“a whale is a spouting fish with a horizontal tale”

December 11, 2012

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)

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.”

BOOK I. (Folio), Chapter II. (Right Whale)Right Whale

“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.”

fin-back whaleBOOK I (Folio), Chapter III (Fin-Back)

“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.”

humpback whaleBOOK I (Folio), Chapter IV (Hump Back)

“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!

sulphur bottom whaleBOOK I (Folio), Chapter VI (Sulphur Bottom)

“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.”


wherein ishmael and queequeg affectionately say i do

December 4, 2012

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.


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

November 27, 2012

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.


Rorschach Test & Country Schoolmaster

November 20, 2012

Two things today, only two—water and vocation.

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.


Loomings. Or in the beginning. Or Mr. Interpolations is reading Moby Dick again, slowly.

November 19, 2012

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.