seemed to think it was important enough to mention. What a weird book we’re reading.

The main thrust of this chapter is that Ishmael and company are finally leaving shore on their ship (Merry Christmas, readers!), though Ahab is yet to be seen above deck. Peleg and Bildad help pilot the ship away from the docks and head back to shore in a small boat, as is apparently the custom.

A couple of details in Dr. Parker’s footnotes stand out here. Firstly, in a tortured effort not to swear around the pious Bildad, Peleg cries “Aft here, ye sons of bachelors!” In the footnotes, Dr. Parker acclaims Peleg’s line as being “arguably funnier than the common epithet he avoids using.” If you say so, Dr. Parker. And finally, the song Bildad leads the crew in as the ship pulls away is apparently called “A Prospect of Heaven Makes Death Easy” — the very sentiment that Peleg so eloquently refuted a mere four chapters ago.

Chapter 23: The Lee Shore

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A weird thing about Moby-Dick is that there’s a card game based on it.

What an astonishing little chapter this is. From the fifth sentence on, it could just as easily have been written by Shakespeare or T.S. Eliot. Firstly, it is the closest Ishmael has come thus far to revealing the ending of the story. He mentioned in passing that Queequeg has died at the time of this story’s telling, but this is the point when we learn that Bulkington dies as well — specifically at sea, with a strong implication that much of the crew perishes with him. But more than that, it extends Ishmael’s argument from chapter one to a remarkable place.

Just hang on a sec — do you remember chapter one? Remember how much time Ishmael spent categorically enumerating all of the different reasons why the sea is so important? All that stuff about the factory workers gazing longingly from the harbour and the artists painting magical streams? Chapter 23 is a reflection of chapter one in the smallest, clearest mirror you can imagine. In chapter one, the sea is important for a hundred small, prosaic reasons. In this chapter, the importance of the sea comes down to one crucial, abstract notion: home is death for the soul.

The metaphor Ishmael is riffing on here is based on the idea that land is both the ultimate endpoint of all successful voyages, the place where all mankind’s creature comforts reside, and it is the ultimate hazard in a storm. If you get dashed against the rocks, you drown. In a storm, the safest place is the open ocean: vast, fathomless, empty. Nothing but uncertainty as far as the eye can see — but a lack of certainty means a lack of certain death.

For Ishmael — and for Bulkington, the sailor who we know only one thing about, and it is that he cannot stay on land for more than a few days at a time — this is not just the organizing principle of his life: it is the fundamental concept that guides the way he thinks about things. “In landlessness alone resides the highest truth,” he writes. “All deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea, while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore.” For all his tendencies to categorize and enumerate, Ishmael does not wish to be certain of anything. He wishes to remain adrift in a sea of unformed ideas and half-told stories. Because the end of the story is death. Death is the only certainty. Best, then, to keep travelling forever. To never make land. To never go home.

Home is death for the soul. You can never stop running. You can never be certain of anything. You can never stay in one place. Home is death for the soul.

The Pequod has set sail.

To be continued.

Notes on Moby-Dick (which I have not finished): Part 1

OKAY. Time to crack open this CLASSIC MASTERPIECE. My Norton Critical Edition has taken up long-term residence on my nightstand and I am PUMPED to set sail on this LITERARY VOYAGE. HERE WE FUCKING GO.

Etymology and extracts

So I feel like this introductory quasi-chapter probably has a lot to say about what kind of book this is going to be. Most novels start with one or two epigraphs that are relevant to the story or themes. If you’re Steven King, maybe you’ll indulge yourself and stretch it out to five or six. Moby-Dick starts with A WHOLE CHAPTER OF EPIGRAPHS. There are EIGHTY of them.

Also, most authors present their epigraphs without comment. They just put them there in the middle of an austere, mostly empty page. NOT HERMAN MELVILLE. This guy’s got to make-believe like he got his etymology of the word “whale” from a schoolmaster who died of tuberculosis (“a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School”) and his cavalcade of epigraphs from a vanishingly minor drone at a public library (“a Sub-Sub Librarian”).

It’s important to note that neither of these people are real. Melville definitely did all of this himself. We haven’t even properly started the book yet and Melville is already trolling us. (MOBY-DICK IS FAKE NEWS)

But that doesn’t mean these epigraphs aren’t sort of an amazing accomplishment. Imagine trying to find eighty resonant extracts about whales in texts ranging from Shakespeare to ship’s logs — without the help of the internet. Melville has really gone the extra thousand nautical miles, here. And that’s something that I happen to know will be a recurring theme in the early bits of the book. (Prolly the rest of it too.) We’re not just dealing with a storyteller, here. We’re dealing with a person who Knows Stuff and has Read Things and Really Could Go On For A While. Moby-Dick couldn’t have happened without the depth of research that’s indicated by this bewildering introduction.

So: let’s take stock, quickly. We’re ten pages in and we’ve already witnessed a gratuitous display of erudition, nested in a weird structure game where you can’t quite tell the real from the fake; the comical from the plain faced; the sane from the mad.

Onwards.  

Chapter 1: Loomings

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Richard Basehart in the 1956 movie version I haven’t seen.

Reading this chapter made me want to read all of Moby-Dick. Before I picked up the book and read chapter one on a whim, I’d assumed that Moby-Dick was just a super long adventure story about a one-legged obsessive’s insane quest for revenge on a great white whale. I’d assumed it was a banal potboiler with puffed-up literary ambitions. This chapter immediately dispels that notion.

I read this again and again, often out loud, before I managed to move onto the second chapter. I fucking love this, and I’m going to try and explain why. In the process I’ll hopefully explain briefly what happens in this chapter — which, in a sense is nothing. But in another sense, CHRIST ALMIGHTY DOES SHIT GO DOWN.

This chapter introduces us to one of the best narrators in any book ever: Ishmael. I mean, maybe that’s his name. Famously, he tells us to call him that, but the first sentence isn’t “my name is Ishmael.” I dunno why he’d lie, but it’s strange phrasing, isn’t it? “Call me Ishmael.” Why? What else would I call you? Are you fucking with me again? (“CALL ME ISHMAEL” IS FAKE NEWS)

Moby-Dick has a reputation for being a bloated, overlong, unnecessarily discursive novel with far too many redundant, superfluous, unnecessary words. Remember, this is the book with eighty epigraphs. But by the end of the first page, you should realize that the book is not like this because of any indiscipline on Melville’s part: it’s like this because Melville has created an extraordinarily rich and idiosyncratic narrator in Ishmael. Ishmael is a genius and a polymath. He’s manic, and everything fascinates him — particularly language. He loves language so much that he often gets excited and uses more of it than he needs to. He’s the personification of all the joy there is to be had in observing the world.

He is also traumatized. It shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler to say that Moby-Dick does not end happily. (I’m far from finished the book as I write this, but I know the plot from cultural osmosis. I guess most people do.) Ishmael is telling the story in retrospect, some years later. (“Never mind how long precisely.”) I don’t think he emerged from his maritime ordeal unscathed. Look at the way he first brings up the whaling voyage that’ll be the whole subject of the book: “But wherefore it was that after having repeatedly smelt the sea as a merchant sailor, I should now take it into my head to go on a whaling voyage…” That sentence is the turning point of the chapter and the first indication of what the story’s going to be — and it’s just sitting casually in the middle of a paragraph. He basically crab walks his way into the story. I have a personal theory that part of the reason Ishmael beats around the bush so much and talks about pyramids and Niagara Falls and other irrelevant topics is that he’s actively trying to avoid telling the story for as long as possible. Because it is definitely going to be an emotionally taxing story to tell. Moby-Dick is a novel where a storyteller peels off an emotional band-aid as slowly and haltingly as possible.

There are indications that Ishmael had some issues before he ever set foot on the whaling ship that traumatized him. He proclaims, semi-jokingly, within the first few sentences of the book that he likes to go to sea “whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off.” This is CONCERNING TO SAY THE LEAST. But it is ultimately what pulled me into the novel in the first place. I’m not sure how interested I am in revenge stories, maritime adventure, or obsessive captains. But I am ALL IN if the story’s going to be told by a narrator capable of this kind of polymathic mania, interrupted by occasional intense melancholy. A narrator as rich as Ishmael could make ANY story interesting.

And even though he clearly has some serious baggage related to his time at sea, he obviously thinks this story is a good one. Look at how his language takes flight at the very end of the chapter, as he’s about to launch into the narrative proper: “the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.” That gives me chills. And it’s still more effective when you think about how this guy can even conjure up some Wonder At The World’s Miracles when he’s thinking about the worst experience of his damn life. “I am quick to perceive a horror,” Ishmael tells us, “and could still be social with it — would they let me.” Would that we could all be so charitable towards our traumas.

In chapter one, we meet our mysterious, manic, melancholy guide through the tale of Moby-Dick. He tells us essentially no details about the story or about his past life. But he does something much more profound and compelling: he shows us how his mind works. He tells us about why he loves the sea and why he loves being a lowly sailor rather than an officer. He tells us about the doldrums that take hold of him when he lingers too long on land. And, maybe half by accident, he exposes us to the sheer force and charm of his personality and makes us want to pay attention — whether he’s getting on with the story or not.

Chapter 2: The Carpet-Bag

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This is what a carpet bag looks like. Whatever his many virtues, Ishmael is not a strong accessorizor.

Ah, look! We have some honest-to-god story! Things Are Happening! Essentially, the next several chapters detail Ishmael’s wanderings in New Bedford, a whaling town that seems at this point to have superseded Nantucket in its industry prevalence. But Ishmael, being something of a Hipster Whaler, makes a point of expressing his disappointment in this fact. He is headed for Nantucket, thank you very much; nothing but the OG whaling port will do for a man of history such as our narrator. Still, he can’t help but start his narrative long before the action begins. So, we’ll follow him around New Bedford for a few chapters while he waits for something to happen. (Did I say Things Were Happening? I was speaking in the broadest possible terms.)

In chapter two, Ishmael walks through the streets of New Bedford with his weird bag, looking for a decent place to stay. It contains one of my favourite examples of his tendency to use far too many words to get his point across: he means to say “I didn’t have much money, so I needed to find a cheap hotel.” Instead, he says: “With anxious grapnels I had sounded my pocket, and only brought up a few pieces of silver,—So, wherever you go, Ishmael, said I to myself, as I stood in the middle of a dreary street shouldering my bag, and comparing the gloom towards the north with the darkness towards the south—wherever in your wisdom you may conclude to lodge for the night, my dear Ishmael, be sure to inquire the price, and don’t be too particular.” Marvellous.

In any case, Ishmael settles on a place called the Spouter-Inn, which will make up the setting and title of the next chapter.

Chapter 3: The Spouter-Inn

Our narrator’s account of his arrival and first night at the Spouter-Inn contains a bunch of top-shelf Ishmaelisms about the weird painting by the bar, and one crucial plot element. This is the chapter in which we meet our first non-Ishmael main character: Queequeg, a cannibalistic harpooneer from a made-up island in the South Pacific who unexpectedly becomes Ishmael’s (literal) bedmate. (Now Things Are Actually Happening.)

My understanding is that Queequeg becomes important later in the book because he’s Melville’s way of making Moby-Dick into a modern, internationalist kind of story — a pretty impressive impulse for a white dude writing in 1851. We’re meant to see Queequeg — with his fully-tattooed skin, tomahawk, and pidgin English — as a person who would be written off as a “savage” by most of the characters in the novel, but who is in fact noble, kind and intelligent. I’m not far enough into the book to judge how Melville’s very early attempt at an anti-racism narrative plays out. So far, I’m a bit concerned that Queequeg is, at least in part, a stereotype. The pidgin English is a problem. Melville made up his home island out of whole cloth. And the first facts we learn about him are that he’s a cannibal and he’s been out selling shrunken heads on the street. Regardless of what we learn about him later, this characterization traffics in some typically colonialist assumptions. Still, it’s worth noting that this is not entirely blind prejudice on Melville’s part. Some of the islands in the South Pacific actually were among the few places where cannibalism was still practiced when Melville wrote the book. The man did his research. (Eighty epigraphs.) But we can’t expect a guy from almost two centuries ago to adhere flawlessly to modern sensibilities about race in fiction. And he doesn’t. Best acknowledge that.

But the way he introduces Queequeg is kind of ingenious. The landlord — which is what Ishmael calls the innkeeper — of the Spouter-Inn does the bulk of the heavy lifting. His surname is “Coffin,” a word which will come to take on a substantial significance for both Ishmael and Queequeg later in the book. (I know this because I have cheated and read the epilogue.) This Peter Coffin is a right dickwad. The biggest of the dickwads. Moby-Dickwad. It’s this guy who decides that Ishmael and Queequeg will sleep two-to-a-bed this night, and as soon as he makes that decision it becomes a huge private joke for him. Coffin’s well aware that Queequeg is harmless — though whether he regards him as fully human is doubtful. Still, he insists on dropping cryptic, racist hints to Ishmael that his sleeping companion may in fact be mortally dangerous. So basically, before we get to know Queequeg through Ishmael’s more progressive eyes, we see him as he is seen by the bulk of the Americans he interacts with: as a disfigured monster. In the end, though, it will turn out that this book’s disfigured monsters — human and otherwise — will be white.

At the end of the chapter, Peter Coffin’s practical joke pays off: Queequeg is startled to find a strange man unexpectedly in his bed, and Ishmael is mortally frightened to find himself in the company of a startled man he has every reason to think is a murderer. Hearing the commotion in the room where he’s paired them off, Coffin arrives to defuse the situation, and all is well. It’s as close as classic literature gets to farce without actually being a straight-up farce.

Chapter 4: The Counterpane

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For the faint of sight: “Queequeg and his Harpoon”

Ishmael wakes up to find Queequeg’s arm flung around him matrimonially. Hmm, I wonder if I Google “Ishmael/Queequeg fanfic” what would OH MY GOD

This is the chapter where we’re made to start seeing Queequeg as a human being, rather than the monster that Peter Coffin portrayed him as. Still, Ishmael regards him as a bit of an archeological curiosity. The business about him being part “civilized,” part “savage” is distasteful. It points out that, no matter how much we may want to identify with Ishmael, he is by necessity a person of his time, because Melville was a person of his. Still, even if he expresses it in a less than modern way, this is the beginning of an awakening in Ishmael. An awokening, if you like.

Also, every time Ishmael shares a memory from before the start of this story, it is fucked up. First there was that bit in the first chapter about knocking people’s hats off in the street. Now there’s stuff in this chapter about him hallucinating a phantom hand as a child. Our narrator has a jolly demeanor, but I feel like he could benefit from a bit of modern counselling.

(By the way, if it seems like I’m glossing over the plot, that’s just because the plot is still happening in dribs and drabs at this point. The plot of chapter four is “Ishmael and Queequeg wake up.” What actually transpires has a lot more to do with the characters and their relationship than the story. So you’re pretty well caught up.)

Chapter 5: Breakfast

Ishmael descends from his room to eat a hearty morning meal. He generously forgives Peter Coffin for his skullduggery. He observes that you can tell how long a whaler has been ashore from his tan. And he complains that none of his fellow tenants at the Spouter-Inn want to talk at the table. It’s easy to assume, because he’s the narrator of the book — and a verbose one at that, that Ishmael is one of those people who never shuts up. But how could he have become so worldly-wise if he weren’t also an accomplished listener? I understand his frustration at this silent breakfast. If you’ve got a good story: tell it, goddamn it. In as much detail as possible.

Chapter 6: The Street

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This is another of Ishmael’s purely descriptive chapters, so let me just take this moment to say Holy Hell, does New Bedford ever sound a lot like my hometown. I’m from Fort McMurray, Alberta, a middle-sized oil town in what most people would consider the frozen north. Like New Bedford, it is a place where the land itself is almost comically inhospitable and ugly. When Ishmael describes New Bedford, he tells us that “parts of her back country are enough to frighten one, they look so bony.” And yet, “the town itself is perhaps the dearest [most expensive] place to live in, in all New England.” He makes a big thing of how big and lavish the houses are in this landscape that ought to be desolate — all because of whaling: the mad slaughter that was at the time the fifth-biggest industry in the United States. All these mansions, Ishmael says in an impressively cinematic turn of phrase, “were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.”

Fort McMurray is much the same. It is a deeply inhospitable part of the world. First off, it’s freezing. My mom still lives there and lately she keeps texting me complaining, justifiably, about the fact that it’s been minus 40 for a week. It snows for half the year. Also it’s flat and featureless and a million miles from the nearest ocean and/or mountain. But mostly it’s just bone-chillingly cold. The cold in Fort McMurray is so pervasive that it’s practically a state of mind. Live there long enough and your soul freezes.

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Photo credit: Gord McKenna

And yet, much like Ishmael’s New Bedford, it was until recently cripplingly expensive to live there. Some of the houses in the nice neighbourhoods are, if not impressive and beautiful then at least imposing and large. And why? Because of the prevalence of an equally destructive industry as the whale slaughter that Ishmael will come to abhor. Whence came yonder lofty McMansions? One and all, they were dug out of the earth and refined out of the sand.

Not quite as evocative as Ishmael’s image of houses being dragged out of the ocean, I grant you. But I’m not Herman Melville, no matter how hard I try. Anyhow. Back to business.

Chapter 7: The Chapel

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The modern Seaman’s Bethel in New Bedford, which stands on the same land as the OLD Seaman’s Bethel in New Bedford which burned down, but which was the inspiration for Melville’s chapel.

Ishmael and Queequeg spend the next three chapters in church. The church they go to actually exists, by the way. It burned down in the 1860s, but they rebuilt it. It was originally a church specifically for the whalers of New Bedford and their families — a place to go and pray that neither you nor any of your loved ones will get eaten by sea monsters. It’s a valid mandate for a church: people died at sea in droves back then. The main purpose of this chapter is to establish that fact. The memorial plaques on the wall of the chapel make us aware of the fact that we are following Ishmael on a journey of staggering risk. It’s Melville’s way of ratcheting up the tension, the way a fantasy writer might point out all of the human bones in the cave that the would-be dragonslayer has just entered.

Except that it’s also really powerful. As Ishmael observes the grieving families around the chapel’s memorials, he reflects: “Oh! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among flowers can say—here, here lies my beloved; ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these.” It’s an observation that applies to more than nautical deaths. Imagine having a missing loved one. Plenty of people in that situation, in this country. “Ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these.”

Chapter 8: The Pulpit

In keeping with the chapel’s general decor, the pulpit is fashioned in the likeness of the prow of a ship. Ishmael doesn’t come out and say it, but this is real tacky. The whole idea of decorating a whaler’s chapel like a ship is tacky. It’s like the pastor thinks the congregation needs these symbols of seafaring life to remind them of their shared identity. If that’s true, then it isn’t a very strong shared identity. There was a seafood restaurant like this in Fort McMurray, which is full of nostalgic expat Newfoundlanders. Rigging along the walls, part of a rowboat affixed to the ceiling. I always thought, how can this possibly be helping?

Here’s something interesting: Wikipedia tells me that the tacky pulpit was Melville’s invention. There was no such thing in the actual chapel. But after Moby-Dick became a hit, they made one. Ugh.

A final observation: Ishmael expresses an opinion that the pulpit is at the head of the world. The person giving a sermon is in the lead, and everybody else follows. Given certain things that happen in the next few chapters, I’m inclined to think that this is less a display of religious conviction from Ishmael than a display of faith in the power of language. The pulpit is a place where speeches are made, and people act on those speeches. That’s powerful, and it’s a good illustration of why Ishmael believes in language, and storytelling, more than anything else. (Alas, his faith in language will betray him when he falls under the spell of a famously adept speechmaker with one leg and an axe to grind, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

Chapter 9: The Sermon

(We’re still at church. Nothing’s happening still.)

If the chapel’s decor was tacky, then Father Mapple’s constant use of sailor-speak as metaphors is downright vulgar. “…one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures.” Please.

Still, the Father’s sermon is pretty clever. He starts off with a hymn: a whaling-inspired adaptation of Psalm 18 in the hymnbook Melville grew up with, in which a sinner is filled with fear and anxiety before finding salvation in prayer. Ever heard Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman?” That’s a better version, with kickass piano and no happy ending. After the hymn, Father Mapple tells the story of Jonah, which is A LITTLE ON THE NOSE YOU’VE GOTTA ADMIT. But he tells the story of Jonah’s encounter with the whale in a way that makes it fit the narrative of Psalm 18 (and “Sinnerman,” actually). That’s a bit of a rhetorical ninja move. And he is capable of some really good lines, our Father. I particularly like this one: “In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.” Kind of backs up Ishmael’s antipathy towards paying passengers in the first chapter, doesn’t it?

Also, do you think this priest talks about Jonah every Sunday? Maybe he alternates between Jonah and the whale and Noah’s ark? I feel like this guy doesn’t have time for Bible stories about the desert.

Chapter 10: A Bosom Friend

First, the plot: Ishmael gets back from church, bonds with Queequeg, and worships a wooden idol with him – no small thing for a Presbyterian.

Here we have a chapter where my Norton Critical really comes in handy. The good Dr. Hershel Parker’s footnotes have pointed out to me that the 30 pieces of silver Queequeg gifts Ishmael with are an echo of the 30 pieces of silver Judas received for betraying Jesus. They also inform me that, in spite of Ishmael’s straightforwardly admirable and humanist justification for joining Queequeg in his worship ceremony (dude just wants to be friendly) it is a blasphemous justification according to the conventional reading of Exodus. (“I am a jealous god” and all that.) So, 30 pieces of silver for a betrayal of the lord. A neat metaphor. But I’m with Ishmael on this one. Screw the jealous god. Just be nice.

The footnotes also assert that Melville’s blasphemy was maybe the second-most important reason why his writing career ended prematurely. The first, seemingly, was piracy. Not the fun maritime kind of piracy, though. That would just be too on the nose. The banal, intellectual property kind of piracy.

Chapter 11: Nightgown

Another chapter in which Ishmael and Queequeg bond with each other in bed. Ishmael carefully elides any sexy business that may have happened, leaving gaps for the internet to fill in. I do wonder whether Melville actually wanted us to see Ishmael and Queequeg as lovers. I hope so. They’re delightful.

Also: I really love Ishmael’s point about us not being fully ourselves unless we have our eyes closed. It’s a way of shutting out the reality outside and constructing our own reality. There’s a degree of narcissism in this. I suspect that no narrator, and indeed no writer, could manage a book like this without being intensely narcissistic. But Ishmael’s is a benign narcissism: in fact it allows him to understand others better because he has fully taken stock of himself.

Chapter 12: Biographical

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These pictures are from Rockwell Kent’s old-as-balls illustrated edition, BTW.

At last we get to hear Queequeg’s backstory. He’s the son of a king on a non-existent Pacific island. “It is not down in any map,” Ishmael informs us, “true places never are.” Whatever, dude.

Basically, Queequeg decided one day after an encounter with some white men who came by on a ship that he’d like to visit Christendom, learn what he can, and return to his people to help engender some kind of cultural exchange. So, he managed with great difficulty to convince the captain of the ship to take him to America. But soon he came to realize that white Christians could be cruel and venal and that this wasn’t his world. But then, neither was his home island, anymore. He felt he was too Christianized to rightly ascend his father’s throne. Thus, he is a man without a country: a seafarer who can live nationlessly aboard whaling vessels until such a time when he feels it’s right to go home.

Chapter 13: Wheelbarrow

AND WE’RE MOVING. After eleven chapters in New Bedford, our narrator has finally set off for the OG whaling port of Nantucket on a schooner. He’s got Queequeg in tow and thank god for that, because this chapter also contains some HONEST TO GOD ACTION, a thing our scholarly narrator seems slightly ill-adapted for, however much of a salt he is.

I seriously love this moment where we first see Queequeg in action. One of the would-be whalers (Ishmael calls him a “bumpkin”) on the schooner dares to mock Queequeg, and he responds by calmly THROWING HIM INTO THE AIR and flipping him around SO THAT HE LANDS PERFECTLY ON HIS FEET. SIDDOWN, BUMPKIN. Naturally, this display of Jackie Chan-style comedy violence provokes the ire of the captain. But that ire can only last so long, because the ship’s boom comes detached, leaving everybody on deck scrambling. Having now established that Queequeg is Spider-Man, it makes perfect sense when Ishmael tells us that he single-handedly fixes the problem in a whirlwind of jumping and lasso twirling — rescuing our lowly bumpkin in the process since he’s been flung overboard in all the commotion. I guess that’s how awesome Queequeg has to be if he wants to not get treated like shit. He has to be an actual superhero.

Do these tall tales of Queequeg’s derring-do strain credulity? (QUEEQUEG IS FAKE NEWS) Maybe. But remember what book we’re reading. You can’t quite tell the real from the fake; the comical from the plain faced; the sane from the mad.

Onwards.

To be continued.