By Charles Matthews

Friday, December 10, 2010

7. Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, pp. 166-186

Moby Dick (Oxford World's Classics)Chapter XXXVII: Sunset; The cabin; by the stern windows; Ahab sitting alone, and gazing out; Chapter XXXVIII: Deck; By the Mainmast; Starbuck leaning against it; Chapter XXXIX: First Night-Watch; (Stubb solus, and mending a brace); Chapter XL: Midnight, Forecastle; Chapter XLI: Moby Dick
Melville continues with his theatrical presentation of the narrative, with soliloquies by Ahab, Starbuck, and Stubb, and with a scene emphasizing the multinational character of the crew.

Ahab's soliloquy positions him in the role of tragic hero, but mostly emphasizes his megalomania when he imagines himself assuming the Iron Crown of Lombardy, which tradition held was shaped from one of the nails used in the crucifixion of Jesus. It was used in the coronations of Charlemagne and of Napoleon I.
The Iron Crown of Lombardy
Ahab feels the crown cutting into his head. He raves on, seeing himself "damned in the midst of Paradise," and defying his doubters:
What I've dared, I've willed; and what I've willed, I'll do. They think me mad -- Starbuck does; but I'm demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that's only calm to comprehend itself! The prophecy was that I should be dismembered; and -- Aye! I lost this leg. I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer. 
There has been no mention of a prophecy of Ahab's dismemberment to this point. But the key thing here is that Ahab accepts his madness, even prides himself in it. He also defies his opponents, including Starbuck, calling them "deaf Burkes and blinded Bendigoes." ("Bendigo," an English bare-knuckle boxer, William Abednego Thompson, fought James "Deaf" Burke for the heavyweight championship in 1839.) "The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents' bed, unerringly I rush! Naught's an obstacle, naught's an angle to the iron way!" From ancient iron crown we have gone to modern iron horse.

Starbuck by the mainmast, by Rockwell Kent
Starbuck is tormented by his decision to help Ahab in his mad quest: The captain has "blasted all my reason out of me! I think I see his impious end; but feel that I must help him to it." His only alternative is mutiny, and he won't consider it, deciding instead to put the matter in God's hands: "His heaven-insulting purpose, God may wedge aside." He hears the sound of the sailors in the forecastle and knows that he has no support from them: "Oh, God! to sail with such a heathen crew that have small touch of human mothers in them! Whelped somewhere by the sharkish sea. The white whale is their demigorgon." Starbuck seems to have confused "demiurge" and "demogorgon" here, though his meaning is clear: The crew is in the service of some primal force. He shuns the crew's "infernal orgies" and tries to quell the "latent horror" he perceives in life itself, "yet will I try to fight ye, ye grim, phantom futures! Stand by me, hold me, bind me, O ye blessed influences!"

Stubb, meanwhile, has chosen to laugh the whole thing off: "Because a laugh's the wisest, easiest answer to all that's queer; and come what will, one comfort's always left -- that unfailing comfort it, it's all predestinated."  His brief soliloquy, turning away from the hubris of Ahab and the attempt at a Stoic acceptance by Starbuck, serves primarily as a segue to the scene of the crew, which opens with a chorus of a song deftly alluded to in Jaws:

The scene on the forecastle mostly serves to introduce the multiethnic character of the "heathen crew" so mistrusted by Starbuck. There are sailors from the Netherlands, France, Iceland, Malta, Sicily, the Azores, China, the Isle of Man, India, Portugal, Denmark, England, Spain, Ireland, and elsewhere. As the wind rises and a squall comes up, there is a flash of lightning that reminds the Old Manx Sailor of the mark on Ahab's face: "Our captain has his birthmark; look yonder, boys, there's another in the sky -- lurid-like, ye see, all else pitch black." The reference to blackness seems to offend Daggoo, which in turn causes a Spanish Sailor to refer to the lightning as "Daggoo showing his teeth." This precipitates a fight between Daggoo and the Spanish Sailor, but it's interrupted by the mate's call to prepare the sails for the squall. The crew scatters to its duties, leaving only the black cabin-boy Pip, who has been entertaining them with his tambourine and now hides under the windlass as the action proceeds. He links the white squall to the white whale, which "that anaconda of an old man swore 'em in to hunt him! Oh, thou big white God aloft there somewhere in yon darkness, have mercy on this small black boy down here; preserve him from all men that have no bowels to feel fear!"

Ishmael, it seems, has not been immune to the enthusiasm that Ahab has inspired in the crew: "A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab's quenchless feud seemed mine." And so he assembles what is known about the white whale, which, it seems, has lately been spotted all over the world, with reports of "various and not unfrequent instances of great ferocity, cunning, and malice in the monster attacked," and widespread knowledge of Ahab's own "disastrous encounter" with the whale. As he notes, "in maritime life, far more than in that of terra firma, wild rumors abound, wherever there is any adequate reality for them to cling to." And whalemen, who are "the most directly brought into contact with whatever is appallingly astonishing in the sea," are particularly given to tales of wonder. So the stories about Moby Dick are "invested ... with new terrors unborrowed from anything that visibly appears."

Among these stories is "the unearthly conceit that Moby Dick was ubiquitous; that he had actually been encountered in opposite latitudes at one and the same instant of time." The stories are also fed by the general ignorance of the undersea world: "the secrets of the currents in the seas have never yet been divulged, even to the most erudite research." There are reports of whales who have been captured in the north Pacific bearing the harpoons of Greenland whalers. "Nor is it to be gainsaid, that in some of these instances it has been declared that the interval of time between the two assaults could not have exceeded very many days." Ishmael takes this as a clue that the Northwest Passage, "so long a problem to man, was never a problem to the whale." Others "go still further in their superstitions; declaring Moby Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal (for immortality is but ubiquity in time)."

Moby Dick is distinguished by "a peculiar snow-white wrinkled forehead, and a high, pyramidical white hump." At this point we might remember Stubb's dream, in which not only is Ahab transformed into a pyramid, but the "badger-haired old merman" who tells Stubb that being kicked by Ahab is an honor also has a hump on his back. In other words, Moby Dick and Captain Ahab are one and the same, or at least inextricably linked. The chief characteristic ascribed to Moby Dick, however, is intelligence: "that unexampled, intelligent malignity which, according to specific accounts, he had over and over evinced in his assaults." Ishmael is carried away into the anthropomorphizing of Moby Dick, who is also described as "treacherous." He credits the accounts of "the White Whale's infernal aforethought of ferocity, that every dismembering or death that he caused, was not wholly regarded as having been inflicted by an unintelligent agent."

That the whale is something outside of nature is also reflected in the accounts of those who "swam out of the white curds of the whale's direful wrath into the serene, exasperating sunlight, that smiled on, as if at a birth or a bridal." Is it nature that exhibits an "exasperating" indifference to human suffering here, or is it that the whale's fury is at emotional odds with the serenity of the sunlight? In either case, things are out of joint.

As noted above, Stubb's dream suggests an identity of Ahab and Moby Dick, and Ishmael returns to that thought:
Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil; -- Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them, but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated against it. All ... the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. 
In pursuing Moby Dick, then, Ahab is pursuing the demon within himself. The Ophites in the passage revered the serpent of Genesis not as a thing of evil but as a symbol of divine knowledge, a comprehension of the infinite that was forbidden to humans. Ahab sees the whale as an embodiment of evil, and particularly the evil that he feels feeding within himself. The task is to eradicate the evil without eradicating oneself, and it is an impossible one.

Ishmael speculates that Ahab's "monomania" grew within him not "at the precise time of his bodily dismemberment" but on the long voyage home afterward: "then it was, that his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another, and so interfusing, made him mad." The traditional Christian duality of body and soul breaks down within Ahab, and the mutilated body is reflected in a mutilated soul. On the voyage, his delirium is replaced by calm, but Ishmael observes, "Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form. Ahab's full lunacy subsided not, but deepeningly contracted." In the process, the mad Ahab becomes stronger than the sane Ahab, possessing a thousand fold more potency than ever he had sanely brought to to bear upon any one reasonable object."
Hôtel de Cluny

Thermes de Cluny
 The passage that follows about the medieval Hôtel de Cluny and the Roman baths, the Thermes de Cluny, on which it was built is one of Melville's maddening allusions, and commentary on it is endless. Melville visited it in 1849, and it stuck in his memory as an emblem of "an antique buried beneath antiquities" -- a not untypical American response to the layered history of older countries. In this context, the allusion is designed to comment in some way on "Ahab's larger, darker, deeper part" that "remains unhinted," but the hint -- perhaps about the pagan past that lingers within and informs the Christian world that succeeded it -- remains obscure.

In any case, Ishmael insists that Ahab was able to integrate both a sane exterior and a mad interior: "all my means are sane, my motive and my object mad," and that "so well did he succeed in that dissemblng, that when with ivory leg he stepped ashore at last, no Nantucketer thought him otherwise than naturally grieved, and that to the quick, with the terrible casualty which had overtaken him." So nobody gives a second thought to letting Ahab captain another whaling voyage. On the contrary, they reason that "he was all the better qualified and set on edge, for a pursuit so full of rage and wildness as the bloody hunt of whales."

And so they let him assemble a crew, "chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals -- morally enfeebled also, by the incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness in Starbuck, the invulnerable jollity of indifference and idleness in Stubb, and the pervading mediocrity in Flask." Oh, how I love that phrase "the incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness." What a scathing thing to say about anyone, especially the noble Starbuck.
Such a crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him to his monomaniac revenge. How it was that they so aboundingly responded to the old man's ire -- by what evil magic their souls were possessed, that at times his hate seemed almost theirs; the White Whale as much their insufferable foe as his; how all this came to be -- what the White Whale was to them, or how to their unconscious understandings, also, in some dim, unsuspected way, he might have seemed the gliding demon of the seas of life, -- all this to explain, would be to dive deeper than Ishmael can go.
And yet, of course, he does go on, if not to explain the moral culpability of the officers crew, at least to tell of its consequences. And he notably and honestly includes himself: "For one, I gave myself up to the abandonment of the time and the place; but while yet all a-rush to encounter the whale, could see naught in that brute but the deadliest ill."

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