By Charles Matthews

Saturday, December 4, 2010

1. Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, pp. 1-10

Moby Dick (Oxford World's Classics)Chapter I: Loomings; Chapter II: The Carpet-Bag
Okay, we'll call you Ishmael, because no matter what you're called, it's going to be interpreted. As the introduction by Leon Howard in my old, yellowed Modern Library paperback says, Moby-Dick "has probably been more carefully and intensively studied than any other work in American literature." The original readers of the novel would have immediately responded to the biblical overtones of the name: the disinherited son of Abraham. Post-theistic readers can, however, make of it what they will, so we'll just take it as a name.

Anyway, Ishmael has grown "grim about the mouth," has felt the "damp, drizzly November" in his soul, and his "hypos" -- by which he seems to mean a depressive anger -- has got the better of him. Besides, he's broke. So he knows it's time to go to sea. He argues that this is a perfectly natural condition: We are all drawn to water. "Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it?" (Well, yes, but maybe that's just me.)

Of course, by going to sea he means as a sailor, not a passenger, primarily because he can't afford it otherwise, but nevertheless he feels the need to rationalize the kind of servitude that being a sailor entails: "Who ain't a slave? Tell me that." Besides, you get paid for being a sailor: "The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But being paid, -- what will compare with it?" (The "orchard thieves" are Adam and Eve. I'm not going to gloss everything I come across -- just those that make me stop and puzzle them out, or look them up. Like, for example, "the Pythagorean maxim" in the next paragraph. It's a learned fart joke: Pythagoras advised against eating beans, and the reference to his maxim follows the comment that "head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern.")

Ishmael sets out to sea, then, in 1840. We know this because of his whimsical array of headlines:
"Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States"
The contested election was between Harrison and Van Buren, and the bloody battle was between the Anglo-Indian Army and Afghan tribes. Things don't really change much, do they?

Out of all the forms of naval service possible, he chooses whaling because of "the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself. Such a portentous and mysterious monster roused all my curiosity" and "mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air." So he leaves New York for New Bedford, arriving "on a Saturday night in December," having just missed the boat for Nantucket. But though New Bedford itself "has of late been gradually monopolizing the business of whaling," he holds out for Nantucket as being more authentic: "Where else but Nantucket did those aboriginal whalemen, the Red-Men, first sally out in canoes to give chase to the Leviathan?"

Ishmael and his carpet-bag, by Rockwell Kent
But he's broke, so he lugs his carpet-bag through the dark streets of New Bedford in search of lodging for the weekend, until the next boat sails for Nantucket. His boots are thin of sole and "the congealed frost lay ten inches thick in a hard, asphaltic pavement." He stumbles -- literally -- into the doorway of a place he hopes is an inn, kicking up the contents of an ash-box on the porch that he takes for "those ashes from that destroyed city, Gomorrah." (Not Sodom, I note. Emphasis on the punishment, not on the presumed sin, of the cities of the plain.) But he has actually stumbled into what "seemed the great Black Parliament sitting in Tophet. A hundred black faces turned round in their rows to peer; and beyond, a black Angel of Doom was beating a book in the pulpit. It was a negro church; and the preacher's text was about the blackness of darkness, and the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth there." So the motif of punishment for sin is appropriate, and the motif of black vs. white has been initiated. (You thought I wasn't going to analyze? You were misled.)

Finally, he works his way to a place with a sign: "The Spouter-Inn: -- Peter Coffin." (You can do your own interpreting here, especially if you know about the way the novel ends.) "I thought that here was the very spot for cheap lodgings, and the best of pea coffee." Some people think this refers to coffee made of peas, and maybe it does. That was a common substitute for coffee during the Civil War. But this is much earlier, and  would a seaport like New Bedford have to rely on a substitute? "Peaberry" is a kind of coffee bean, and is said to roast more evenly and make superior coffee.

Ishmael stands on the corner going on about "that tempestuous wind Euroclydon," which is a kind of Mediterranean nor'easter also known as the Gregale, and thinking about freezing to death, until he finally shuts up and goes inside.

No comments:

Post a Comment