By Charles Matthews

Saturday, December 18, 2010

15. Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, pp. 425-455

Moby Dick (Oxford World's Classics) Chapter XCVIII: Stowing Down and Cleaning Up; Chapter XCIX: The Doubloon; Chapter C: Leg and Arm, The Pequod, of Nantucket, Meets the Samuel Enderby, of London; Chapter CI: The Decanter; Chapter CII: A Bower in the Arsacides; Chapter CIII: Measurement of the Whale's Skeleton; Chapter CIV: The Fossil Whale
The nearer to the end of his story that Ishmael gets, the slower he seems to go, as if reluctant to face cataclysm. Now he devotes a chapter to cleaning the ship after the slaughter of a whale: "One day the planks stream with freshets of blood and oil; on the sacred quarter-deck enormous masses of the whale's head are profanely piled; great rusty casks like about, as in a brewery yard; the smoke from the try-works has besooted all the bulwarks; the mariners go about suffused with unctuousness; the entire ship seems great leviathan himself; while on all hands the din is deafening." And then a day or two later, the ship has been scrubbed down. Even the ashes of the whale have been used to make lye to scrub the decks and sides. But then another whale is captured and the process is repeated, which naturally inspires Ishmael to moralize:
Yet this is life. For hardly have we mortals by long toilings extracted from the world's vast bulk its small but valuable sperm; and then, with weary patience, cleansed ourselves from its defilements, and learned to live here in clean tabernacles of the soul; hardly is this done, when -- There she blows! -- the ghost is spouted up, and away we sail to fight some other world, and go through young life's old routine again. 
The doctrine Ishmael is examining here is that of reincarnation: He imagines himself teaching the proponent of metempsychosis, Pythagoras, now reincarnated as "a green simple boy, how to splice a rope."

Then he contemplates the doubloon that Ahab nailed to the mainmast, the reward for sighting Moby Dick, which has remained unmolested despite the "ruthless crew" because "the mariners revered it as the white whale's talisman." And he gives us a series of Shakespearean soliloquies, as members of the crew pause bfore the doubloon and contemplates the images on the Ecuadorean coin: three peaks of the Andes, on one a flame, on another a tower, and on the third a rooster crowing; above them are signs of the zodiac, with the sun entering Libra.

Ahab pauses before the doubloon and identifies the figures on the mountaintops as himself: "The firm tower, that is Ahab; the volcano, that is Ahab; the courageous, the undaunted, and victorious fowl, that, too, is Ahab." Starbuck, on the other hand, sees what lies behind the mountains: "A dark valley between three mighty, heaven-abiding peaks, that almost seem the Trinity, in some faint earthly symbol. So in this vale of Death, God girds us round; and over all our gloom, the sun of Righteousness still shines a beacon and a hope."

Stubb's meditation is on the zodiac, and he runs through all of the signs whimsically, concluding, "There's a sermon now, writ in high heaven, and the sun goes through it every year, and yet comes out of it all alive and hearty. Jollily he, aloft there, wheels through toil and trouble; and so, alow here, does jolly Stubb." But for Flask, a doubloon is only a doubloon, and a good cigar is a smoke: "So, what's all this staring been about? It is worth sixteen dollars, that's true;  and at two cents the cigar, that's nine hundred and sixty cigars." An old Manxman, Queequeg, and Fedallah all pause by the doubloon.

Finally Pip arrives, and in his madness speaks prophecy: "How did it get there? And so they'll say in the resurrection, when they come to fish up this old mast, and find a doubloon lodged in it, with bedded oysters for the shaggy bark. Oh, the gold! the precious, precious gold! -- the green miser'll hoard ye soon!" And like the Shakespearean fools on which he is modeled, Pip goes away singing.
The captain of the Samuel Enderby, by Rockwell Kent

The Samuel Enderby, an English whale ship, comes alongside, and when Ahab asks if he's seen the White Whale, the captain replies: "'See you this?' and withdrawing it from the folds that had hidden it, he held up a white arm of sperm whale bone, terminating in a wooden head like a mallet." Ahab eagerly tries to go on board to meet with the captain, but he has forgotten that other ships don't have the "ingenious and very handy mechanical contrivance peculiar to the Pequod" that allows the peg-legged Ahab easy access to his ship. So he is hauled aboard the Samuel Enderby on a blubber-hook.

Once Ahab is aboard, the other captain extends his ivory arm in greeting, and Ahab puts forth his ivory leg: "Aye, aye, heart! let us shake bones together!" All Ahab wants to know, of course, is when and where he saw the whale. It was last season on the equator, he tells Ahab, and he had never heard of the white whale. They lowered their boats when they spotted a pod of four or five whales and harpooned one of them. "Presently up breaches from the bottom of the sea a bouncing great whale, with a milky-white head and hump, all crows' feet and wrinkles." There were harpoons sticking in the whale's starboard fin, he tells the excited Ahab. "'Aye, aye -- they were mine -- my irons,' cried Ahab, exultingly."

The white whale began snapping at the line that was fast in the other whale, as if to sever it, but the line seemed to get snared in the white whale's teeth, "so that when we afterwards pulled on the line, bounce we came plump on to his hump! ... Seeing how matters stood, and what a noble great whale it was -- the noblest and biggest I ever saw, sir, in my life -- I resolved to capture him, spite of the boiling rage he seemed to be in." The captain harpooned the white whale.
"But Lord, look you, sir -- hearts and souls alive, man -- the next instant, in a jiff, I was blind as a bat -- both eyes out -- all befogged and bedeadened with black foam -- the whale's tail looming straight up out of it, perpendicular in the air, like a marble steeple."
The whale's tail cut the boat in two. And the barb of another harpoon that had been lost in the destruction of the boat caught the captain just below the shoulder; as the whale dived, "the barb ript its way along the flesh -- clear along the whole length of my arm -- come out nigh my wrist, and up I floated." The ship's surgeon amputated the arm, but he insists that the decision to make the prosthesis from whalebone was the captain's idea.

Ahab impatiently listens to the joshing conversation between the captain and the surgeon, and finally cries out, "What became of the White Whale?" He is astonished to hear that they sighted him again but didn't pursue him. "Didn't want to try to; ain't one limb enough?... No more White Whales for me; I've lowered for him once, and that has satisfied me.... he's best let alone; don't you think so, Captain?" But Ahab is so agitated by the story that the surgeon thinks he's feverish and apoplectic and pulls out a lancet to ease Ahab's blood pressure.

"'Avast!' roared Ahab, dashing him against the bulwarks -- 'Man the boat! Which way heading?'" The English captain asks Fedallah, "Is your Captain crazy?" but Fedallah only puts his finger to his lips and goes to help Ahab get back to the Pequod. "In vain the English Captain hailed him. With back to the stranger ship, and face set like a flint to his own, Ahab stood upright till alongside of the Pequod."

Ishmael gives us a coda to the story that explains that the Samuel Enderby was named for the founder of "the famous whaling house of Enderby & Sons; a house which in my poor whaleman's opinion, comes not far behind the united royal houses of the Tudors and Bourbons, in point of real historical interest." And he tells us that he once boarded the Samuel Enderby off Patagonia. "It was a fine gam we had, and they were all trumps -- every soul on board. A short life to them, and a jolly death." He follows this up with a few observations about Dutch whalers and the great amount of alcohol they packed for their relatively brief voyages.

Then he turns to whale anatomy again, and a story about finding a whale skeleton in the Arsacides -- which are the Solomon Islands -- and measuring it. Because of his "wild wanderings at that period," he preserved the measurements by having them tattooed on his right arm. He calculates that "a Sperm Whale of the largest magnitude, between eighty-five and ninety feet in length, and something less than forty feet in its fullest circumference, such a whale will weigh at least ninety tons; so that, reckoning thirteen men to a ton, he would considerably outweigh the combined population of a whole village of one thousand one hundred inhabitants." (Contemporary sperm whale measurements are more modest, topping out at about 67 feet in length, and about 63 tons.)

He then ventures into whale ancestry as demonstrated in the fossil record, citing as "by far the most wonderful of all cetacean relics" the Basilosaurus found in 1842 on the plantation of Judge John Creagh of Alabama. "The awe-stricken credulous slaves in the vicinity took it for the bones of one of the fallen angels." And he records his awe at such fossils: "Who can show a pedigree like Leviathan? Ahab's harpoon had shed older blood than the Pharaoh's. Methuselah seems a schoolboy."

But maybe Ishmael is getting a little self-conscious about the pacing of his story and these extended cetological interruptions:
One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan. Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor's quill! Give me Vesuvius' crater for an inkstand.... Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.

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