Oh boy! Is my Moby-Dick blogging behind schedule! Thankfully, my reading schedule has stayed pretty much spot on the entire time, though – a testament to not only the utterly absorbing storytelling, but also the pleasure of a #slowreading schedule.
In an attempt to get caught up, I will post ten chapters at a time. Curiously, I’m looking forward to this ‘five minutes ago’ backward glance at the chapters I was reading in the lead up to Christmas.
Now that I have given up on expecting a whaling adventure narrative and have accepted that all the so-called digressions are actually a part of the story and there for a reason, I’m enjoying the chapters of how to use a harpoon, the crotch, the dart, the blanket etc much more.
These digressions further Melville’s development of obsession – not only is Ahab obsessed with finding and avenging himself on Moby-Dick, but Ishmael is also equally obsessed with the whaling life.
I have now joined the obsession in exploring why Melville felt these chapters were necessary. What little pearls of wisdom did he slip into these chapters? Can I find them? What do they mean?
Chapter 61: Stubb Kills a Whale
- Lazy, drowsy, dreamy days at sea
- The waves, too nodded their indolent crests; and across the wide trance of the sea, east nodded to west, and the sun over all.
- until a whale is spotted ‘lazily undulating in the trough of the sea‘ and the chase is on!
- Stubbs all action and excitement, infecting the crew with his passion.
- Melville finds beauty even in death
- The slanting sun playing upon this crimson pond in the sea, sent back its reflection into every face, so that they all glowed to each other like red men.
- (from his own pipe, Stubb) scattered the dead ashes over the water: and for a moment, stood thoughtfully eyeing the vast corpse he had made.
- A quick chapter discussing the harpooners skill and the likelihood of actually being successful
- it is the harpooner that makes the voyage.
- Work ethic/philosophy?
- To ensure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet from out of idleness, and not from out of toil.
- It turns out that the crotch is a ‘notched stick‘ that deserves a whole chapter to itself!
- The crotch provides a resting place for the harpoon, so it is ‘instantly at hand to its hurler‘.
- There is a space on the crotch for two harpoons, ‘called the first and second irons‘.
- Melville once again reminds of how dangerous it is to be at sea chasing whales.
- He also stresses that it is important for us to understand the dangers of this particular action as they will be relevant ‘in scenes hereafter to be painted.’
- Back to the main action as ‘we commenced the slow business of towing the trophy to the Pequod.’
- Ahab ‘some vague dissatisfaction, or impatience, or despair, seemed working on him; as if the sight of the dead body reminded him that Moby Dick was yet to be slain.’
- Stubb enjoys a piece of whale steak ‘his small‘ – a part of the tail near the fluke – while the sharks feast on the whale carcass suspended on the side of the ship.
- New character – Old Fleece, the cook, who appears to be the butt of Stubb’s humour.
- Sadly, Old Fleece also appears to be a black caricature created by Melville.
- This little one act comedy reminded me of some of the scenes in Gone With the Wind when Scarlet is lording it over Mamie, but Mamie is quietly, under her breath having her say and in a roundabout way speaking her mind in such a way that Scarlet doesn’t fully comprehend.
- Fleece’s sermon to the sharks – where he acknowledges that, yes, they are sharks by nature, but if they learn to govern their shark-like natures, then they can be angels, for angels are nothing but sharks well governed. He invokes them to just once, to try and be civil, to share and think of others less fortunate or able. He concludes that there is no use to preach to gluttons, who don’t listen. His final benediction to the sharks is to fill their bellies until they bust; then die!
- Stubb and Fleece then discuss what happens when you die. By discuss, I mean ridicule. Stubb finds it’s funny that Fleece thinks that angels will take him to heaven when he dies. Stubb, the white man, is shown to be far less Christian in word or deed than the man he is demeaning throughout this chapter.
- Stubb leaves off by giving instructions to Fleece on how best to cook his steak.
- Fleece offers up his final sage aside that perhaps Stubbs ‘ain’t more of shark dan Massa Shark hisself.‘
- Although the Pequod is a multicultural, even democratic working vessel, class and racial differences are as casually observed at sea as they are on land, when the crew are at leisure.
- While Stubb is enjoying his small steak, Melville gives us a whole chapter on the history of eating whale.
- There are allusions to cannibalism and eating rituals – Stubb eats his whale steak by the light of whale oil. We eat our ox with a knife-handle made from ox bone. We write our animal rights notes with a quill from a goose.
- Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring at the long rows of dead quadrupeds.
- I suspect if Melville was alive today, he would be a vegan.
- To prevent the sharks from eating the entire whale, Queequeg and another seaman, set about killing as many sharks as possible by ‘darting their long whaling-spades.‘
- This is another example of a dangerous occupation on board a whaling ship.
- Even a dead shark brought on board to be skinned, nearly took of Queequeg’s hand, when its jaw snapped shut unexpectedly.
- Queequeg philosophy or divine inscrutibility
- “Queequeg no care what god made him shark,” said the savage, agonizingly lifting his hand up and down; “wedder Fejee god or Nantucket god; but de god wat made shark must be one dam Ingin.”
- Or how to strip a whale of its blubber.
- The Sabbath is not observed on a working whale ship.
- More danger as the swaying blubber, strung up to dry, has the potential to ‘pitch him headlong overboard.’
- Is the blubber the whale’s skin or not?
- Melville spends a whole chapter discussing this vexing issue.
- Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it….Like the great dome of St Peter’s and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.
- Death, ghosts, vultures.
- Old ideas, old truths, old beliefs that no longer hold any relevance to modern life, still influence our behaviours, though they are empty of meaning. Mindless rituals keep us stuck in the past. What we think is real – shoals, rocks, and breakers – is nothing but a dead, floating whale carcass.
- There’s your laws of precedents; there’s your utility of traditions; there’s the story of your obstinate survival of old beliefs never bottomed on the earth….There’s orthodoxy!
- Or how to behead a whale.
- Ahab soliloquy – Speak, thou vast and venerable head…and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest….O head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!
- O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! not the smallest atom stirs or lives in matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.
- Now I just have to unpick what on earth Melville is trying to say here about knowledge, knowing, not knowing and the unknown!
Have you had a break? Powered ahead? Or put it aside?
Did you get sidetracked by a side project?
Have you had any major or minor revelations or insights?
I’d love to hear from you and please remember to add any new posts about the book or Melville to the linky in the original post.