By Charles Matthews

Sunday, December 19, 2010

16. Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, pp. 455-485

Moby Dick (Oxford World's Classics) Chapter CV: Does the Whale's Magnitude Diminish? -- Will He Perish? Chapter CVI: Ahab's Leg; Chapter CVII: The Carpenter; Chapter CVIII: Ahab and the Carpenter; Chapter CIX: Ahab and Starbuck in the Cabin; Chapter CX: Queequeg in His Coffin; Chapter CXII: The Blacksmith; Chapter CXIII: The Forge
Ishmael now takes up a question that shows considerable foresight: the extinction of the whale. He comes to the wrong conclusion, but the fact that he raises it at all shows Melville's considerable awareness of the possibility of ecological disaster. Extinction, of course, is something the nineteenth-century pondered increasingly as the significance of the geological record became clearer.

He edges into the topic by first asking whether whales have shrunk in size, and if so, will they continue to shrink, and concludes that "The whale of to-day is as big as his ancestor's in Pliny's time," and that the figures for the size of whales provided by the ancients were exaggerated. He observes that Egyptian mummies "do not measure so much in their coffins as a modern Kentuckian in his socks," (This is the second time Ishmael has cited Kentuckians as particularly outsize. There seems to have been a legend that the most famous Kentuckian of the time, Daniel Boone, was a tall man, though he was only slightly taller than average.)
Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap, George Caleb Bingham, 1851–52
But the ecological question looks forward, not backward, to the future of whale-hunting if maintained at the current rate: "whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at least be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff." The immediate comparison that comes to a mid-nineteenth-century mind is to the disappearance of the buffalo from the Great Plains.

Could the whale go the way of the buffalo? Ishmael's response to the question is that a whaling crew of forty men is lucky if it kills forty whales during a four-year hunt, whereas forty men hunting buffalo could kill a thousand times as many of their quarry over the course of four years. It's a specious argument, of course, based on the assumption that whaling technology will never change (as it so disastrously did). He also posits that whales will find some way of hiding from their hunters, retreating "to their Polar citadels, and diving under the ultimate glassy barriers and walls there, come up among icy fields and floes! and in a charmed circle of everlasting December, bid defiance to all pursuit from man.... Wherefore, for all these things, we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality." Melville, I feel sure, knew that Ishmael's arguments were nonsensical, but he puts them in his voice once again to underscore the obsessiveness of the whaler, even so ostensibly sane a one as Ishmael.

As for the insane whaler, Ahab is having problems with his artificial leg, which "had received a half-splintering shock" when he boarded the Samuel Enderby. And here a mystery is cleared up about Ahab's inaccessibility before they set sail from Nantucket: "he had been found one night lying prone upon the ground, and insensible; by some unknown, and seemingly inexplicable, unimaginable casualty, his ivory limb having been so violently displaced, that it had stake-wise smitten, and all but pierced his groin; nor was it without extreme difficulty that the agonizing wound was entirely cured." So his "temporary reclusiveness" had been caused by his convalescence.

Now, with another possibly defective limb, Ahab calls the carpenter to make him a new one, ordering that from the whale-bone that has been collected on the voyage, "the stoutest, clearest-grained stuff" be selected. The blacksmith is also called on to provide "whatever iron contrivances might be needed" in the fitting. The carpenter and Ahab have a dialogue on the shaping of the leg while the carpenter repeatedly sneezes from the bone-dust he is stirring up. The carpenter asks if it is true "that a dismasted man never entirely loses the feeling of his old spar, but it will be still pricking him at times, and Ahab reveals that he experiences the "phantom limb" phenomenon in his missing leg. He then departs to await the finished leg, muttering, "Here I am, proud as Greek god, and yet standing debtor to this blockhead for a bone to stand on!"

Ahab is still in a foul mood when Starbuck comes to the cabin to tell him that a leak has been detected in the casks of whale oil below decks. Starbuck wants the cargo inspected to find the source of the leak, which involves taking time off from the hunt. Ahab is too impatient to take the time, even though Starbuck argues that the leak will cause them to "waste in one day more oil than we may make good in a year. What we come twenty thousand miles to get is worth saving, sir." Ahab's response, "So it is, so it is; if we get it," reveals that he has come twenty thousand miles to get Moby Dick, not any amount of whale oil. "Begone! Let it leak!"

Starbuck stands his ground, arguing that the owners will be unhappy. But Ahab retorts, "Let the owners stand on Nantucket beach and outyell the Typhoons. What cares Ahab?" (It's always a bad sign when someone starts referring to himself by name.) He fulminates against Starbuck: "Dost thou then so much as dare to critically think of me? -- On deck!" When Starbuck persists, Ahab takes a musket from the rack and points it toward him: "There is one God that is Lord over the earth, and one Captain that is lord over the Pequod. -- On deck!"

Starbuck retorts, "I ask thee not to beware of Starbuck; thou wouldst but laugh; but let Ahab beware of Ahab; beware of thyself, old man." And he takes his leave.

Ahab observes, "He waxes brave, but nevertheless obeys; most careful bravery that!" He has noted Starbuck's flaw: his failure to follow through on what he knows to be right. But Starbuck has also made his point: "What's that he said -- Ahab beware of Ahab -- there's something there!" The remnants of sanity are there, so he goes out and tells the mate, "Thou art but too good a fellow, Starbuck," and gives the order for the cargo to be inspected.
It were perhaps vain to surmise exactly why it was, that as respecting Starbuck, Ahab thus acted. It may have been a flash of honesty in him; or mere prudential policy which, under the circumstance, imperiously forbade the slightest symptom of open disaffection, however transient, in the important chief officer of his ship.
During the work inspecting the cargo in the dankest parts of the hold, Queequeg crawls "about amid that dampness and slime, like a green spotted lizard at the bottom of a well." In consequence, "he caught a terrible chill which lapsed into a fever." Everyone thinks Queequeg is a goner, including Queequeg. On Nantucket, "he had chanced to see certainly little canoes of dark wood ... and  upon inquiry, he had learned that all whalemen who died in Nantucket, were laid to rest in those same dark canoes." So, not wanting to be "buried in his hammock, according to the usual sea-custom, tossed like something vile to the death-devouring sharks," he orders up a coffin.

When it is completed, he gets in it and lies down. "Pip, who had been slily hovering near by all this while, drew nigh to him where he lay, and with soft sobbings, took him by the hand." He tells Queequeg, "Seek out one Pip, who's now been missing long." Starbuck notices what Pip does and says, and he remembers stories of men who, in their illnesses, "have talked in ancient tongues; and that when the mystery is probed, it turns out always that in their wholly forgotten childhood those ancient tongues had been really spoken in their hearing by some lofty scholars. So, to my fond faith, poor Pip, in this strange sweetness of his lunacy, brings heavenly vouchers of all our heavenly homes." But Pip continues, excoriating himself: "Queequeg dies game! I say, game, game, game! but base little Pip, he died a coward, died all a'shiver; -- out upon Pip! ... No, no! shame upon all cowards -- shame upon them! Let 'em go drown like Pip, that jumped from a whale-boat. Shame! shame!"

Queequeg recovers, saying that "he had just recalled a little duty ashore, which he was leaving undone; and therefore he had changed his mind about dying.... With a wild whimsiness, he now used his coffin for a sea-chest; and emptying into it his canvas bag of clothes, set them in order there. Many spare hours he spent, in carving the lid with all manner of grotesque figures and drawings; and it seemed that hereby he was striving, in his rude way, to copy parts of the twisted tattooing on his body."

The Pequod now reaches the Pacific. "To any meditative Magian rover, this serene Pacific, once beheld, must ever after be the sea of his adoption," Ishmael proclaims. "Lifted by those eternal swells, you needs must own the seductive god, bowing your head to Pan." But for Ahab it is only "that sea in which the hated White Whale must even then be swimming. Launched at length upon these almost final waters, and gliding towards the Japanese cruising-ground, the old man's purpose intensified itself." In his sleep he cries out, "Stern all! the White Whale spouts thick blood!"

The ship's blacksmith, Perth, is an old man who, after losing his family and his business because of his alcoholism, went to sea. Now Ahab calls on him to forge a harpoon. "I suppose thou can'st smoothe almost any seams and dents; never mind how hard the metal, blacksmith?" Perth replies that he can smooth "all seams and dents but one." Ahab knows what he means: "'look ye here -- here -- can ye smoothe out a seam like this, blacksmith,' sweeping one hand across his ribbed brow; 'if thou could'st blacksmith, glad enough would I lay my head upon thy anvil, and feel thy heaviest hammer between my eyes. Answer! Can'st thou smoothe this seam?' 'Oh! that is the one, sir! Said I not all seams and dents but one?'"

Ahab gives the blacksmith "the gathered nail-stubbs of the shoes of racing horses," which Perth recognizes as "the best and stubbornest stuff we blacksmiths ever work." Ahab has him make twelve rods and then forge them into one; he minds the fire as the blacksmith works and then, when it is time to weld them into one shaft, Ahab hammers them himself. Fedallah comes closer "and bowing over his head towards the fire, seemed invoking some curse or some blessing on the toil." This draws Stubb's attention, who wonders, "What's that bunch of lucifers dodging about there for?'"

Perth realizes what's happening: "Is not this harpoon for the White Whale?" he asks. Ahab confirms the suspicion -- "For the white fiend!" -- and then brings the blacksmith his razors, "the best of steel; here, and make the barbs sharp as the needle-sleet of the Icy Sea." When the blacksmith hesitates, Ahab says, "I now neither shave, sup, nor pray till -- but here -- to work!" And when the blacksmith finishes and is about to temper the steel by plunging it into water:
"No, no -- no water for that; I want it of the true death-temper. Ahoy, there! Tashtego, Queequeg, Daggoo! What say ye, pagans! Will ye give me as much blood as will cover this barb?" holding it high up. A cluster of dark nods replied, Yes. Three punctures were made in the heathen flesh, and the White Wale's barbs were then tempered.

"Ego non baptiso te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!" deliriously howled Ahab, as the malignant iron scorchingly devoured the baptismal blood.
Ahab then chooses a staff and supervises the creation of a new coil of tow-line. "This done, pole, iron, and rope -- like the Three Fates -- remained inseparable." Ahab then walks away with the weapon.
But ere he entered his cabin, a light, unnatural, half-bantering, yet most piteous sound was heard. Oh! Pip, thy wretched laugh, thy idle but unresting eye; all thy strange mummeries not unmeaningly blended with the black tragedy of the melancholy ship, and mocked it!

The mock-baptism of the harpoon combines with the epic convention of the hero's forging of his sword -- Wagner's Siegfried was a quarter-century later -- for powerful ironic effect. 

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