By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

4. Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, pp. 67-104

Moby Dick (Oxford World's Classics)Chapter XVI: The Ship; Chapter XVII: The Ramadan; Chapter XVIII: His Mark; Chapter XIX: The Prophet; Chapter XX: All Astir; Chapter XXI: Going Aboard; Chapter XXII: Merry Christmas
Queequeg tells Ishmael that his idol, whose name is Yojo, has "earnestly enjoined that the selection of the ship" should be up to Ishmael, and that Ishmael should sign up right away without consulting him. Ishmael argues the point, but to no avail: "for it seemed that it was some sort of Lent or Ramadan, or day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer with Queequeg and Yojo that day." So he goes down to the docks to inspect the three whalers there: the Devil-dam, the Tit-bit, and the Pequod.

Of course he chooses the Pequod, which "was a ship of the old school, rather small if anything; with an old-fashioned claw-footed look about her." She had lost her original masts in a storm and the replacements were "cut somewhere on the coast of Japan; they "stood stiffly up like the spines of the three old kings of Cologne" -- figures on the reliquary of the Magi in Cologne cathedral.
Reliquary of the three kings at Cologne
She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies. All round, her unpanelled, open bulwarks were garnished like one continuous jaw, with the long sharp teeth of the sperm whale, inserted there for pins, to fasten her old hempen thews and tendons to.... Scorning a turnstile wheel at her reverend helm, she sported there a tiller; and that tiller was in one mass, curiously carved from the long narrow lower jaw of her hereditary foe. The helmsman who steered by that tiller in a tempest, felt like the Tartar, when he holds back his fiery steed by clutching its jaw. A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that. 
No one quite sets a stage like Melville, drawing in the cannibalism motif while animating the ship with nobility but noting the pall of mortality that shrouds her.

In a strange sort of tepee constructed from whale jawbone he finds Captain Peleg, one of the owners of the Pequod, and pitches his case for joining the crew. At first Ishmael thinks Peleg will be his captain, but Peleg informs him that it will be Captain Ahab, and that Ahab has only one leg, the other having been "devoured, chewed up, crunched by the monstrousest parmacetty that ever chipped a boat!" Peleg asks why Ishmael wants to go whaling, and when Ishmael says it's to see the world, he sends him to "take a peep over the weather-bow, and then back to me and tell me what ye see there." When Ishmael reports that he sees "nothing but water," Peleg asks, "Can't ye see the world from where you stand?"

Ishmael persists and is led to the cabin where the other owner, Captain Bildad, is. Both Peleg and Bildad are Quakers, who "are the most sanguinary of all sailors and whale-hunters. They are fighting Quakers; they are Quakers with a vengeance." Bildad, "though a sworn foe to human bloodshed, yet had he in his straight-bodied coat, spilled tuns upon tuns of leviathan gore." The inconsistency "did not seem to concern him much, and very probably he had long since come to the sage and sensible conclusion that a man's religion is one thing and this practical world quite another. This world pays dividends." Ishmael's assessment of Bildad's pragmatism will prove useful when it comes to getting Queequeg included in the crew.

Bildad also has a reputation for being "rather hard-hearted, to say the least," and it shows when it comes to calculating what Ishmael's "lay," that is, his share of the profits, will be. From inquiries, Ishmael has calculated that he "should be offered at least the 275th lay -- that is, the 275th part of the clear nett proceeds of the voyage, whatever that might eventually amount to." Bildad offers him the 777th lay, which shocks even Peleg, who proposes the 300th. A furious argument between Bildad and Peleg ensues, with Peleg's proposal -- still considerably short of Ishmael's expectations -- prevailing. Ishmael, of course, has no voice in the haggling, which is doubtless the way Bildad and Peleg have arranged it.

Ishmael then informs them that he has a friend who would like to join the crew and arranges to bring Queequeg tomorrow. He signs the papers and leaves, but then realizes that he hasn't met the captain with whom he'll be sailing. Peleg informs him that it won't be possible to meet Ahab before the voyage:
"I don't know exactly what's the matter with him; but he keeps close inside the house; a sort of sick, and yet he don't look so. In fact, he ain't sick; but no, he isn't well either.... He's a queer man, Captain Ahab -- so some think -- but a good one.... He's a grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab; doesn't speak much; but, when he does speak, then you may well listen. Mark ye, be forewarned; Ahab's above the common; Ahab's been in colleges, as well as 'mong the cannibals; been used to deeper wonders than the waves; fixed his fiery lance in mightier, stranger foes than whales.... Oh! he ain't Captain Bildad; no, and he ain't Captain Peleg; he's Ahab, boy; and Ahab of old, thou knowest, was a crowned king!"
Ishmael notes that the biblical Ahab was a wicked king, and that the dogs licked his blood when he was slain, but Peleg warns him never to bring that up on the Pequod. "Never say it anywhere. Captain Ahab did not name himself. 'Twas a foolish, ignorant whim of his crazy, widowed mother, who died when he was only a twelvemonth old." And then he adds, somewhat enigmatically, that "the old squaw Tistig, at Gayhead, said that the name would somehow prove prophetic." (Ishmael remembers the Tistig prophecy a little later, but Tistig and her prophetic powers seem to be otherwise unknown. Melville is larding it on a little thick here, I think.) But Peleg hastens to assure him that Ahab, with whom he sailed as mate, is "a good man -- not a pious, good man, like Bildad, but a swearing good man -- something like me -- only there's a good deal more of him." But he can't leave well enough alone in his assessment of Ahab, and returns once more to Ahab's darker side: "on the passage home he was a little out of his mind for a spell" and "ever since he lost his leg last voyage by that accursed whale, he's been a kind of moody -- desperate moody, and savage sometimes." But he brightens up again talking about Ahab's wife and child, and concludes "stricken, blasted, if he be, Ahab has his humanities!"

No wonder Ishmael comes away from this meeting "full of thoughtfulness." But he forgets about it when he returns to the inn and finds Queequeg in a kind of religious trance, bolted in their room. "I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody's religious obligations," he says, but he thinks Queequeg has gone too far in this instance. There's much ado when Ishmael, with the dubious help of the landlady, tries to break into the room, damaging the door and the wall in the process. He finds "Queequeg, altogether cool on his hams, and holding Yojo on top of his head. He looked neither one way nor the other way but sat like a carved image with scarce a sign of active life." But when the sun rises the next morning, "up he got, with stiff and grating joints, but with a cheerful look; limped towards me where I lay; pressed his forehead again against mine; and said his Ramadan was over."

Melville chooses to primarily liken Queequeg's meditative fast to the Islamic observance rather than to Lent or Yom Kippur, probably because it would have been the most exotic to his readers. But Ishmael scorns them all, trying to persuade Queequeg "that all these Lents, Ramadans, and prolonged ham-squatting in cold, cheerless rooms were stark nonsense; bad for the health; useless for the soul; opposed, in short, to the obvious laws of Hygiene and common sense." But he admits that his "remarks about religion" fell on deaf ears: "he no doubt though he knew a good deal more about the true religion than I did."

Ishmael's lessons in ecumenicalism or multiculturalism continue, and he has a chance to preach what he practices when he and Queequeg go to the Pequod and Peleg proclaims "that he let no cannibals on board that craft, unless they previously produced their papers" -- that is, proof of baptism. Bildad comes forth to demand, "Son of darkness, ... art thou at present in communion with any Christian church?" Ishmael then proclaims that Queequeg is "a member of the first Congregational Church." This gets them nowhere, because Bildad takes that to be a reference to "Deacon Deuteronomy Coleman's meeting house" and accuses Ishmael of "skylarking with me."
Finding myself thus hard pushed, I replied. "I mean, sir, the same ancient Catholic Church to which you and I, and Captain Peleg there, and Queequeg here, and all of us, and every mother's son and soul of us belong; the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world; we all belong to that; only some of us cherish some crotchets noways touching the grand belief; in that we all join hands."
Peleg professes to be delighted with this flourish of sophistry and says "Father Mapple himself couldn't beat it, and he's reckoned something." And after a spectacular display of harpoonery by Queequeg, which almost takes off Bildad's hat, Peleg hastens to sign Queequeg up: "Quick, I say, you Bildad, and get the ship's papers. We must have Hedgehog there, I mean Quohog, in one of our boats. Look ye, Quohog, we'll give ye the ninetieth lay, and that's more than ever was given a harpooneer yet out of Nantucket." Queequeg makes his mark, copying "in the proper place, an exact counterpart of a queer round figure which was tattooed on his arm," and is welcomed to the crew.

Bildad tries to press a religious tract on Queequeg, warning him to "steer clear of the fiery pit," but Peleg tells him to "stop spoiling our harpooneer.... Pious harpooneers never make good voyagers -- it takes the shark out of 'em," and recalls Nat Swaine who "got so frightened about his plaguy soul, that he shrinked and sheered away from whales, for fear of after-claps, in case he got stove and went to Davy Jones." Bildad protests that Peleg must have feared for his soul during the typhoon in Japan during which they lost their masts, but Peleg insists "No! no time to think about death then. Life was what Captain Ahab and I was thinking of; and how to save all hands -- how to rig jury-masts -- how to get into the nearest port; that was what I was thinking of." The priorities -- physical salvation over spiritual -- seem to be reversed at sea.

As they leave the Pequod, Ishmael and Queequeg are accosted by a shabby, pockmarked old man who warns them about the vessel, and especially about "Old Thunder" -- Ahab. Ishmael tells him that they've been assured that Ahab has been sick but will be getting better, at which the man laughs: "Look ye; when Captain Ahab is all right, then this left arm of mine will be all right; not before." (There has been no mention of a missing or deformed arm.) He rattles off a litany of peculiarities about Ahab: "he lay like dead for three days and nights" off Cape Horn; he was involved in a "deadly skrimmage with the Spaniard before the altar in Santa"; he spat into a silver calabash; and he lost "his leg last voyage, according to the prophecy."

The implications that Ahab is a blasphemer -- fighting before an altar and spitting into some sort of presumably sacred vessel -- and that prophesies about him have been fulfilled are probably less significant to the free-thinking Ishmael than the hints of madness or physical disability, but he finds himself unsettled by the encounter, especially when he hears that the man's name is Elijah. Melville's original readership -- more so than contemporary ones -- would have caught the fact that the prophet Elijah was Ahab's adversary in the Bible. Still, Ishmael is inclined to think him a "humbug." 

The Pequod is outfitted for the voyage, which, given that it lasts three years, means a lot of stuff has to be procured and stored for the time when the crew will be "far from all grocers, costermongers, doctors, bakers, and bankers." And "whaling vessels are the most exposed to accidents of all kinds.... Hence, the spare boats, spare spars, and spare lines and harpoons, and spare everythings, almost, but a spare Captain and duplicate ship." Meanwhile, Ishmael tries to calm his uneasiness about not having seen Ahab, of "being committed this way to so long a voyage, without once laying my eyes on the man who was to be the absolute dictator of it, so soon as the ship sailed out upon the open sea." But he smothers his misgivings: "I said nothing, and tried to think nothing."

On the day of departure, he and Queequeg arrive at the ship early, in the "grey imperfect misty dawn." As they approach the wharf, Ishmael thinks he sees "some sailors running ahead there," so he urges Queequeg to hurry. But they are accosted by Elijah, who asks, "Did  ye see anything looking like men going towards that ship a while ago?" When Ishmael says yes, Elijah replies, "See if you can find 'em now, will ye?" And bids them goodbye -- "Shan't see ye again very soon, I guess; unless it's before the Grand Jury." -- and leaves. On board there is no sign of the sailors Ishmael had seen.

They do, however, find a sailor sound asleep. Queequeg "put his hand upon the sleeper's rear, as though feeling if it was was soft enough; and then, without more ado, sat quietly down there."
Queequeg and the sleeper, by Rockwell Kent

Ishmael protests, but Queequeg explains "that in his land, owing to the absence of settees and sofas of all sorts, the king, chiefs, and great people generally, were in the custom of fattening some of the lower orders for ottomans; and to furnish a house comfortably in that respect, you had only to buy up eight or ten lazy fellows, and lay them around in the piers and alcoves." But Queequeg moves, and when the sleeper awakes he tells them that Captain Ahab is aboard and that he hears the first mate, Starbuck, moving around.

Peleg and Bildad come on board to see them off, but Ahab remains in his cabin. Peleg is the pilot, and he orders the whalebone tent to be struck: "on board the Pequod, for thirty years, the order to strike the tent was well known to be the next thing to heaving up the anchor." And even though "three days previous, Bildad had told them that no profane songs would be allowed on board the Pequod," the sailors raising the anchor "roared forth some sort of chorus about the girls in Booble Alley." Bildad and Peleg bid them farewell after they get out of port, with Bildad fussing, "Don't whale it too much a' Lord's days, men; but don't miss a fair chance either, that's rejecting Heaven's good gifts.... If ye touch at the islands, Mr. Flask, beware of fornication.... Be careful with the butter -- twenty cents the pound it was, and mind ye, if --" But Peleg hustles him away.

They "gave three heavy-hearted cheers, and blindly plunged like fate into the lone Atlantic."

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