By Charles Matthews

Thursday, December 16, 2010

13. Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, pp. 360-389

Moby Dick (Oxford World's Classics) Chapter LXXXII: The Honor and Glory of Whaling; Chapter LXXXIII: Jonah Historically Regarded; Chapter LXXXIV: Pitchpoling; Chapter LXXXV: The Fountain; Chapter LXXXVI: The Tail; Chapter LXXXVII: The Grand Armada
Tongue in cheek, Ishmael compiles a historical and mythical roster of famous whalers: Perseus, St. George ("which dragon I maintain to have been a whale; for in many old chronicles whales and dragons are strangely jumbled together, and often stand for each other"), Hercules (who in one legend was swallowed by a whale), Jonah, and Vishnu.
St. George and the Dragon, by Paolo Uccello: Very like a whale?
Jonah is perhaps the only one of those ur-whalers who doesn't really need much explanation, but Ishmael continues with an investigation into the biblical story that is in part a satire on the Higher Criticism. His authority here is an "old Sag-Harbor whaleman" who questioned the accuracy of the biblical story because of an image in an old Bible that showed the whale with two spouts in his head, a characteristic only of the right whale, whose throat is too small to swallow a man. On the other hand, Ishmael observes, Bishop Jebb suggests that Jonah wasn't swallowed but just held in the whale's mouth: "For truly, the Right Whale's mouth would accommodate a couple of whist-tables, and comfortably seat all the players."
Altarpiece in Klosterneuburg, Austria by Nicholas of Verdun

The Sag Harbor whaleman also objects that the whale's digestive juices would have killed Jonah, so Ishmael resorts to "a German exegetist" who thinks Jonah "must have taken refuge in the floating body of dead whale, -- even as the French soldiers in the Russian campaign turned their dead horses into tents, and crawled into them." (Or Luke Skywalker in his dead Tauntaun.)

And then there's the problem of Jonah's being spat up somewhere on the Mediterranean and making his way to Nineveh, more than the biblical three days' journey from anywhere on the shores of the Mediterranean. The only way he could get that close to Nineveh would be if the whale swam all the way around Africa, through the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, and up the Tigris, which is "too shallow for any whale to swim in." Besides, that would mean going around the Cape of Good Hope before it was discovered by Bartholomew Diaz, "and so make modern history a liar." Ishmael concludes that "all these foolish arguments of old Sag-Harbor only evinced his foolish pride of reason ... and abominable, devilish rebellion against the reverend clergy." And we know how much Ishmael reveres the clergy.

After that excursion into facetiousness, Ishmael returns to matters at hand. Queequeg spends a morning rubbing oil into the bottom of his boat "as though diligently seeking to insure a crop of hair from the craft's bald keel." He does so just in time for another whale chase in which this time Stubb's boat takes the lead, and Stubb demonstrates his skill at pitchpoling: "Steel and wood included, the entire spear is some ten or twelve feet in length; the staff is much slighter than that of the harpoon, and also of a lighter material -- pine. It is furnished with a small rope called a warp, of considerable length, by which it can be hauled back to the hand after darting." Stubb succeeds in landing the weapon in the spout of the whale: "Instead of sparkling water, he now spouts red blood." Stubb exults in his conquest. "The agonized whale goes into his flurry; the tow-line is slackened, and the pitchpoler dropping astern, folds his hands, and mutely watches the monster die." Once again, you sense that Ishmael sympathizes more with the monster than with the man.

But the scene gives him an opportunity to discuss the whale's spout, and to examine a question that he says is unresolved "down to this blessed minute (fifteen and a quarter minutes past one o'clock P.M. of this sixteenth day of December, A.D. 1851)." (If true, today marks the 159th anniversary of the writing of that sentence. Quite a coincidence.) The unresolved question is "whether these spoutings are, after all, really water, or nothing but vapor." As Ishmael points out, the whale's mouth is unconnected with his lungs -- he breathes only through the blowhole. Ishmael is right in suggesting that the sperm whale has no sense of smell -- the brain lacks olfactory receptors -- but scientists have recently discovered that bowhead whales do have that sense. Ishmael points out the absence of things that a whale might want to smell: "No roses, no violets, no Cologne-water in the sea." But scientists suspect that the bowhead whales use the sense to locate their food: krill.

But back to the unresolved question, "in other words, whether the spout of the Sperm Whale is the mere vapor of the exhaled breath, or whether that exhaled breath is mixed with water taken in through the mouth" which, although it doesn't connect with the lungs, does connect with the spouting canal. Ishmael is of the opinion "that the spout is nothing but mist." The consensus today is that he's right. Ishmael also says that whalemen think the spout is poisonous, which isn't true. But he can't resist a final whimsy:
He is both ponderous and profound. And I am convinced that from the heads of all ponderous and profound beings, such as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the action of thinking deep thoughts.... The invariable moisture of my hair, while plunged in deep thought, after six cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August noon; this seems an additional argument for the above supposition. 

From the spout to the tail, which Ishmael admires more than anything else about the whale. "In no living thing are the lines of beauty more exquisitely defined than in the crescentic borders of these flukes.... in the tail the confluent measureless force of the whole whale seems concentrated to a point. Could annihilation occur to matter, this were the thing to do it." It's the combination of grace and strength that Ishmael most admires: "Real strength never impairs beauty or harmony, but it often bestows it; and in everything imposingly beautiful, strength has much to do with the magic." He cites the muscularity of statues of Hercules and the "robustness" of Michelangelo's God. But he contrasts this with images of Jesus:
And whatever they may reveal of the divine love in the Son, the soft, curled, hermaphroditical Italian pictures, in which his idea has been most successfully embodied; these pictures, so destitute as they are of all brawniness, hint nothing of any power, but the mere negative, feminine one of submission and endurance, which on all hands it is conceded, form the peculiar practical virtues of his teachings.
It's a strangely ambivalent observation: He admires strength, but the most successful pictures of Jesus reveal him as "feminine" and submissive, which "is conceded" to be the essence of Jesus's teaching. Are we to read this as a rejection of Jesus, or of the interpretation of his teachings? Heterodoxy abounds in Moby-Dick.

Back to the whale and his tail, which, "in his conflicts with man, he chiefly and contemptuously uses." He speculates that "in the whale the sense of touch is concentrated in the tail; for in this respect there is a delicacy in it only equalled by the daintiness of the elephant's trunk." But the phenomenon, except  for "the sublime breach -- somewhere else to be described --" that most excites him is the whale's dive: "this peaking of the whale's flukes is perhaps the grandest sight to be seen in all animated nature."
Out of the bottomless profundities the gigantic tail seems spasmodically snatching at the highest heaven. So in dreams, have I seen majestic Satan thrusting forth his tormented colossal claw from the flame Baltic of Hell. But in gazing at such scenes, it is all in what mood you are in; if in the Dantean, the devils will occur to you; if in that of Isaiah, the archangels. Standing at the masthead of my ship during a sunrise that crimsoned sky and sea, I once saw a large herd of whales in the east, all heading towards the sun, and for a moment vibrating in concert with peaked flukes. As it seemed to me at the time, such a grand embodiment of adoration of the gods was never beheld, even in Persia, the home of the fire worshippers.
Nature, then, is prey to the whims of the human mood. Ishmael is the aesthetic consciousness, interpreting the whales as sun-worshippers. Ahab's consciousness would doubtless find in the same scene only the massed presence of his sworn enemy. But in another mood, Ishmael himself might see the scene as hellish, and the flukes as claws reaching from the flaming sea. The task is to transcend subjectivity and to see what is really there.

But what is really there when one contemplates the whale? Or, "how comprehend his face, when face he has none? Thou shalt see my back parts, my tail, he seems to say, but my face shall not be seen. But I cannot completely make out his back parts; and hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face." Whaleness, like divinity, remains inscrutable.

Now the Pequod reaches the Malay archipelago and the Sunda Strait. It doesn't seek port: "while other ships may have gone from China to New York, and back again, touching at a score of ports, the whale-ship, in all that interval, may not have sighted one grain of soil; her crew having seen no man but floating seamen like themselves." Here they sight "a continuous chain of whale-jets ... up-playing and sparkling in the noonday air." In this region whales are "frequently met with in extensive herds, sometimes embracing so great a multitude, that it would almost seem as if numerous nations of them had sworn solemn league and covenant for mutual assistance and protection."

But as the Pequod is eagerly headed toward the "vast fleet of whales" it has spotted, Tashtego spots something else: Malay pirates. So they set full sail to evade them. "Ahab to-and-fro paced the deck; in his forward turn beholding the monsters he chased, and in the after one the bloodthirsty pirates chasing him." They elude the pirates, and the whales try to elude them: "In all directions expanding in vast irregular circles, and aimlessly swimming hither and thither, by their short thick spoutings, they plainly betrayed their distraction of panic." Ishmael likens the scene to buffalo fleeing from a single horseman, or people trampling one another in a crowded theater at the rumor of fire, "for there is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men."

With so many whales available, the whalers resort to blocks of wood called "druggs" that can be attached to a harpoon: "if you cannot kill them all at once, you must wing them, so that they can be afterwards killed at your leisure. Hence it is, that at times like these the drugg comes into requisition." But one of the druggs in Ishmael's boat caught under a seat, and when the whale tears it away, the seat goes with it, tearing holes in either side of the boat. The leaks are temporarily stopped by being stuffed with the sailors' drawers and shirts.

The whale that is towing their boat pulls them into the very center of the circling whales. They "glided between two whales into the innermost heart of the shoal, as if from some mountain torrent we had slid into a serene valley lake.... Yes, we were now in that enchanted calm which they say lurks at the heart of every commotion." And here they are "occasionally visited by small tame cows and calves; the women and children of this routed host."
Like household dogs they came snuffing round us, right up to our gunwales, and touching them; till it almost seemed that some spell had suddenly domesticated them. Queequeg patted their foreheads; Starbuck scratched their backs with his lance; but fearful of the consequences, for the time refrained from darting it.
The two most humane members of the Pequod's crew, Queequeg and Starbuck, share in this privileged moment. Queequeg spots what he thinks is a whale line connecting a big whale with a little one, but when Starbuck goes to look, he "saw long coils of the umbilical cord of Madame Leviathan, by which the young cub seemed still tethered to its dam. Not seldom in the rapid vicissitudes of the chase, this natural line, with the maternal end loose, becomes entangled with the hempen one, so that the cub is thereby trapped. Some of the subtlest secrets of the seas seemed divulged to us in this enchanted pond."

But enchantment fades into horror:
A whale wounded (as we afterwards learned) in [his tail-tendon], but not effectually, as it seemed, had broken away from the boat, carrying along with him half of the harpoon line; ... he had also run away with the cutting-spade in him; and while the free end of the rope attached to that weapon, had permanently caught in the coils of the harpoon-line round his tail, the cutting-spade had worked loose from his flesh. So that tormented to madness, he was now churning through the water, violently flailing with his flexible tail, and tossing the keen spade about him, wounding and murdering his own comrades. 
And now the calm that has surrounded Starbuck's boat ends, as "the entire host of whales came tumbling upon their inner centre; as if to pile themselves up in one common mountain." They manage to work their way out of the melee, with only the loss of Queequeg's hat, which was "taken clean from his head by the air-eddy made by the sudden tossing of a pair of broad flukes close by."

Despite -- or because of -- the abundance of whales, the Pequod had little success. Only Flask was able to kill a whale. "The result of this lowering was somewhat illustrative of that sagacious saying in the Fishery, -- the more whales the less fish. Of all the drugged whales only one was captured. The rest contrived to escape for the time, but only to be taken, as will hereafter be seen, by some other craft than the Pequod."

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