By Charles Matthews

Monday, December 20, 2010

17. Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, pp. 485-523

Moby Dick (Oxford World's Classics) Chapter CXIV: The Gilder; Chapter CXV: The Pequod Meets the Bachelor; Chapter CXVI: The Dying Whale; Chapter CXVII: The Whale Watch; Chapter CXVIII: The Quadrant; Chapter CXIX: The Candles; Chapter CXX: The Deck Towards the End of the First Night Watch; Chapter CXXI: Midnight -- The Forecastle Bulkwarks; Chapter CXXII: Midnight Aloft -- Thunder and Lightning; Chapter CXXIII: The Musket; Chaptr CXXIV: The Needle; Chapter CXXV: The Log and Line; Chapter CXXVI: The Life-Buoy; Chapter CXXVII: The Deck; Chapter CXXVIII: The Pequod Meets the Rachel
The mild weather and abundance of whales in the sea off of Japan keeps the Pequod busy hunting, "though with small success for their pains." It also lulls the crew into a sense of ease: "these are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean's skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it." Even Ahab, in his way is affected. Starbuck is enchanted, and murmurs to the sun-gilded sea: "Loveliness unfathomable, as ever lover saw in his young bride's eye! -- Tell me not of thy teeth-tiered sharks, and thy kidnapping cannibal ways. Let faith oust fact; let fancy oust memory; I look deep down and do believe." And Stubb has a moment of self-affirmation: "I am Stubb, and Stubb has his history; but here Stubb takes oaths that he has always been jolly." It is, of course, the calm before the storm.

Stubb is not the only jolly one: The Pequod now encounters the Bachelor, a homeward-bound ship laden with sperm oil. "As this glad ship bore down upon the moody Pequod, the barbarous sound of enormous drums came from her forecastle." The ship's try-pots have been covered with whale stomach skin, and "the mates and harpooners were dancing with the olive-hued girls who had eloped with them from the Polynesian Isles." Even the try-works are being dismantled: "the now useless brick and mortar were being hurled into the sea."

The captain of the Bachelor, "lifting a glass and bottle in the air," invites Ahab, "shaggy and black, with a stubborn gloom," on board. But all Ahab wants to know is whether he has seen the White Whale. "'No; only heard of him; but don't believe in him at all,' said the other good-humoredly. 'Come aboard!'" Ahab replies, "Thou art too damned jolly. Sail on." And so they do, "the crew of the Pequod looking with grave, lingering glances towards the receding Bachelor" while the Bachelor's men party on. For his part, Ahab take a vial of Nantucket sand from his pocket "and then looking from the ship to the vial, seemed thereby bringing two remote associations together."

The next day, the Pequod kills four whales, including one killed by Ahab, who is "Soothed again, but only soothed to deeper gloom." He observes "that strange spectacle observable in all sperm whales dying -- the turning sunwards of the head, and so expiring." And it provokes him to a melancholy soliloquy:
"In vain, oh whale, dost thou seek intercedings with yon all-quickening sun, that only calls forth life, but gives it not again. Yet dost thou darker half, rock me with a prouder, if darker faith. All thy unnamable imminglings float beneath me here; I am buoyed by breaths of once living things, exhaled as air, but water now. Then hail, for ever hail, O sea, in whose eternal tossings the wild fowl finds his only rest. Born of earth, yet suckled by the sea; though hill and valley mothered me, ye billows are my foster-brothers!" 
The soliloquy is followed by revelations about Ahab's relationship with Fedallah, who has prophesied the captain's death. They are sitting in the boat beside the whale Ahab has killed, waiting for the morning to bring the whale alongside. The rest of the boat's crew is asleep, and Ahab has just awakened from a dream about hearses -- one that he has had before, apparently, because Fedallah reassures him "neither hearse nor coffin can be thine.... I said, old man, that ere thou couldst die on this voyage, two hearses must verily be seen by thee on the sea; the first not made by mortal hands, and the visible wood of the last one must be grown in America." Fedallah has also prophesied that he will go before Ahab as his pilot into death.

Ahab is reassured by the seeming impossibility of these prophecies: "I have here two pledges that I shall yet slay Moby Dick and survive it." And now Fedallah adds another one: "'Take another pledge, old man,' said the Parsee, as his eyes lighted up like fire-flies in the gloom -- 'Hemp only can kill thee.'" Ahab takes this to mean that he can only die on the gallows. "'I am immortal then, on land and on sea,' cried Ahab, with a laugh of derision; -- 'Immortal on land and on sea!'" And now we know what to look for: hearses and hemp.

So far gone is Ahab in hubris that as he plots the ship's position with the quadrant, making his calculations in pencil on his artificial leg, he suddenly turns on the instrument because it's of no use in helping him locate Moby Dick. He throws it to the deck and stomps on it: "no longer will I guide my earthly way by thee; the level ship's compass, and the level dead-reckoning, by log and by line; these shall conduct me, and show me my place on the sea." Fedallah watches this act of destruction and "a sneering triumph that seemed meant for Ahab, and a fatalistic despair that seemed meant for himself -- these passed over the mute, motionless Parsee's face."

Watching Ahab "lurching along the deck," Starbuck comments, "Old man of oceans! of all this fiery life of thine, what will at length remain but one little heap of ashes!" But Stubb says, "I heard Ahab mutter, 'Here some one thrusts these cards into these old hands of mine; swears that I must play them, and no others.' And damn me, Ahab, but thou actest right; live in the game, and die in it!"

A typhoon comes up, putting an end to what was left of the good feelings on the Pequod, as well as to Ahab's boat. Starbuck is quick to perceive an ill omen, telling Stubb, "markest thou not that the gale comes from the eastward, the very course Ahab is to run for Moby Dick? the very course he swung to this day noon? now mark his boat there; where is that stove? In the stern-sheets, man; where he is wont to stand -- his stand-point is stove, man!" And Starbuck begins his campaign to turn around and head for home:
"The gale that now hammers at us to stave us, we can turn it into a fair wind that will drive us towards home. Yonder, to windward, all is blackness of doom; but to leeward, homeward -- I see it lightens up there; but not with the lightning." 
St. Elmo's fire
And then Starbuck notices that the masts and yard-arms are tipped with St. Elmo's fire, and Stubb says, "The corpusants have mercy on us all!" Ahab has his own interpretation of the phenomenon: "Look up at it; mark it well; the white flame but lights the way to the White Whale!" He takes in hand the chain from the mast that is supposed to conduct lightning into the sea, but which he has forbidden to be dropped overboard, puts his foot on the kneeling Fedallah, and addresses the flames:
"Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance.... I own thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute its unconditional, unintegral mastery in me. In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here." 
Ahab seems to have received his hitherto-mysterious scar in some similar past act of "Persian" (i.e., Zoroastrian) fire-worship. He continues his part-worship, part-defiance: "Light though thou be, thou leapest out of darkness; but I am darkness leaping out of light, leaping out of thee!"

Starbuck draws Ahab's attention to the harpoon he recently forged with the blood of the three pagan harpooners: "from the keen steel barb there now came a leveled flame of pale, forked fire. As the silent harpoon burned there like a serpent's tongue, Starbuck grasped Ahab by the arm -- 'God, God is against thee, old man; forbear! 't is an ill voyage! ill begun, ill continued; let me square the yards, while we may, old man, and make a fair wind of it homewards, to go on a better voyage than this.'" Starbuck's words have their effect on the crew, which "raised a half mutinous cry," but Ahab grabs the flaming harpoon, "swearing to transfix with it the first sailor that but cast loose a rope's end." And he blows out the flame with his breath.

Talking to Flask in the aftermath, Stubb makes light of Ahab's daring: "What's the mighty difference between holding a mast's lightning-rod in the storm, and standing close by a mast that hasn't got any lightning-rod at all in a storm? .... Not one ship in a hundred carries rods, and Ahab, -- aye, man, and all of us, -- were in no more danger then, in my poor opinion, than all the crews in ten thousand ships now sailing the seas." Besides, he says, as wet as they are, none of them is in danger of catching fire.

The force of the typhoon has knocked the helmsman about, and "at almost every shock the helmsman had not failed to notice the whirling velocity with which [the compass needles] revolved upon the cards; it is a sight that hardly anyone can behold without some sort of unwonted emotion." But after midnight the typhoon abates and new sails are set, "so that the ship soon went through the water with some precision again," and the helmsman sets the course east-southeast, watching the compasses as "the wind seemed coming round astern; aye; the foul breeze became fair!"

Starbuck goes to report the change to Ahab, and before knocking on his stateroom door looks at the loaded muskets in the cabinet.
Starbuck was an honest, upright man; but out of Starbuck's heart, at that instant when he saw the muskets, there strangely evolved an evil thought; but so blent with its neutral or good accompaniments that for the instant he hardly knew it for itself. 
He thinks of Ahab pointing the musket at him, and picks it up. "I come to report a fair wind to him. But how fair? Fair for death and doom, -- that's fair for Moby Dick." He thinks of Ahab smashing the quadrant and forbidding the lightning rods. "But shall this crazed old man be tamely suffered to drag a whole ship's company down to doom with him?" He considers imprisoning Ahab, but decides "Only a fool would try it." He points the musket at the stateroom door: "On this level, Ahab's hammock swings within; his head this way. A touch and Starbuck may survive to high his wife and child again." Than Ahab cries out in his sleep, "Stern all! Oh Moby Dick, I clutch thy heart at last!" The musket in Starbuck's hand "shook like a drunkard's arm against the panel; Starbuck seemed wrestling with an angel." But he turns away and puts the musket back in the cabinet. It's a moment of fateful indecision, as key to the narrative as Hamlet's decision not to kill Claudius while he's praying.

The next morning, the ship is in full sail, and the sun is blazing. (Melville, never one for restraint, falls here into a bad spell of overwriting: "The sea was as a crucible of molten gold, that bubblingly leaps with light and heat.") But Ahab notices something that none of the crew has observed, and asks the steersman for the ship's heading. At the response, east-southeast, Ahab shouts, "Thou liest!" and hits the steersman. "Heading East at this hour in the morning, and the sun astern?" He goes to the compasses: "Standing behind him Starbuck looked, and lo! the two compasses pointed East, and the Pequod was as infallibly going West."

Ahab realizes that the electrical storm has reoriented the compasses. And since he has destroyed the quadrant, they are without a reliable navigation instrument. He assumes that the polarities have been reversed, and orders the ship to be steered accordingly. Then he orders Starbuck to fetch a lance, a hammer, and the smallest of the sail-maker's needles. Ahab "knew that to steer by transpointed needles, though clumsily practicable, was not a thing to be passed over by superstitious sailors, without some shudderings and evil portents." So as the crew "with fascinated eyes ... awaited whatever magic might follow" and "Starbuck looked away," he crafts a new compass needle, and proclaims himself "lord of the level loadstone." One by one, the crew checks out the new compass, "for nothing but their own eyes could persuade such ignorance as theirs, and one after another they slunk away. In his fiery eyes of scorn and triumph, you then saw Ahab in all his fatal pride."

His pride is put to the test again when it comes to measuring the ship's progress. The "log and line" method was an antiquated way of measuring the ship's speed, and the Pequod's log and line had gone unused. "Rains and spray had damped it; sun and wind had warped it; all the elements had combined to rot a thing that hung so idly." But Ahab, having destroyed his quadrant, was determined to resort to the old method.
The log line consisted of a flat piece of wood (the log), weighted at the bottom edge to enable it to float upright in the water. A long rope was wound on a spool so that it could be reeled out after the log was thrown into the water at the aft of the ship. On the rope, knots were tied at intervals of 7 fathoms -- one fathom equals 6 feet. As the ship sailed away from the log, the sailors would count the knots that passed over the rail in half-a-minute. That gave the approximate speed in knots (equal to land miles-per-hour).
The Tahitian and the Manxman were summoned by Ahab to handle the log and line, but the Manxman protests that "this line looks far gone, long heat and wet have spoiled it." Ahab assures him it will be fine, but "Snap! the overstrained line sagged down in one long festoon; the tugging log was gone. 'I crush the quadrant, the thunder turns the needles, and now the mad sea parts the log-line. But Ahab can mend all.'" So he tells them to have the carpenter make another log and for them to mend the line. And he walks away as the Manxman observes, "There he goes now; to him nothing's happened; but to me, the skewer seems loosening out of the world."

Pip comes up to see what the Manxman is doing, but his mad chatter only irritates the sailor, who takes him by the arm and shoos him away. "'The greater idiot ever scolds the lesser,' muttered Ahab, advancing. 'Hands off from that holiness! ... Oh, ye frozen heavens! look down here. Ye did beget this luckless child, and have abandoned him, ye creative libertines. Here, boy; Ahab's cabin shall be Pip's home henceforth, while Ahab lives. Thou touchest my inmost center, boy; thou art tied to me by cords woven of my heartstrings.'" And so Lear finds his Fool. The Manxman observes, "There go two daft ones now.... One daft with strength, the other daft with weakness."

Just before dawn, "the watch -- then headed by Flask -- was startled by a cry so plaintively wild and unearthly -- like half-articulated wailings of the ghosts of all Herod's murdered Innocents." Some of the crew think "it was mermaids, and shuddered," but the Manxman claims that it was "the voices of newly drowned men in the sea." In the morning, Ahab only laughs and explains that it was the cries of seals on the rocky islands they had passed. But during the morning a sailor goes aloft for the watch and "had not been long at his perch, when a cry was heard -- a cry and a rushing -- and looking up, they saw a falling phantom in the air; and looking down, a little tossed heap of white bubbles in the sea."

They toss the life-buoy after him, but it had shrunk so in the sun that it takes water and sinks with the sailor. "And thus the first man of the Pequod that mounted the mast to look out for the White Whale, on the White Whale's own peculiar ground; that man was swallowed up in the deep." They search for a replacement for the life-buoy, but they can't find anything of the requisite lightness until Queequeg volunteers his coffin. A startled Starbuck reluctantly agrees, and orders the carpenter to turn a coffin into a life-buoy, nailing down the lid, caulking the seams, and coating it with pitch. The carpenter grumbles in protest at such a thing: "I'll have me thirty separate, Turk's-headed life-lines, each three feet long hanging all round to the coffin. Then if the hull go down, there'll be thirty lively fellows all fighting for one coffin, a sight not seen very often beneath the sun!"

Ahab comes upon the carpenter working on the coffin-buoy, and strikes up a dialogue with him:
"Hark ye, dost thou not ever sing working about a coffin? The Titans, they say, hummed snatches when chipping out craters for volcanoes; and the grave-digger in the play sings, spade in hand. Dost thou never?"

"Sing, sir? Do I sing? Oh, I'm indifferent enough, sir, for that; but the reason why the grave-digger made music must have been because there was none in his spade, sir. But the caulking mallet is full of it. Hark to it." 
And so this snatch of well-done pseudo-Shakespearean banter, carefully noting its antecedents in Hamlet, continues. When the carpenter utters the mild oath, "Faith, sir," Ahab shoots back, "Faith? What's that?" having long ago lost faith in anything but his conviction that the white whale is the embodiment of evil. At the end, Ahab orders the carpenter to "get these traps out of sight" and leaves the carpenter to muse: "That was sudden, now; but squalls come sudden in hot latitudes. I've heard that the Isle of Albemarle, one of the Gallipagos, is cut by the Equator right in the middle. Seems to me some sort of Equator cuts yon old man, too, right in his middle. He's always under the Line -- fiery hot, I tell ye!" Ahab, meanwhile, devotes himself to talking to Pip: "I do suck most wondrous philosophies from thee! Some unknown worlds must empty into thee!"

The next day, they encounter the Rachel, which Ahab greets with his usual question, "Hast seen the White Whale?" And when the answer comes, "Aye, yesterday. Have ye seen a whale-boat adrift?" Ahab is eager to board the ship, but the Rachel's captain comes aboard the Pequod instead. Ahab knows the captain, a Nantucketer, and immediately pesters him with questions: "Where was he? -- not killed! -- not killed! ... How was it?" The captain of the Rachel explains that they had lowered three boats to engage with a school of whales, and when Moby Dick had suddenly appeared, the fourth one, the swiftest of all, had been lowered. It seemed to have succeeded in harpooning the whale, but had been towed away swiftly. When it grew dark, the Rachel had been "forced to pick up her three far to windward boats -- ere going in quest of the fourth one in precisely the opposite direction -- the ship had not only been necessitated to leave that boat to its fate till near midnight, but, for the time, to increase her distance from it."

Now, the Rachel's captain pleads with the Pequod to join in the search. Stubb is surprised at the request: "Who ever heard of two pious whale-ships cruising after one missing whale-boat in the height of the whaling season?" But then the truth dawns on Stubb just before the captain himself explains, "My boy, my own boy is among them." He even orders to pay for the Pequod's help, and Stubb vows, "We must save that boy." The Manxman, however, says, "He's drowned with the rest on 'em, last night.... I heard; all of ye heard their spirits."

The father's plight had been compounded by the fact that another son was in one of the three other boats, so that he had the dilemma of choosing which to seek to rescue. It was his chief mate who adopted "the ordinary procedure of a whale-ship in such emergencies, that is, when placed between jeopardized but divided boats, always to pick up the majority first." Through the plea, Ahab has maintained an icy indifference, even when the father explains that the missing boy was just twelve years old. "Ahab still stood like an anvil, receiving every shock, but without the least quivering of his own." The Rachel's captain even urges the Pequod's crew to "run men, now, and stand by to square in the yards."
"Avast," cried Ahab -- "touch not a rope-yarn;" then in a voice that prolongingly moulded every word -- "Captain Gardiner, I will not do it. Even now I lose time. Good-bye, good-bye. God bless ye, man, and may I forgive myself, but I must go." 
Ahab goes to his cabin, and Ishmael records what he saw as the other ship disappears: "She was Rachel, weeping for her children, because they were not." (The allusion is to Jeremiah 31:15.)

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