Saturday, August 17, 2013

Starting Moby-Dick, #12-16 (and you're now on your own)


The Pequod’s appearance ought to have been a warning: “She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies… A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy!” Nobility and cannibalism – that Melville yolks the two in his description of the Pequod amounts almost to blasphemy. To eat human flesh corrupts the central sacramental action of the Mass: the changing of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. “Take this and eat it; this is my Body…” With sperm whale teeth for belaying pins, the Pequod becomes a physical example of cannibalism – of an odd sort. In this version, the whale is the thing consumed; the Pequod receives its oil and displays its teeth in unholy communion, as though the whale is a god.

Having boarded the Pequod to inquire about signing on, the young sailor discovers one of the ship’s owners, Captain Peleg. His discussion with Peleg ought to have sent him running: “I was thinking of shipping,” says YS, to which Peleg replies “Ever been on a stove boat?” which prompts from YS, “No, Sir, I never have… I want to see what whaling is… I want to see the world.” Peleg’s reply, “Want to see what whaling is, eh? Have ye clapped eye on Captain Ahab?” The lessons couldn't be clearer: this boat will sink; whaling is losing a leg and not having the sense to quit.

Peleg (and Melville) cannot let pass YS’s “I want to see the world.” Peleg asks YS to “take a peep over the weather-bow, and then back to me and tell me what ye see there.” To which YS reports that he saw “not much… nothing but water; considerable horizon though, and there’s a squall coming up, I think.” Peleg’s response: “Can’t ye see the world where you stand?”


This business of signing concluded, YS is walking away when he realizes he's not seen the captain who will command this multi-year voyage. He turns back and asks Peleg for a meeting with the captain, saying "I should like to see him." Ahab, Peleg reports, is unavailable. "He keeps close inside his house." And why is he reclusive? "He ain't sick; but no, he isn't well either… He's a queer man, Captain Ahab – so some think – but a good one… He's a grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab; doesn't speak much; but when he does speak, then you may well listen… " And later, "I know that on the passage home, he was a little out of his mind for a spell; but it was the sharp shooting pains in his bleeding stump that brought that about… I know, too, that ever since he lost his leg last voyage by that accursed whale, he’s been a kind of moody – desperate moody, and savage sometimes; but that will all pass off." And we learn a last thing of some import: "He has a wife – not three voyages wedded – a sweet, resigned girl. Think of that; by that sweet girl that old man has a child; hold ye then there can be any utter hopeless harm in Ahab? No, no, my lad; stricken, blasted, if he be, Ahab has his humanities."

"A grand, ungodly, godlike man" – this man will be his captain, the "absolute dictator" (as referred to in ch. 20) of his voyage! No wonder YS walks away "full of thoughtfulness." His new captain was out of his mind but seems to have recovered. He was out of his mind from losing a leg to a whale's jaw. But he's married, with a young child. YS walks away trying to sort out his responses, among them a "strange awe… I do not know what it was.” The difference between young sailor's ignorance of Ahab and Ishmael's knowledge of him informs all that follows.


YS wants to know whaling and see the world. Ishmael wants to make sense of his experience and thereby reclaim his past. And Melville? He wants a book that confronts the enormities, one that pursues the human condition and tells all the truth.  He funnels all his own shipboard experiences through the crucible of this narrator's experience.  And he is simultaneously talking back -- adding to the conversation already well engaged by the likes of Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne.  The Pequod, leaves the harbor at noon on Christmas day. Some hours later, as the pilot boat veers back towards Nantucket, the crew gives “three heavy-hearted cheers,” and plunges “blindly … like fate into the lone Atlantic."

Of all who set sail on the Pequod, only one traumatized soul will return. He will never again be comfortable on land. Like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, his story will ever compel him. Eventually he will write, “Call me Ishmael.” This begins the story of a narrator working desperately hard to find the eloquence, technique, form and conceptions sufficient to the experience he has lived and which he is now committed to somehow remake so that it stands apart from him, thus becoming something seen in its own right, a story to be examined and revisited, and perhaps, at last, a story understood.

#16 And Then

It takes 22 chapters before the Pequod finally sets sail. In all that follows, the action story and the effort to make sense of it will sometimes run together, sometimes apart. In chapters like Cetology or The Whiteness of the Whale or even The Great Heidelburgh Tun, action gives way to either meditation or factual reporting. Such chapters stall the action story, but they’re often crucial to the narrator’s effort at finding meaning in that story. Readers’ patience with such chapters will vary, but their purposes are clear enough once you see them as essential to the narrator’s effort to interrogate and make sense of a very large experience.

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