Unlike the Pequod I’ve returned safely to shore after a nice long slow read of Moby Dick — but not before reflecting on just how little I know about why I take to Moby Dick as Ishmael takes to the ocean, and not before musing on the symbolism of water and Ishmael’s likely vocation as a country schoolmaster before becoming a merchant seaman and whaler, and not before appreciating tantalizing clues in a painting (and what a lovely painting it is!), and not before muttering a few vows over what D.G. Myers kindly coined in a Tweet Ishmael and Queequeg’s gay marriage, and not before turning the pages of Melville’s whale taxonomy, and not before marveling at Moby Dick’s handsomely endowed thingamajig, which is longer “than a Kentuckian is tall,” and not before drawing attention to Melville’s marvelous bit of trickery in fooling the reader to think that Ahab, and not Ishmael, is the true monomaniac, and lastly not before wrestling with the invisible this and the invisible that haunting Ishmael. I am done, with Moby Dick for now and the preceding sentence for sure. And in the spirit of long and longer sentences, I’m eager to share the closing sentence of Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, where Calvino performs his own bit of narrative trickery, on par with Melville’s. But that will have to wait till I come down from the oaks and pines and sycamores, where I’m rather enjoying myself at the moment.
Absence is everywhere, from fish, sharks and whales seething beneath the surface of the ocean, to the stowaway Fedallah hidden in the bowels of the ship.
Even Ahab is absent until Chapter 28 when he emerges at last from a deep hold of the Pequod.
And the plot, too, disappears for long stretches of time, sounding beneath the surface of Melville’s expository prose. No wonder Melville candidly observes, ”So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book…” Yes, there’s very little narrative in Moby Dick.
Various and sundry grades of invisibility lurk everywhere—and Ishmael is haunted by them.
One. Other people are mysterious entities. We see them clearly enough smoking a pipe or ascending a masthead. But who they are to become in time is perceived only dimly if at all. Take Queequeg, for instance. He’s covered in tattoos. Combine that with Ishmael’s description of him as “a creature in the transition state — neither caterpillar nor butterfly” and we have an image of a man who is emerging from a mottled chrysalis. What he’s to become when the transformation is complete is unknown to us.
Two. Subjectivity is a mystery in that we only perceive its hints and signs in others from a third-person point of view. Ahab’s storm of ideas and emotions, his motives, beliefs and passions, are experienced by him from a first-person point of view. But to everyone else, from the jocular Stub and the righteous Starbuck to the poetic-philosophic Ishmael, Ahab’s seething inner world is only divined by its manifestations, by his tortured brow and wracked body.
Three. Poetic resemblances are entirely absent — they literally don’t exist — until they are created by an Ishmael or some other wanderer and outcast who perceives things differently. Whale skin is what it is; it’s whale skin. But only Ishmael broods on it and perceives in it an “isinglass” through which the world itself is perceived, with floating motes and squigglys superimposed on it like the “finest Italian line engravings.” Without imaginative conception, poetic resemblances don’t even exist as ghosts.
Four. Just as Ahab’s brow is the body of his torment made visible, so the world itself is a sign of an unseen agency. Unlike religious believers who interpret the world optimistically, Melville strongly suggests a more pessimistic view. The world is an incarnation of malicious forces. Behind the veil of appearances, an inscrutable force fashions a world where snakes eat plump mice, where men and women devour tasty little lambs and slaughter whales to burn oil in churches and preach ever-lasting peace and compassion to the world.
At times Moby Dick is a painfully boring book to read.
Often narrative takes a back seat to a broad range of topics treated in an expository mode.
Ishmael describes cabin customs, quarterdeck politics, and forecastle rituals. He provides a minor treatise on cetology and even a history of specksynders. Who doesn’t love a good specksynder? Ishmael offers a lengthy musing on the phrenology of the whale’s head; the sperm whale lacks a nose! And owing to an incorrigible metaphysical impulse, he interrogates the significance of being-in-the-world-without-a-nose with Germanic philosophical intensity. And he takes a firm stand on the ticklish matter of where whale skin ends and blubber begins, and whether a whale’s “mystical” spout is vapor or water or an intermingling of the two.
No matter how varied your interests are, you will at some point be bored to tears by the ceaselessly rocking waves of Melville’s expository prose. Your mind will go numb.
But more than any novel I can think of, boredom is absolutely central to the experience of reading Moby Dick.
Without boredom, you cannot be jolted out of the lethargy fast upon you and gasp at the glories of the novel. Its poetry, for instance, “A curious sight; these bashful bears, these timid warrior whalemen!” or “I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where’er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass.” Or its humor, “Queequeg is George Washington cannibalistically developed.” Or its insight, “And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher…”
But more important than poetry, humor, and insight is the realization born of boredom that Ishmael is the most obsessed mind in the novel. His head is cracked and sorely in need of mending. Queequeg and Ahab have nothing on him. The former clutches at a small black idol; the latter, a large white idol. Big deal. Only Ishmael has the whole visible and invisible world as the object of his obsession. And mostly the world in its invisible aspect, which pervades all Yojos and Pequods and Moby Dicks, and beyond. Ishmael is haunted by invisibility.
Next week I’ll try to spell this out in detail while avoiding Nabokov’s “moonshine of generalization.”
Good luck to me.
The title, yes. A word about that. It’s not a ploy for cheap laughs. I don’t do humor; I’m earnest, you see. Only earnest people say things like “Wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable” and mean it. No, I’m unfunny. But unlike me, Melville is both funny and earnest. It’s a rare talent among gifted writers. Most folks take his earnestness for granted, not so his humor. But he possesses a great comedic sense all his own. It starts in the first passage of the book with the venting of spleen and the knocking off of hats and continues largely unabated right up through and beyond Chapter XCV, a 12-inch chapter-cum-tribute to the wonderfullest swinging unmentionable of all.
On the decks of the Pequod, behold it, ye curious voyeur, you! “You would have scanned with no small curiosity a very strange, enigmatical object, which you would have seen there, lying along lengthwise in the lee scuppers.”
No small curiosity, indeed. Just the opposite. The unmentionable is pathetically flopped on deck because it’s no longer attached to a body. That’s what happens when a Leviathan’s leviathan gets chopped off by an industrious Bobbitt.
What else do we learn about this strange, enigmatical object?
It’s “an unaccountable cone,—longer than a Kentuckian is tall, nigh a foot in diameter at the base, and jet black….” The unmentionable begins to lurch about only when a sailor humps it on his back “with bowed shoulders” and “staggers off with it as if he were a grenadier carrying a dead comrade from the field.” Then the sailor carefully removes the “dark pelt” with a skinning knife, turning it inside out. Cutting two slits for armholes he slips himself into it, a truly fashion-forward bloke.
Now properly attired in his snug penis pelt, the sailor begins the divine work of shaving bible leaves of blubber from the dead castrated beast, making it easier to boil the flesh and extract the oil, so landsmen can light their way in a dark and darkening world.
Yes, Melville has a wicked, sharp sense of humor.
The title of today’s post comes from Moby Dick. Yes, I’m still reading it. I ain’t even close to subduing this beast yet. The chase is still on. Now we both know that a whale is a mammal, not a fish. But Melville, in the confidence that’s born of humor, appeals to no less an authority than the “holy Jonah,” who ought to know, having spent 72 terrifying hours studying a large fish from the inside out before he was belched on shore to share his insight with the world. But I digress.
Order, family, genus and species. Or book, folio, octavo and duodecimo. Choose the set of terms you like best. It doesn’t really matter. We’re highly skilled at untangling almost any knot by defining this or classifying that. It’s how our mind works. We map the world via functional designations. Personally, I’m glad Melville treats whale taxonomy as though it were a book. Give me folios, octavos and duodecimos six days a week and Sunday! So let’s thumb through these pages and discover the pictures and prose that belong to Melville’s neatly penned folios.
BOOK I. (Folio), Chapter I. (Sperm Whale)
“He is, without doubt, the largest inhabitant of the globe; the most formidable of all whales to encounter; the most majestic in aspect; and lastly, by far the most valuable in commerce; he being the only creature from which that valuable substance, spermaceti, is obtained.”
“In one respect this is the most venerable of the Leviathans, being the one first regularly hunted by man. It yields the article commonly known as whalebone or baleen; and the oil specially known as ‘whale oil’, an inferior article in commerce.”
“In the length he attains, and in his baleen, the Fin-back resembles the Right Whale, but is of a less portly girth, and a lighter color, approaching to olive. His great lips present a cable-like aspect, formed by the intertwisting, slanting folds of large wrinkles. His grand distinguishing feature, the fin, from which he derives his name, is often a conspicuous object.”
“This whale is often seen on the northern American coast. He has been frequently captured there, and towed into harbor. He has a great pack on him like a peddler; or you might call him the Elephant and Castle Whale… His oil is not very valuable… He is the most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales, making more gay foam and white water generally than any other of them.”
BOOK I (Folio), Chapter V (Razor Back)
“Of this whale little is known but his name. I have seen him at a distance off Cape Horn. Of a retiring nature, he eludes both hunters and philosophers. Though no coward, he has never yet shown any part of him but his back, which rises in a long sharp ridge. Let him go. I know little more of him, nor does anybody else.”
Intermezzo. You noticed, there’s no picture. That’s because Melville thinks there’s a difference between the Fin Back and the Razor Back. But we post-moderns know from a higher Nader that this Democrat and Republican is the self-same beast. To Melville’s credit, however, he knows he knows little about this difference without a distinction. “Let him go.” Done. Back to the pages that matter!
“Another retiring gentleman, with a brimstone belly, doubtless got by scraping along the Tartarian tiles in some of his profounder divings. He is seldom seen… He is never chased; he would run away with rope-walks of line. Prodigies are told of him. Adieu, Sulphur Bottom! I can say nothing more that is true of ye, nor can the oldest Nantucketer.”
Really, it’s love at first sight. OK, maybe second sight.
With all the digressions and interior monologues, it’s easy to forget that Ishmael and Queequeg have a whirlwind romance.
In modern parlance, they wed in Vegas at record speed.
Late Saturday night, they meet in a dark room at a creepy inn. One is “sivilized” (I tip my cap to thee, Twain); the other, a tattooed, heathenish bloke, with dingy teeth filed to sharp points, looking for all the world like the spawn of the devil.
Now keep pace if you can.
They sleep side by side, awaken under a counterpane, have breakfast, go to church, listen to a sermon and worship together back in the privacy of their own room.
A good portion of their intimacy is expressed in matrimonial language.
“I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.” Or, “In our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg—a cozy, loving pair.” Or, “He pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married; meaning, in his country’s phrase, that we were bosom friends.”
The pressing of foreheads is one of my favorite scenes in their courtship. That, and enjoying the highly alliterative “condensed confidential comfortableness of sharing a pipe and a blanket with a real friend.”
It’s now Sunday and their relationship has been consummated in 24 hours, flat. They’re spiritually wed as they head off to celebrate a honeymoon in Nantucket, and beyond.
I’ll definitely smoke to that.
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.
Having just returned from northern California, where I rafted the Trinity River and pursued my own leviathans (hooked two steelheads but lost both of them), I’ve been musing about water lately.
As a symbol, it almost always does work as a cleansing agent, washing away this or that stain, purifying one’s heart and mind, resulting in a spiritual rebirth of some kind.
In Melville, however, the watery part of the world isn’t identified with baptism or purification. Instead it’s aligned with phantasm, with reveries, dreams, and acts of imagination—and their powerful allure.
Of course I’m thinking of men posted “like silent sentinels … fixed in ocean reveries” and crowds who pace “straight for the water” and mountain paths that “ten to one” lead to “a pool in the stream” or even the painter who includes a “magic stream” to complete his work of art. I’m thinking of all these things, but mostly I’m thinking of this passage. Like Narcissus, we see our own “tormenting” image in “all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”
Man, I love that last sentence!
The “this” and the “it” make the cogs spin. Not to mention the “key.” Anyhow, the ocean is too murky, too deep and threatening, to purify or cleanse much of anything. But it makes for the world’s most irresistible Rorschach test. When you look into the ocean, the ocean doesn’t look back into you, sorry, Nietzsche. But you do see something of yourself in this dark, opaque mirror, in fact, mostly yourself, the more reflective you are—”Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.”
Time for a vocation?
Here’s a question for you. What was Ishmael doing before he boarded the Pequod? I mean, what did he do for a living? There’s good reason to think he was a mariner; he says as much. I “repeatedly smelt the sea as a merchant sailor.” Fair enough. But what did he do before that? I have a suspicion. It goes a little something like this. After explaining his habit of going to sea whenever he becomes grim and nasty, Ishmael insists he only boards a ship “as a simple sailor.” Then he touches on the difficulty of this transition, especially if you come from a wealthy family. Now here’s the bit I’ve been gnawing at like a terrier a beat up old rag.
And more than all, if just previous to putting your hand into the tar-pot, you have been lording it as a country schoolmaster, making the tallest boys stand in awe of you. The transition is a keen one, I assure you, from the schoolmaster to a sailor, and requires a strong decoction of Seneca and the Stoics to enable you to grin and bear it. But even this wears off in time.
Countless professions could be mentioned here, lawyer, doctor, banker, merchant and so on. But Ishmael zeros in on “country schoolmaster.” In the passage, the “more than all” and the reference to Seneca and the Stoics, but mainly the “I assure you” suggest that Ishmael is talking here from personal experience.
Plus, it neatly explains why Ishmael is so bloody smart, why his brain is chock full of historical, literary and philosophical references, and why he has an exceptional gift for the demands of narrative form.
Yes, he’s a country schoolmaster at heart.
I assure you.
Postscript. Please do take a closer look at the picture. It’s as gorgeous as New Bedford is creepy. Plus I snapped it myself. Meaning I caught one of my leviathans after all.
Evidently I’m drawn to Moby Dick in much the same way that Ishmael is drawn to the ocean.
Of course I should be very cautious in drawing a parallel because it’s not at all clear why I’m drawn to Moby Dick, nor why Ishmael is drawn to the ocean. In a litany of “whenevers,” Ishmael explains his motivation for taking to sea and “of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.”
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as possible.
I recognize the hyperbolic language of male camaraderie here and wonder if Ishmael (didn’t he just invite me to call him Ishmael?) isn’t saying a lot more about his motivation than can be rightly said.
Presumably his discontentment is owing to the lack of freedom on land. After all, he’s trapped in the “insular city” and is “belted round by wharves” and is even “surrounded” by commerce, where folks are “pent up”—”tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks.”
Poor lad is unhappy, no doubt, and needs the ocean as a slave needs freedom. If a broad path is what Ishmael wants, he’ll certainly find it on the open sea.
But after carefully establishing imagery of captivity and confinement, Ishmael doesn’t contrast the land with the ultimate freedom of the ocean. Instead he acknowledges a deeper necessity. Call it a metaphysical necessity. So why does he go on a whaling voyage?
[T]his the invisible police officer of the Fates, who has the constant surveillance of me, and secretly dogs me, and influences me in some unaccountable way—he can better answer than any one else.
Indeed, this voyage “formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago…” and even cajoled him “into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment.”
In other words, Ishmael hasn’t the faintest clue why he takes to the ocean.
Just as I haven’t the faintest clue why I love Moby Dick.
So maybe the parallel is right after all.