Sunday, August 11, 2013

Starting Moby-Dick, #8 & #9


YS needs a bed for the night, but there’s only half of one available. Thus he meets Queequeg, tattooed harpooner, Pacific islander, yet “on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal… a human being just as I am.” Queequeg may be the central human cypher of this tale. Devout but not Christian, powerful killer of whales yet twice savior of men, homeless except perhaps on a whaler, Queequeg stays always his sane, visible and inscrutable self. He wears his beliefs, perhaps his entire human identity, in dense tattoos that neither YS nor Ishmael can read. Though Melville himself had been to the South Seas and already written about that in his first book, Typee, he here casts his young sailor as ignorant of such places or their inhabitants. For YS, Queequeg represents knowledge of whaling grounds, knowledge of whaling itself, knowledge of what it means to kill a mammal of such size. No wonder YS seeks Queequeg’s friendship; it will serve as a bulwark against both YS’s ignorance and his terror.


Is the relationship of Queequeg and YS more than friendship? In a crowed inn, they share a bed – itself unsurprising for the times. Yet there is also talk of being “bosom friends,” with “Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine, and then drawing them back; so entirely sociable and free and easy were we…” Melville surely knew what some of his contemporaries would make of this, and one can surmise that he didn’t care. We can read in whatever we like. Perhaps the real point is that this narrator, Ishmael, is determined to tell what he knew and what he felt, and tell it as fully and truthfully as he’s able.

With the exception of its very end, Moby-Dick is a book in which almost nothing happens without the effort to reflect upon it. One need read no further than Breakfast (ch. 5) to see this. Queequeg and YS go downstairs to eat breakfast, which is served at one large table. YS expects to hear some good stories about whaling, but “to my no small surprise, nearly every man maintained a profound silence. And not only that, but they looked embarrassed.” One could argue that indeed ch. 5 is one in which no action occurs at all, except the consumption of breakfast. Yet it stands as a good early example of this book’s habit of reflection. Here, as elsewhere, one point seems to be that what we might expect is not what experience offers. YS expects the common understanding to be true: “They say that men who have seen the world, thereby become quite at ease in manner, quiet self-possessed in company.” But that’s not what happens. The whalers at The Spouter seem ill at ease; they eat their breakfast – coffee and hot rolls – in silence. Queequeg, however, sits at the head of the table and eats beefsteaks, conveying them to his plate via the use of his harpoon, the same implement he earlier used to shave himself. Queequeg, skilled harpooner, killer of some of the largest of earth's mammals.

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