By Charles Matthews

Monday, December 13, 2010

10. Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, pp. 262-301

Moby Dick (Oxford World's Classics)Chapter LV: Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales; Chapter LVI: Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes; Chapter LVII: Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood; in Sheet-Iron; in Mountains; in Stars; Chapter LVIII: Brit; Chapter LIX: Squid; Chapter LX: The Line; Chapter LXI: Stubb Kills a Whale; Chapter LXII: The Dart; Chapter LXIII: The Crotch; Chapter LXIV: Stubb's Supper; Chapter LXV: The Whale as a Dish
The three chapters on whale iconography are among the greatest stumbling-blocks in Moby-Dick  for the contemporary casual reader, unless he or she has a particular interest in the topic. As I think I suggested before, they serve a purpose in the novel to suggest that just as Ahab is obsessed with the White Whale, Ishmael is obsessed with the entire topic of whaling, and that Melville's novel is a study in obsessions. In this case, Ishmael is mostly obsessed with how artists got it wrong, starting with the "most ancient extant portrait anyways purporting to be the whale's," which he identifies as a sculpture found in the Elephanta caves in India: "the incarnation of Vishnu in the form of leviathan, learnedly known as the Matse Avatar." It's hard to tell what sculpture of Vishnu in the Matsya (Sanskrit for fish) avatar he has in mind, but he insists that the tail is all wrong.
Incarnation of Vishnu as a fish

Western artists don't fare much better: He denounces Guido Reni's painting of Perseus rescuing Andromeda -- a picture now so badly in need of cleaning that it's hard to see the sea-monster anyway -- and the monster in Hogarth's version of the Perseus story is equally improbable. Not to mention "Jonah's whale in the prints of old Bibles and the cuts of old primers. He also takes in the "book-binder's whale winding like a vine-stalk round the stock of a descending anchor." The well-known colophon is "universally denominated a dolphin," but Ishmael insists that it was intended to represent a whale.
Hogarth, Perseus and Andromeda
Jonah and the whale
Publisher's dolphin colophon

Even more recent images of whales by trained naturalists such as Lacépède and Cuvier fall short: "Frederick Cuvier's Sperm Whale is not a Sperm Whale, but a squash." He blames the misrepresentations on the fact that the naturalists are working from whales that have been beached: "The living whale, in his full majesty and significance, is only to be seen at sea in unfathomable waters; and afloat the vast bulk of him is out of sight, like a launched line-of-battle ship; and out of that element it is a thing eternally impossible for mortal man to hoist him bodily into the air, so as to preserve all his mighty swells and undulations." 

J. Ross Browne (1821–1875). Etchings of a Whaling Cruise
In discussing "less erroneous pictures of whales," he cites with approval J. Ross Browne and William Scoresby. But his chief praises are for "two large French engravings, well executed, and taken from paintings by one Garnery." He means Ambroise Louis Garneray:
Ambroise Louis Garneray (1783–1857), "Peche de la Baleine,” colored aquatint engraved by Frederic Martens, 1835.

Ambroise Louis Garneray, "Peche du Cachalot,” colored aquatint engraved by Frederic Martens, 1834. 
"The natural aptitude of the French for seizing the picturesqueness of things seems to be peculiarly evinced in what paintings and engravings they have of their whaling scenes."

Long exile from Christendom and civilization inevitably restores a man to that condition in which God placed him, i.e., what is called savagery. Your true whale-hunter is as much a savage as an Iroquois. I myself am a savage, owning no allegiance but to the King of the Cannibals; and ready at any moment to rebel against him. Now, one of the peculiar characteristics of the savage in his domestic hours, is his wonderful patience of industry.
This is a preamble to his discussion of carvings and other handcrafted images of whales, but it's also a reminder that when Ishmael refers to someone as a savage, he doesn't necessarily mean it as a pejorative.

The Pequod now comes upon "vast meadows of brit, the minute, yellow substance, upon which the Right Whale largely feeds." Ishmael doesn't seem to know precisely what this "substance" is, but the dictionary will tell you that brit, or britt, is (are?) the spawn of herring or similar fish. The Right Whale is, of course, the wrong whale for the Pequod, so she cruises along through the grazing whales as "these monsters swam, making a strange, grassy, cutting sound; and leaving behind them endless swaths of blue upon the yellow sea." The experience provokes Ishmael to meditation on "the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure." And of course he draws a moral: "For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!" This didactic flourish is not unearned, of course: Ishmael pushed off from his own isle when he signed up for a voyage with Ahab.

Speaking of whom, he is about to return to the scene when Daggoo, on watch on the main mast-head, spots "a great white mass" rising from the sea. Naturally, he thinks it's Moby Dick. Ahab rushes to see, and orders the boats lowered. It's not the whale, however. "A vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth, of a glancing cream-color, lay floating on the water, innumerable long arms radiating from its centre, and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas, as if blindly to catch at any hapless object within reach." The giant squid gives Starbuck a serious case of the creeps:
As with a low sucking sound it slowly disappeared again, Starbuck still gazing at the agitated waters where it had sunk, with a wild voice exclaimed -- "Almost rather had I seen Moby Dick and fought him, than to have seen thee, thou white ghost!"
Not only does Starbuck make it perfectly clear that fighting Moby Dick is the last thing he wants to do, he also reveals his sense of being doomed when he adds that "few whale-ships [have] ever beheld [the giant squid] and returned to their ports to tell of it." As for Ahab, he says nothing and everyone returns in silence to the ship. Ishmael notes that some think that the giant squid is the only food the sperm whale eats, which ought to have given Ahab, at least, some encouragement. He also notes that "the great Kraken of Bishop Pontoppodan may ultimately resolve itself into Squid" -- Erik Pontoppidan was a bishop in Norway who wrote a "Natural History of Norway" describing the kraken as a vast sea monster capable of dragging down an entire ship. Naturalists, Ishmael notes, include the giant squid "among the class of cuttle-fish, to which, indeed, in certain external respects it would seem to belong, but only as the Anak of the tribe." Anak in the Bible is the progenitor of a race of giants.

Ishmael now turns to the topic of rope: "the magical, sometimes horrible whale-line." It is made of either hemp or "Manilla" (a fiber derived from abacá, a species of banana). Ishmael, "since there is an aesthetics in all things," prefers the latter: "Hemp is a dusky, dark fellow, a sort of Indian; but Manilla is as a golden-haired Circassian to behold." The rope is surprisingly thin: "only two thirds of an inch." But it "will bear a strain nearly equal to three tons." Coiled in its tub aboard the whale-boat, "the common sperm whale-line measures something over two hundred fathoms" -- about twelve hundred feet. It has to be very carefully coiled without a kink or a tangle because such a flaw can, "in running out, infallibly take somebody's arm, leg, or entire body off."  

The tub in which the whale-line is stored is about three feet in diameter and depth, which "makes a rather bulky freight for a craft whose planks are but one half inch in thickness; for the bottom of the whale-boat is like critical ice, which will bear up a considerable distributed weight, but not very much of a concentrated one." Both ends of the line are kept free. The lower one has a loop in it so it can be fastened to another line from another boat to keep a whale from going under with the entire line. If the line were fastened to the boat, "the doomed boat would infallibly be dragged down after him into the profundity of the sea."

The leading end of the line is drawn out in a complex manner, folding "the whole boat in its complicated coils, twisting and writhing around it in almost every direction." It rests "crosswise upon the loom or handle of every man's oar, so that it jogs against his wrist in rowing." So an oarsman seated "amid those hempen intricacies" is aware "that at any unknown instant the harpoon may be darted, and all these horrible contortions be put in play like ringed lightnings ... the six men composing the crew pull into the jaws of death, with a halter around every neck, as you may say." And once again, Ishmael yields to moralizing:
All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, everpresent perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.

All of this textbook lore about whale-lines is to the point, of course, because Stubb is about to kill a whale. Ishmael is on watch when he -- and the other watch as well as many on deck -- spots, "close under our lee, not forty fathoms off, a gigantic Sperm Whale ... rolling in the water like the capsized hull of a frigate." The chase is quickly on, though quietly at first, as Ahab has ordered "that not an oar should be used, and no man must speak but in whispers." But when "the monster perpendicularly flitted his tail forty feet into the air, and then sank out of sight like a tower swallowed up," the chase is on.

Stubb's boat is nearest to the whale, and he has lighted his pipe. Tashtego is ready with the harpoon and hurls it. "The oarsmen backed water; the same moment something went hot and hissing along every one of their wrists. It was the magical line." (See why you shouldn't skip that chapter?)  The smoke coming off the whizzing line mingles with the smoke from Stubb's pipe. He has, however, dropped "the hand-cloths, or squares of quilted canvas" that are used to handle the rope, so "it blisteringly passed through and through both of Stubb's hands.... It was like holding an enemy's sharp two-edged sword by the blade, and that enemy all the time striving to wrest it out of your clutch." Stubb calls out for the line to be wet.

The whale begins to pull the boat, and the men in the boat hold on to their seats while Tashtego crouched "almost double, in order to bring down his centre of gravity." Stubb throws dart after dart into the whale, which begins bleeding copiously. "The red tide now poured from all sides of the monster like brooks down a hill.... The slanting sun playing upon this crimson pond in the sea, sent back its reflection into every face, so that they all glowed to each other like red men." I'm not certain that detail is literally plausible, but it's a marvelous one, if only for symbolic purposes. Finally, "the monster horribly wallowed in his blood," endangering the boat in his death throes. And when it is over, Stubb scatters the "dead ashes" from his pipe "over the water; and for a moment, stood thoughtfully eyeing the vast corpse he had made."

Given the elegiac quality of that last sentence, that awareness that a living thing is now dead, I think it's appropriate that Melville postpones Stubb's triumph for a couple of chapters. Ishmael explains about the difficulties of harpooning a whale and the fact that a floundering whale with several razor-sharp harpoons flailing about him is a danger to the whalers themselves. He points out that a harpooner has to row as well as to fling "the heavy implement ... to the distance of twenty or thirty feet" and is "expected to set an example of superhuman activity to the rest, not only by incredible rowing, but by repeated loud and intrepid exclamations."
No wonder, taking the whole fleet of whalemen in a body, that out of fifty fair chances for a dart, not five are successful; no wonder that so many hapless harpooneers are madly cursed and disrated; no one that some of them actually burst their blood-vessels in the boat; no wonder that some sperm whalemen are absent four years with four barrels; no wonder that to many ship owners, whaling is but a losing concern.

Three boats now laboriously haul the whale back to the ship, toiling "hour upon hour upon that inert, sluggish corpse." Ahab is morose: "now that the creature was dead, some vague dissatisfaction, or impatience, or despair, seemed working in him; as if the sight of that dead body reminded him that Moby Dick was yet to be slain." But Stubb is ebullient and orders a steak be cut from the whale for his dinner. "Nor was Stubb the only banqueter on whale's flesh that night. Mingling their mumblings with his own mastications, thousands upon thousands of sharks, swarming round the dead leviathan, smackingly feasted on its fatness." Ishmael is struck by the horror of the feasting sharks: "If you have never seen that sight, then suspend our decision about the propriety of devil-worship, and the expediency of conciliating the devil."

Then follows a scene that may have been regarded as raucous comedy by Melville's contemporaries, but can't help but make us squirm: Stubb's taunting of Fleece, the ancient black ship's cook, who speaks in a distressing variety of minstrelese. Interestingly, however, after all of Stubb's humor at Fleece's expense, it is the black man who gets the last word:
"Wish, by gor! whale eat him, 'stead of him eat whale. I'm bressed if he ain't more of shark dan massa Shark hisself," muttered the old man, limping away; with which sage ejaculation he went to his hammock.
There is something sour and unsatisfactory after all about the triumphant taking of the Pequod's first whale. Today, when people reverence whales and argue for their protection, that reaction is natural. But I think Melville senses it, too. Now Ishmael turns Stubb's dinner into something queasy-making: "That mortal man should feed upon the creature that feeds his lamp, and, like Stubb, eat him by his own light, as you may say," seems "outlandish." He observes that whale meat would be considered "a noble dish" by whale hunters, "were there not so much of him; but when you come to sit down before a meat-pie nearly one hundred feet long, it takes away your appetite." Moreover, the whale is "too fat to be delicately good," though while the blubber is being rendered, "it is a common thing for the seamen to dip their ship-biscuit into the huge oil-pots and let them fry there awhile. Many a good supper have I thus made."

But he returns to the uncanny quality of eating whale meat by whale light. And he calls the whale "a newly murdered thing of the sea" -- a striking change from "leviathan" or "monster" and other epithets for the whale as prey. He even advances an argument for vegetarianism:
Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal's jaw? Cannibals? who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Feejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Feejee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy paté-de-foie-gras.

As with his earlier rethinking of the word "savage," Ishmael now reconsiders the word "cannibal." It's a strange coda to the supposedly exhilarating and triumphant whale-hunt.

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