“a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something”

Melville is a subtle, sophisticated mind, to be sure.

But his techniques aren’t always so delicate. He often establishes mood with a jack hammer, for instance.

The streets of New Bedford are dreary and black. Lights flicker from dirty windows like “candles moving about in a tomb.” Smoky lights, ashes of Gomorrah, howling winds, savages and cannibals—these are just some of the elements swirling in this gloomy atmosphere.

Melville isn’t so subtle with foreshadowing, either. Ishmael pokes his nose in the Spouter-Inn owned by Peter Coffin. “Coffin? – Spouter? – Rather ominous in that particular connexion, thought I.”

Despite these elephantine steps, Melville is easy to forgive. He’s so gifted in every respect that matters.

I especially appreciate the tantalizing clues he drops along the way, revealing the design and purpose of Moby Dick. Upon entering the Spouter-Inn, Ishmael describes a painting in marvelous detail.

On one side hung a very large oil-painting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal cross-lights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted. But what most puzzled and confounded you 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. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvelous painting meant… The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.

Such delicious phraseology—besmoked, chaos bewitched, and squitchy, especially squitchy! I feel my toes sinking through layers of foul, nasty-smelling muck.

The subject matter of the oil-painting is the same as the subject matter of Moby Dick, so what is true of the oil-painting — it’s a representation that requires “diligent study and a series of systematic visits” and “earnest contemplation” before its meaning is understood — is certainly true of Moby Dick. Even more so because Moby Dick is a more complicated type of representation than a painting.

Isn’t Melville, 32, our “ambitious young artist”? And doesn’t the story vibrate with “sublimity”?

I think so, just as I think that the “three blue, dim, perpendicular lines” are mastheads. That they are Ishmael, Ahab and Queequeg, standing in the shadow of a great contest. That they are appetite, reason and spirit. And that they are the trinity of conscience, too, à la Faulkner: knowing and caring, knowing but not caring, and not knowing. I also think they mean more than that, depending.

But that would require another “oft-repeated pondering.”

And this one is done.

10 Responses to “a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something”

  1. Richard says:

    Nicely done, Kevin. Of course, Melville’s prose alone makes me feel all squitchy to reread this book next year, but that Ishmael, Ahab, and Queequeg thought about the three mastheads as the “trinity of conscience”? That’s some fine thinkin’ there, thanks!

  2. Courtesy of Faulkner.

  3. St. Orberose says:

    I keep telling myself I didn’t like the novel, but Melville’s command of language, his range of vocabulary and seamless stylistic shifts, are a marvellous thing!

    • Thanks for sauntering over! Interesting, what aspects of the novel don’t you like?

      • St. Orberose says:

        Mainly the fact there isn’t an actually engaging story; I’m very story-driven, one of my many flaws as a reader. Ishmael swamps the reader in minutia about whales and all the time I just want to read about Ahab’s hunt for the Moby Dick, and then it just ends. But perhaps that’s the point, maybe it’s just an elaborate gag, an anti-story.

      • Or story as anti-action, or story as action contracted to a very fine point on the open sea. As for the drudgery of crow’s nests and mastheads, cabin customs and quarterdeck politics, and – yay! – cetology, I wonder if the boredom of these sections doesn’t reflect the boredom of any middle passage on the way to a great contest? BTW, on your good word, I’ll read Raised from the Ground!

      • St. Orberose says:

        I’ve been thinking that boredom is a necessary aspect of the novel. The reader has to feel bored to realize that whales will never mean as much to him as they do to Ishmael. This also connects with my view that the one obsessed mind of the novel is Ishmael and not Ahab. Ahab just reasonably wants to kill a whale that cut off his leg, revenge is a very common motive.

        But Ishmael loves whales in a religious way, and the common reader can’t match that sense of awe.

        Ah, thanks for telling you’re reading Raised from the Ground; it’s great to know Saramago and readers continue to discover each other.

      • I wish we were gabbing over a beer. Much to say, much to talk about. Too much than can be said in a comment, in a blog post, in an article and perhaps even in a book. Words are likely to fail us here, just as they largely fail Ishmael who is obsessed not with this or that thing, this or that object, be it Ahab or the whale, but with what is invisible. His mind is anguished by the invisible realm, its signs and wonders. Even the whiteness of the whale is a visible shroud behind which lurks a dimly *felt* invisible order that is terrifying. “The problem of the universe is revolving in me.” Indeed. I owe you a beer.

  4. Colleen says:

    I too have been thinking of re-reading this next year…it’ll have been fully 12 years since the last read. I wonder what MD looks like to someone in their late 30s vs. someone in their mid-20s? I suspect it’s squitchier. I love the squitchy. Great post, Kevin.

  5. […] as a country schoolmaster before becoming a merchant seaman and whaler, and not before appreciating tantalizing clues embedded in a painting (and what a lovely painting it is!), and not before uttering a few vows over what D.G. Myers kindly […]

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