It’s time to climb aboard the SS Pequod once again to catch up on my Moby-Dick (mis)adventures. Despite a week of watery mishaps and visitors on the bridge, I’ve managed to stay abreast of my 4-5 chapters each week, however the blogging schedule is woefully aground.
Time to grasp the tiller firmly and head out into deep waters to see (sea) what we can see (sea). No more nautical puns I promise.
Chapter 71: The Pequod Meets the Jeroboam ● Her Story
- I learnt something new in this chapter – every ship has it’s own private signal by which other vessels can recognise it. I wonder if the Pequod’s was a white whale?
- Another prophet in the guise of (Archangel) Gabriel.
- ‘originally nurtured among the crazy society of Neskyeuna Shakers‘ (refers to the original Shaker community in north Albany who became known by the Native American name for the area. They believed in the second coming of Christ. They practised celibacy, communal living, confession of sin, egalitarianism, pacifism and charismatic worship (which is how they got their name apparently – Shaking Quakers!). New recruits were found by conversion and adoption of orphans. They were a Utopian gospel and preachers within their community could be of any gender, class or educational background.)
- Another example of Melville fascination/suspicion/obsession with evangelical, prophetic religious sects (his strict Calvinistic childhood really messed with his head!)
- And yet more discussions around fate and destiny, with Moby Dick as ‘the Shaker God incarnated‘.
- ‘Gabriel, ascending to the main-royal mast-head, was tossing one arm in frantic gestures, and hurling forth prophecies of speedy doom to the sacrilegious assailants of his divinity.‘
- His prophecy came to pass, with Macey’s death by Moby Dick’ tail, yet of these ‘fatal accidents in the Sperm-Whale Fishery, this kind is perhaps almost as frequent as any.’
- Is it prophetic or just the most likely thing to have happened in the circumstances?
- ‘his credulous disciples believed that he had specifically fore-announced it, instead of only making a general prophecy, which any one might have done, and so have chanced to hit one of many marks in the wide margin allowed.’
- Ahab’s letter from Macey’s wife “Nay, keep it thyself,” cried Gabriel to Ahab; “thou art soon going that way.“
- Prophecy or the most likely outcome of this chase?
Chapter 72: The Monkey-Rope
- More lines and ropes and the things that bind us together, for good and bad.
- And more information about ‘cutting-in‘ a whale (see chapter 67).
- The harpooner (in this case, Queequeg) is ‘half on the whale and half in the water, as the vast mass revolves like a tread-mill beneath him.‘
- To keep him from drowning, he is tied, by a monkey-rope that ‘was fast at both ends; fast to Queequeg’s broad canvas belt, and fast to my narrow leather one. So that for better or worse, we two, for the time, were wedded.’
- Stubb sends Aunt Charity’s gift of ‘ginger-gub‘ to the bottom of the sea.
- An unusual event – the Pequod is commissioned to catch Sperm whales not Right whales.
- the crew considered the Right whale ‘inferior creatures‘.
- they had passed others schools of Right whales ‘without lowering a boat.’
- ‘yet now that a Sperm Whale had been brought alongside and beheaded, to the surprise of all, the announcement was made that a Right Whale should be captured.‘
- What follows is a fairly graphic depiction of whale hunting – not for the faint-hearted.
- An old sailing lore? – Flask informs Stubb –
- ‘that the ship which but once has a Sperm Whale’s head hoisted on her starboard side, and at the same time a Right Whale’s on the larboard; did you never hear, Stubb, that that ship can never afterwards capsize?‘
- But it turns out he only overhead Fedallah saying so and ‘he seems to know all about ships’ charms.’
- Fedallah – ‘the devil in disguise.’
- ‘the old man is hard bent after that White Whale, and the devil there is trying to come round him, and get him to swap away his silver watch, or his soul, or something of that sort, and then he’ll surrender Moby Dick.’
- The philosopher analogy – Locke on one side (the tabula rasa/blank slate idea) and Kant on the other (the world cannot by understood until we understand the limits of man’s understanding!)
- Mule analogy – the lowest of the low – beast of burden used by others – a symbol of victimisation?
- Fedallah appears to have no shadow ‘Ahab chanced so to stand, that the Parsee occupied his shadow; while, if the Parees’s shadow was there at all it seemed only to blend with, and lengthen Ahab’s‘.
- The crew speculate about witchcraft.
- A curious chapter all about the head of the whale.
- Ishmael has a LOT to say about it’s eyes and ears, jaws and teeth, in particular.
- The Right whale gets an up close and personal, in particular, the spout-holes, his sulky, pouty lower lip, the hogs’ bristles in his mouth, and his tongue.
- Melville/Ishmael saves the best idea to the very last though as he compares these two whale heads with ancient philosophy.
- The Right Whale as Stoic – earthly suffering is the reality to be submitted to with patience ‘does not this whole head seem to speak of an enormous practical resolution in facing death?‘
- The Sperm Whale as Spinoza/Plato – ‘I think his broad brow to be full of a prairie-like placidity, born of a speculative indifference as to death.’ (Spinoza practised tolerance and benevolence. He viewed God and Nature as the same thing.)
- A whole chapter devoted to showing us how it is possible for a whale to use it’s head as a battering ram. Various sites suggest that this is something we should remember for later on down the track.
The head this envelope, though not so thick, is of a boneless toughness, inestimable by any man who has not handled it. The severest pointed harpoon, the sharpest lance darted by the strongest human arm, impotently rebounds from it. It is as though the forehead of the Sperm Whale were paved with horses’ hoofs. I do not think that any sensation lurks in it.
- The chapter finishes with a warning tale about a ‘weakling youth‘ who travels to Sais in Egypt in search of the Truth. Based on a poem called The Veiled Statue at Sais by Friedrich Schiller, the youth in question is utterly stricken by what he learns and never reveals it to anyone.
- The lesson learnt is not to seek out the Godhead’s truth; you have to wait for it to be revealed ‘Let none/ Venture to raise the veil till raised by me.’
- Another reference to Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick as a search for God/Truth.
What had been seen and heard by him when there
He never would disclose, but from that hourHis happiness in life had fled forever,And his deep sorrow soon conducted himTo an untimely grave….
‘Woe to that man who wins the truth by guilt.’
Chapter 77: The Great Heidelburgh Tun
- A chapter about whale oil.
- A Heidelburgh tun refers to the vats in which wine is stored in Heidelburgh Castle.
- On the surface this is a chapter about how to extract oil from a sperm whale’s head.
- It’s a dangerous business and Ishmael describes in detail ‘a queer accident‘ that happened to Tashtego who had the misfortune to fall into the oil vat within the whale head – ‘heedless and reckless‘ OR ‘whether the place he stood was so treacherous and oozy‘ OR ‘the Evil One himself‘ – fate, destiny or chance?
- To make matters worse, the suspended whale head then tore free of it’s hooks and fell into the sea with Daggoo ‘clinging to the pendulous tackles, while poor, buried-alive Tashtego was sinking utterly down to the bottom of the sea!’
- Thankfully Queequeg is around to save the day.
- As the head slowly sinks, Queequeg cuts a hole in the side of the head, reaches in a pulls Tashtego out.
- Melville gives us lots of death and rebirth images to unpack here.
- It’s telling that this story of rescue and rebirth is given into the hand of the Pagan or non-Christian members of the ship.
- Did the Christians fall short here or are we meant to see that courage, renewal, rebirth and fellowship are not concepts unique to Christians, but universal acts that then have religious significance attached to them by the various religions?
- A lesson on phrenology as Ishmael tries to get inside the head of a whale.
- He realises that this is an impossible undertaking – we can decipher hieroglyphs but not ‘the simplest peasant’s face in its profounder and more subtle meanings.‘
- Human and animal consciousness is a mystery.
- More whale anatomy with a discussion on the brain and spine.
- For I believe that much of man’s character will be found betokened in his backbone. I would rather feel your spine than your skull, whoever you are.
- The sperm whale may have a small brain but it is ‘compensated by the wonderful comparative magnitude of his spinal cord.’
- Brawn over brain; might over mind.
- Foreshadowing – ‘And that the great monster is indomitable, you will yet have reason to know.‘
Phew! I hope that means we’re done with the anatomy of the whale.
What I enjoy is how Melville is obviously preparing us thoroughly and intimately with the capacity and capabilities of a whale, so that whatever happens, we the reader, have realistic and plausible expectations and are fully prepared.
A surface reading about whale anatomy could be quite tedious, but my slow read is allowing me to see all the philosophy that Melville has packed into each chapter. It’s not just an adventure story, but one that allows Melville to unpack his thinking about Christianity, politics and that state of the world.
Melville is a big picture guy who often gets bogged down by the details. He can also get sucked into the wormhole of his own thinking. His desire to know everything it’s possible to know about his topic – his research, the spent uncovering all the information and facts to hand, reveal a man desperate to find the Truth. A truth that would not only give his life meaning and purpose, but a truth that could allow all of us around the world to live more peacefully and kindly and thoughtfully. Religion, as he knew it, was unable to provide that solace. Science and story telling became his way. He couldn’t buy into the magic and miracles, but he was in search of a personal spirituality.
A complicated, complex man indeed.