By Charles Matthews

Friday, December 17, 2010

14. Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, pp. 390-423

Moby Dick (Oxford World's Classics) Chapter LXXXVIII: Schools and Schoolmasters; Chapter LXXXIX: Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish; Chapter XC: Heads or Tails; Chapter XCI: The Pequod Meets the Rose-Bud; Chapter XCII: Ambergris; Chapter XCIII: The Castaway; Chapter XCIV:  A Squeeze of the Hand; Chapter XCV: The Cassock; Chapter XCVI: The Try-Works; Chapter XCVII: The Lamp
Whalers, Ishmael tell us, refer to a bull sperm whale and his "harem" of females as a school, and to the male as their schoolmaster, which spurs him to what was probably a rather racy joke in 1851: "the man who first thus entitled this sort of Ottoman whale, must have read the memoirs of Vidocq, and informed himself what sort of a country-schoolmaster that famous Frenchman was in his younger days, and what was the nature of those occult lessons he inculcated into some of his pupils." This is a reference to a passage in the memoirs of Eugène François Vidocq, the celebrated criminal-turned-detective who was, among other things, the model for Balzac's Vautrin:
I had in my classes some pretty peasant girls, who were very teachable. All went on well for some time, but at length a distrust of me was evinced; I was watched, and it was discovered that I pushed my instructions occasionally rather too far and complaint was made to father Lambert, who told me of the charges against me, which I stoutly denied. The complainants were silenced, but redoubled their vigilance; and one night, when, impelled by classic zeal, I was about to give a lesson in a hay-loft to a female scholar about sixteen years of age, I was seized by four brewers' men, dragged into a hop-ground, stripped of my clothes, and scourged, till the blood flowed copiously, with rods of nettles and thistles.
Ishmael observes that whales are found in smaller groups and that "Almost universally, a lone whale -- as a solitary Leviathan is called -- proves an ancient one." And he notes that if you kill a male sperm whale, "all his comrades quit him. But strike a member of the harem school, and her companions swim around her with every token of concern, sometimes lingering so near her and so long, as themselves to fall a prey."

Then he turns to the legal question: If one ship strikes a whale but it escapes, and then another ship captures it, to which ship does the whale belong?  It turns out to be more a matter of custom and law, but the rule of thumb is that if a whale is "fast," secured to a ship or a boat "by any medium at all controllable by the occupant or occupants, -- a mast, an oar, a nine-inch cable, a telegraph wire, or a strand of cobweb," then it belongs to that ship or boat. But if it is "loose," it's "fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it."

But this of course inspires Ishmael to a disquisition on "Fast-Fish" and "Loose-Fish." By this definition, in which "possession is the whole of the law," then Fast-Fish include "the sinews and souls of Russian serfs and Republican slaves," the "widow's last mite" in the hands of a "rapacious landlord," the "villain's marble mansion," Ireland to England, and so on. And Loose-Fish include all the territories being claimed by imperial powers:  America was a Loose-Fish when Columbus claimed her for the king and queen of Spain. In the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, Ishmael observes that Texas has become a Fast-Fish for the United States, but suggests that Mexico remains a Loose-Fish in the eyes of the United States.
What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What all men's minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the principle of religious belief in them but a Loose-Fish? What to the ostentatious smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?
(Melville, a notorious snapper-up of unconsidered trifles, certainly included himself among the "ostentatious smuggling verbalists" borrowing from the thoughts of others.) In a separate chapter, Ishmael notes that for English whalers, whose numbers had grown fewer, the law of possession had another consequence: He asserts that by English law, the head of a whale belonged to the king, and the tail to the queen. This spurs him to several paragraphs of whimsy, easily skimmable.

Fortunately, we now go back to sea, where the Pequod encounters a foul-smelling French whaler ironically named the Bouton de rose, or Rosebud. The odor comes from two whales lashed alongside the ship. One of them is "what the fishermen call a blasted whale, that is, a whale that has died unmolested on the sea, and so floated an unappropriated corpse." The other, "even more of a nosegay than the first," is so dried-up that it's clear it will yield no oil, but Stubb reconizes that "it may contain something worth a good deal more than oil; yes, ambergris." So the Pequod pulls up next to the Rose-Bud, "fairly entrapped in the smell," while Stubb pulls a con on the French captain.

The chief mate of the Rose-Bud turns out to be from Guernsey, so he's able to act as interpreter with the captain. The mate knows that there won't be any oil in the dried-up whale, but he says, "the Captain here won't believe it; this is his first voyage; he was a Cologne manufacturer before." Realizing that "the Guernsey-man had not the slightest suspicion concerning the ambergris," Stubb gets the captain to turn over the whale to the Pequod: "the Guernsey-man, under cover of an interpreter's office, was to tell the Captain what he pleased, but as coming from Stubb; and as for Stubb, he was to utter any nonsense that should come uppermost in him during the interview."

So Stubb proceeds to insult the captain in various ways -- e.g., "tell him from me he's a baboon" -- while the mate tells the captain that the Pequod had met a ship whose captain and chief mate had "died of a fever caught from a blasted whale," and that the dried-up whale is even more dangerous. The frightened captain orders both whales cut loose, and Stubb generously offers to tow away the dried-up one.

When the French ship has sailed away, Stubb take "his sharp boat-spade" and "commenced an excavation in the body, a little behind the side fin ... when suddenly from out the very heart of this plague there stole a faint stream of perfume.... Dropping his spade, he thrust both hands in, and drew out handfuls of something that looked like ripe Windsor soap, or rich mottled old cheese; very unctuous and savoury withal. You might easily dent it with your thumb; it is of a hue between yellow and ash color. And this, good friends, is ambergris, worth a gold guinea an ounce to any druggist."
Ambergris is produced in the whale's intestines and is usually expelled with the feces, or when too large to pass that way, in the whale's vomitus. Fresh ambergris has a fecal smell, but when it ages it begins to smell like isopropyl alcohol.
Ishmael enumerates the uses of ambergris for perfumes, candles, hair-powder, and other cosmetics. "The Turks use it in cooking, and also carry it to Mecca, for the same purpose that frankincense is carried to St. Peter's in Rome. Some wine merchants drop a few grains into claret, to flavor it." So he's quick to emphasize the irony that a substance so prized by "fine ladies and gentlemen" is "found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale!" He also notes that "there were found in this ambergris, certain hard, round, bony plates." Stubb thought they were buttons from sailors' trousers, but they turned out to be squid bones. Some still theorize that ambergris is produced by the whale to ease the passage of indigestible bits from its intestines.

A few days later, a whale sighting occurs, but one of Stubb's oarsmen had suffered an injury. The only hand available to take his place is the cabin-boy Pip, who has never taken part in a whale-hunt before. And so, Ishmael foreshadows, the Pequod is presented with "a living and ever accompanying prophecy of whatever shattered sequel might prove her own."

Pip is, of course, black, and Ishmael can't resist stumbling over that fact with attitudes carried over from the minstrel-show era: "Pip, though over tender-hearted, was at bottom very bright, with that pleasant, genial, jolly brightness peculiar to his tribe; a tribe, which ever enjoy all holidays and festivities with finer, freer relish than any other race. For blacks, the year's calendar should show naught but three  hundred and sixty-five Fourth of Julys and New Year's Days." As condescendingly racist as this is, there is also a veiled envy in it. He goes on to add, "Nor smile so, while I write that this little black boy was brilliant, for even blackness has its brilliancy; behold yon lustrous ebony, panelled in king's cabinets." Overcoming his own racism is a struggle for Ishmael, but at least he's struggling.

Cheerful and bright as Pip is, a whale-boat is no place for him, and when the whale is harpooned and bumps into the boat, the terrified boy not only leaps out of the boat but becomes entangled in the whale-line. Tashtego, "full of the fire of the hunt," is furiously angry at Pip, and looks to Stubb for directions as to whether he should cut the line. "'Damn him, cut!' roared Stubb; and so the whale was lost and Pip was saved." The crew angrily curses Pip, after which "Stubb then in a plain, business-like, but still half humorous manner, cursed Pip officially; and that done, unofficially gave him much wholesome advice."
"Stick to the boat, Pip, or by the Lord I won't pick you up if you jump, mind that. We can't afford to lose whales by the likes of you; a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip, in Alabama. Bear that in mind, and don't jump any more." Hereby perhaps Stubb indirectly hinted, that though man loved his fellow, yet man is a money-making animal, which propensity too often interferes with his benevolence.
But it happens again, and Pip jumps again, and Stubb does leave him adrift in the sea. Stubb, Ishmael says, assumed that the other two boats would pick Pip up, but they don't see him before they turn aside to pursue other whales. And so Pip is alone at sea.
By the merest chance the ship itself at last rescued him; but from that hour the little negro went about the deck an idiot.... The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insets, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man's insanity is heaven's sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.
Humankind cannot bear very much reality.

Ishmael is working with the spermaceti, which has crystallized and needs to be broken down again. So he and others gather around a tub and work the substance with their hands, breaking up the congealed lumps. It seems to be an emollient not only for the hands but for the soul: "I almost began to credit the old Paracelsan superstition that sperm is of rare virtue in allaying the heat of anger; while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatever." It does more than that: It also awakens something latent when he finds himself "unwittingly squeezing" his co-workers' hands "and looking up into their eyes sentimentally." We are reminded that these guys have been at sea for months together: "Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness." Let the homophobic write off this scene as "male bonding," but I don't buy it. I have a pretty clear idea what's being squeezed here to produce all that milk and sperm, and it's not just hands.

Coming down from that scene, Ishmael works through several chapters of the processing of whale-flesh, defining such terms as "white-horse," "plum-pudding," "slobgollion,""gurry," and "nippers," and indulging in a little macabre humor: "This spade is sharp as hone can make it; the spademan's feet are shoeless.... Toes are scarce among veteran blubber-room men." He describes the "cassock" that a mincer makes out of whale skin. And he tells about the great brick and masonry try-works on the deck between the foremast and mainmast, whose fire is started with wood but maintained by burning scraps of whale. It is, of course, a hellish scene that "smells like the left wing of the day of judgment."

Standing at the helm, he beholds "the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, an laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness." It becomes a correlative for its mad captain: "the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul." Standing at the tiller, guiding "the way of this fire-ship on the sea," he falls asleep for a moment and comes to with a start, fearing that he has gone mad: "Convulsively my hands grasped the tiller, but with the crazy conceit that the tiller was, somehow, in some enchanted way, inverted. My God! what is the matter with me? thought I." And then he realizes that he has turned around in his sleep and is facing the stern. "In an instant I faced back, just in time to prevent the vessel from flying up into the wind, and very probably capsizing her." Naturally, this provokes a sermon: "Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with thy hand on the helm!" He takes his text from Ecclesiastes: "All is vanity." And his lesson, from staring into the fire of the try-works is, "Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness."  

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