Friday, January 30, 2009

The Symphony

by Herman Melville, 1851

The end of Moby-Dick is ordained from the very start, for the narrator who says “Call me Ishmael” is in fact the only survivor of the ship and the voyage he tries to describe and understand. Up to this point (The Symphony is chapter 132), the book’s narrator has been in no hurry to arrive at the climactic events he must inevitably describe. In fact, he has perfected a number of dodges to slow his progress while not quite entirely breaking the momentum of his telling. But he knows that once he has described Ahab’s refusal to help the Rachel’s captain – this captain pleads Ahab’s help: his son is part of the crew of a missing whaleboat, and Ahab says, “I will not do it.” – once these events are told, Ishmael knows there is little of the story left.

At this point, Ahab eats only two meals a day and he has quit shaving. His beard “darkly grew all gnarled, as unearthed roots of trees blown over.” His life has now become “one watch on deck” as he scans the ocean for any sign of the white whale, the same whale whose pursuit he knows (from his brief encounter with the whale ship Delight) has most recently resulted in the deaths of an entire crew of one whale boat (“you sail upon their tomb,” as the Delight’s captain has said). None of this deters Ahab in the least.

Part of Ishmael’s effort all along has been to try to come to grips with this captain, this man whose commitment gripped his crew (including Ishmael himself) almost without question, leading to their deaths. If Ishmael saw Ahab as merely crazy, his task would be simpler. But Ahab is not merely crazy, and so before the rush of the book’s last action, Ishmael (or, if you prefer, Melville) makes one last effort to capture Ahab’s complexities. This cannot be done simply by repeating what little the young sailor must have seen or heard; it must be done by the older narrator who has already become accustomed to filling in gaps in the story and imagining conversations he could not possibly have witnessed. This last effort to picture Ahab must be done in the one sure fashion Ishmael (or Melville) knows – by drawing contrasts. Inevitably, this means casting Ahab in conversation with his first mate, Starbuck.

The Symphony chapter presents a lull in the action. The weather is fine, the air “transparently soft,” the sun “giving this gentle air to this bold and rolling sea.” The world of this chapter reveals itself as an uncommon unity of the masculine and the feminine – a wholeness. Such wholeness, calm, and peace reaches even Ahab: “That glad, happy air, that winsome sky, did at last stoke and caress him.” As readers, we see the effect before we hear Ahab say a word. What Ahab does is weep – one tear, “nor did the Pacific contain such wealth as that one wee drop.”

Starbuck sees this and draws closer to his captain, though he does not speak. Ahab turns to him and says “Oh, Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and mild looking sky.”

Thus begins the Ishmael narrator’s last effort to make sense of Ahab. As Starbuck and Ahab talk, we learn that Ahab is 58 years old and that just prior to the Pequod’s departure, he married. In fact, as Ahab says it, I “sailed for Cape Horn the next day, leaving but one dent in my marriage pillow—wife? wife?—rather a widow with her husband alive!” What follows is perhaps as indicative of Melville's deep questioning as any passage he wrote.

Throughout this book, part of the drama has turned on Ishmael’s effort (by no means straight-line) to tell his story – literally, to make sense. In this light, the Symphony chapter represents an astonishing and deeply eloquent culmination. Its last 200 words embody Ishmael’s (or Melville’s) last unanswered questions about Ahab and his actions. “But it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the aim smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow…” Soon enough, the Pequod will go down with all hands except one. He will drift on a coffin converted to a lifebuoy. He will be picked up later by the Rachel. And he will then face two obvious and inevitable questions: “who are you?” and “what happened?”

The book Moby Dick is the best answer he can make. He will start it by saying, “Call me Ishmael.”