A while back, we did a group read of Moby-Dick, and artist Matt Kish was kind enough not only to endure an interview about his project to illustrate each page of the book but also to contribute several posts about his process. His project went on to be turned into a gorgeous book, and now he’s moving on to other projects. As part of that move, he’s looking to get shed of the remaining unsold pieces of Moby-Dick artwork. If you’re into Moby-Dick or are familiar with Matt’s work and think you might like to own a piece of it (I’ve bought several, and they’re among my most prized possessions), now’s a good time to buy. If you haven’t run across the work before, you at least owe it to yourself to see it online.
Those who followed along for the Moby-Dick read last year will remember Matt Kish, the artist behind an art project with the book as its subject. Matt was kind enough to contribute a few fascinating posts to InfiniteZombies, in fact. So taken was I with the art when I first ran across it that I don’t think it’s any great surprise that the project turned into something big, and it was a pleasure to watch from the sidelines as it all unfolded (Matt kept his blog up to date throughout the process).
Today, nearly a month before I expected it, my copy of Moby-Dick in Pictures, the book his project turned into, arrived, and it is gorgeous. Although there is a paperback copy, I opted for the hard-back copy. It’s a few bricks worth of book and it comes sheathed in a lovely and sturdy box. Matt gives us a beauty of a foreword outlining the life of the project and then steps back and lets us look at the art. It’s mesmerizing to flip through the book, and I can’t wait to find the time to read Moby-Dick again with Matt’s complete series as a page-by-page companion.
If you’re a student or fan of Moby-Dick and ephemera, do yourself a favor and get your hands on a copy of this book.
Those of you who followed along with the Moby-Dick group read will remember Matt Kish, the artist behind the “Every Page of Moby-Dick” project who contributed a few fascinating posts here. Matt finished up the art project a month or so ago, and I’m really excited to pass along the news that his work is being collected in a book put out by Tin House (publisher of a really fantastic literary magazine too, by the way). Check out the Tin House page for the book, and if you’re inclined to purchase from Amazon, you can pre-order right here.
I started reading next week’s assignment last night and found myself coming back again and again to the question of why we read the super-hard books like Ulysses. I had Gaddis’s JR in mind as well, thanks to some comments on my post of yesterday about composition (and some notes I took for next week’s reading about mechanization, which was a concern of Gaddis’s). Both books proved challenges for me to get into. Gaddis’s book I actually made it through on my first attempt, but it took me about 1/3 of the book’s (long) length to figure out how to orient myself within the text. It’s the kind of book you have to learn to read as you’re reading it. I think Ulysses is the same sort of book, and I find that (so far) I’m having an easier time the further in I get. I’m getting oriented at last. (Which doesn’t mean I necessarily like what I’m reading, though episode ten is probably my favorite so far.) But back to my question.
Why do we read these things? I understand why we read something like Moby-Dick. For all its bad rap, it is not an especially difficult book. It’s ambitious and encyclopedic, sure, but the act of reading it isn’t terribly challenging. It is written in a familiar mode according (mostly) to rules and boundaries that make it simple enough to follow. If Moby-Dick is a hard book, it is hard by virtue of its content rather than of its form. Ulysses and JR are hard by virtue of their form more than their content (though they’re also so full of everything in more concrete ways than the way in which Moby-Dick is full of everything in the sort of philosophical abstract). Reading these books is like trying to pat your tummy and rub your head at the same time (without the sustained giggling).
So why do it? My theory is that writerly types are the most interested in these books. Maybe that’s true of most books, but I suspect it’s true more of these really technically hard books than of others. We read them to crack them open and try to understand why what works in them works (and why what doesn’t doesn’t). That theory is the basis of the straw poll I advertise in this post’s title.
Do you have an abortive novel stuck in a drawer somewhere, some poems on an editor’s desk awaiting a rejection slip? Do you count yourself a writerly type or more a readerly type? Is it a meaningful difference? Do you think that writerly types are likely to be more drawn to these really formally hard books than other readers are?
“The ‘elusiveness’ of Kafkaesque terror … is maybe the supersaturation of every possible line of allegorical reading (you can’t isolate what is everywhere).”
(I know Kafka’s a long stretch from Moby-Dick, but he’s not why I used the quotation; I aim to connect the extract and the point below.)
We finally meet the White Whale! And he’s just as vicious as we’ve been led to expect: rocketing up out of the depths of the ocean to chomp an occupied boat in half, swatting at other boats with his tail as if they were flies, pulling a remarkable Three Stooges maneuver with two harpoon lines to smash their boats against each other, single-headedly staving an entire ship so that its whole crew (but one) drowns in a maelstrom. But then, after three chapters of mayhem, there’s a short epilogue and the book is over. That’s it, nothing more to see.
It seems an odd kind of book whose title character only appears in the final pages to kill practically every other character and then vanish. It all happens quickly, but I agree with Paul that it doesn’t feel rushed. Instead it just feels very final, and brutal. Speaking for myself, there’s something about the mystery of Moby Dick and the compactness of his “on-screen” presence in the book that I find irresistibly suggestive. There’s too much weight placed on him through the course of the narration to be borne by that tiny role, so I find myself again saying it must mean something.
It’s not just me, though: Many of the characters, and I would imagine much of the criticism, look to Moby Dick as a symbol of something. For Ahab, he’s an agent or principal of supernatural malice, an implacable nemesis. Starbuck seems to think he is a devil and expresses concern that they’ll get dragged to Hell if they harpoon him. (I don’t know how literally he means it.) Ishmael goes everybody one better and devotes an entire chapter to projecting his own meanings onto the empty canvas of the whiteness of the whale.
As far as that whiteness goes, Melville practically invites us to write our own interpretations onto the blank page that is the whale’s skin. It’s certainly easy enough to grope toward reading Ahab and Moby Dick’s contest as humanity vs. nature, or humanity vs. the greater powers, or will vs. matter, or (at least poetically comprehensibly) even past vs. progress, and probably any number of other allegories. The resonance and capaciousness and complexity of Melville’s writing give us lots of pitons to rope a reading through, and seem to support a great variety of interpretations. The book brandishes an enormous amount of knowledge about whales, and brings to bear on the plot and its giant albino a huge range of human discourses, including economics, biology, anatomy, physiology, oceanography, literature, psychology, and theology. Of course we can make him mean something!
But this is where the quotation I began with enters the picture: allegorical supersaturation. Moby Dick can mean all those things, at least tolerably well; which is too many meanings. The confusion of every possible meaning that can be attached to him cancels out to a nullity—you can’t isolate any one of them, because the others all impinge too much upon it. Consider: After all we’ve read, outside of his great savagery we know nothing significant about Moby Dick except for a probabilistic idea of where he’s more and less likely to be at a given season. He’s visible from a mile or two out, and we know less about him than about the electron. To steal a phrase from Daniel, we still don’t know dick about Moby Dick. He spends the vast majority of the book hidden both figuratively and literally below the surface; for all the psychological effect he has on the characters (and, I admit, this reader) before he appears, he remains wholly unknowable. We can squeeze him into any interpretation we want, but it will teach us no more about the whale and we will have made the same mistake as Ahab and Starbuck and who knows who else: We will have ignored the irreducible fact of the whale in favor of converting him to an interpretive object.
That’s what I find the most compelling about Moby Dick. He comes out of nowhere, without warning (dare I say “like a thief in the night”?), does whatever he is going to do, then vanishes. There is no taming him or managing your encounters with him or even understanding him. He’s almost like a Lovecraftian monster in his assault on the idea that human beings can master or even comprehend the world. He is purely sublime, and although he will bear a great number of interpretations, none of them will encompass him. For someone as intellectual and Enlightenment-infatuated as I am, it’s an exhilarating thing to read such a stimulating book and then get my face slammed right up against the wall of human understanding. I look forward to it every time.
Moby-Dick is such a rich book with so much going on that I’ve left just tons of things by the wayside that I would love to have picked up and run with. Some things you might think about as you digest the book:
- The tension between land/grass/prairie and the sea. The book is just brimming with these contrasts. Does Melville draw this contrast so starkly (and almost systematically) merely for effect or is there some more significant reason for it?
- Moby-Dick is published in the decade prior to the Civil War with slavery as a backdrop. The fear of mutiny makes an appearance several times in the book (not least of all in one of the longest chapters, “The Town Ho’s Story”). Melville also wrote about conscription and mutiny in other works (Billy Budd comes to mind). To what extent and to what effect is Melville writing here about freedom of will and, by extension, about slavery?
- Was Melville gay? Lots of historians have suggested that he may have been (some even that he may have made a sort of pass at his good buddy Hawthorne, effecting something of an estrangement). How much of Moby-Dick is it reasonable to read with homosexuality as a focus?
- I’ve written already about the two Moby-Dicks, but I think it would be fascinating to trace the idea further and to see how much water that theory really holds.
- Is there any use in considering the almost total absence of women in Moby-Dick? Or do we just figure that whaling was a predominately male-run industry and move on to another topic? (Or do we suggest that, as women are largely absent from Melville’s work as a whole, he was perhaps uncomfortable writing about women? And if so, do we add this supposition to the gay question?)
- There are a lot of interesting — and potentially significant — names in Moby-Dick. George Stewart examines some of these in his article about the two Moby-Dicks in an effort to understand the different modes of composition (ie, does using particularly symbolically significant names suggest a higher style, and do significant names devoid of any traceable symbolism suggest a lower style, and the two styles a shift in mode of composition?). Stewart’s project aside, I think it’d be fun to do a detailed analysis of all the major names, their historical significance, and how they bear on the character (or ship) they’re attached to.
- In flipping through the edition of Moby-Dick I used during college (I used a different edition this time around), I found a bunch of places where I had marked poetic scansion, typically scanning roughly as iambic pentameter. This isn’t really a terribly uncommon meter even in natural, spoken English (a professor once cited the example “a footlong hot dog all the way to go”), but I still perk up when I’m reading along and find a line that just stops me in my tracks with its sudden unmissable meter. A careful examination of the meter of Moby-Dick would be painstaking but fascinating.
- Those who have done film or stage adaptations of Moby-Dick have mined it for drama. But I’ve never done a systematic survey of all of the book’s dramatic elements. Might be fun. (By the way, I had lined up an interview with a member of the Dallas opera’s production of Moby-Dick, but it seems to have fallen through.)
- If you’re like me, you finally wind up just getting tired of looking up all the references to historical or mythological people or events you don’t know much about (I’m looking at you, Xerxes). Powermobydick glosses most (if not all) of these, but I crave a proper and thorough index complete with discussion of the particular relevance of these references to the text.
- Melville writes a lot about darkness and light. No doubt some enterprising Master’s student has written a thesis on this.
- Hawthorne and Melville were good buddies during much of the composition of Moby-Dick. Their friendship has been considered at some length in various places, but I never made much of it here. And what about Transcendentalism (or anti-) as an influence on Moby-Dick?
- I have a bad habit of romanticizing the past. People sat around talking philosophy and reading all day long and were generally just a whole lot smarter and more widely-read than we are now, I tend to think. But consider this: Fewer than 2500 copies of Moby-Dick were sold in the three years following its publication in America, and over a period of 35 years, it sold 3,215 copies (roughly 27 copies a year). Did people merely loan books to one another a lot more than we do now, or was there really that little interest? I know Moby-Dick did not sell well, but was it vastly atypical? What kind of sales did Hawthorne (a very popular author) have, I wonder? Did he sell 5,000 or 10,000 or 100,000 copies of his popular books? What would the answers to some of these questions say about the true state of reading and of the intelligentsia of Melville’s time compared to now?
- Life after Moby-Dick for Melville was really sad. He was something of a drinker and wound up going on speaking tours at the events of which he mumbled through his speeches. Under the right circumstances in private life, he was an animated speaker, though. One of his sons committed suicide, and though Melville seems to have been affected by that, he was by some accounts not a terribly kind man to live with. The tenderness that appears through much of Moby-Dick makes this all hard to swallow. He died more or less forgotten.
- Delbanco writes of Melville as something of a precursor to the postmodern writers (I’ve touched on this before). It’s not something I had ever thought about prior to this read (having really encountered postmodern literature some time after my first few encounters with Moby-Dick). A survey of some of the ways in which he anticipates less conventional modes of writing has no doubt been done and would make an interesting read.
- Who is the hero of Moby-Dick? Matt Bucher asked a question along these lines at the beginning. Paul (either here or at his own blog) saw a glimmer of the heroic figure in Queequeg, and George Stewart suggests that Queequeg may have been a the hero in Melville’s early conception of the novel, but he fades into the background. Ishmael can hardly be called the hero, and Ahab — though possessed of the tragic elements of a tragic hero — probably lacks the heroic elements of a hero. Is there a main character or hero in Moby-Dick? Who? Why?
Thanks for reading along over the past few weeks. I’ve really enjoyed having an excuse to read the book (and related matter) with some care, and I’ve found a lot of the reactions to Moby-Dick (e.g., that it’s full of humor) to be very gratifying. I suspect there’ll be a few more straggling posts about Moby-Dick (I know that artist Matt Kish has a few more planned), but this post probably marks my last on the book. I’m mentally composing a post about my first beef with Ulysses already.
Jonah makes, by name, 85 appearances in Moby-Dick. There are no doubt other references that recall him obliquely without using his name. And of course some characters in Moby-Dick bear certain resemblances to Jonah, bringing the total reference count up yet further. In chapter 82, Melville puts Jonah together with the likes of St. George, Vishnu, Perseus, and Hercules, and suggests that as the Hebrew texts predated the Greek, so Jonah must be source material for the Hercules myth (if Hercules, why not also Perseus? Melville doesn’t answer). That first whaler (as Melville would have him) shows up by name in the extracts and eight chapters, generally at ten-to-twenty-chapter intervals. Ishmael aside, Jonah is probably the most consistent presence in the text from beginning to end.
Delbanco points to speculation that the chapter containing Father Mapple’s sermon (all about Jonah, recall) was a late addition to the text. If so, then such an addition would seem to suggest that Jonah serves a more important role in the text than merely that of a convenient Biblical reference. The lesson of Father Mapple’s sermon is fairly simple, if eloquently illuminated by that dramatic man. It is “a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah.” But that’s the story and not the lesson; the lesson is that willful disobedience of God’s command simply will not do. In addition to declining to obey God, Jonah had the gall to try to flee bodily from that omnipresent, omniscient deity.
Yet in the end, after his sojourn in the belly of the whale, Jonah repents of his hubris. So too, Mapple says, may people repent. “Sin not,” he says, “but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah.”
Now, let’s stand Jonah up for a moment next to Ahab. Both are prone to hubris. Both would meddle with a thing greater than themselves. They both sleep (surprisingly) through calamitous storms. Melville writes at more length than seems necessary about lamps in the cabins of both men. Shipmates come very near to ousting both, though each ultimately ousts himself (Ahab insisting that Starbuck stay aboard the ship; I see this as an echo of Jonah’s allowing himself to be cast away in order to spare the lives of the men he has shipped with). Melville highlights the Biblical detail of weeds wrapped around Jonah’s head, and he kills off Ahab by lashing him to Moby Dick by the hempen line. The ever-present contrast between land and ocean in Moby-Dick is present in the short book of Jonah as well.
But where Jonah flees the infinite, Ahab pursues it. As Jonah (in Father Mapple’s telling) sleeps in his cabin, the whale that will swallow him makes its way toward the ship, while Ahab, in his cabin, plots a course willfully in line with the course of the whale he pursues. Jonah flees his destiny, while Ahab strives to force his destiny.
Is this the lesson of Moby-Dick? That you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t? Melville surely writes a great deal about fate and predestination, not least of all at the end of the chapter entitled “The Symphony,” worth quoting at length:
What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where do murderers go, man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar? But it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the air smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow; they have been making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the mowers are sleeping among the new-mown hay. Sleeping? Aye, toil we how we may, we all sleep at last on the field. Sleep? Aye, and rust amid greenness; as last year’s scythes flung down, and left in the half-cut swaths
Note how the beginning of Ahab’s speech echoes the sense of part of Father Mapple’s sermon:
As with all sinners among men, the sin of [Jonah] was in his wilful disobedience of the command of God — never
mind now what that command was, or how conveyed — which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do — remember that — and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.
It is disobedience to yourself that’s hard. Ahab knows not what drives him so. Jonah knows what drives him but disobeys it so that he can be obedient to himself. Both men meet a whale; only the one who repents comes back alive.
It’s interesting to me that Father Mapple leaves off the second half of Jonah’s story. I suppose it’s not especially nautical. Having landed at last in Nineveh, Jonah goes to preach God’s wrath and promise of destruction to the inhabitants of that vile land. To his surprise, they repent. When God decides to spare them, Jonah goes a bit emo and declares that in a world in which God can repent of the evil he had promised, he (Jonah) would rather die than live. He then goes off to pout in the sun. God makes a plant grow to give him shade. Then God sends a worm to kill the plant so that Jonah is miserable again. Jonah once again wants to die. The lesson God seems to want to teach Jonah here is that just as he (Jonah) pitied a plant that grew overnight and was killed (I figured he was just angry because God took away his shade), so God pitied the people (and the cattle) of Nineveh.
Consider this brief passage, as Starbuck seems to be on the verge of convincing Ahab to turn the ship around in “The Symphony”:
But Ahab’s glance was averted; like a blighted fruit tree he shook, and cast his last, cindered apple to the soil.
Like Jonah’s tree, Ahab — on the cusp of a sort of redemption — is blighted at last. The long passage I quote above in which Ahab waxes philosophical on self-knowledge (ahem, apples) and fate immediately follows this simile, just one more entanglement with the story of Jonah.
Melville points out time after time that people are bound together as members in something like a joint-stock company. Even when you think you’re merely following your own nose, you’re so wrapped up within the warp and weave of the fabric of society that you can’t avoid either being touched or touching the lives of others. Trying to run from God? Maybe you’ll get your ship’s crew wrecked. Planning a monomaniacal chase and revenge killing of a storied and apparently malicious whale? Might want to think for a moment about how it’ll affect those who ship with you. Or: Want to enact Manifest Destiny by fighting a war with Mexico? Maybe you should consider the thousands who’ll die in the conquest. (Of the Mexican-American War, Emerson said “The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man who swallows the arsenic which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.” Melville, Delbanco tells us, harbored similar thoughts.) Or: Figuring on passing a law that would allow slave owners to hunt men down like prey and drag them home? Well, you get the point.
I had originally planned to call this “Death and All His Friends” which seemed so clever and eerily appropriate. And then I realized it was the title of a Coldplay album and decided that all my street cred would be lost (even though I do like the disc).
I was also considering talking about omens in the book, but that has been well covered by Daryl (I do have some specific omens in this post). And finally I considered revisiting religion since Ahab has the audacity to baptize his harpoon in Satan’s name (and there’s a Starbuck as Jesus motif going on). But really what could be more right than death?
I had noticed throughout the book that there was very little death (except for the whales of course). This is despite the opening scene in the church with all of the grave markers and Ishmael slowly reading them all. In fact, despite Pip’s falling over and Queequeg’s “fatal illness” no one had died at all aboard the Pequod.
Then in this final week’s reading–which was really fantastic. I can’t get over how gripped I was by the build up and the whole chase sequence–death starts to poke its head out of the waters.
The first death is very cryptic, and possibly not even real (?). In Chapter 126 (The Life-Buoy) we learn of one of the crew (who, strangely, remains unnamed) who fell overboard:
At sun-rise this man went from his hammock to his mast-head at the fore…he had not been long at his perch, when a cry was heard – a cry and a rushing – and looking up, they saw a falling phantom in the air; and looking down, a little tossed heap of white bubbles in the blue of the sea.
The life-buoy – a long slender cask – was dropped from the stern, where it always hung obedient to a cunning spring; but no hand rose to seize it…and the studded iron- bound cask followed the sailor to the bottom.
And thus the first man of the Pequod that mounted the mast to look out for the White Whale, on the White Whale’s own peculiar ground; that man was swallowed up in the deep (516).
And from that anonymous death, things really escalate.
Of course, there is the obvious omen (I couldn’t resist) of using a coffin as a life-buoy, but the very next encounter is with The Rachel. Unlike all of the other ships that the Pequod has encountered (all with varying degrees of success) none has suffered a fate as wrenching as this one: the captain’s own 12-year-old boy is lost at sea, and he had to choose his other son’s life over this one. And the Rachel has been looking for him (and his boat) for a day already…it’s hopeless. That whole boat’s crew is dead.
This visit is followed by a visit from The Delight. The Delight has encountered the White Whale and has suffered terribly for it
“I bury but one of five stout men, who were alive only yesterday; but were dead ere night. Only that one I bury; the rest were buried before they died; you sail upon their tomb” (532).
As ships near the white whale, death cannot be far. (In fact the most successful ship, the Bachelor–which was laden with sperm–didn’t even think the White Whale was real). Then, just to rub it in a little, as the Pequod sails away from The Delight, she is
not quick enough to escape the sound of the splash that the corpse soon made as it struck the sea; not so quick, indeed, but that some of the flying bubbles might have sprinkled her hull with their ghostly baptism (532).
Given this portent, and the seeming snowball of deaths, the actual Pequod deaths do not come fast and furious. On the first day of the chase, everyone is spared. On the second day of the chase, only Fedallah is killed [must…not…mention…prophecies]. This wounds Ahab terribly, but he manages to press on.
Of course, on that third day everyone dies, so I guess the trickle became a gusher. But it’s fascinating to see how delicately Melville handles this mass death. Even in that last scene when the Pequod sinks, only a few crewmen are mentioned by name–and Tashtego is still engaged in an activity when the boat goes down: “Tashtego’s mast-head hammer remained suspended in his hand” (563). No one is said to suffer (Pip suffered far more on the page during his ordeals), and it ends very quickly.
What I found most interesting is that as a reader, I was picking up on all of the omens, the prophecies, the greater and greater deaths, and yet, like Ahab I read nothing into them. I was sure that the ending…well, what? I didn’t think it could be a happy ending (whatever that might mean), I wasn’t even sure if I thought Ahab would be victorious (I wasn’t holding my breath for him). And yet, I never imagined that the whole ship would sink.
And even though this ending happens remarkably quickly (the ending scene is the last three pages of a 469 page book (the Norton edition)), it doesn’t feel like what my friends and I have called The Star Trek ending–[Five minutes till the end of the show, Captain, shall we release the dilithium crystal and huzzah!–we’re all safe (I like Star Trek (especially TNG) but it’s funny how many of their shows end like this)]. Obviously, Moby Dick doesn’t have that ending because in everyone dies, but what I mean is, the ending feels like a natural, almost inevitable end. I was shocked–completely shocked–when I read that everyone died. And yet in retrospect it is the only reasonable outcome.
I am still really surprised that Queequeg dies. I realize there’s no way to save him and have it be believable, but still. It’s also weird how little is made of Queequeg going down too. [Can you imagine is he somehow managed to get Ishmael and Queequeg rescued on the coffin together–it’s sequel city baby!].
I mentioned in my other post how beautiful I think the Epilogue is, and I will do so here as well. It’s tidy and elegant and unlike many epilogues which sort of tidy up loose threads a little too neatly, this one pulls together various ideas (the coffin, The Rachel) and uses them to give Ishmael a fully believable rescue.
When you reach the end, you realize that this story is something of a eulogy; a whale tale told to someone about the death of his shipmates. This gives the entire book an angle that didn’t exist before. Were I the kind of person who did this sort of thing (I’m not) I would re-read the book with this new information in mind to try to see if the book reads differently knowing the outcome.
I am really very pleased for having read this book. And I’ve more than very pleased to have been able to write these posts here. I hope they’ve been interesting. Thanks for reading.
“A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.”
Ah, “The Doubloon.” This is my kind of chapter (ch. 99). It’s all about interpretation, or the search for (and imposition of) meaning. It explicitly dramatizes the process we all go through every day, where we take notice of part of the world (something that is the case) and create a way of understanding it as it relates to our lives. This is a very normal part of the way human beings interact with our surroundings, and is in fact necessary to formulating the narratives we recognize as our selves and our lives.
Note that this is not the argument Ishmael makes in favor of interpretation. He says, “And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher.” In his view, what gives the world worth is the significance in it that can be divined by human beings; the world has meaning insofar as it means something to people, but no intrinsic value. This seems to me an extreme anthropocentric view, but not necessarily an uncommon one. Just an unreflective one.
So in the course of this dramatization of interpretation, we see eight different characters all try their hand at “reading” the doubloon that Ahab nailed to the mast at the beginning of their voyage as a guaranty to the sailor who first raises Moby Dick. (Other than the obvious meaning, of course, which is the one they all drank to during that weird ceremony.) Ahab’s interpretation, while dramatic and almost mythologically Norse in its pessimism, is also kind of funny: Looking at the various devices on the coin—mountains with fire, a tower, and a crowing rooster, and a segment of the zodiac—he sees Lucifer, Ahab, Ahab, Ahab, and the unrelieved misery of life, which begins in pains and ends in pangs. But also, it’s not for nothing that Ishmael keeps calling Ahab “monomaniacal.” This is very nearly solipsism in action.
Starbuck starts out as a foil to Ahab in his reading—he sees the mountains as a symbol of the Trinity, so that even when he passes through the dark valley between them, God still strengthens him and the “sun of Righteousness” still shines down on him—but then he remembers that the sun is only up about half the time, on average, which leaves human beings looking for hope and comfort much of the time (wait for it) in the dark. So even though he finds some devotional meaning in the doubloon, it is on the whole a somewhat depressing exegesis for Starbuck. Nonetheless, it’s a pretty clear application of the hermeneutic method involved in reading the Book of Nature, whereby everything created has a theological lesson within it, if you can just find the key.
Then Stubb gets up and sneaks in two interpretations. In the first one, he sees the doubloon as a piece of money, just as good for spending in commerce as any other piece of money. It’s a wonderful puncturing of the portentous mode Ahab and Starbuck both operate in, but it’s also a welcome nod to the fact that objects and experiences are embedded in the world and entangled with other people and places. Both Ahab and Starbuck find insular, self-centered meanings in the doubloon, but Stubb instead immediately recognizes how the doubloon is enmeshed with the rest of the world. Then he looks more carefully, convinced by Ahab and Starbuck’s long faces that there must be a deeper meaning, and descries a very long zodiacal version of the Sphinx’s riddle that supposedly charts a universal course for the life of man. (Women don’t count for much on a whaler, you might have noticed.)
When Flask looks at the doubloon, he literally sees nothing but the monetary value of it. (A special note from my Norton Critical Edition, on Flask’s line “It is worth sixteen dollars, that’s true; and at two cents the cigar, that’s nine hundred and sixty cigars”: “The arithmetic seems shaky.”) Unlike Stubb, he doesn’t seek a deeper meaning; he’s satisfied with his pragmatic observation of “a round thing made of gold.” I see this version as an important recognition of the thingness of the doubloon, regardless of what meanings a more reader-response-type approach yields.
The Manxman uses his special training in esoterica to identify the doubloon as half of a zodiacal prophecy of when the ship will encounter Moby Dick. I read this one as a small parody, actually. Daryl brought our attention to prophecy in the novel, and there’s always the possibility that’s at play here, but this one is so general that I suspect it’s much more like an ancestor of Maslow’s hammer. The Manxman knows something most people don’t, and everything he sees tends to be through that lens.
Queequeg comes in for comic relief, mistaking the doubloon for a fancy button. There may be a point to make here about constructed reality—if Queequeg’s pants lose a button and he sews a doubloon on in its place, that doubloon is now a button (as well as a doubloon and whatever else it may be)—but I wouldn’t want to strain that one too much, so I’ll just say it’s possible.
And then Pip. Pip is a character who makes me very sad, so I’m uncomfortable reading his mad babble anyway, but here it also feels to me like the kind of thing that might mean something if you try very hard to interpret it, but then probably won’t turn out to have been worth the trouble. So I don’t try. (My white flag, I wave it.) His reading of the doubloon can, however, illustrate the troubled extremity of personal meaning-making, since the significance he finds is available to him only. That is, even though he apparently finds some meaningful content in the doubloon, he can’t share it with anyone, because he spends most of his “on-screen” time in an interpretive community of one.
It’s very interesting to me that this chapter comes so late in the book. In a way, it’s kind of a programmatic chapter; it announces the book’s concern with meaning and interpretation by showing characters interpreting an object to create meaning. (I love that trick.) But I have a feeling that passages doing this work so explicitly usually come much earlier in books where they appear, to give the reader fair warning of what’s afoot—and to give us a chance to play along. Curious, then, that it’s only near the end that we’re asked to start looking for Rashomon Dick, the Allegedly White Whale.
I’m reading the Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick. The edition includes the occasional footnote (and I’m pleased to say very occasional, I didn’t want to get too bogged down in the footers here) which has explained some of the more esoteric words that Melville used. (These are not the footnotes that Melville has included, although those are here too).
What struck me particularly this week was the euphemisms that Melville/Ishmael uses. It’s especially funny given how gruesomely explicit he is about so much of the whale. But I guess even back in 1851 some bodily functions were more acceptable than others.
Someone told me that they hadn’t read Moby-Dick, but they knew it was all subtext about sex anyhow. On my post from last week, Daryl and I were having a discussion about the not-so-subtle sexual speak in Chapter 78 (Cistern and Buckets) when: “Towards the end, Tashtego has to ram his long pole harder and harder, and deeper and deeper into the Tun” (340). But, unless Melville decided that he could write a sex story because of a double entendre about sperm (which I don’t think for a second), I don’t see a lot of sex in the book. Perhaps they were exaggerating.
But back to language.
Melville himself addresses one issue of word usage in Chapter 87 (The Grand Armada) in his footnote. Ishmael says that when whales reach a certain sense of inertia, they are gallied.
To gally, or gallow, is to frighten excessively – to confound with fright. It is an old Saxon word. It occurs once in Shakespeare: – “The wrathful skies Gallow the very wanderers of the dark And make them keep their caves.” To common language, the word is now completely obsolete. When the polite landsman first hears it from the gaunt Nantucketer, he is apt to set it down as one of the whaleman’s self-derived savageries. Much the same is it with many other sinewy Saxonisms of this sort, which emigrated to New-England rocks with the noble brawn of the old English emigrants in the time of the Commonwealth. Thus, some of the best and furthest-descended English words – the etymological Howards and Percys – are now democratised, nay, plebeianised – so to speak – in the New World (389).
While this isn’t set out as a Melville manifesto to use obscure words or anything, it is interesting that Melville does use words that are in common discourse (we already saw Melville define Gam (in the body of the text) in Chapter 53 (The Gam):
GAM. Noun – A social meeting of two (or more) Whale-ships, generally on a cruising- ground; when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boats’ crews: the two captains remaining, for the time, on board of one ship, and the two chief mates on the other (239).
But these are the two major definitions that Melville supplies. The other words that I enjoyed were thrown into the text with little fanfare. Some words were probably in common usage in 1851, and are out of favor now. Mr. Norton Critical saw fit to footnote a few in this week’s reading though, and they prove to be scandalous!
The first one comes in Chapter 88 (Schools and Schoolmasters). Ishmael says that the male whale in “charge” of a harem is called a “schoolmaster”
His title, schoolmaster, would very naturally seem derived from the name bestowed upon the harem itself, but some have surmised that the man who first thus entitled this sort of Ottoman whale, must have read the memoirs of Vidocq, and informed himself what sort of a country-schoolmaster* that famous Frenchman was in his younger days, and what was the nature of those occult lessons he inculcated into some of his pupils (392).
* My edition lists this country-schoolmaster note as: “The sort who would seduce the young girls in his charge” (330, Norton). [Naughty!] This of course, references the other of Melville’s own notes from Chapter 87:
The Sperm Whale, as with all other species of the Leviathan, but unlike most other fish, breeds indifferently at all seasons (389).
But it’s not all sex in this week’s readings, there’s also fouler stuff. This particular sentence was so euphemistic, that without the note, I would have never guessed its true intent:
Stubb was struck by a shower of outcries and anathemas proceeding from the Captain’s round-house abaft; and looking in that direction saw a fiery face thrust from behind the door, which was held ajar from within. This was the tormented surgeon, who, after in vain remonstrating against the proceedings of the day, had betaken himself to the Captain’s round-house (cabinet he called it) to avoid the pest; but still, could not help yelling out his entreaties and indignations at times (403).
It’s not even just the strange terms (round-house & cabinet) that are confounding, it’s the whole context. We know that they are talking about the horrible smell of the dead whale. But the exclamations and indignations do nothing to reveal this rather simple note:
*The Captain’s privy. As Bernard Mosher explains, the surgeon prefers the odor of the “cabinet” to that of the blasted whale (339, Norton). [Ew!]
Moving on to more of this substance, Chapter 92 (Ambergris) has two footnotes. The first one is totally obvious from context, but I have to wonder if the item in question was so very common at the time.
How to cure such a dyspepsia it were hard to say, unless by administering three or four boat loads of Brandreth’s pills*, and then running out of harm’s way, as laborers do in blasting rocks (407).
Norton notes: *a laxative (343, Norton). But it’s pretty funny even if you don’t recognize the brand name.
A Google search turns up this charming poster for a Brandreth item. Heh, there’s also an article from April 1, 1860 in The New York Times, entitled, “Brandreth’s Pills are Excellent Purgative.”
Speaking of this, we get this amusing line about the origins of perfume:
And likewise call to mind that saying of Paracelsus about what it is* that maketh the best musk (407).
Norton: * “What it is” is excrement (343, Norton).
Paracelsus does have quite a bit to say about musk, by the way. In The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus by Arthur Edward Waite, musk comes up 11 times! The most relevant would be: “Hence it happens that occasionally some of the excrement is mingled with the musk, because this penetrates more readily than any lily with all its operations” (61).
Moving beyond excrement, the most wonderful euphemism of the bunch calls back to Chapter 3, when Ishamel tries on Queequeg’s “poncho.” Ishamel says: I went up in it to a bit of glass stuck against the wall, and I never saw such a sight in my life. I tore myself out of it in such a hurry that I gave myself a kink in the neck (20). In Chapter 95 (The Cassock), the whole chapter is about the whale’s penis, but it is never explicitly stated at all. What you get is (and it’s hard to know where to stop this quote, so many ramifications are there:
Had you stepped on board the Pequod at a certain juncture of this post-mortemizing of the whale; and had you strolled forward nigh the windlass, pretty sure am I that you would have scanned with no small curiosity a very strange, enigmatical object, which you would have seen there, lying along lengthwise in the lee scuppers. Not the wondrous cistern in the whale’s huge head; not the prodigy of his unhinged lower jaw; not the miracle of his symmetrical tail; none of these would so surprise you, as half a glimpse of that unaccountable cone, – longer than a Kentuckian is tall, nigh a foot in diameter at the base, and jet-black as Yojo, the ebony idol of Queequeg. And an idol, indeed, it is; or, rather, in old times, its likeness was (417).
Norton very simply footnotes the word object as: the whale’s penis (350, Norton). But what I really enjoyed was the second footnote added to this section. As Ishmael explains that the mincer then wears the skin of the penis as a kind of poncho so as to make the sheets for the Bible, he comments: “What a candidate for archbishoprick” (418). Norton notes: “The unusual archaic spelling with final K emphasizes the phallic pun” (351, Norton). And that is hilarious. Who even knew it was ever spelled archbishopric?
I’m making a special note about the reference to Kentucky: “longer than a Kentuckian is tall.” This is the first of two mentions of Kentuckians and their height. This one seems to suggest that Kentuckians are tall (right?). The second comes in Chapter 105 (Does the Whale’s Magnitude Diminish?–Will He Perish?), which implies that Kentuckians are small (right?):
“Because I cannot understand how it is, that while the Egyptian mummies that were buried thousands of years before even Pliny was born, do not measure so much in their coffins as a modern Kentuckian in his socks” (456).
I knew that Melville was from New York, but I can find nothing (with minimal research of course) that ties him to Kentucky. Was there some kind of common knowledge (or joke) about the height of Kentuckians? And what on earth would British readers have made of that?
The final joke that I wanted to mention is disgusting, but not bodily. It comes in Chapter 101 (The Decanter). It’s kind of a throwaway line (as all the best jokes are), especially as it comes in a lengthy discussion of the ship’s provisions. He notes:
in short, the bread contained the only fresh fare they had (442).
Which Norton notes: “the fresh fare was maggots or weevils” (370, Norton).
As with most of the lines, it seems like such an obscure little joke that I have to wonder how many people were even meant to get it. And yet, for those in the know, this is an amusing (if disgusting) moment in an otherwise dry Chapter.
I’m not going to go on record saying that Moby-Dick is a hilarious book or anything like that. But I keep finding that careful reading (and a little assistance) really highlights some funny word play, comic vignettes and, in this case, gross-out humor.
I’m intrigued by all of the innuendo that these quotes contain. The jokes are subtle at best, obscure most of the time, and almost totally hidden at worst. I honestly don’t know what readers knew in 1851. I don’t know if these were obscure jokes for readers back then. Or indeed if these were really obvious jokes for everyone but we 21st century readers. In a text that is pretty dry most of the time, these little jokes really lighten the mood.
This post is a sort of prelude to what I assume is the all-action finale!