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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.