By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

5. Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, pp. 105-129

Moby Dick (Oxford World's Classics)Chapter XXIII: The Lee Shore; Chapter XXIV: The Advocate; Chapter XXV: Postscript; Chapter XXVI: Knights and Squires; Chapter XXVII: Knights and Squires; Chapter XXVIII: Ahab; Chapter XXIX: Enter Ahab; To Him, Stubb; Chapter XXX: The Pipe; Chapter XXXI: Queen Mab
Bulkington, whom Ishmael first glimpsed in New Bedford, is now a member of the Pequod's crew, causing Ishmael to remark on how short his stay on land was after a four-years' voyage. But his brief reappearance in the novel is his last: "this six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington." He is there as the epitome of the seafaring man, the one to whom "The land seemed scorching to his feet." He is likened to the ship that must avoid getting too close to the land in a storm:
The port would fain give succor; the port is pitiful; in the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that's kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship's direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through. 
Perhaps Bulkington is fleeing from the law, but Melville doesn't supply a reason for his shunning the land, preferring to regard him as the embodiment of the attempt to remain unfettered: "all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore." Of course, as Moby-Dick will show, the sea has its own treachery. Bulkington takes his chances on the sea, just as the liberated imagination prefers to confront infinity rather than retreat into the knowable: "as in landlessness alone resides highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God -- so better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety!" Bulkington will perish at sea, we are told, but in the process he becomes a "demigod":  "Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing -- straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!" Still, the question abides: Why did Melville choose to load so much symbology on this most minor of characters? Bulkington, we hardly knew ye. One speculation is that Bulkington was originally intended to be Ishmael's bosom buddy instead of Queequeg. If so, he made the right choice.

In the next chapter, Ishmael takes time out for an apology for whaling, which he says "has somehow come to be regarded among landsmen as a rather unpoetical and disreputable pursuit." (Melville couldn't know how disreputable it would become in the next century, leading him to an observation that for us comes freighted with irony: "If that double-bolted land, Japan, is ever to become hospitable, it is the whale-ship alone to whom the credit will be due; for already she is on the threshold.") There is some facetiousness in the chapter, but it starts out with the semi-earnest comparison of whaling to warfare: "what disordered slippery decks of a whale-ship are comparable to the unspeakable carrion of those battle-fields from which so many soldiers return to drink in all ladies' plaudits?"

The facetiousness comes in when he tries to answer some straw-men objections, such is the assertion that no famous author has ever written about whaling, and cites Job, Alfred the Great, and Edmund Burke in his counter-argument. He claims that whalers have "good blood" because Benjamin Franklin's kin were harpooners, and that whaling is respectable because "By old English statutory law, the whale is declared 'a royal fish'" and the bones of a whale figured prominently in a Roman triumphal procession. Moreover, Cetus is a constellation in the Southern hemisphere. And in a "Postscript" chapter he adds that whale oil is the oil used at coronations. All this, of course, is in service of his (i.e., Ishmael's, though many have applied it to Melville) own credentials:
if, at my death, my executors, or more properly my creditors, find any precious MSS. in my desk, then here I prospectively ascribe all the honor and the glory to whaling; for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard. 
And, having got all that off his chest, he turns to introducing the dramatis personae of this whaling pageant, particularly the mates Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask, and their respective harpooners, Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo. Starbuck, the first mate, is a Nantucketer and a Quaker, a tall, thin man. "His pure tight skin was an excellent fit; and closely wrapped up in it, and embalmed with inner health and strength, like a revivified Egyptian, this Starbuck seemed to prepare to endure for long ages to come." He is superstitious, but his superstition seemed "to spring, somehow, from intelligence rather than from ignorance." Personally courageous, following a profession that took the lives of his father and his brother, he vows,"'I will have no man in my boat ... who is not afraid of a whale.' By this, he seemed to mean ... that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward." Again, as in his apotheosis of Bulkington, Melville lets Ishmael soar off into the empyrean:
But this abounding dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself!... Thou who didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles; who didst hurl him upon a war-horse; who didst thunder him higher than a throne! Thou who, in all Thy mighty, earthly marchings, ever cullest Thy selectest champions from the kingly commons; bear me out in it, O God!
Even Walt Whitman never thundered so loud in democratic praise, and Whitman had Abraham Lincoln for a model, not the somewhat questionable Jackson.

Fortunately, Ishmael tones it down for Stubb and Flask. The former is a laid-back Cape Codder who "converted the jaws of death into an easy chair" and who, when getting dressed, "instead of first putting his legs into his trowsers, he put his pipe into his mouth." The latter is a native of Martha's Vineyard, "short, stout, ruddy" and "very pugnacious concerning whales," which he regarded as "but a species of magnified mouse, or at least water-rat, requiring only a little circumvention and some small application of time and trouble in order to kill and boil."

Starbuck had chosen Queequeg as his harpooner. Stubb's is the American Indian Tashtego, notable for his "long, lean, sable hair, his high cheek bones, and black rounding eyes -- for an Indian, Oriental in their largeness, but Antarctic in their glittering expression." Daggoo, Flask's harpooner, is an African, "erect as a giraffe," who "moved about the decks in all the pomp of six feet five in his socks." Flask "looked like a chess-man beside him."

Though he dubs the mates and their harpooners "knights and squires," Ishmael sees this crew as something of a microcosm of America, though a hierarchical America rather than a melting-pot, with the immigrants subordinated to the native-born:
not one in two of the many thousand men before the mast employed in the American whale fishery, are Americans born, though pretty nearly all the officers are.... The ... native American literally provides the brains, the rest of the world as generously supplying the muscles.
(By "native American," of course, he doesn't mean Tashtego, the real Native American.) His purpose here is to celebrate the multicultural as long as it knows its place. The crew of many colors becomes
An Anacharsis Clootz deputation from all the isles of the sea, and all the ends of the earth, accompanying Old Ahab in the Pequod to lay the world's grievances before that bar from which not very many of them ever come back.
(For "Anacharsis Clootz," or "Cloots," see the comments on Billy Budd here.)

Ahab, by Rockwell Kent
And finally Ahab appears. "He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them." The rest everyone knows: the white mark running from his hair down the right side of his face and into his clothes, the "barbaric white leg upon which he partly stood," the hole drilled in the deck into which he fits the point of the leg that "had at sea been fashioned from the polished bone of the sperm whale's jaw." But we usually forget that in spring weather, "More than once did he put forth the faint blossom of a look, which, in any other man, would have soon flowered out in a smile." It's a perfunctory attempt to humanize a character that lends itself too easily to allegorizing.

In fact, Melville even attempts some black humor in portraying Ahab, as in his abstention from patrolling the decks at night, "because to his wearied mates, seeking repose within six inches of his ivory heel, such would have been the reverberating crack and din of that bony step, that their dreams would have been on the crunching teeth of sharks." When Ahab forgets, an awakened Stubb dares to challenge the captain, and is rebuked with "Down, dog, and kennel!" Stubb furiously protests, but backs off from Ahab's fury, grumbling about the insult and wondering, "is he mad? Anyway, there's something's on his mind, as sure as there must be something on a deck when it cracks. He aint in his bed now, either, more than three hours out of the twenty-four; and he don't sleep then." The cabin-steward has told Stubb as much. "I guess he's got what some folks ashore call a conscience; it's a kind of Tic-Dolly-row, they say -- worse nor a toothache." We will soon find out what Ahab's toothache, his tic douloureux is. Meanwhile, Stubb decides to obey his personal "eleventh commandment": "Think not."

For Ishmael, " Khan of the plank, and a king of the sea and a great lord of Leviathans was Ahab," and he is presumably present to witness as Ahab casts his pipe, the last attempt to achieve serenity, overboard. Stubb, meanwhile, is dreaming of being kicked by Ahab and returning the kick only to find Ahab transformed into a pyramid. There is too much temptation to linger on the symbolism here, as many have done, but the "sort of badger-haired old merman, with a hump on his back," who appears to Stubb in the dream deserves the last word:
"No, you were kicked by a great man, and with a beautiful ivory leg, Stubb. It's an honor; I consider it an honor. Listen, wise Stubb. In old England the greatest lords think it great glory to be slapped by a queen, and made garter-knights of; but, be your boast, Stubb, that you were kicked by old Ahab, and made a wise man of." 
As Stubb is telling Flask of this dream, Ahab shouts out orders: "There are whales hereabouts! If ye see a white one, split your lungs for him!" And the wise man Stubb recognizes the truth: "Ahab has that that's bloody on his mind."

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