By Charles Matthews

Sunday, December 5, 2010

2. Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, pp. 10-39

Moby Dick (Oxford World's Classics)Chapter III: The Spouter-Inn; Chapter IV: The Counterpane; Chapter V: Breakfast; Chapter VI: The Street; Chapter VII: The Chapel; Chapter VIII: The Pulpit
The Spouter-Inn, despite the proprietor's ominous name, is a Dickensianly cozy place with a large, "thoroughly besmoked" oil painting in the entry that Ishmael spends some time trying to make out. There "was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast.... But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? Even the great leviathan himself?" He decides is"an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, ... in the enormous act of impaling himself on the three mast-heads." (As so often in Moby-Dick, one roots for the whale.)

He finds the landlord amidst a welter of whaling memorabilia, and asks for a room. None at the inn, unless Ishmael wants to double up with a harpooneer. Ishmael overcomes his distaste for sleeping "two in a bed," and saying that it really depends on the harpooneer. But "rather than wander further about a strange town on so bitter a night," he'll put up with it. The landlord, "looking a sort of diabolically funny," says "the harpooneer is a dark complexioned chap" who "eats nothing but steaks, and he likes 'em rare."

A group of whalers just returned from the sea enters the inn and make for the bar. Ishmael observes one of them who seems to hold back from the others. "He stood full six feet in height, with noble shoulders, and a chest like a coffer-dam. I have seldom seen such brawn in a man. His face was deeply brown and burnt, making his white teeth dazzling by the contrast." Ishmael can tell from his accent that he's a Southerner, and he hears the others call him Bulkington. But he slips away from the crowd, "and I saw no more of him till he became my comrade on the sea."

The harpooneer hasn't shown up yet and Ishmael decides that rather than have some stranger get in bed with him in the middle of the night, he'll sleep on a bench. The landlord even tries to plane down the rough surface of the bench, but it's too short and too narrow, and the room it's in is too drafty, so Ishmael changes his mind again. He tries to get more information out of the landlord about his potential bedmate, but he "seemed to be mightily tickled at something beyond my comprehension" and will only offer that "he went out a peddling, you see, and I don't see what on airth keeps him so late, unless, may be, he can't sell his head."

Much ado about this until Ishmael gets the point that the harpooneer "has just arrived from the south seas, where he bought up a lot of 'balmed New Zealand heads." And since tomorrow is Sunday, he doesn't want to go about trying to sell them to people on their way to church. Ishmael gives in and lets the landlord show him to the bedroom. He inspects the possessions the harpooneer has left, including an item he can't figure out:
I can compare it to nothing but a large door mat, ornamented at the edges with little tinkling tags something like the stained porcupine quills round an Indian moccasin. There was a hole or slit in the middle of the mat, as you see the same in South American ponchos.... I put it on, to try it, and it weighed me down like a hamper, being uncommonly shaggy and thick, and I thought a little damp, as though this mysterious harpooneer had been wearing it of a rainy day. I went up in it to a bit of glass stuck against the wall, and I never saw such a sight in my life. I tore myself out of it in such a hurry that I gave myself a kink in the neck.
Ishmael gets in bed and dozes off, but awakes when the harpooneer enters. He doesn't speak, however, but watches as the man gets ready for bed, and is startled when he sees his face: "a dark, purplish, yellow color, here and there stuck over with large blackish looking squares." At first he thinks he's been in a fight, and then remembers "a story of a white man -- a whaleman too -- who falling among the cannibals, had been tattooed by them. I concluded that this harpooneer, in the course of his distant voyages, must have met with a similar adventure."

Meanwhile, the harpooneer doesn't seem to notice him. He's shocked when the man takes off his beaver hat and reveals "no hair on his head -- none to speak of at least -- nothing but a small scalp-knot twisted up on his forehead. His bald purplish head now looked for all the world like a mildewed skull." And "his back, too, was all over the same dark squares." Moreover, the man now takes out "a curious little deformed image with a hunch on its back, and exactly the color of a three days' old Congo baby," which turns out to be a wooden idol that he places in the empty fireplace and sacrifices a bit of ship's biscuit to. Then he take his tomahawk, which does double service as a pipe, lights it and jumps into bed.

In his surprise at finding Ishmael in the bed, he brandishes the tomahawk and Ishmael cries out for the landlord in terror. The landlord arrives and assures him, "Queequeg here wouldn't harm a hair of your head." The landlord settles them both down, and Ishmael decides "For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal." And having registered his objection about smoking in bed, with which Queequeg complies, "I turned in, and never slept better in my life."
"The Counterpane," by Rockwell Kent 
The next morning, Ishmael "found Queequeg's arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife." The tattooed arm even resembles the patchwork quilt on the bed. The sensation of Queequeg's hug evokes a childhood memory when he was punished for trying to climb the chimney by his stepmother's sending him to bed without his supper -- at two o'clock on the longest day of the year, June 21. After pleading to be allowed to stay up but being sent back to bed by "the best and most conscientious of stepmothers," he finally falls asleep only to wake in the dark to find "a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine." He is too terrified to look at "the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged." When he awakens again "in the morning, I shudderingly remembered it all, and for days and weeks and months afterwards I lost myself in confounding attempts to explain the mystery. Nay, to this very hour, I often puzzle myself with it."

Several things: First, for a famous crux in the issue of Melville's sexuality, the episode of Queequeg and Ishmael in a marital hug is curiously lacking in an evocation of real homoerotic feeling. Granted, there's an element of protesting too much in Ishmael's subsequent "loud and incessant expostulations upon the unbecomingness of his hugging a fellow male in that matrimonial sort of style." Especially since expressions of male-male affection were, as we now know, more demonstrative in that age before the word "homosexual" had even been coined. Do we get a sense that Ishmael, who has already objected to what was a common sleeping arrangement in those days, is a little too afraid of his own sexuality?

Second, the incident of the phantom hand is a curiously off-kilter parallel to the experience of finding Queequeg's arm around him. Has it really never occurred to him that the hand might have been that of his stepmother, come to comfort him? That is, if she really was "the best and most conscientious of stepmothers"? Granted, stepmothers are legendarily cruel, and this one was "all the time whipping me." And that "best and most conscientious" is perhaps freighted with irony, though he also calls her "mother" as well as "stepmother." The best that can be said of this memory is that it is eerie and ambiguous.

And third, recounting the experience of being sent to bed in mid-afternoon on a summer day, he says, "I felt dreadfully." Generations of prescriptivist grammarians would have objected to this use of the adverb instead of the adjective "dreadful," just as they continue to object to the common "I felt badly about that." Interesting to find this usage in the Great American Novel.

Finally, Ishmael gets Queequeg to stop hugging him, and arranges that Queequeg should get dressed first. There's more homoeroticism in Ishmael's staying in bed and watching Queequeg getting dressed than there is in the whole business of sleeping together. Ishmael justifies it as a kind of anthropological experience: "Queequeg, do you see, was a creature in the transition stage -- neither caterpillar nor butterfly. He was just enough civilized to show of his outlandishness in the strangest possible manners" -- in this case, putting his boots on under the bed. But Ishmael is also a prude, who is concerned that there are no curtains on the windows and that people outside can see "the indecorous figure that Queequeg made, staving about with little else but his hat and boots on." And then Queequeg uses his harpoon to shave himself, which makes a distinct impression on Ishmael, although he later comes to accept it "when I came to know of what fine steel the head of harpoon is made, and how exceedingly sharp the long straight edges are always kept.

Monkey jacket
Ishmael goes down to breakfast with "a brown and brawny company, with bosky beards; an unshorn, shaggy set, all wearing monkey jackets for morning gowns." He joins them "preparing to hear some good stories about whaling," but is surprised when "nearly every man maintained a profound silence." Queequeg, at the head of the table, uses his harpoon to reach across the table and "to the jeopardy of many heads," fork the plate of beefsteaks toward himself.

On the street after breakfast, Ishmael discovers that Queequeg is not the only outlandish figure in town: "actual cannibals stand chatting at street corners; savages outright; many of whom yet carry on their bones unholy flesh." It's probably worth noting here that the narrator is the comparatively naive Ishmael, and not necessarily Melville, whose own experience in the South Seas made him acquainted with, and somewhat tolerant of, people stigmatized as eaters of "unholy flesh" -- accusations of cannibalism were used to justify subjugating native peoples. Ishmael's use of outlandishly spelled names for his "cannibals" -- "Feegeeans, Tongatobooarrs, Erromanggoans, Pannangians, and Brightggians" -- reinforces our sense of his naiveté. There are lots of people on the 'net looking for the originals of these peoples, but I'm willing to guess that Melville is poking fun at Ishmael here.

Contrasted with the cannibals are the "bumpkins," the greenhorns come to New Bedford to try their hands at whaling, the industry that has made the town "perhaps the dearest place to live in, in all New England." (Once again, you wonder why an inn in this wealthy town would have to serve coffee made from roasted peas.)  Its "brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea. Can Herr Alexander perform a feat like that?" (Alexander Heimburger, who performed as Herr Alexander, was a 19th-century magician who performed at the White House when Polk was president, and was visited in his old age by Harry Houdini.)

Seamen's Bethel, New Bedford
It's Sunday, so Ishmael visits the Whaleman's Chapel, where he reads the "frigid inscriptions on the wall," memorializing sailors perished at sea, occasioning a meditation on death and its memorials, which contains the chillingly beautiful observation that "all the living so strive to hush all the dead; wherefore but the rumor of a knocking in a tomb will terrify a whole city." Ishmael (and here again, it's important to distinguish Ishmael from Melville) proceeds to reflect:
Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact, take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me. And therefore three cheers for Nantucket; and come a stove boat and stove body when they will, for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot.
Melville in his own voice is somewhat less confident about such matters.
Interior, Seamen's Bethel. The prow-shaped pulpit was added in 1961, in imitation of the one Melville invented in Moby-Dick.

Father Mapple enters. He had once been a harpooneer himself, and his pulpit is shaped like the prow of a ship. He reaches it by climbing "a perpendicular side ladder, like those used in mounting a ship from a boat at sea." And when he is in the pulpit, he pulls up the ladder, "leaving him impregnable in his little Quebec." Visiting Québec, Melville had been struck by the fortified citadel, and he reinforces this impression at the end of the next paragraph by calling the pulpit "a self-containing stronghold -- a lofty Ehrenbreitstein" -- the fortress at Koblenz. After considering that the action has something theatrical about it, Ishmael decides that it's an emblem of Father Mapple's spiritual withdrawal into a place of security. And he concludes, rather too sententiously, that "the world's a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow."

No comments:

Post a Comment