By Charles Matthews

Thursday, December 9, 2010

6. Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, pp. 129-165

Moby Dick (Oxford World's Classics)Chapter XXXII: Cetology; Chapter XXXIII: The Specksynder; Chapter XXXIV: The Cabin-Table; Chapter XXXV: The Mast-Head; Chapter XXXVI: The Quarter-Deck (Enter Ahab: Then, all)
The first time I read Moby-Dick it was in an abridged edition that left out all the chapters like "Cetology" -- the ones that deal with whales and whaling lore. It's an easy trim: One misses none of the essential action. But one also misses the essence of the book, which is its portrayal of obsession -- not just Ahab's obsession, but the peculiarly focused lives of whale-hunters, and by extension the lives of anyone whose work centers on the mastery of some specialty. I have known college professors and newspaper editors as obsessive and as demanding (and a few as destructive of themselves and others) as Ahab. And the cetological material in the unabridged Moby-Dick is necessary to understanding the depth of that kind of obsession.

The "Cetology" chapter is not, however, to be taken seriously as an exploration of its purported topic, no matter how much Ishmael insists that he is helping the reader to "a thorough appreciative understanding of the more special leviathanic revelations and allusions of all sorts which are to follow." The general reader is likely to realize that much of what Ishmael says about whales is bogus when he insists on taking "the good old fashioned ground that the whale is a fish," even though he admits that whales have lungs and are warm-blooded, "whereas, all other fish are lungless and cold blooded."

He supposedly quotes Linnaeus, "'On account of their warm bilocular heart, their lungs, their moveable eyelids, their hollow ears, penem intrantem feminam mammis lactantem,' and finally, 'ex lege naturae jure meritoque.'"  The Latin here is mostly hocus-pocus stuff: "penem intrantem feminam" refers to the penis entering the female and "mammis lactantem" to breasts giving milk; but "ex lege naturae jure meritoque" means simply "out of the law of nature by right and merit," which is is a non sequitur. To counter Linnaeus's evidence that whales are mammals, and not fish, Ishmael takes the matter to what he considers a sounder authority: "my friends Simon Macey and Charley Coffin, of Nantucket, both messmates of mine in a certain voyage, and they united in the opinion that the reasons set forth were altogether insufficient. Charley profanely hinted they were humbug." So he sticks to his definition of a whale as "a spouting fish with a horizontal tail."

Of course, Ishmael tries to get himself off the hook by suggesting that his excursion into whale-science is "simply to project the draught of a systematization of cetology. I am the architect, not the builder." So he proceeds with a wholly whimsical "classification" of whales by size, using the language of printing: folio, octavo, and duodecimo -- from largest to smallest. (He omits "quarto" because the quarto doesn't retain the proportions of the folio, whereas the octavo does. Clearly, he knows more about books than about whales.) That the "Cetology" chapter is bunk doesn't mean, however, that it should be omitted or even skipped -- though skimmed is probably acceptable. The real purpose of the chapter is to give a whaler's-eye-view of the whale.

Ishmael is much better at describing the hierarchical structure of a whaler crew than he is at categorizing whales. He notes that the Dutch crews were headed by the captain and the "specksynder," a word that means "fat cutter" but refers to the chief harpooner. (Ishmael/Melville makes it "harpooneer"; I vacillate between the two, noting that my spellchecker prefers it with one e.) On the Pequod, the harpooner doesn't quite have that status, but he -- that is, Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo -- has a standing as a "professional superior" but a "social equal." On the ship, the officers live aft and the men forward, but the harpooners living in close proximity to the officers, with whom they also take their meals.

As for Ahab, "the only homage he ever exacted, was implicit, instantaneous obedience," demonstrating what Ishmael calls a "certain sultanism." Because he "was by no means unobservant of the paramount forms and usages of the sea," he is able to exert his authority, even though he exhibited only "Nantucket grimness and shagginess" and was just "a poor old whale-hunter" denied the "majestical trappings and housings" of emperors and kings, many of whom have "even to idiot imbecility ... imparted potency." His own potency is demonstrated at the table at which he dines with the mates, summoning first Starbuck, then Stubb, then Flask, in order of their rank. Out of Ahab's sight, Flask, the last to be alone on the deck, mockingly dances a little hornpipe before entering, but "then, independent, hilarious little Flask enters King Ahab's presence, in the character of Abjectus, or the Slave."
It is not the least among the strange things bred by the intense artificialness of sea-usages, that while in the open air of the deck some officers will, upon provocation, bear themselves boldly and defyingly enough towards their commander; yet, ten to one, let those very officers the next moment go down to their customary dinner in that same commander's cabin, and straightway their inoffensive, not to say deprecatory and humble air towards him, as he sits at the head of the table; this is marvellous, sometimes most comical.... For, like the Coronation banquet at Frankfort, where the German Emperor profoundly dines with the seven Imperial electors, so these cabin meals were somehow solemn meals, eaten in awful silence; and yet at table old Ahab forbade not conversation; only he himself was dumb.
Even though there is no prohibition against serving yourself at the captain's table, it simply isn't done, so that Flask, who would like some butter, goes butterless. And because Flask is the lowest in rank of the three mates, he is also expected to leave the table first. Any sailor with a grudge against Flask, Ishmael observes, need only peep in "at Flask through the cabin sky-light, sitting silly and dumfoundered before awful Ahab." After the captain and the mates leave the table, the three harpooners dine there. "While their masters, the mates, seemed afraid of the sound of the hinges of their own jaws, the harpooneers chewed their food with such a relish that there was a report to it."

Ishmael has his first duty on the mast-head, the three of which "are kept manned from sun-rise to sun-set; the seamen taking their regular turns (as at the helm), and relieving each other every two hours.... In one of those southern whalesmen, on a long three or four years' voyage, as often happens, the sum of the various hours you spend at the mast-head would amount to several entire months." But Ishmael admits that he wasn't very good at the job: "With the problem of the universe revolving in me, how could I -- being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude -- how could I but lightly hold my obligations to observe all whaleships' standing orders, 'Keep your weather eye open, and sing out every time.'" It's no job for an intellectual wool-gatherer like Ishmael, who finds the height and the vastness of the scene too seductive: "In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Cranmer's sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over." Thomas Cranmer, burned at the stake by Mary I in 1556, was by no stretch of the term a pantheist, and the reference is as opaque as the one to "Descartian vortices" in the next paragraph. I suspect that Melville is having a little fun at Ishmael's expense, filling his head with intellectual gobbledygook. Or maybe at the expense of his readers, who have spent many hours unraveling such enigmas. It fits with the giddiness that Ishmael experiences atop the mast.

Then one morning Ahab summons the crew, even bidding the mast-heads to descend. At this point Melville turns the ship's deck into a stage: "(Enter Ahab: Then, all)," a narrative device -- stage directions and even dialogue markers -- that he uses for the next few chapters. And it is, in its overblown nineteenth-century way, certainly an "actable" scene. Ahab begins with a call-and-response: "What do ye do when ye see a whale, men?" "Sing out for him!" and so on. Then he nails a sixteen-dollar gold piece to the main-mast, and promises it to the man who "raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw."

Tashtego, Daggoo, and Queequeg all know the whale he's talking about: "the same that some call Moby Dick." Tashtego knows him by the action of his fan-tail, Daggoo by his "bushy" spout, and Queequeg by the twisted harpoons still lodged in him, though he has trouble getting out the word he wants, miming the opening of a bottle:
"Corkscrew!" cried Ahab, "aye, Queequeg, the harpoons lie all twisted and wrenched in him; aye, Daggoo, his spout is a big one, like a whole shock of wheat, and white as a pile of our Nantucket wool after the great annual sheep-shearing; aye, Tashtego, and he fan-tails like a split jib in a squall. Death and devils! men, it is Moby Dick ye have seen -- Moby Dick -- Moby Dick!" 
It is Starbuck who asks if it is Moby Dick to whom Ahab lost his leg. 'Aye, aye! and I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up." But it is also Starbuck who tries to temper Ahab's mad enthusiasm: "I came here to hunt whales, not my commander's vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? It will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market."

Ahab then reveals that he's not interested in the money, which must come as a surprise to the crew who had signed up with no expectation of payment except for their share of the profits upon return. He wants vengeance at any cost, vowing, "my vengeance will fetch a great premium here!" Stubb notes, "He smites his chest, ... what's that for? methinks it rings most vast, but hollow." (Melville has slipped into Shakespearean mode. With a little work, the scene could be rendered in iambic pentameter.)

Starbuck persists: "Vengeance on a dumb brute! ... that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous." But Ahab has slipped into Transcendentalist mode: "All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event -- in the living act, the undoubted deed -- there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask!" So for Ahab, the whale is not just a "dumb brute" subject to the instinct for self-protection, it is a mask behind which lies "an inscrutable malice." "That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him."

Starbuck's audacity in challenging his captain is the surprising element in this scene, and Ahab quickly tries to parry his mate's rebelliousness. "I meant not to incense thee," he tells Starbuck, observing, "my heat has melted thee to anger-glow." He points out a Turk and a Chilean in the crowd, claiming that they are "one and all with Ahab, in this matter of the whale." He plays on the mate's pride: Starbuck, Ahab says, is "the best lance out of all Nantucket, surely he will not hang back" when the rest of the crew is ready to hunt Moby Dick. He urges Starbuck to speak further, but the mate keeps his silence. Ahab is sure he has won: "Starbuck now is mine; cannot oppose me now, without rebellion." But he doesn't hear when Starbuck murmurs, "God keep me! -- keep us all!"

And so Ahab resorts to ritual, to a kind of communion to seal the allegiance of the crew. He orders a pewter tankard filled, and has the harpooners bring their weapons and the mates their lances, and has the crew form a circle around them all. He has the tankard passed around from man to man. "Men, ye seem the years; so brimming life is gulped and gone. Steward, refill!" Then he has the three mates extend their lances and "he grasped the three level, radiating lances at their crossed centre." He glances "intently from Starbuck to Stubb; from Stubb to Flask. It seemed as though, by some nameless, interior volition, he would fain have shocked them into the same fiery emotion accumulated within the Leyden jar of his own magnetic life." The image is somewhat reminiscent of Jacques-Louis David's painting Oath of the Horatii:
But the effect isn't what Ahab hopes for: "Stubb and Flask looked sideways from him; the honest eye of Starbuck fell downright." Ahab resigns himself that if they had taken "the full-forced shock, then mine own electric thing, that had perhaps expired from out me. Perhaps, too, it would have dropped ye dead." He orders the three mates to act as "cupbearers to my three pagan kinsmen there -- yon three most honorable gentlemen and noblemen, my valiant harpooneers." He has the harpooners detach the metal heads from their harpoons. "Forthwith, slowly going from one officer to the other, he brimmed the harpoon sockets with the fiery waters from the pewter." Each officer gives the harpoon-cups to his harpooner.
"Drink, ye harpooneers; drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat's bow -- Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!" The long, barbed steel goblets were lifted; and to cries and maledictions against the white whale, the spirits were simultaneously quaffed down with a hiss. Starbuck paled, and turned, and shivered.
It's a great, theatrical, melodramatic scene.

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